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Good potted history - but myopic
on 12 February 2015
I romped through this book in a couple of days 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.
But there are inexcusable major omissions and weaknesses in this book by two American Professors (
Acemoglu an economist; Robinson a political scientist) which promises 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, for example, 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 major ways in which resources are now 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”. With Mintzberg, these are the authors we should be paying attention to.