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8 January 2023

How the world turned global

Jonathan Sperber’s The Age of Interconnection surveys the second half of the 20th century but fails to explain the ideas that shaped it.

By Gavin Jacobson

No designation in the study of the past or present elicits as great an eye-roll as “the age of…”. Used to encapsulate spans of history, the term has proved irresistible to writers well before the publication between 1962 and 1994 of Eric Hobsbawm’s acclaimed tetralogy on the modern world. The break-up and arrangement of historical time into distinct (and saleable) epochs has produced a bountiful industry of sloganeering. The University of London’s Senate House Library lists 571 titles using “age of”, from the age of discovery for the period between the 15th and 17th centuries, to the ages of reason and revolution for the 18th, to mechanical reproduction, innocence, anxiety, fracture, anger and surveillance capitalism for the 20th and 21st.

The Age of Interconnection, the title of Jonathan Sperber’s new book, is one of the term’s less inspiring renditions. But that in part reflects the scale of his task: to impose a master concept on a period between 1945 and the Millennium that eludes more rhapsodic description. This is certainly true of those later years from 1990 until 2000, a decade lacking definition without the anchoring coordinates and focus of the Cold War. In 1995 the New York Times invited its readers to try to name the era in which they were living. The paper argued that, more than five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the term “post-Cold War era” carried an air of “self-doubt”. The entries submitted were no better and included the “Age of Uncertainty” and the “Age That Even Historians from Harvard Can’t Name”.

A scholar of 19th-century Europe, Sperber deserves praise for advancing into the more recent past with such ambition. The resulting work is an extensive panorama of the global trends and realignments that shaped the six decades that followed the Second World War. Sperber rightfully notes that any credible history of the time “requires portraying the shaping force of the age of total war on the decades after 1945”. Scientific and technological developments during the two wars – steel manufacturing, jet propulsion, power grids and broadcast networks, advances in transportation, pharmaceuticals, and agriculture – determined the social trends, economic institutions and industrial policies in the period that followed.

What was different about the second half of the 20th century, in Sperber’s account, was the depth and speed of political, economic and informational exchanges that criss-crossed the globe, “integrating far-flung continents and countries of very different levels of economic development, social structures, and political systems”. Sperber remains alert to how these interconnections were neither continuous nor harmonious. Economic and cultural links between West and East were slower to form across the frozen topography of the Cold War than after 1989. Increased international trade and migration resulted in reactionary backlash as much as – and probably more so than – cosmopolitan flourishing.

Sperber’s work is comparable to CA Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, 1780-1914 (2004), which also endeavoured to chart the interconnectedness and interdependence that formed an earlier wave of globalisation. As in the period between 1945 and 2000, proliferating connections in the 19th century also heightened “the sense of difference, and even antagonism, between people in different societies”. Sperber arguably succeeds where Bayly did not, showing how global uniformities and interconnections were forged by design.

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This happened through the creation of technologies – telecoms, fibre-optics, supercomputing and the internet – system-wide economic rules enforced by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, and the planetary spread of capital markets. A major innovation was the shipping container. Transporting freight across oceanic distances fast and cheaply, the container transformed the nature of multinational enterprise. Sperber uses the Barbie doll as an example: by the mid 1990s the nylon used in Barbie’s hair came from Japan, the plastics for her body came from Taiwan, her clothing from China, and her pigments from the US. Everything was assembled in China using US-made moulds and Japanese machines before being shipped and sold around the world. Similar processes held for computers, cars and electronics.

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[See also: Nietzsche, narwhals and the burden of consciousness]

The originality of Sperber’s enterprise lies in its ambition, but his approach does not always serve it well. Smartly defined at the outset, the analysis subsequently dissolves in a bath of granular detail. Brute empiricism has won an expensive victory over both synoptic vision and, presumably, wider readership. With little style or narrative energy, his prose fails to relieve the burdens he places on the reader. And so, the effect of casting recent history in new light is reduced by the mass of detail that surrounds it. Those in the market for minutiae such as crop breeding, Asian stewardesses, or international sales of Tupperware will find The Age of Interconnection useful; those looking for overarching theories or conceptually rich accounts of the modern order, as found in the macrosociology of Michael Mann or the world-system analysis of Immanuel Wallerstein, will find little revelation.

Sperber’s lack of a broad proposition about the second half of the 20th-century can be partly explained by his reverence for The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel’s 1,000-page opus on the 19th century, and the presiding spirit of Sperber’s book. Sperber shares Osterhammel’s view that it isn’t possible “to fix the dynamic of an epoch in a single schema”. So while The Age of Interconnection describes historical developments, it doesn’t always explain them. Rundowns on the predominance of finance capital from the 1970s, for example, are neither deepened nor electrified by even brief speculations about what this meant in grander historical terms – that it signalled, as the Italian sociologist Giovanni Arrighi thought, a crisis of American hegemony.

