The Blog May 25, 2023

What We're Reading

Mirek Tobiáš Hošman, University of Bologna, Paris City University

Michael Franczak, Global Inequality and American Foreign Policy in the 1970s. Cornell University Press, 2022.

Recently, there has been a growing historical interest in the New International Economic Order (NIEO), a set of policy proposals articulated in the early 1970s and promoted by what was then termed Third World countries. Michael Franczak's new book Global Inequality and American Foreign Policy in the 1970s (2022, Cornell University Press) analyzes the US foreign policy in the context of the NIEO agenda and the larger North-South dialogue throughout the 1970s. The book shows how the complex negotiations surrounding specific NIEO proposals at various international platforms changed the character of the US foreign policy and introduced the focus on global economic inequality to the US foreign policy and national security circles. Franczak sees this as one of the many important and yet somehow forgotten legacies of the NIEO. On the examples of the food crisis in the early 1970s and the responses to the two oil shocks, he illustrates the divisions among industrialized countries that the NIEO exposed and reconstructs the different attempts of US policymakers such as Henry Kissinger, Cyrus Vance, or Daniel Patrick Moynihan to undermine the agenda and the solidarity among its advocates. One could argue today that NIEO was ultimately defeated politically, economically, and intellectually with the rise of the market-based global system in the 1980s, which, as Franczak points out, "had very little to do with the NIEO". But the narrative of a failure only holds true if the decisive criterion is found exclusively in the implemented international policies and not in other aspects, for instance the development of alternative visions of global economic relations or, as the book shows, in influencing policy agenda of individual states. Many of the challenges and their possible answers that the NIEO advocates identified are still with us; rising economic inequality discussed in Global Inequality and American Foreign Policy in the 1970s is one of them. Revisiting the many stories of the NIEO, its complex negotiations, proposals, lessons, successes and failures seems crucial, if not inevitable, while we continue to face these challenges. Franczak offers a very important subplot of the NIEO story by telling us how the US foreign policy addressed the NIEO demands and how these demands eventually shaped the US foreign policy – a welcome contribution to the growing NIEO historiography.

Fritz Bartel, The Triumph of Broken Promises: The End of the Cold War and the Rise of Neoliberalism. Harvard University Press, 2022.

Fritz Bartel's recently published The Triumph of Broken Promises: The End of the Cold War and the Rise of Neoliberalism (2022, Harvard University Press) revisits the two defining global transformations of the twentieth century: the end of the Cold War and the rise of neoliberal capitalism. By linking these transformations together, Bartel proposes to see them as interconnected products of a shared history - the history of the world economy in the late twentieth century. More specifically, The Triumph of Broken Promises follows three forces – energy, finance, and economic discipline – that dominated global political economy landscape since the 1973 oil crisis. According to Bartel, the previous decades of Cold War competition were marked by the "politics of making promises": both the capitalist West and the socialist East raced to expand their social contracts by offering their citizens two different versions of industrial modernity. But with the emergence of energy and finance as notable forces in the global economy in the 1970s, the competition to expand social contracts morphed into a competition to discipline them. As Bartel explains: "Energy and financial markets placed immense pressure on governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain to adjust their domestic economies to meet the demands of the global marketplace. [...] This made capitalist and communist governments' cardinal challenge in the 1970s and 1980s diametrically different from the one that had prevailed since 1945. Rather than racing to increase the well-being of their people, governments in both East and West were forced at times to decrease the economic prosperity and security in their societies. Rather than making promises, governments were forced to break them" (5–6). The reason why neoliberalism expanded so massively after the end of the Cold War, as the book argues, was because its pro-market, anti-statist rhetoric provided governments with a suitable ideological framework for breaking promises. Bartel's book offers a highly original account of the global economic history of the late twentieth century. It is an indispensable contribution to the historiographies of the Cold War and the rise of neoliberalism.


Asensio Robles López, European University Institute

Immanuel Wallerstein, “The rise and future of the world capitalist system. Concepts for comparative analysis”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Sept. 1974).

Many reasons explain the rapid rise of New Histories of Capitalism (NHC) in the 2010s. I would like to highlight however just one: its ability to rewrite old histories of capitalism in the light of global history.

I still remember my fascination with Sven Beckert's now classic Empire of Cotton. His study of the cotton plantations of the American South eloquently demonstrated the relevance of US slavery to the consolidation of British industrialism. But what struck me most were the deeper questions that such a connection raised: if US slavery was a fully integrated part of the global capitalist system, did that make slavery a capitalist form of production (and oppression)?

This is a question that Beckert never fully addresses. Nor is there a clear consensus on the matter today. That is why a return to "old" histories of capitalism can be illuminating. The work of Immanuel Wallerstein is an excellent case in point. I recently came across his 1974 article, which summarizes most of his thesis on world-system theory. I was suddenly surprised by the many connections of this work with Beckert's Empire of Cotton. The most important of similarity between the two works is that they understand capitalism as a system that not only interconnects countries, but also shapes the relationship between them. This leads Wallerstein to the same conclusion about American slavery: slavery was, for a time, a natural and necessary mechanism for capitalism to preserve itself and grow. This is enough for Wallerstein to understand American slavery - or any other form of production to have ever been part of global capitalism - as a capitalist institution.

