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12 June 2016

Are we really living in the age of the second Renaissance?

The sense of an old order degenerating and a new one not yet born recalls the fin de siècle of 120 years ago.

By Craig Calhoun

There’s a widespread feeling that we live in an era of more than usual change. Some wonder if capitalism will collapse; most who believe it can renew itself expect it to be increasingly Asian. Many see nation states losing their ability to achieve both economic prosperity and security. More than a few suggest that democracy is exhausted. The spread of populism reminds many of the 1930s.

The sense of an old order degenerating and a new one not yet born recalls the fin de siècle of 120 years ago. On a grander historical scale, some speak of a new axial age, recalling the ancient era when Greek philosophers, Jewish prophets, Buddha and Confucius laboured within a few years of each other to reorient and revitalise ethics and faith. Many call more straightforwardly for religious renewal. Others seek a new Enlightenment.

Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna see a new Renaissance taking shape. “The present age is a contest,” they write: “between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement and human development . . .” They bet on the good, glossing “Renaissance” as “a rare moment of mass flourishing”.

The main chapters of Age of Discovery are structured into accounts of the 15th- to 16th-century Renaissance, followed by evidence of comparable creativity in our own era (which they define as 1990 to the present). The tour is breathless but infor­mative. They cover a very wide range of innovations. It is telling, though, that they cite remarkable creativity in art, philosophy and political thought as central features of the original Renaissance but focus almost entirely on science, technology and economics in looking at the present era. It takes nothing away from graphene, mapping the human genome and lifting millions out of poverty to wonder what Goldin and ­Kutarna see as comparable today to the Protestant Reformation, the birth of modern literature and the rise of humanism. I was left wondering whether they think today’s geniuses are merely more materialistic than those of the first Renaissance. Or do they think the great artists and philosophers of today are not making breakthroughs like their ­Renaissance forebears?

Goldin and Kutarna describe comparison to the Renaissance as a source of perspective (with a nod to Brunelleschi and the discovery of linear perspective in Renaissance art and architecture). Historical comparison does encourage recognition of some of the diverse potential in our own era, reducing pessimistic obsessions with the short term, making us realise how remarkable the strides in health, wealth and education have been. Yet it is also limiting, especially when made too literal. Comparisons to any past era can be informative but the present is not precisely a repetition of any.

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The internet shares a good deal with the Gutenberg printing press, but does the fall of the Berlin Wall really parallel Columbus’s voyages of discovery? Is the founding of Facebook clearly more important than the that of Microsoft and Apple? 

The deeper science behind the newly commercialised technologies dates from the Cold War, notably government-funded research and development in the earlier era of Sputnik and the space race. More importantly, the comparison obscures long-term trends such as transformations in infrastructure and industry throughout the modern era, not least during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Goldin and Kutarna are not blind to tensions in the first Renaissance. After all, while they describe the post-1990 era as one of unprecedented peace, the first Renaissance ushered in an era of wars as well as state-building. They note that today we also face the challenges of new Savonarolas, preaching puritanical and sometimes violent paths to getting right with God and challenging earthly inequalities, not to mention new plagues and climate change. Goldin and Kutarna point more than once to the threat that excess inequality poses to the potential Renaissance, especially if it lacks legitimacy. They describe inequalities of opportunity, poor governance and “shock events” as “interfering factors” that can break the link ­between genius and human flourishing.

Branko Milanovic makes global inequality his central focus, though with considerable attention to related political issues. He brings fresh insights to one of today’s most talked-about issues, clearing up confusion on the way. The world is richer than ever before and for the first time since the Industrial Revolution global growth has brought reductions, not increases, in the inequality among nations. This is almost entirely because of growth in China and Asia more generally; the rise of a global middle class is geographically very uneven. Still, on balance, there is growing convergence among countries. Not only is there a growing middle class in China, but millions have been lifted out of poverty.

This very considerable good news is entangled with daunting challenges. First, growing equality among nations was accompanied by growing inequality within them. Here, Milanovic is describing the period since the 1980s. This followed a “short 20th century” from the First World War to the collapse of the USSR, which is the only period in which rising mean incomes have been accompanied by declining inequality. The pattern conflicts with the expectations of mainstream economists. Milanovic suggests we should think not of the famed Kuznets curve (a one-time rise in inequality followed by continuous decline) but of Kuznets waves, in which inequality can go up or down – and for malign or benign reasons. Wars and politics can bring inequality down, as Thomas Piketty has argued, but so can policies such as reducing the effects of inherited inequalities, helping poor countries grow faster, and lowering obstacles to migration.

Milanovic is under no illusion that widespread adoption of good policies will be easy. Critical reasons for this lie in the pattern of inequality in its own right. While the Asian poor and middle classes benefited from globalisation, incomes for the middle and lower middle classes of the rich countries stagnated and sometimes declined. This was due in part to pro-rich taxation and other policies, but also to restructuring of employment; inequality is far greater in the service sector. Middle-class stagnation has helped fuel populist resistance to migrants and sometimes retreats from both capitalism and democracy.

At the same time, the benefits of global growth flowed disproportionately to the very rich, swelling the ranks of billionaires and the proportion of the world’s wealth and income they control. The global top 
1 per cent control between a quarter and half of all income, and a bigger share of wealth. They are able to hide this wealth in tax havens and move it easily across borders.

Moreover, despite convergence among countries, huge differences remain. These make citizenship of a prosperous country a source of major unearned economic advan­tage (rent), which few are willing to sacrifice. Citizenship rent is the other side of the continuing global flows of migration. Though the rich may become expats and buy expensive houses in foreign countries, migration is mainly a matter of less-well-off people looking for opportunities or fleeing wars and other upheavals currently much more common in less rich countries.

The potential Renaissance that Goldin and Kutarna describe is not an illusion, but it depends on a benign environment for ­creativity and innovation. Peace, stability and global co-operation depend on continuing global convergence in mean national incomes, but are challenged when the middle classes are not convinced that globali­sation works for them and see it working one-sidedly for global plutocrats.

Craig Calhoun is the director of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna is published by Bloomsbury (272pp, £18.99).

Global Inequality: a New Approach for the Age of Globalisation by Branko Milanovic is published by Harvard University Press (320pp, £22.95). 

This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe