Vol. 4 No. 9 · 20 May 1982

Search by issue:

New Economic History

SIR: David Cannadine’s critique of the new economic history (LRB, 15 April) goes about its business in a style of which he clearly approves: that is, ‘with a great deal of punching, if rather less judiciousness’. His forthright praise of the ‘heroic’ picture of the industrial revolution has led him to ignore or misunderstand many of the bold new designs. Some misunderstanding is excusable: the language of new economic history is often needlessly dense and jargon-ridden, sometimes downright ungram-matical, and seldom approaches the prosaic heights of ‘good old-fashioned economic history at its best’, telling the dramatic story of the transition from sweet Auburn to Workshop of the World. Part of the reason for this is that the plot is now acknowledged to be rather more complex and much more pedestrian than was once thought. The plight of, say, the handloom weavers was sudden and vicious and fully reported in the textbooks of the ‘old’ economic history. But this easily romanticised story was romantic because it was an exception to a general pattern of gradual change and adjustment to that change. One achievement of the new economic history has been to question ideas of take-off and leading sector, of discontinuity and climacteric; it must be remembered that Britain experienced the first and the slowest of all industrial revolutions.

The density of its prose is also in part the result of encroachment by the language of economics. Dr Cannadine accepts that economic ideas must be expressed in a precise and perforce somewhat artificial language, yet he seems to resent the need to become conversant with this new tongue. He likes stories about the appearance in the late 19th century of fish and chips and New Zealand lamb, but not the analysis of consumption propensities, price differentials and demand elasticities that alone can give some explicatory basis to such stories. When a bad workman is lacking in skill, he should not rush to blame the new tools of his trade.

It is with these tools of new economic history that Dr Cannadine finds the greatest fault, objecting in particular to counterfactuals, cliometrics, and the rigidities of neoclassical economic theory. He has some sensible things to say, particularly on the futility of the sophisticated statistical manipulation of primitive and unreliable data, but he should not pretend that the be-all and end-all of new economic history lies in the application of the, tape-measure to Clio. Measurement is certainly important, and this has always been true of economic history: what is new is that the measurement is consistent, and the application of it is consistent, too. Instead of cameos of smoking chimneys and accumulating capitalists interspersed with the odd (sometimes very odd) fact or figure, we now have accounts explicitly based upon thoroughly researched statistical series. This statistical rigour cannot always provide concrete answers to such questions as ‘What happened? How did it happen? What is the dynamic interaction between the different factors of production?’, but without the details of population, employment, output, productivity, trade and growth there can be no answers at all.

Consistent statistics are an important element of the new economic history, but conclusions drawn from them depend crucially upon the questions asked, and it is in the formulation of questions that new economic history most clearly breaks with the old. Assumptions are made explicit and hypotheses are framed in ways that can be tested by the application of coherent economic models. The mysteries of en-trepreneurship are turned into theories of constrained profit-maximisation or cost-minimisation, by which success or failure can be measured. Naive assertions about the ‘necessity’ of railways for British economic development are tested by assessing the additional cost in any particular year of moving all rail passengers and freight by the next best available means of transport. The estimation of the indispensability or otherwise of any particular factor, which Dr Cannadine considers so ‘bizarre’, has been essential to the demythologising of ‘heroic’ economic history, to the fuller understanding of the intricate process of economic growth. Heroic events are not untrue, they, do provide glimpses of what happened, but they seldom serve to answer the question ‘How?’. The Jarrow hunger march should: have a place in any account of the British economy in the 1930s, but one event cannot be allowed to; dominate the study of consumption and saving, of; tax and exchange rates, of investment and the building cycle.

The deliberate conjunction of economic theories and historical data to answer clearly defined questions has given economic historians the problem of deciding how appropriate is any modern theory as an explicator of economic relationships in bygone times. As Dr Cannadine points out, neoclassical theory assumes much which for 18th and 19th-century Britain is demonstrably untrue, and though: these assumptions are not necessarily crucial, they I must induce some doubt about the results obtained. It is not true, however, that all new economic history ‘presupposes perfect competition, full utilisation of resources, rational and profit-maximising entrepreneurs, and non-interference by government’, as studies of oligopoly and cartelisation, of tariffs and subsidies, make clear.

