February 22, 2020
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Augustus Loses To Iron Lady

Can an age-old phenomenon like globalisation ever be whittled down to ten lives? Garten’s brave sally has excellent sketches, but is a partial account.

Augustus Loses To Iron Lady
Augustus Loses To Iron Lady
From Silk To Silicon, The Story Of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives
By Jeffrey E. Garten
Tranquebar Press | Pages: XV+434 | Rs. 699

This book reminded me of an essay by the Marxist theoretician Georgi Plekhanov—On the Role of the Individual in History (1898). To what extent can individuals shape evolution of soci­ety? One can define ‘globalisation’ in dive­rse ways—free cross-border movements of goods, services, capital, lab­our, information, technology, ideas. Thus stated, there is nothing ‘new’ about it. It is thousands of years old, ever since humans emigrated out of Africa. Indeed, the concept of ‘border’ is quite new. Passports didn’t quite exist before World War I. When labour migrated in the 19th century, was that not globalisation? At best, the form and intensity of glo­­balisation have changed. Most takes on it are with a European prism, with a cut-off of European empire-building and trade, or Indu­strial Revolution, or post-World War II and Bretton Woods, or exp­ansion of private cross-border capital flows in the 1980s, or the world flattening bec­ause of information technology.

Jeffrey E. Garten teaches courses on the global economy at Yale. He has worked in Nixon, Ford, Carter and Clinton administrations, including as undersecretary of commerce for international trade. As managing director of Blackstone Group and Lehman Brothers, he has also worked on Wall Street. His earlier books have been on the struggle for supremacy in post-Cold War years, big emerging markets, global strategies (for companies) and the way CEOs work.

All entrepreneurs take risks. Sometimes they succeed, at other times they don’t. History rarely chronicles failures. In the case of Cyrus Field, the rule shows up here too.

The idea of telling the globalisation story through ten lives is a great one. There was a similar theme in Nayan Chanda’s Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Warriors and Adventurers Sha­ped Globalisation (2007). The ten lives chosen by Gartner are Genghis Khan, Prince Henry, Robert Clive, Mayer Ams­chel Rothschild, Cyrus Field, John D. Rockefeller, Jean Monnet, Margaret Tha­­tcher, Andrew Grove and Deng Xia­oping. “It is often said that the first golden age of globalisation began near the start of the industrial revolution in Europe aro­­und 1870 and ended in 1914, when the outbreak of World War I shattered the idea that growing political and economic bonds between nations would guarantee peace.... But that period is the wrong staring point. The first golden age was the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was in the era of Genghis and his sons and grandsons, when the routes they built and secured opened a world of possibilities.”

Thomas Friedman once wrote about dis­­tinguishing between globalisation of countries, globalisation of companies and globalisation of individuals. If you had named ten individuals who contributed to globalisation, who would you choose? Would you accept the starting point of 13th and 14th centuries? I think there can be arguments in favour of as diverse individuals as the Buddha, Harun al-Rashid, Augustus Caesar and Raja Raja Chola I. There is subjectivity in the Garten list. But that omission argument shouldn’t be driven too hard. In commission, the one name I have doubts over is Margaret Thatcher. Sure, Thatcherism represented a significant policy shift within Britain, but did it have much of a globalisation angle? In fairness, the author does expl­ain reasons for inclusion and mentions some he considered, but omitted (Joh­a­nnes Gutenberg, Norman Borlaug, John Maynard Keynes, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs).

For the chosen ten, the author does exc­ellent, interesting sketches. After the sketches, how does one generalise? “It is tempting to say that the essence of great achievement is to change the course of history, but that idea doesn’t describe the ten people in this book. Each of them capitalised on fundamental trends that were already in train.... It is the case that the individuals here helped to create globalisation, but equally so that globalisation had a role in creating them. When I started out to write this book, my assumption was that the ten people I selected were visionaries. Having delved into their lives...I came to a different conclusion: they did not have any grand strategies in mind, and they did not spend much time envisioning the major transformations for which they would be responsible. None set out to change the broader world, just the smaller, personal one they could see and understand.” Now you understand why I mentioned Plekhanov.

All these individuals took risks, the trait of an entrepreneur. If you take risks, som­etimes you succeed, sometimes you fail. History documents successes, it rar­ely chronicles failures. In this case too, there are shades of that. Cyrus Field did wire the Atlantic (transatlantic telegraph cable), persevered and succeeded. There is no mention here of his subsequent risk-taking ventures (railroads, new­­spapers) which wiped out his wealth.

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