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What These Early-20th-Century Scholars Got Right About 21st-Century Politics

Unlike many economists today, they questioned fundamental social structure.
There is, I think, little disagreement that the historical era most similar to ours — meaning the time after the global financial crisis of the past decade — is the period preceding World War I.

Both eras are characterized by the spread of globalization and significant advances in technology (especially communications), but also in high income inequality and wealth inequality. These disruptions have led in turn to the questioning of political forms of organization — although in the earlier period, the questioning came mostly from the left rather than from the right.

We therefore have much to gain from reading the most important political and economic authors of the pre-WWI era.

In fact, those century-old writings are in many ways as useful for understanding the current situation, and in some cases more useful, than the work of today’s intellectuals.

Granted, any comparison of the intellectual output of the two periods will be highly subjective. There were thousands of authors then, and there are millions today. The world population in 1900 was about 1.7 billion people, less than a quarter of today’s, literacy in the world was vastly inferior, and the number of media outlets was immensely lower.

Statistically, we are comparing one rather small sample with one enormous sample.

What’s more, much mediocre work from the past has slipped into oblivion, creating a kind of hindsight bias.

These caveats aside, what advantages do the writers of the turn of the 20th century offer? The main difference and prime advantage, I think, lies in their holistic approach to economic and political analysis. It was holistic in the sense that they discussed the structural features of capitalism: social relations between capital owners and wage workers, distribution of national income between capital and labor, formation of the social elite.
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