Yanis Varoufakis was the Greek Minister of Finance for five months in 2015, for the left wing anti-austerity party Syriza, before resigning over the result of a referendum on a further financial bailout (he was against). More than that, he was and is a successful academic economist. He had already thrown his oar into the EU debt crisis with what he called A Modest Proposal, co-written with a former British Labour party MP and an American ecnomist. That proposal appears in the appendix of this book. While he was writing up a popular account of the crisis and his proposal, he suddenly found himself elected and playing a much more active role in the proceedings.
With all that in mind, this is hardly an unbiased account, and Varoufakis does plenty of the dramatics and grandstanding that he is known for. At times in the book he presents himself as naive and well-meaning, but you feel he would have to be impossibly so (and completely unaware of the history he describes in the book). Aside from this dis-ingenuousness, he is a very compelling writer. The topic is dry but his graphic style of writing makes it exciting – for instance, he describes Greece’s series of debts and forced loans as “fiscal waterboarding”. It is over the topic, but he’s a passionate man.
He starts, after a childhood story, with an explanation of the Nixon Shock and Bretton Woods. Both of which were new to me. From there he builds a picture of inter-country finance and the problems with currency exchange (more interesting than it sounds). He then traces the history of the Euro through the antagonism and scheming between the French and German governments, and between the German government and the Bundesbank. There are plenty of broad brush statements, which would be an interesting discussion in and of themselves – for example, suggesting that the removal of powers from democratic organisations to technocratic ones is the cause of our current poor crop of politicians.
With the ongoing news of Trump’s economic moves against Turkey, one thing that stood out was that all this financial “co-operation” so often read like war by other means. The author plays up to this, of course, taking his title from Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War. It was a bit depressing to read about the open anger and plans to “punish” countries as an example to others. I know these are generalisations and there are factions and factions within the EU and within national governments. Varoufakis is very much on one side of the argument and I kept thinking that it would be interesting to read a book from the other point of view; but perhaps it wouldn’t. Varoufakis is a very, very good writer.
As I understand it, this book from 1971 was influential in paving the way for current scholarship that treats the period form the 3rd to 8th centuries as distinct from the earlier Classical Roman period. Brown is positive about this era finding growth and creative in place of or alongside the traditional views of decline and destruction. I’ve read more recent, and more detailed books on this – The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham stands out. This still added something for me – the short accessible format is, for want of a better word, accessible. In particular the book brings up cultural figures like Augustine and Plotinus and shows the vibrant world of religious transformation (for better or worse). There are some great pictures throughout the book that really help to make the topic anything but dry. It would sit nicely alongside Bryan Ward-Perkins’ The Fall Of Rome, which adds a much more argumentative and pessimistic view of the era – bringing up economic and archaeological evidence that Brown brushed over. Both books are rather short introductions to what could be a very heavy debate.
Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP, and a Brexiter at that. This may or may not be relevant, but I thought it was worth setting out there first thing. In this history of the British Empire he picks six regions that came under British rule at some point (Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Nigeria, Sudan, Hong Kong) and gives a sort of brief history and analysis of them during and after British control. He doesn’t set out with an idealistic opposition to empire (although I suspect he might be happy to if pushed), instead he strikes at a different argument. In a purely functional sense the Empire was chaotic, anarchic and badly managed – disinterest and a focus on individuals allowed for a massively (and constantly changing) diversity of policy.
Kwarteng’s writing is sometimes repetitive, and often uneven. In Nigeria, for instance, I came away with a desire to read post-colonial literature but no idea why the British were actually there. However, he does use each region to show troublesome aspects of the empire – the strict hierarchy of Hong Kong; the division sowed in Sudan; the priority given to particular cultures in Nigeria; the arbitrary decisions made in Kashmir; and the pointless adventurism of Burma. There may be bigger and better arguments against imperialism, but Kwarteng still convinces with the argument that even on its own terms, the empire was problematic. As a final footnote, as a Tory MP it does feel like he occasionally pulls punches – some relatively mild criticism of Chris Patten seems to back off, and he feels possibly a little too pragmatic on the topic of class.
Last month there were two big podcasts for me to listen to: a new episode of Hardcore History from Dan Carlin, and When Diplomacy Fails’ Korean War podcast. The two together almost simultaneously introduce me to a major historical figure that I had somehow escaped hearing about before – the Chiang Kai-shek of the title.
Dan Carlin takes on the extreme nationalism and militarism of the Japanese empire in the half century or so before the Second World War. It’s an interesting topic – and as ever Carlin, it’s possible to see relevance to modern political situations as the Japanese government is forced down a harder and harder line by the threats (and occasionally assassinations) of the hardcore minority. The episode ends with Japan in China in the early stages of what would become World War Two – and hence my introduction to the struggles of the Chinese warlords.
Zack Twamley of WDF is slowly working his way through the Korean War (at the point I’ve got to, we’re only in the first few days of the war after twenty episodes of setup). The focus is, as ever, diplomatic. There’s also an extra set of provocative theses here: that Stalin engineered the war to pull Mao’s China away from the West; that elements within the US ignored the warning signs in order to justify military spending and strategy. As presented these seem reasonable, the former even more so than the latter, but there’s a lot of diplomatic meetings and messages. Setting these ideas up required a lot of background, particularly in China, much of which was new to me.
I don’t tend to read twentieth century history, and especially not that of World War Two, but both of these were very interesting – taking me to places that I don’t tend to go. I look forward to reaching the conclusion of both, but I understand that will take a while for these two podcasters (for different reasons).