This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From the foods that ‘changed’ the world to the politics of money, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

The Foods That ‘Changed’ the World

Bronwen Everill
Foreign Policy

Twenty-five years ago, Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World hit the shelves. The book was a surprise sensation, a New York Times bestseller about a fish that, by Kurlansky’s own reckoning, the average American ate, at most, 4 pounds of each year. (That average American consumed, by contrast, 233 pounds of red meat.) Cod also spawned its own genre of global food microhistories. By 1999, just two years later, readers could consume books on the “humble potato,” nutmeg, and chocolate. 

Cod wasn’t the first history to use food as a lens. Sidney W. Mintz’s 1985 classic, Sweetness and Power, showed how the trajectory of a food—in Mintz’s case, sugar—could be used to tell a story of imperial power, the rise of the modern world, and the unattributed contributions of marginalized people. The driving force of the sugar economy was Africans enslaved in the Americas, and in turn they powered the rise of the British and French empires. [continue reading]

Getting to Know the Cubans: Khrushchev Meets the Castro Brothers

Svetlana Savranskaya
National Security Archive

Today the National Security Archive publishes for the first time in any language a translation of the first meeting between Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Cuban Defense Minister Raul Castro on July 18, 1960. The newly available transcript helps explain Khrushchev’s 1962 determination that defending Cuba from U.S. intervention would require a massive Soviet military base in Cuba, together with the deployment of nuclear weapons. The Cuban leader asks for details of how the USSR could protect Cuba, but Khrushchev insists on restraint and flexibility, saying that he does not want a “big war.”

In 1960 the Soviet leadership admired the Cuban revolution from across the globe and wondered about the future of this movement, which arose without any help from the USSR. In February 1960, Deputy Prime Minister Anastas Mikoyan visited Cuba, met the entire political leadership, and brought home good news: the barbudos (bearded revolutionaries) were leading a genuine anti-imperialist movement that, with time, would turn socialist, especially with help from the Soviet Union. The Soviet leader was charmed by the youthful energy of the Cuban revolution. [continue reading]

Oskar Lange’s Neoclassical Marxism Revealed the Limits of Capitalism

Jan Toporowski

The work of Poland’s Oskar Lange is a vital antidote to the dominant approach of twenty-first-century economics, in which economists, divided by doctrines and methodologies, operate in siloed communities of shared assumptions and data. This framework insulates the standard thinking in each community from the critical input of those who do not share its dogmas, while exaggerating the significance of the data on which that school grazes.

Lange’s intellectual legacy challenges the distinction between the mostly neoclassical field of mainstream economics and that of Marxism. He insisted that Marxism needed the neoclassical insights of Léon Walras to complete Karl Marx’s economic theory, and made outstanding contributions to neoclassical welfare economics and the economics of information that now form essential parts of both neoclassical and New Keynesian economic traditions. For Lange, this scholarship was not meant to complete an academic project. It had the revolutionary purpose of showing how, in the twentieth century, capitalism had reached a dead end, and the only way forward was to socialism. [continue reading]

Climate justice: UN rules Australia violated islander rights

Dyani Lewis

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found that the Australian government violated the rights of people living on four islands in the Torres Strait and has ordered it to pay for the harm caused. The committee ruled last week that the country had failed to protect islanders from the effects of climate change, making their claim the first successful one of this kind.

The Torres Strait islands off the northern tip of Australia are already feeling the brunt of climate-change damage. Rising sea levels, coastal erosion and flooding have had devastating impacts on the island communities. Bridget Lewis, at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, studies how human-rights law can be applied to environmental cases. Lewis spoke to Nature about the case and its implications for other communities seeking redress for climate-change harms. [continue reading]

Cash Is Never Neutral: A Conversation on the Politics of Money

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

hen it comes to understanding the nature of money, times of political tranquility can prove deceptive. The relatively stable order of things gives money the appearance of being natural and neutral—somehow beyond politics. Yet in his new book, The Currency of Politics: The Political Theory of Money From Aristotle to Keynes, Stefan Eich, an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University, shows how economic crises reveal the inherently political nature of money. As an example, Eich points to the 2008 financial crisis, which gave birth to the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Initially, TARP contained a clause that promised the purchase of toxic assets from a number of economic actors, including homeowners. Within days, however, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson—a former CEO of Goldman Sachs—and Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke ditched the clause and pumped billions of dollars into failing banks to bail out the financial sector. The same banks then turned around and foreclosed on mortgages across the United States, particularly in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, on an unprecedented scale. The decision to create money and to direct it to certain interests, Eich argues, is an inescapably political calculation made by powerful elite actors and groups. In times of crisis or peace, money remains a political tool.

Given this fact, how can money be made more democratic, especially since it is mainly produced by private banks too often cut off from democratic accountability? As a historian of economic and political thought, Eich looks to the past for answers. The Currency of Politics examines neglected theories of money in the thought of figures like Aristotle, John Locke, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Karl Marx, and John Maynard Keynes and offers a pathbreaking new intellectual history of monetary policy. In examining how key thinkers approached the economic crises of their respective times, Eich offers a map for navigating the politics of money today. [continue reading]