There is a growing awareness among new economic historians that many of the analytical tools they borrow from the economist’s work-box are crude and blunt, and give a heavy-handed appearance even to the most skilful practitioner’s output. Economic history can play a part in sharpening and refining these tools, especially by questioning assumptions about tastes and preferences, about motivation and response to incentives, and about conformity across classes, cultures and centuries. This will not require any reduction in methodological rigour or statistical accuracy, though it will need a fuller appreciation of historical detail, a greater feeling for subject and period, than most of the new economic history has shown to date. We should not sacrifice the advances of the last twenty years just to return to ‘exciting’ stories and ‘heroic’ events. Economic history in the 1980s needs a little more Clio, perhaps, but no more heroes.

Paul Johnson
Nuffield College, Oxford

Big enough to deter

SIR: Lord Zuckerman’s reply to my review (Letters, 6 May) unfortunately shares the faults of his book: his comments are both confused and inconsistent. He first criticises me for suggesting that his notion of minimal deterrence implies ‘an “absolute" measure of the size of a nuclear arsenal’ – meaning, I suppose, an absolute measure of what size a nuclear arsenal ought to be. He then suggests that to seek such a measure is analogous to attempting to determine how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. He concludes his letter, however, by giving it as his ‘personal view’ that a nuclear arsenal should have ‘enough destructive power to guarantee, say, the devastation of ten’ of an adversary’s main cities. Given the sense of the term ‘absolute’ as it is used in my review, that estimate has all the signs of an absolute measure. (I will yield to any intuitions he might have about his analogous problem with dancing angels.)

He next accuses me of misleading your readers into believing that the world’s nuclear arsenals have been produced to fulfil rational policy requirements. I never implied that this was so, though I suppose it is implicit in my piece that it would be, nice if it were so.

There then follows an interesting but doubtfully relevant anecdote which features Lord Zuckerman at a pow-wow of VIPs during the Cuban missile crisis. The parade of big names with whom his Lordship was intimate leads gracefully up to his sneering reference to my being a mere research student, but neither the anecdote nor the sneer does anything to advance the argument of his book or to rebut my criticisms.

It is curious that he then goes on to defend with great vigour the view that nuclear weapons could be useful for deterring a limited conventional attack by a nuclear-armed adversary. In his book he writes that ‘if anything is going to inhibit the Russians from making any incursion into Nato Europe, it will be Nato’s conventional forces.’ His abandonment of the view put forward in his book will disappoint some of his admirers-in particular, Professor Michael Howard, who has recently praised him in the TLS for adhering ‘to the good old view… that nuclear weapons are good for nothing except neutralising other nuclear weapons.’

Finally, he complains that I do not give him credit for believing that each superpower could make unilateral cuts in its arsenal, and claims that his book makes it clear that this is his view. But the only references I can find in his book are to bilateral reductions. And in any case I explicitly note that it is implied by his argument that either superpower could make cuts unilaterally.

All this, however, is rather beside the point: nowhere in his lengthy and dismissive reply are my central criticisms of his book addressed.

Jeff McMahan
St John’s College, Cambridge


SIR: Peter Burke’s review of The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (LRB, 18 March) makes heavy weather of monsters. For, in Medieval marvel-books, they surely play much the same role as Martians or monsters from outer space in vulgar Science Fiction of our own time. Some of the dovecots set a-fluttering by Edward Said’s Orientalism are still in frenzied commotion, which may be all to the good. But it is, surely, excessive to invoke Medieval monster traditions (both European and Islamic) as further documentation for his dossier of the distortions imposed by Western orientalists upon the East. On the one hand, the moralised versions of the Alexander Romance which fed Gothic taste treat Alexander, not the monsters, as an object of admiration or execration, as a type of Magananimitas or Superbia; the monsters play no symbolic role at all. And, on the other, though Medieval Europe was undoubtedly highly credulous when it came to Asia and India, Saracens, Tartars, Turks and Mongols, who were indeed aliens and perceived as such, are presented in chronicles or in the geste literature as persons, not monsters. There is little traceable connexion, therefore, between monstrous appearance and monstrous behaviour.

