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SYMPOSIUM ON ‘THE ECONOMICS OF GLOBAL TURBULENCE’Thirty years ago, the field of late medieval and early modern economic history was the scene of a famous discussion in the pages of Past and Present, set off by a path-breaking essay by Robert Brenner, ‘Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe’. The international controversy aroused by his arguments became a landmark, since referred to simply as ‘The Brenner Debate’, and published under that name. Ten years ago, NLR devoted a special number of the journal to Brenner’s equally remarkable entry into the field of modern economic history, ‘Uneven Development and the Long Downturn: the Advanced Capitalist Economies from Boom to Stagnation, 1950–1998’—no less of a historiographic landmark. In this issue we publish a symposium on the book which emerged out of this essay, The Economics of Global Turbulence (2006). Three distinguished scholars, from the Anglosphere, the Eurozone and the Far East, give their critical assessment of Brenner’s work below. Nicholas Crafts is widely regarded as the leading economic historian in Britain today. Michel Aglietta is the founder of the Regulation School in France, whose intellectual influence has been worldwide. Kozo Yamamura is perhaps the outstanding authority on the post-war economic development of Japan, a historian who has also ranged widely across the comparative institutional landscape of the advanced industrial states. The issues raised by their symposium include the reality or otherwise of a long downturn; the relative productivity records of the major industrial economies; the concrete ways in which rates of profit are formed; the historical impact of technological change; the differences between American, German and Japanese models of capitalism; the implications of China’s dynamism as a manufacturing power; and the prospects for the global economy as a whole, as it confronts its most severe crisis since the 1930s. In a setting where few economists are historically minded and few historians are economically trained, it is rare to find an exchange of this quality. In a subsequent issue Robert Brenner will respond to his critics.
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Whenever i read a stimulating book that challenges the predominant ideology of our day, ‘free market’ capitalism, I am reminded of a Renaissance astronomer from Poland. Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a radical new theory of the solar system, which was at first ignored by clerics and rulers, but eventually infuriated them, and with good reason. For the political and economic costs of maintaining their power over the tax-paying and tithe-paying masses were at a minimum, so long as people were led to believe that God had anointed the rulers and that the Church spoke for God. For Copernicus to repudiate a millennial Ptolemaic astronomy was tantamount to doubting divine authority, since it was God who had created the existing celestial and terrestrial orders, in which the sun revolved around the earth, and subjects obeyed those He had put over them. The Pope and his bishops, kings, princes and those who depended on them, could not have the geometry of the heavens questioned because its artificer was the indispensable warrant of their own power and privileges.
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