Slouching Towards Utopia? The Economic World of the Twentieth Century: Chapter 7.2: The World in 1900: Poverty
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Slouching Towards Utopia? The Economic World of the Twentieth Century: Chapter 7.1: The World in 1900: The View from 1900

7.1: The World in 1900: The View from 1900

The View from 1900

What did the world look like in the last generation of the nineteenth century? It was a much emptier world: 1.2 to 1.5B people instead of our 6.4B. It was a much poorer world--of the 1.2B people in 1870 perhaps 1.0B lived like our preindustrial ancestors because they were our pre-industrial ancestors. It was a much less technologically-advanced world: the technological-industrial frontiers of that age were the oil well, the internal combustion engine and the electric light. Nevertheless, six processes were ongoing--not, from out perspective, in full swing but definitely ongoing--that were changing the world: industrialization, urbanization, globalization, marketization, colonization, and democratization.

Let's for a moment take a broader view, and pretend we are not just studying the past of our great-grandparents but take the perspective of a seventh-millennium professor teaching his or her class (or, perhaps more probably, downloading avatars into xe’s students’ personal AIs), with a very limited amount of time and attention span in which to flag key concepts and ideas. What would such a professor think were the things that students should remember about the world economy at the start of the twentieth century?

At most, seven things:

First, that the world at the start of the twentieth century–even the most advanced economies at the start of the twentieth century–were very, very poor relative to how they would be at the century’s end. But that was about to change.

Second, that the spread of ploughs that pulled themselves and looms that wove by themselves was about to end the pre-industrial era, and promise to make the world amazingly rich by all previous standards.

Third, that the ten thousand years in which people had lived largely in small groups in villages was about to end: people were starting to live in large groups in cities.

Fourth, that in the late nineteenth century transportation costs had finally fallen low enough and transport speeds had become high enough to make mass intercontinental shipment of goods and people possible: a global economy and, because of telegraph and all the rest, a global polity too. This fall in transportation costs had for the first time created the possibility of a global economy–an economy in which movements of people and goods across oceans and between continents were central to how the economy worked, rather than mere precious and luxury froth on the surface of a deep ocean.

Fifth, that this global economy was on its way to becoming a global market. The era in which goods were either consumed at home, consumed by you relatives, traded among your neighbors, or offered up to keep the thugs with spears or the thugs with quills from killing you was also coming to an end. Supply and demand would rule--which does not mean that thugs would not use force to manipulate supply and demand.

Sixth, that the fall in transport costs and rise in transport speeds had come about when the military-force gap between the North Atlantic and the rest of the world was at its maximum--which meant imperialism, formal or informal, and colonialism, open or masked.

Seventh, that the people were standing up politically. In proportion as populations became urbanized and as rural populations became commercialzed and plugged into the global communications network, politics became democratized: rulers found themselves depending in fact as well as in noble flights of fancy on the consent of the governed--a consent that could be extracted for a while at gunpoint or gramophonepoint.

Much of the economic history of the several decades around 1900--the period immediately before World War I--can be read as the working-out of the economic, political, and technological logic of the–relatively sudden--creation of the first true global economy. In the long run, however, the patterns of migration, of international investments, of the international division of labor, and of economic growth established in the decades before World War I would not last. They were destroyed by wars, politics, and changes in technology in the three decades after 1914. When the global economy and polity was knit back together in the decades after World War II, it was knit back together in a different pattern–and now it is reweaving itself into yet a different pattern still.

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