Sassoon’s book speaks to the present by conjuring up the era between the 1850s and 1914, in which the tensions between global capitalism and modern politics came clearly to the fore... Sassoon offers us a sprawling map, studded with fascinating details. Curious about the urban poor in 19th-century Naples? Want to know why liberalism was stunted in late-19th-century Romania? Sassoon is your man. Ever heard of the city of Elkader, Iowa, founded in 1846? No, neither had I. It was named, it turns out, in honour of the Emir Abd el-Kader, leader of the resistance against the French occupation of Algeria. As one is thrown from cameo to improbable cameo, reading Sassoon becomes a hallucinatory experience. Insights are proffered and then repeated, sometimes several times... Those craving order may do better to approach Sassoon’s book chapter by chapter. Skip over the preface in which he impatiently refuses to define capitalism and the first chapters in which he meanders through the history of 19th-century state formation... Or, you could start near the end, where one of Sassoon’s best chapters describes how the great recession of 1873 sparked an awareness of globalisation and triggered a wave of protectionism... But read on from there and you are in for a final surprise... It is a puzzling end to a puzzling book.
In reducing a vast topic to manageable, evidence-based proportions, Sassoon, a historian, has done social scientists a service. From his work we can distil wisdom on the conditions for states to be effective without being dangerous, and for keeping capitalism within manageable bounds.
Capitalism sometimes relies on spinning and mis-selling. The only slight mis-selling of this book is in the chronology offered in the subtitle, 1860 to 1914. It’s really also a study of modern capitalism that looks back to the early phases of Britain’s Industrial Revolution but also forwards to modern globalisation and hyper-financialisation and today’s populist backlash. Sassoon slaps capitalism, but it is in part a congratulatory (and deserved) slap. This is a book for today and tomorrow.