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Book Review: The World: A Beginner’s Guide by Göran Therborn

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I blame this particular recent acquisition on the Guardian Books of the Year guide. When distinguished veteran historian Eric Hobsbawm recommended Göran Therborn’s The World: A Beginners Guide as follows, what could I do but buy it: “a survey of the present state, problems and outlook of the globe by a Swedish master sociologist, is one of the rare books that lives up to its title. It is lucid, intelligent about the future and admirably researched.”

To be honest, this isn’t a gripping read. It’s rather encyclopedic, survey nature left me sometimes wondering if perhaps the washing up needed doing, or maybe some weeding, but I am glad that I read it – and I’m sure that I’ll be regularly referring to it for some time to come.

It’s one of those books that keeps throwing at you facts that make you look up and ask anyone else in the room “did you know that…?” “In 1820 more than half of the world’s goods were still produced in Asia and only about a fourth in Europe”, or “illiterate people didn’t get a vote in Brazil until 1989″ or “40% of the world’s parents still have a say over their children’s marriages”.

As that small sample illustrates, this book is not in fact about the world, but about the human race, and it takes an admirably global, even-handed approach in its account, with pretty well all parts of the world fairly covered. (Which means, sorry UK, it’s hardly ever significant and different enough to get a mention.) At various points this Swede who’s now an emeritus professor at the University of Camdridge lets drop about teaching in Korea and Iran, and that breadth of experience comes out in his work. He’s also got a broad stretch. He’s explicitly not writing a history – he recommends Fernandez-Armesto’s The World: A Global History, for that – but he certainly takes the long view of developments today in relation to events over the past few centuries or so, and sometimes longer.

He wants to understand “sociocultural geology – looking at the “enduring effects of ancient civilisations, multiple waves of globalization, different pathways to modernity”. Then he wants to understand human evolution (certainly not in a determinative biological sense), as a result of interactions between humans and nature, competition between different political and economic systems, cultures and values, and the impositions laid upon lives by events.

And finally he looks at this through the lens of the human life course. Noting of course that for many, the risk of being cut off before the age of five still remains disastrously high, while even in developed countries, wealth has a lot to do with outcomes. Finally all this produces an ideal 21st-century life course:

“A safe birth followed by non-authoritarian parenting in Northwestern Europe, continued by a Finnish-style state schooling – top performing, independent of your parents’ wealth, no cramming. Then, growing up into a free Northwestern European youth, with the ability to travel the world, an Oxbridge university education, and ending in style with a memorable wedding anywhere in Asia, with a wonderful partner from a different culture from your own. After that, you would embark, on an exciting, hard-working and high rewarding adulthood in a big city in East Asia (or India). This would be followed by a serene retirement in some quiet, beautiful and well-connected place, like Geneva or Vancouver. Finally, you had better go to Scandinavia for elder care.”

What makes the book perhaps less than gripping is the fact that beyond his categorisations, Therborn, while he’s interested in understanding our current economic and environmental mess, isn’t much interested in offering solutions.

The one analytical part that I’ll be going back to is his account of modernity, defined as “a world following an arrow of time, orientated to a new makeable future, turning its back, not necessarily without respect, on the past”. He says while this was challenged by “postmodernism” towards the end of the 20th century, modernism, in the form of militant neoliberalism “exemparily incarnated by Margaret Thatcher”, has so far proved victorious, being rescued successively by “three phases of capitalism [which] produced a renewed belief in the future as a horizon to strive towards.” Neoliberalism triumphed in the 1970s after the economic crisis of that era. “Liberalism has always been modernist, but neoliberalism was liberalism without a human face…the World Bank/IMF ‘structural adjustment programmes’ in the poor world forced children out of schools and sick people out of healthcare, because the imposed fees could not be paid”.

Then came globalisation – “the two discourses are analytically different. Neoliberalism offered a new kind of society, consisting only of profit-maximising individuals on markets. Globalization meant the global extension of what already existed.” And finally the choice of “the Chinese taking a (more or less) capitalist road of development, seconded by a revival of Indian capitalism.” Therborn says with neoliberalism having repeatedly run aground, in the Asian crash of 1997-8, the Argentine “master pupil” falling in 2001 and the crash of 2008-9, this last has become a major force of world modernism.

But he says that what we’ve been left with is a “chastened modernism”. Neither liberalism, socialism nor nationalism are able to offer a rosy future, environmental concerns threaten the main denominator of social modernism, economic growth, while even in art, the idea of the avant-garde “has fallen into disrepute”. Yet he says what we have that we’ve never had before is “a mass awareness of a common humanity, electronically directly interconnected and a common target of satellite beams of communications, in one global economy, one planetary environment”.

Therborn carefully avoids saying it, but actually should intelligent Kepler-22berians arrive any time soon and say “we want to understand you”, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Although as with any economics-linked book at the moment, The World: A Beginners Guide does feel slightly out of date. It must have been finished just before the latest crisis, usually called “European debt” took hold, so it’s perhaps more certain of life continuing much as before than any writer would be this month.

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.