Jürgen Osterhammel’s macro-history

This review was first published in Overland.

I’ve been reading Jürgen Osterhammel’s history of the nineteenth centuryThe Transformation of the World. What can you say about this breath-taking kaleidoscope of narrative (and meta-narrative) history? It’s almost as impressive and various as the century it dissects.

Transformation of the world coverThe Transformation of the World attempts at once a synthesis and a critique – you might even say an exegesis – of contemporary historical scholarship on this most vital and arresting of periods. ‘The histories that interest me,’ Osterhammel writes, ‘do not involve a linear, “and then came such and such” narrative spread over a hundred or more years; rather they consist of transitions and transformations.’

By training, Osterhammel is a specialist in Chinese history, but he clearly knows a thing or too about the burgeoning field of ‘macro-history’. His command of the historical literature is staggering. Each chapter reads like a self-contained essay, often of startling originality, on topics such as ‘energy and industry’ and ‘imperial systems and nation-states’. His turn of thought is inquisitive but also rigorous, and his approach to various topics is by turns surprising and provocative. Beginning his chapter on economic history, for instance, Osterhammel is confident enough to approach the industrial revolution by writing, in a teasing tone, that ‘it may be appropriate to place an essay on industry and energy at the beginning of the third part of this book’ (p. 637). The chapter is a crystalline masterpiece of historical writing. ‘It is time to decenter the Industrial Revolution,’ he quips. My response: hey, why not?

Osterhammel’s method is syncretic and panoramic. His chapter on cities, for instance, harks back to the classic work of Asa Briggs, while his chapter on the frontier wars that everywhere pressured and subjugated Indigenous peoples in the period is a masterpiece of historical scholarship and mordant style. While one reviewer has criticised ’a drastic mismatch between the immensity of scale and the modesty of argument’, for mine it is precisely his humility and polyglot historical philosophy that makes this such an enjoyable book.

Osterhammel concludes with another surprise: a rather optimistic perspective of the century’s achievements. Ideas, resources and people became more mobile than perhaps any time in world history since the break-up of the western Roman Empire – not always for the good, certainly, but dynamic and transformative nonetheless. Despite the century’s atrocities, it was also an epoch in which liberal tenets of equality and liberation made great strides, culminating in the miraculous year of 1863 when serfdom was abolished in Russia, and slavery emancipated in the Union-controlled United States. The century produced a global capitalist system and vast empires that spanned the globe. But it also incubated new ideologies of dissident ideas: socialism and anarchism, Jacksonian democracy and liberal constitutionalism. In the case of socialism, this ideological movement created an entirely new sort of state.

Finally, Osterhammel decides, the nineteenth century was a time of emancipation, which survived an era of rapacious colonialism and imperialism to flourish in unexpected places, particularly in Africa and Asia. Gazed at across the smoking ruins of Europe in 1918, ‘the world of yesterday’ described by Zweig seemed to have vanished forever. But the seeds of the social flora of the later twentieth century – Osterhammel names liberalism, pacifism, trade unionism and democratic socialism – had demonstrably been sown in the nineteenth.

Don’t study economics at RMIT

RMIT's Dr Steven Kates wants to return economics to the classical foundations found so wanting in the Great Depression. Source: RMIT.

In Thursday’s opinion section of the Australian Financial Review, you can find one of the most comprehensively misguided articles on economics I’ve recently come across. Not only is it theoretically dubious, it’s also empirically wrong in a way that any ordinary citizen with access to the internet can quickly discover.

All the more curious therefore that is turns out to be authored by Dr Steven Kates, a lecturer in economics at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, supposedly one of Australia’s better-respected universities.

The article, entitled “Blame the government, not the RBA”  (AFR, page 71, 4th November 2010) begins with a distortion, progresses through an argument of economic theory about 70 years out of date, and ends with a statement that is provably wrong. Continue reading

Strong Aussie dollar hammers Australian screen production

Pop star Rihanna in uniform on the shoot of Peter Berg's Battleship. The big-budget movie was scheduled for production in Australia but was moved to Louisiana owing to the strong Australilan dollar and attractive production subsidies from the US state.

