Last night I was quite intrigued by Brad DeLong post about how some several thousand years in the future, professors (if they still exist) may teach (if teaching still exists) about the 20th century. I always thought that doing things like that is a fun intellectual exercise not because we can really tell what will happen but because it makes us think a bit more about what we do now, and possibly face the futility and longer-term irrelevance of things we hold as immensely important today. Just think about an incredible expense of intellectual energy over perhaps one thousand years that happened in Byzantium where people who were direct linguistic, ethnic and ideological heirs to Plato and Cicero, spent days, months, years, centuries debating what to us are the most obscure and irrelevant points of Christian doctrine—about which not even theologians in the Vatican (I would surmise) care much today.
So, when you are all excited about that latest cool model of endogenous determination of X that you have just developed and tested over the sample of 15 people give a thought to the future generations: imagine what they would say (on the assumption they even deign to notice your cool model).
And I totally agree with Brad that all the way to approximately 1750 (1776/1789), the history of the world has to be written in non-economic terms: conquests, rise and fall of the empires. Economics plays a bit of a role but it is very much a cameo. Then with the Industrial Revolution, things change: some people become much richer, then the others get richer too, technological change becomes visible, people start paying attention to economics, the homo economics (a human calculating machine of pain and pleasure) is born.
Brad’s division of this economics-driven era into a long 20th century from 1870 to 2010 then attracted my attention. (Brad wrote more about it today.) Especially, when I contrasted it with Hobsbawm’s short 20th century, 1914-1989. Brad defines the epochs essentially in economic terms, Hobsbawm in political. Now, it would seem that since the modern era is the era of economics, using economics as markers would make more sense. But I do not think so.
Before I explain why I prefer Hobsbawm’s lines of demarcation, let me say that I understand this is an exercise that only reasonably idle people can engage in: for many people it suffices to know that the 20th century lasted from 1900 to 1999.
What is the meaning behind Hobsbawm’s periodization? First, that the 19th century was long, in the sense that it did not end around the turn of the 20th century, but extended all the way to the outbreak of World War I. That seems to be a very reasonable point: I think that Hobsbawm was not the first to use the term “long 19th century”. The world as it existed between the Congress of Vienna and the Sarajevo attentat was basically the same world.
After 1914, it was a different world, for the reasons that we all know too well. But why did that new world end in 1989, with the collapse in communism? Because worldwide competition between two social systems was the dominant feature of this entire period up to then. Communism provided an appealing and remarkably different way to organize societies and drew adherents from four corners of the world. Its fortunes tended to ebb and flow, probably reaching the peaks in the early 1920s (when the expected revolution in Germany failed to happen) and around 1948 (when Belgium, Italy and France narrowly failed to become communist while China moved one-fourth of the mankind in the communist camp). But gradually it became less successful and less attractive and in 1989 ended de jure in the Euro-Asian space, while around the same time China became a de facto capitalist country.
So that date marks the end of a system that challenged capitalism. Nothing in its stead exists today. Capitalism is, after 1989, alone: a single type of economic organization (private ownership of the means of production, wage labor, decentralized coordination) has covered the entire world. So long as nothing else appears—and nothing is in the sight—we shall live in the post-1989 world.
In some ways, our world today is similar to the pre-1914 world. The greatest resemblances are fast technological progress, globalization, dislocation of large numbers of people, or to put it in two words: prosperity with uncertainly. But there are also big differences. The ante bellum world was globalized and capitalist only in its most developed parts; the rest was in a state of feudalism, slavery or worse. It was still a Malthusian world in China and India. That has completely changed: China, India, most of Africa today are about as globalized and capitalist as Europe and the United States. This makes our current era unique in the history of the world: we all believe, in economics and societal organization, basically the same thing. And those who do not, either hold a mix of contradictory beliefs (which makes them difficult to implement, precisely because they are contradictory), or they do not have political power. When some of them come to power and begin to alter people’s beliefs, we shall know that we have entered another era. But until then, we are, I believe, living in an open-ended (very long?) 21st century that follows a short 20th century.