What separates the works of Beckert and Wallerstein, however, is, among other things, their intellectual ambition. While Beckert limits himself to writing a transnational and global history of cotton over the centuries, Wallerstein sets out to construct a theory that explains the rise and consolidation of capitalism as a world system and the global inequalities it has created. This leads him to understand capitalism as a system sustained by a hierarchical relationship between three kinds of regions: the system's centers, peripheries, and semi-peripheries. The consequences of this argument are numerous, too many to fully discuss here.

Robert Brenner, “The origins of capitalist development. A critique of neo-Smithian Marxism”, H. Alavi et al. (eds), Introduction to the Sociology of Developing Societies (London, Macmillan, 1982).

The main takeaway from this comparison between Beckert's Empire of Cotton and Wallerstein's World System Theory is that the NHC should be best understood as part of a much older academic tradition. Failure to recognize this would mean sidelining some of the most insightful analyses that this literature has to offer. Crucially, it would also prevent us from seeing some of the theoretical limitations that NHC holds today.

Indeed, much of the criticism that Wallerstein's work received fifty years ago can still be applied to the NHC. The 1982 chapter by historian Robert Brennen is a great example of this. Brennen's work is the most comprehensive critique, written from the perspective of Marxist orthodoxy, of Wallerstein's work and of dependency theory, the broader intellectual brand into which Wallerstein's work fits.

Brennen is right to point out that the connection between American slavery and nineteenth-century European capitalism was already well known by Marxist theorists. Whether such a connection justified defining slavery as capitalist, he argues, is debatable. Brenner, and orthodox Marxism in general, understand capitalism as a system in which the relations of production remain central. Capitalism, then, is not just the market and its network, but the specific relation that it entails. What made capitalism historically distinctive was the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, and the relationship that tragically bound them together. The proletariat, as free labor, had the ability to sell its energy to the capitalists, who, as the word implies, had the means of production that the proletariat could not have. In other words, it is the intertwined existence of free labor and the concentration of the means of production in the hands of a reduced minority that allows us to best distinguish capitalism from any other historical economic systems. Once this is accepted, one is forced to consider capitalism and slavery as two different, even opposite, economic systems.

What is the best approach to identifying and conceptualizing capitalism cannot be discussed here. Let us, however, end here with a note: the roots of this debate, and probably the reason why it will probably never be resolved, is that traditional Marxism and the NHC (including Wallerstein's) hold two radically different understandings of the nature of capitalism. Orthodox Marxists see it as a system of production. It is the freedom of the free worker to sell its labor in exchange for a wage that sets off a chain of effects that ultimately constitutes capitalism. For NHC, capitalism is a system of exchange. Once a system of production becomes dependent on a world of trade, it will operate under its logic and therefore become part of it.

It is impossible to say which reading works best. But perhaps those narratives that place the interconnectedness of things, people, and ideas at the center of their analysis are the best ones to help us understand the globalized world we live in today.


Antoney Bell, McGill University

Ines Eisele, Canadian Province Decriminalizes Hard Drugs, Deutsche Welle

After legalizing the sale and consumption of Cannabis in 2018, the Canadian Province of British Columbia has launched a pilot project to reduce the stigmas surrounding the use of hard drugs and slow the growing opioid epidemic. Under the new pilot project, adults found in possession of up to 2.5 grams of hard drugs will no longer be prosecuted or arrested and will be able to retain their substances without confiscation by law enforcement. Interestingly, the article points out that the addictive nature of legal opioids was originally concealed and downplayed by pharmaceutical companies, leading many patients to eventually transition to more potent illegal drugs, significantly increasing the number of deaths by overdose in Canada. The article proceeds to describe the failures of the “war on drugs,” involving the strict legislation and harsh law enforcement punishments by politicians, and businesspeople, and human rights expert who originally thought harsh law enforcement would lead to the complete eradication of hard drugs in North American societies. Instead, the global market for opioids and other hard drugs has grown drastically over the past few years and triggered easy access to illicit substances. As a result, the BC provincial government has used the recent policy on decriminalization as a means of compromising between complete legalization or complete prohibition of hard drugs and ensuring more progressive measures are taken to lessen the impact of drugs on public health. However, British Columbia’s efforts will certainly have a little impact on the overall distribution and consumption of hard drugs.

Elianna Lev, Doug Ford's police 'quick fix' will not help Ontario at all, expert says, Yahoo

In the wake of the growing attention towards police brutality and national scrutiny of law enforcement throughout North America, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has announced a ridiculous plan to boost police recruitment in Ontario by removing tuition fees for new recruits and lowering education requirements. At a time when police conduct is under intense scrutiny, Ford plans to remove “the barrier of a university or college degree” as a way of combating the rise of crime and violence in Ontario over the past year. Furthermore, the Ford government will waive the cost of tuition which will cost $20 million. Ironically, this policy is not in line with Ford’s past decision to make cuts to the provincial loan program for post-secondary students, which has worsened student living

This website is using cookies to provide a good browsing experience

These include essential cookies that are necessary for the operation of the site, as well as others that are used only for anonymous statistical purposes, for comfort settings or to display personalized content. You can decide for yourself which categories you want to allow. Please note that based on your settings, not all functions of the website may be available.

This website is using cookies to provide a good browsing experience

These include essential cookies that are necessary for the operation of the site, as well as others that are used only for anonymous statistical purposes, for comfort settings or to display personalized content. You can decide for yourself which categories you want to allow. Please note that based on your settings, not all functions of the website may be available.

Your cookie preferences have been saved.