In his obituary for the late Norman Stone, Niall Ferguson noted that “Europe Transformed 1878-1919 was a masterpiece of synthesis and has proved an invaluable guide to our own times. Ever wondered why tariffs have made a comeback, or why Italian politics is so hard to predict? It’s all there, and the fun Norman had with the Italian word trasformismo has come in handy time and again.” I have tried to build on this insight in a piece for the City Journal.
Norman Stone’s Europe Transformed is a remarkable exercise in highlighting synchronous trends in history. Beautifully written, it is tremendously rich in ideas that may helps us in trying to solve this dilemma: why did Europe, after it reached unprecedented levels of well-being and enjoying almost a century of peace (albeit interrupted by some war episodes, that nonetheless did not escalate), destroy itself by marching into WWI?
The book is as erudite as brilliant and funny – as Stone was. I met him thanks to John O’Sullivan, in Hungary, a couple of times and tremendously enjoyed his conversation. I remember him singing the Kaiserhymne (the hymn of the Austrian Empire) in Italian, as a tribute to my nostalgia for the good old days when we Lombards, who are good at quite a few things but not at politics, were exempted from the burden of administering ourselves.
Stone’s key point, for explaining synchronous political developments across Europe, was that the increasing integration of the European economy meant that economic ups and downs then tended to affect all countries alike, at roughly the same time.
Yet I think one of the reasons Europe Transformed is a precious book is that it also looks at the supply side of politics (particularly in the chapters Stone devotes to different European countries):
Stone believed that synchronous change was happening in European politics, but not exclusively on the demand side. Many contemporary analyses of populism tend to focus exclusively on economic factors—such as inequality and the purported effects of international trade on jobs—but overlook how we’re also seeing a remarkable shift in political discourse. The language of protectionism is, in essence, a language against reform—it promises to insulate countries from international competition to avoid cutting public spending, changing labor law, or reducing government deficits. Focusing on cultural matters, like immigration, seems politically easier.
Populism, at least in Europe, is a call against the idea that we need competent people to manage government. Such a call minimizes references to particular policies and engages instead in political mythmaking. Indeed, this is a synchronous tendency in continental Europe. Is it a price we need to pay for globalization? Perhaps it is only smart politicians reacting in the same way in the face of other facts that are indeed homogeneous: the emergence of social media and the stylization of political message, the difficulty to communicate the ever more complex policy questions of the day, the riskiness of reforming government machineries that are so complicated that nobody can make sense of them.
Reading Stone’s Europe Transformed is a good exercise in understanding how technology and the economy can affect political constituencies—but it’s also useful for putting ourselves in the shoes of those in the political class to understand better their predicament.