When Alex Burns and I set out to examine the past two decades of Australian screen policy, we concluded that the biggest influence on the success or failure of the Australian film industry was macro-economic factors like currency fluctuations – and not the perceived quality of Australian writers or directors.

You can read that paper – “Boom and Bust in Australian Screen Policy: 10BA, the Film Finance Corporation and Hollywood’s ‘Race to the Bottom‘” in the August issue of Media International Australia, reposted by Alex in proof version here.

Recent developments have only reinforced our findings. Yesterday, for instance, the Australian Financial Review published a feature-length article about the serious trouble posed for that the export-intensive parts of Australian screen industry by the strong Australian dollar, which briefly reached parity with the US dollar last week.

You can’t read the AFR article (by Brook Turner, entitled ‘Dollar dampens local film production’) online, so I’ve transcribed important sections below:

 

 

 

For the first  time in decades there are no major American films being made in Australia, and none in the pipeline, a clear sign of the devastation the dollar has wrought on a $2.3 billion business.

NSW hasn’t had had a major US  film since Wolverine wrapped at Fox Studios in mid-2008, Victoria since Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in September last year, Queensland since Narnia last November. The Sunshine State is hanging in thanks to local production and Steven Spielberg’s 13-part, $150-million TV dinosaur epic Terra Nova. But there are fears that may go the way of films such as Green Lantern and Battleship, which migrated back to the US with their $US150 million budgets ass the dollar rose, as estimated $200 million loss to the Australian industry.

“This is unprecedented”, Ausfilm’s chief operating officer Tracey Vieira, said this week from Los Angeles, where she has the job of enticing US production to Australia. “We have always had a good momentum of production inquiry about filming in Australia; I’ve never been in a position where we haven’t had a US production that is seriously considering Australia. And there’s nothing in sight.”

Ausfilm hass asked the federal government to at least double Australia’s production offset – a 15% tax rebate on local expenditure on foreign films – to bring it into line with North American, UK and European competitors as part of the government’s independent film sector review, due later this year.

The article reinforces the problems faced by Australia’s screen industry, which features anaemic levels of locally-financed production and is heavily reliant on “runaway production” from Hollywood studios. As we pointed out in the paper, Australia’s foreign-financed production is highly vulnerable to currency fluctuations and “race to the bottom” competition from other jurisdictions offering their own generous production subsidies.

Posner on Keynes

John Maynard Keynes in 1940. Image: Corbis / Guardian

One of this year’s most fascinating intellectual developments has been the dawning realisation that much of contemporary academic macro-economics is simply wrong.  Wrong in the quite literal sense that it just doesn’t accord with reality – which, as it turns out, should not surprise us, because much of it is based on assumptions that turn out to be flawed.

In the US, this point has been made with devastating effect by Paul Krugman. In Australia, the forthcoming book by John Quiggin looks set to be the best explanation of the “zombie ideas” that continue to haunt the profession.

But one set of ideas – associated with the British thinker, policy-maker and economist John Maynard Keynes – are back with a vengeance. There have been many who have written about the return to prominence of Keynesianism, including the undisputed expert on the man himself, Robert Skidelsky.

But, so far, the best short discussion of the renewed importance of Keynes’ economic ideas is by eminent US legal scholar Richard Posner:

We have learned since September that the present generation of economists has not figured out how the economy works. The vast majority of them were blindsided by the housing bubble and the ensuing banking crisis; and misjudged the gravity of the economic downturn that resulted; and were perplexed by the inability of orthodox monetary policy administered by the Federal Reserve to prevent such a steep downturn; and could not agree on what, if anything, the government should do to halt it and put the economy on the road to recovery. By now a majority of economists are in general agreement with the Obama administration’s exceedingly Keynesian strategy for digging the economy out of its deep hole. Some say the government is not doing enough and is too cozy with the bankers, and others say that it is doing too much, heedless of long-term consequences. There is no professional consensus on the details of what should be done to arrest the downturn, speed recovery, and prevent (so far as possible) a recurrence. Not having believed that what has happened could happen, the profession had not thought carefully about what should be done if it did happen.

Baffled by the profession’s disarray, I decided I had better read The General Theory. Having done so, I have concluded that, despite its antiquity, it is the best guide we have to the crisis.

Read the rest here.