I romped through Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail (the link allows you to read in full for yourself) and have been musing over it for the past 24 hours – so it gets full marks for its readability and provocation. It helps that its 500 plus pages consist really of short potted histories of various countries selected to illustrate its main thesis about institutions, power, privilege and challenge. In that sense it has similarities with the charming books of Robert Greene which deal with such issues as power, seduction and war.
It was Arnold Toynbee who, in the post-war period, had the temerity to try to explain the rise and fall of nations but his efforts did not seem to inspire the next generation to similar efforts. Recent reviews in the New Statesman and in The Nation have suggested that “big history” has only now returned – but it was 1987 when Paul Kennedy brought out his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; 1997 when Jared Diamond published Guns, Germs and Steel; and 1999 when David Landes gave us The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Like Toynbee, these books offered possible explanations for the different trajectories taken by nations.
2010 also saw Why the West Rules – for now by Ian Morris which was the subject of a long, highly detailed and caustic review – and a long and injured response by the author. Morris is a classical archaeologist and History Professor but his book is not even included in the 26 page bibliography which graces Why Nations Fail (2012) - Acemoglu, it should be noted, is an economist; Robinson a political scientist.
David Landes’ book does make it to the bibliography but the distinguished economic historian’s key work is totally ignored in the text and his name, therefore, does not figure in the book’s 18 page index…..
There are, for me, other curious omissions and weaknesses in the 529 pages of Why Nations Fail – a book which offers from its start a distinctive lens with which to view history, namely that of “extractive institutions” and “countervailing power” and which suggests western societies owe their pre-eminence to their “inclusive institutions”.
When they define what they mean by this phrase, we get a paean to liberal or capitalist democracy – which I find a tad….well… curious given that the book was drafted in the aftermath of the 2008 global crisis; the spread since then of disgust at the behaviour of the power elites; of deepening concern about the scale of inequality within the west; and of massive alienation from political parties and voting.
I would therefore have expected a suggestion that the west is now in danger of going the same way as others – and for the same reason…..
But no - the book ends on a note of almost laughable complacency. “Failure” is what has happened to Africa and most of Asia (apart from Japan and South Korea) and will, according to the 10 page analysis they give China in the concluding chapter, also be the fate of that country’s current effort….
It is in this concluding chapter at the very least that I would have expected to see a recognition that Contemporary Europe and North America are showing the very same exclusion and "extractive" power which they have identified as the fatal weakness of the powerful - but this passes our authors by!! If ever there was a case of "institutional exclusion" of citizens, it is what we have been experiencing in the past decade. But these don't figure on the author's radar screen. Not a single reference to the extensive “end of oil” literature – or to the recent important Rebalancing Society of Canadian management theorist Henry Mintzberg. There is a passing reference to the different use of patents in Europe a hundred years ago - but no mention of the variety of the variety of other ways in which resources are sucked from citizens and passed to the ruling elites eg military expenditure; pharmaceuticals; intellectual ownership; marketing; privatisation; commodification etc
Astonishingly it is only on the second last page that the authors mention the role of the media as a change agent!! And this in a book which purports to be about power.
Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) is, of course, a work of political philosophy - not history – but should be a key reference in any work which purports to offer “countervailing power” as a driver of history.
Paul Hirst was another political scientist who developed in the 70s and 80s the notion of “associative democracy” (people power) which was taken up by thinkers such as Will Hutton and morphed, in the 1990s, into the vision of a “stakeholder society” which I wrote about in a 2011 post
With Mintzberg, these are the authors we should be paying attention to.