What Are the Major Themes of Twentieth Century History?

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Economic History (and Related Observations) : One Thread

What are the major themes of twentieth century history?

-- Brad DeLong (delong@econ.berkeley.edu), September 01, 2000


Dr. De Long,

You have written, and are in the midst of re-writing, an entire book on the subject. I so far have only read your first chapter. Thus, it is very presumptuous of me to say this, however, I believe that your third central theme is mistaken.

First, one of the central disruptions of the twentieth century was the First World War, without which there would have been no Nazi Germany, no Leninist Russia, probably no Communist China (although almost certainly still a Warlord China, and probably a subsequent unified China). I think the focus on economic ideologies is misplaced. Although there was an element of German resentment at having less oversees colonies, the origins of WW I were not really economic, and the continuation of that war once the horrific costs of fighting with then current technologies became evident was certainly not over economic ideologies

Second, the actual relationships to economic ideology is weaker than it first appears. Nazism was not about how to organize society for economic performance, it was how to organize Germany and the world for Germany's benefit. The point was not to make the pie bigger, but to make the pie German.

Similarly, Marxism in the 20th century was very tenuously connected to economics, despite its claims. Poor economic performance was repeatedly ignored, as was evidence in general. Leninism was really about how can a small elite take over and totally control a nation.

One might argue that Fabian socialism (for example) was "really" about economic ideology, but the Fabians did not organize huge efforts where they deliberately saw millions die.

If I had to pick a unifying theme for much of this vast killing in the 20th Century, my first two contenders would be either: A) that they were really fights over dominance or status hierarchies, with economic ideology merely a pretext in some cases (albeit one internalized by some cadres); or B) that they were a manifestation that advancing technology had made massive centralized control and totalitarianism feasible, combined with the reward structure for those in power in massively centralized governments (such as very low accountability).

* * *

Separately, if you have not seen it, I suggest reading the first few chapters of _The Sovereign Individual_ (James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg, 1997). Their ethics as to what would be a just organization of society is out of the mainstream, but their analysis the history of the last two-and-a-half millennia is tightly bound up with fundamental economics, and is quite interesting. Even if you think they are wrong, figuring out how they are wrong should sharpen your arguments.

Best Wishes,

Tom McKendree

-- Tom McKendree (tmckendree@west.raytheon.com), September 01, 2000.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