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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.

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.

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 first appeared in the 09 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game