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How do we write the international history of economics? On August 7, a group of historians of economic internationalism attempted to answer this question, in a panel organized by the Laureate Research Program in International History at the World Economic History Congress in Kyoto. Spanning WWI-era attempts to set up a peacetime global economic organization, the activities of Australian labor activists in interwar China, the World Bank and the Aid-India Consortium in the 1950s, and the early days of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the papers sought to excavate the long twentieth century history of cross-border economic organization and visions of the world economy. They also began a rich and nuanced conversation about international economics that will be continued in July 2016 in the Laureate’s Scales of Economy conference.

The panel opened with an introduction by Glenda Sluga, who also wrote her own observations of the experience in Kyoto in a post for this blog on August 8. In her introduction on the day, Sluga placed the recent surge of interest in the history of international political economy in the context of the wild popularity of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013). As she noted, international institutions are notably and surprisingly absent in this and other recent blockbuster works on inequality, which tend to focus on economic management by nation states as opposed to multi- or inter-national organisations. Such discussions are of course directed at contemporary political debates; nonetheless, Sluga suggested that, if we take them as the starting point of a renewed historical interest in global inequality and attempts to ameliorate it, we risk losing the international context of many of these debates in the twentieth century. This possibility makes the work on international economic history undertaken by the following four panelists all the more critical and timely.

In the first paper Jamie Martin (Harvard) examined the economic implications of the technocratic internationalism that underpinned the interwar League of Nations. He began by tracing the wartime discussions about an inter-Allied project to manage the global economy, which he convincingly demonstrated were key to the later international economic policies pursued by the League. As Martin argued, the wartime goals of the Allies were repurposed for postwar use, undermining the League’s claims to economic neutrality and supposed promotion of peacetime economic objectives. Accordingly, throughout the interwar period the League’s economic programs were infused with a deeply politicized split between former allies and former belligerents, premised as they were on the permanent economic subordination of the Allies’ wartime enemies. Furthermore, the almost immediate postwar ‘red spectre’ of Bolshevik Russia was used to justify the expansion of the League’s precursor, the Supreme Economic Council, in 1919, which in turn laid the groundwork for the wide-ranging economic powers later claimed by the League’s technocrats.

Sophie Loy-Wilson (Sydney) continued the chronological focus on the interwar period, shifting from Geneva and Paris to Sydney and Shanghai. Her paper discussed the efforts of Australian labor activists to lobby for a reform of factory conditions in 1920s and 1930s China. As she argued, Australian union officials saw the rapidly industrializing China, and Shanghai in particular, as a site to ‘civilize capitalism at its inception through labor regulation.’ Anti-colonial sentiment fueled this engagement, as figures such as the Australian Eleanor Hinder saw China’s struggle against Britain as a humanitarian struggle against capitalism. In this way, these activists infused interwar internationalism with the language of class struggle and labor rights, a context that is often left out of histories of humanitarianism in this period. The activities of the Australians in Shanghai also left their mark, as Hinder drafted a series of factory acts in the 1930s and wrote about the harsh conditions among the city’s industrialized labour force in her report ‘The Long Hard Day in China,’ which raised international interest in the plight of the Shanghai workers. Loy-Wilson’s paper thus served to provincialize, to a certain extent, our classic accounts of internationalism focus on Europe and North America, highlighting the alternative configurations of ideas about class and colonial rights produced within the Asia-Pacific region.

In the third paper, David Engerman (Brandeis) traced the story of the Aid-India Consortium, a story he argued allows us to see the postwar dreams of global governance up close and personal. The Consortium, founded with Nehru’s support under the aegis of the World Bank in 1958, was supposed to channel and support foreign aid to India in an era in which both the Soviet Union and United States were attempting to garner ‘third-world’ support through specific aid projects in South Asia. Nehru hoped that the Aid-India Consortium would facilitate the provision of ‘non-project aid’ which would allow the Indian government more autonomy in funding development. However, tensions soon arose between donors, the Indian government, the Soviet Union and the United States. The World Bank did not, for example, approve of the rapid expansion of the public sector in India in the 1950s and 1960s. Soon, early commitments to non-intervention on the part of the Consortium gave way to attempts to influence the direction of Indian economic policy. In the end, Engerman argued, India was hardly in a position to benefit, as economic internationalism might have reconfigured power differentials but did little to diminish them.

The final paper, by Francine McKenzie (Western) recreated the early days of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor to the World Trade Organization founded in Geneva in 1947. Like that of the Aid-India Consortium, the story of the GATT highlights the limits as well as the possibilities of global governance. Reflecting the tenor of the time, in its early days the explicitly liberal internationalist GATT pushed the notion that freer (if not entirely free) trade would raise global standards of living. Initially signed by 23 countries, the methodology of the organization was supposed to be multi-lateral, but it was also universalist, meaning that one set of processes was meant to work for all members. This led to an emergent tension in the organization, as more states from the developing world joined and decried the unfairness of global trade relations. By the 1960s, it became clear that although developing countries constituted the majority of GATT members, they were unable to use it to their advantage. Both Engerman and McKenzie thus underlined some of the limits of economic internationalism as it was practiced in the twentieth century, particularly for newly decolonized states fighting against an unequal global distribution of economic power.

As Eric Helleiner (Waterloo) argued in his role as discussant, all four papers highlighted the long history of engagement of international organizations with the crucial question of inequality. The political and discursive meanings of ‘inequality’ are not, however, unchanging over time. Helleiner suggested that there are three distinct if interrelated scales at which ‘inequality’ is produced: the domestic, the international and the global. While the interwar focus was squarely on domestic inequality - that is, the gap between rich and poor within a given state, the post-1945 debate shifted to the question of international inequality – inequality between nations. This shift was not inevitable and needs to be explained by historians. By understanding this shift better, we may be able to more clearly understand why international organizations today seem to be returning to domestic inequality as the key economic problem to be fought. Furthermore, it might help us to bridge the gap and form a better understanding of what truly global equality would look like. Stay tuned for more attempts to historicize international economics and global inequality at the Scales of the Economy conference in July 2016!

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