The lore of Cyclops, Cynocephali, Blemmyae and such like (though not of Gymnosophists, unless a naked philosopher is a monstrosity) may, certainly, be presented as some sort of primitive perversion of anthropology. But should not Mr Burke follow his own counsel and read Gombrich’s discussion of the grotesque in The Sense of Order: ‘It may well be that in talking of the … functions of images writers have been somewhat too solemn. Neither the demons nor their victims necessarily lack a sense of humour’? As it is, his review, and quite possibly John Friedman’s book as well, seem to confuse the sources of what is imaginary with the pleasure of imagination. I am reminded of D.J. Enright’s review of Professor Said’s Orientalism. Remarking that the work is a critique of Western fantasies, he justly continued: ‘but because he is virtuous must we have no more fantasies’?

J.M. Rogers
London WC1

British Worthies

SIR: In his review of the Dictionary of National Biography, 1961-1970 (LRB, 3 December 1981), David Cannadine writes that ‘the editorial chair has migrated westward, from the Cambridge of Stephen and Lee to the Oxonian and Imperial portals of Rhodes House.’ Unlike Leslie Stephen, Sidney Lee was not associated with Cambridge. He was an Oxford undergraduate at Balliol from 1878 to 1882. The editorial offices under Stephen and Lee were actually located in Waterloo Place, London. Oxford University Press acquired the DNB in 1916 on the death of the son of the founder, when representatives of the family presented it with the copyright, stock and plates. At the time, OUP was reluctant to continue the supplements. When Lee criticised the lack of commitment by the new managers, he was henceforth excluded from further association with the enterprise. He died in 1926.

Although moral judgments do abound in the original Dictionary, Lee himself objected to the writing of biography for purposes of ‘moral edification’ and wrote in 1911 that ‘the biographer is a narrator, not a moralist.’ He did subscribe to discretion and tact, but his view that sinners, if they satisfied the commemorative instinct, occasionally demanded to be admitted to the biographic fold, was an untypical Late Victorian biographical principle. Lee’s DNB biography of Edward VII may today seem ‘a lengthy lament’: however, when it was published, the article appeared so unflattering that zealous servants of Queen Alexandra took extraordinary measures to force a revision. Major public figures were enlisted in a campaign to discredit the author. Lee resisted the pressure, noting that ‘no healthy code of ethics will suffer [the biographer] slavishly to echo the sentimentalities of the family circle or social coterie.’ In spite of the tempest aroused by the article, or perhaps because of it, George V later appointed Lee to be the official biographer of Edward VII.

Carolyn White
University of Alabama in Huntsville

Roads to Rome

SIR: I must correct a damaging misapprehension in Gabriel Josipovici’s reply to my letter (Letters, 15 April) about his review. I did not say that my Classics students had not heard of Horace or Ovid (good rhetoric, even for a Classicist, should not lose all touch with reality!). I specifically referred to ‘literature students’ whom I teach, who read other subjects – for example, English – and my remark was not rhetorical but unadorned fact. This means that such students study, say, Marvell without a knowledge of Horace, or the Elizabethans knowing nothing of Ovid, and that does seem both damaging and not the characteristic of a Classics-centred culture. I quite agree with Gabriel Josipovici that we should all be aware of what was done to the Jews in the Middle Ages in Christ’s name, and what they felt and wrote about it, but that is a somewhat different issue from what is ‘central’ to the literary history of Western Europe.

Charles Martindale
University of Sussex

Close Relatives

SIR: I remember reading once that John Braine’s teenage son had exclaimed to his father: ‘Man, librarians are the living dead!’ I think I prefer Alan Bennett’s view (LRB, 15 April) that librarians are ‘close relatives of the walking dead’. This admittedly enfeebled version suggests the possibility of a kinship between librarians and writers to which the latter are not in general alive.

Alistair Ricketts

A mistake occurred in Onora O’Neill’s article (LRB, 15 April). The correct title of Rozsika Parker and Griselda Pollock’s book is Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology. Ruth Fainlight’s sequence of poems, ‘Climates’, is not, as stated in LRB, Vol. 4, No 8, her second collection: it will form part of her sixth.

Editors, ‘London Review’

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences