Globalization and Its Nuances

The PBS TV program History Detectives had an episode entitled “Atocha Spanish Silver” where the wreck of the Spanish ship Atocha was described like this:

“In 1985, one of the greatest treasure discoveries was made off the Florida Keys, when the wreck of the Spanish ship Atocha was found. On board were some forty tons of silver and gold, which in 1622 had been heading from the New World to the Spanish treasury as the means to fund the Thirty Years’ War.”

Is this an obvious case of globalization? What about Marco Polo? RomeHan dynasty China trade in silks? Silk Road and Samarkand? Colombus? Magellan? Vasco da Gama?

All of these cases constitute a kind of harmless kind of “pop globalization” based on exotic voyages and travels.

Consider another such example, perhaps more academic:

“About the middle of the sixteenth century Antwerp reached its apogee. For the first time in history there existed both a European and a world market; the economies of different parts of Europe had become interdependent and were linked through the Antwerp market, not only with each other but also with the economies of large parts of the rest of the world. Perhaps no other city has ever again played such a dominant role as did Antwerp in the second quarter of the sixteenth century.”

(Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Koenigsberger and Mosse, Holt Rinehart Publishers, 1968, page 50)

Debt repudiations in several places in the 1550s are described like this:

“This caused the first big international bank crash, for the Antwerp bankers now could not meet their own obligations.”

(Europe in the Sixteenth Century, Koenigsberger and Mosse, Holt Rinehart Publishers, 1968, page 51)

This sounds like some kind of identifiably global period.

Actually, modern historians define globalization as “price convergence” (i.e., wheat has now a unified “world price,” implying a world market). This rigorous definition is confirmed by and also shows up in the data in the 1820s and may or may not be prefigured by all the Marco Polo and Atocha silver stories, mentioned above.

These episodes in history are not there yet.

One sees wheat prices and other commodity prices converging in the 1820s and thereafter based on railroads, steamships and telegrams.

The classic in this kind of analysis is:

Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy, by Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson.

Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson present a coherent picture of In Globalization and History, Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson present a coherent picture of trade, migration, and international capital flows in the Atlantic economy in the century prior to 1914—the first great globalization boom, which anticipated the experience of the last fifty years. The authors estimate the extent of globalization and its impact on the participating countries, and discuss the political reactions that it provoked. The book’s originality lies in its application of the tools of open-economy economics to this critical historical period—differentiating it from most previous work, which has been based on closed-economy or single-sector models. The authors also keep a close eye on globalization debates of the 1990s, using history to inform the present and vice versa. The book brings together research conducted by the authors over the past decade—work that has profoundly influenced how economic history is now written and that has found audiences in economics and history, as well as in the popular press.

(book summary)

In everyday language, we associate the word globalization with some ever-increasing Marco Polo phenomena. While that’s not entirely wrong, globalization in the more technical sense begins to show up in the data only from the 1820s. At this point, we begin to see the convergence of worldwide wheat prices, for example. This makes the world, for the first time, a global “store” with unified prices. Here is the technical beginning of globalization. The years 1870-1914 are subsequently the first real era of modern globalization and represent a kind of “take-off” from the first stirrings of the 1820s. World Wars I & II might be seen as globalization backlash.

At this moment in world history, whether Putin’s invasion of Ukraine will constitute a new wave of deglobalization remains to be seen.

Education and Seeing the “Swirl” of History

The tempo and rhythm of world events and world history are not captured in the linear and bland books one reads in schools and colleges where the sense of the stormy forward turbulence of the world is not communicated. Here’s an example that does communicate this “crazy dynamics”:

The leading historian, James Joll, in his excellent Europe Since 1870: An International History talks about gold and the gold standard in this way:

“The world supply of gold was diminishing, as the effects of the gold rushes in California and Australia in the 1850s and 1860s passed. This coincided with the decision in the 1870s of many of the leading countries to follow Britain’s example to use gold rather than silver as the basis of their currencyGermany in 1871, France in 1876 for example — so that the demand for gold rose just as the supply was temporarily declining. This in turn led to some doubt about the use of a gold standard and to much discussion about ‘bi-metallism’ and about the possibility of restoring silver to its place as the metal on which the world’s currency should be based, though this movement had more success in the United States than in Europe, where gold has now established itself firmly. By the 1890s however the discovery of new gold deposits in South Africa, Western Australia and Canada put an end to these discussions and uncertainties, as far as currency was concerned, for some fifty years.”

(James Joll, Europe Since 1870: An International History, Penguin Books, 1976, page 35)

These twists and turns and accidents or contingencies don’t communicate the real semi-turmoil surrounding all the decisions, which we can infer from the comment by a German politician in 1871, “We chose gold, not because gold was gold, but because Britain was Britain.” (Ian Patrick Austin, Common Foundations of American and East Asian Modernisation: From Alexander Hamilton to Junichero Koizumi, Select Publishing, 2009, page 99.)

Professor Joll delineates the emergent primacy of England:

“The establishment of London as the most important center in the world for shipping, banking, insurance-broking and buying and selling generally, as well as the growth of British industry, had been based on a policy of free trade.”

(James Joll, Europe Since 1870: An International History, Penguin Books, 1976, page 34)

The gold standard itself, dominated from London led to intricate problems: Golden Fetters: The Gold Standard and the Great Depression, 1919-1939 (published in 1992) by Barry Eichengreen, the leading historian of monetary systems, shows the downstream pitfalls of the gold standard.

In other words, the de facto emergence of Britain/London as the world commercial and policy center and the relation of this emergence to empire and international tensions and rivalries, means it is very problematical for any country to steer a course other than staying in tandem with British moods and ideologies, such as free trade. Any country by itself would find it difficult to have a more independent policy. (Friedrich List of Germany, who died in 1846, wrestles with these difficulties somewhat.) The attempts to find “autonomy and autarky” in the interwar years (Germany, Japan, Italy) led to worse nightmares. The world seems like a “no exit” arena of ideologies and rivalries.

The “crazy dynamics” and the semi-anarchy of the system, which continues to this day and is even worse, means that policy-making is always seen through a “dark windshield.”

History in the globalizing capitalist centuries, the nineteenth and the twentieth, is a kind of turbulent swirl and not a rational “walk.”