Unlike Arrighi, whose landmark work on The Long Twentieth Century (1994) set out on a vast historical canvas the relationship between capital accumulation and the state, Sperber has no working theory of capitalism – an ironic position for a celebrated biographer of Karl Marx. Without any theoretical framework, Sperber can only offer limited insight into the economic history of the period. His conventional renderings of the market as a realm of exchange omit one of the key trends of the age, as politicians and CEOs increasingly saw markets as a place in which both political consent and national glory could be fashioned. This is what the journalist Thomas Frank called “market populism”: the idea that markets would always be more democratic and reflect the “will of the people” more truthfully than the ballot box. Here was the original concourse between free market capitalism and anti-democracy.

Like works by Osterhammel (and Hobsbawm), Sperber’s book is, if unconsciously, Marxist in its logic. It begins with an account of the material world – “Nature”, “Disease”, “Technologies”, “Markets” – followed by a narrative of political and social affairs – “Migrations”, “The Powers”, “Societies”, “Leisure” – and concludes with a survey of the cultural and intellectual scene – “Beliefs” and “Utopias”. The effect is that ideas and intellectual systems appear as mere addendums to deeper economic and social forces, rather than as possible influences on them.

The absence of consolidated reflection on thinkers is a feature of The Age of Interconnection. Sperber’s account of China’s economic reforms under Deng Xiaoping from the late 1970s is presented largely without reference to the minds behind them. In looking to remake the economy after Mao’s death, intellectuals and policymakers in Beijing invited foreign economists to China to share their ideas. Chinese delegations also visited the US, Britain, Hungary, West Germany and elsewhere to learn from those who had experimented with both socialist transitions and conventional market systems. This story – recounted in Julian Gewirtz’s Unlikely Partners (2017) – represents intellectual interconnections of historical import that fall from Sperber’s view.

And what of neoliberalism? The term itself, as well as “liberalism”, appears only once in the book, a striking absence given its dominance over the thought-world of the West for the last half century.  A history that afforded more generous space to ideas may also have considered that in the 1990s three of the most venerable political philosophers of the age – Jürgen Habermas, John Rawls and Norberto Bobbio – published not only their crowning theories on life within liberal democracies but urgent statements on realising peace between them. It’s a curious omission on Sperber’s part. Given that the formative experience of Habermas, Rawls and Bobbio was the period between the 1930s and 1950s, their texts on international justice bore the stamp of total war.  They were also composed against the backdrop of the conflicts and internecine struggles that Sperber details with such erudition.

[See also: The secret lives of Katherine Mansfield]

A work of spread-eagled proportions will always contain lacunae, but Sperber’s seeming indifference to ideas means there is little sense of how the period between 1945 and the Millennium was often not thought of as interconnected at all. As early as 1951 Hannah Arendt observed the new forms of isolation that primed men for tyranny. “What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world,” she wrote, “is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal social conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience.” A similar lamentation came in 2000 – the end of Sperber’s timeline – from the American political scientist Robert Putnam, whose Bowling Alone investigated the fall in membership of institutions – sports clubs, unions, political parties, Masonic lodges – that were once sites of personal connection and collective life.

As the middle classes moved beyond the suburbs, communities became fortified redoubts surrounded by barricades and CCTV. As a character in JG Ballard’s Cocaine Nights (1996) says, the old cityscapes had disappeared: “No more ramblas, no more pedestrian precincts, no more left banks and Latin quarters. We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us.” Along with the decline of popular political participation, the mass availability of television – “a distinctly national medium” as Sperber rightly notes – and the balkanised info bubbles of the internet, the second half of the 20th century was, as one political scientist put it recently, “a wasteland of sociability”.

This isn’t to say that interconnections didn’t exist, but there are reasons the phenomenon referred to as globalisation – the extension over the whole earth of markets and networks of information and communication – was so profoundly alienating.  One of the more radical answers came from the French anthropologist Marc Augé, whose Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity (1992) described “a world where there is no longer an elsewhere”. Modern life was now dominated by homogenous “non-places” where people spent most of their lives: airports, motorways, hotel rooms, leisure parks and supermarkets. These spaces of eternal traffic and deadening consumption, in which “people are always, and never, at home” represented the real End of History.

“The space of non-place,” Augé wrote, “creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude and similitude” – further proof that a history of an age without thought is really no history at all.

The Age of Interconnection: A Global History of the Second Half of the Twentieth Century
Jonathan Sperber
Oxford University Press, 688pp, £30.99

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This article appears in the 11 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Burning down the House of Windsor