At a time when many fear a return to the political deadlock and industrial conflict of Britain a generation ago, Niall Ferguson offers a comforting reassessment. "In terms of political violence and economic instability, the 1970s were an unexceptional decade." According to the Harvard-based historian, the chaos of the 1970s was largely imaginary, a delusion produced by an outbreak of moral panic in universities.
“The period's dire reputation may owe more to the bad experiences of Anglo-American academics, caught between inflation and student radicalism," he writes, "than to any measurable increases in global disorder." What academics were worried about when they chronicled the conflicts of the 1970s was their own falling income and status. "The combination of double-digit inflation and public-sector pay freezes seemed to threaten a generation of dons with proletarianisation . . . Professors could not even rely on their investments to compensate them for sharp declines in their real pay." Among these panic-stricken professors, Ferguson singles out A J P Taylor, whose opinions and finances he examines at some length. "For someone of Taylor's age, the trauma of financial crisis was in some measure compounded by the strained relations with students (not to mention teenage sons) that characterised the period after 1968." Taylor believed British capitalism had hit the buffers, but in Ferguson's view this perception was highly subjective. "Taylor was much too gloomy about the west's prospects: it was Deng [Xiaoping] who got it right." Aside from the Anglo-American academy, there was no crisis in the 1970s.
It is a strikingly reductionist interpretation, and quite entertaining as long as it's not taken too seriously. There is a certain drollery in the thought that the status anxieties of academics were more symptomatic of the 1970s than the oil shocks of the mid-1970s and the Iranian Revolution at the end of the decade. For Ferguson, these events had little significance. It was the new technologies that came onstream in the 1970s - microprocessors and catalytic converters, for example - that were important; hence Ferguson's view that Deng got it right.
In fact, it was China that Deng was right about - not the west. The Chinese leader may have shared Taylor's gloomy view of western capitalism.Preoccupied with the internecine conflicts of the academy, Ferguson passes over the changes that were under way in the larger world. While seeming to put academics in their place, he ends up putting them - a small and unrepresentative number of them, at any rate - back at the centre of events. For anyone who remembers the 1970s, the idea that Taylor was in any way typical of academics at the time can only be comical. The high income whose value Taylor was so anxious to preserve was a by-product of his prolific journalism and his connection with Lord Beaverbrook, and as such entirely exceptional. Far from academics being panic-stricken about their investments, very few of them had any portfolios to worry about.
The notion that the 1970s was a time of continuous disruption in universities is equally far-fetched. As one who recalls the period with a certain fondness, I would say that it was the contrast with the previous decade that seemed most remarkable at the time. Student rebellion continued for some years, but it was essentially - like the counterculture - a 1960s phenomenon. By the early 1970s, the revolutionary fantasies of 1968 were forgotten, replaced by genuine conflicts whose upshot was by no means clear.
A sense of the depth of these conflicts is lacking in many of the contributions to this volume. Comprising 21 essays gleaned from academic conference papers, the book aims to be comprehensive in its treatment of the decade. At times it succeeds in illuminating the background to recent events. It is useful to be reminded that globalisation did not start in the 1990s: the first mortgage-backed American securities were sold abroad in 1971. Several contributors note how, in the US, globalisation was seen chiefly as an opportunity to expand US power, with Henry Kissinger trying "to turn globalisation into a tool for more efficient and effective American leadership". Yet the collection as a whole embodies this same Americo-centric perspective on the world, with the result that it has a decidedly dated feel overall.
By the time these conference papers were presented at Harvard in October 2008, the retreat of US power was an undeniable fact. But while what one contributor calls "the declining autonomy of the United States in international affairs" is occasionally acknowledged, the idea that globalisation might be undermining America's position in the world is nowhere systematically examined. Instead, the book is peppered with pious genuflections to market reform - in the authors' words, following the American model. Would they write like this today? If a week is a long time in politics, 18 months is an eternity in publishing.
Evidently, the glacial progress of academic publication is not well suited to a world of abrupt change.
Looking back to the 1970s in order to understand the present is not unreasonable. To be sure, there are many important differences between now and then. The communist systems that seemed permanent features of the landscape have vanished almost without trace, while China, India and Brazil are now powerhouses of rapid development. The flood of new technologies has continued, with a host of old industries (not least journalism) struggling to cope as a result. Climate change is advancing in a way that was hardly understood in the 1970s. The domination of politics by spin had then only just begun.
In other respects, the similarities with the present are surprisingly close. The price of oil is edging up again, and while the world is more industrialised, it is no nearer to reducing its reliance on hydrocarbons than it was 30 years ago. Debt is still a problem - a larger and more intractable problem - in the advanced economies, and hedge funds have the power to undermine governments and currencies. Trade unions are weaker, but it remains to be seen whether voters will be prepared to accept the deep cuts in public services that will be needed to pay for the excesses of the banks. If not, the result may be a period of social conflict not unlike that experienced a generation ago.
Across long stretches of time, history may well be chaotic. Over short periods, recurring patterns can be glimpsed, and in Britain one may be emerging. During the 1970s, visibly, the postwar settlement was crumbling. Yet politicians in all parties regarded it as unalterable, and it was only with Margaret Thatcher that it was finally consigned to history. Now Thatcher's settlement is no longer viable and it, too, will soon be history. The 1970s was a period of transition, and so is the present time. The difference is that our leaders have not yet understood the world has once again changed.
The Shock of the Global: the 1970s in Perspective
Edited by Niall Ferguson, Charles S Maier, Erez Manela and Daniel J Sargent
Harvard University Press, 448pp, £22.95
John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His latest book, "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings", is published in paperback by Penguin (£10.99)