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New Left Review 54, November-December 2008

Can the economic history of the past three to four decades be accurately depicted as a long downturn? Contesting Robert Brenner’s account of them in his Economics of Global Turbulence, Nicholas Crafts argues that the ‘Great Moderation’ is a better description of a period in which the United States came to enjoy a strong lead in productivity growth.


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.



The scope of Robert Brenner’s The Economics of Global Turbulence is vast. It proposes both a description of, and a theory to explain, the macroeconomic performance of the advanced capitalist economies from 1945 to 2005, focusing around close studies of the top three—the us, Germany and Japan. No other single work has attempted anything comparable in combined breadth of field and duration of coverage: both the ‘golden age’ and what Brenner terms ‘the long downturn’, running from the early 1970s to the present day. A number of significant studies have examined the post-war world economy up to the 1980s, among them Stephen Marglin and Juliet Schor’s The Golden Age of Capitalism and Hermann Van Der Wee’s Prosperity and Upheaval: World Economy, 1945–80; while Jeffrey Frieden’s Global Capitalism offers comparisons between the current era and the 1930s, but does not provide a historical narrative as such. The majority of economic historians, it seems, prefer to operate under the 30-year rule: although much interesting work is now being done on the 1960s and 70s, after the 1980s we are largely in limbo. Barry Eichengreen’s The European Economy Since 1945 is one of the few analyses that does cover the whole period, but its geographical scope is much narrower than Brenner’s. [1] Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence, London and New York 2006, hereafter egt; Stephen Marglin and Juliet Schor, The Golden Age of Capitalism: Reinterpreting the Postwar Experience, Oxford 1991; Hermann Van Der Wee, Prosperity and Upheaval: World Economy, 1945–80, New York 1986; Jeffrey Frieden, Global Capitalism, New York 2006; Barry Eichengreen, The European Economy Since 1945, Princeton 2006.

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Nicholas Crafts, ‘Profits of Doom?’, NLR 54: £3

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