Donald Trump

Yesterday’s Today


Politicians never seem to learn from history. Yet they should: the multiple shocks being experienced today have their counterparts in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

Take globalisation, for example, as an inevitable product of the spread of industrialisation. It is characterised by a persistent rise in world commodity prices, driven by international rather than local forces; over time it accelerates international economic and cultural integration, the cross-border movement of goods, financial services, marketing, transport and technologies. It produces economic conditions which favour asset holders (assets being education, technological resources, capital and private property). Thus it tends not to favour those who have little in the way of such assets, and hence its propensity to create economic, political and community dislocation. Brexit in the EU and Trump in America (above) can both be explained against this background.

The first era of globalisation began in the 19th century. Between 1820 and 1913 the production of goods in America, the UK and Europe increased by over 40% on the back of coal mining, iron and steel production, textiles and infrastructure projects  (canals, railways and road construction). Capital accumulated in Britain financed the rail building in Latin America and India.

This was also a period of mass-migration, as in Europe today. Over 300,000 people a year moved from their place of birth after 1846. This rose to 1 million per year between 1900 and 1914. The more people that left seeking a better life, however, the less they were welcomed in the host countries, particularly in France, Germany and Poland. This exodus produced industrial unrest on a large scale. In France, Germany and America, workers protested at starvation wages and high rents extracted for tenement slum dwellings. Terrorism was endemic in Italy, Spain and Russia. The city of London was disturbed by anarchist bomb plots.

The opening up of the American plains and the agricultural belt in Canada depressed staple food prices in Europe, forcing land owners out of business. The years 1872 to 1896 formed the era of the Great Agricultural Depression in Europe. 19th Century globalisation also created new states like Italy (1860) and Germany (1870), followed by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and then by the fragmentation of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1919, which led to the creation of independent but politically unstable nations such as Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Rabid antisemitism flared in France, Germany, Russia and Austria, as right-wing nationalist parties won electoral favour.

Today’s political tensions echo those of the 19th century. Neo-fascism in Germany, Austria and France, the religious wars in the Middle East and the rise of religious authoritarianism in Turkey all have their historical precedence. There is little new under the sun. We can only hope that those in power have enough ability and willingness to reverse and combat such trends. If not, we may be swept away by a toxic tsunami of our own making.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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