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books A Breathless Race Through Recent History

This sweeping survey of the post-war period contains fascinating insights but lacks an organizing principle.

The Age of Interconnection
A Global History of the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

Jonathan Sperber
ISBN: 9780190918958

It takes chutzpah to write a synoptic history of the world in the second half of the 20th century, a period within living memory of the reading public. But it is a history Jonathan Sperber handles with brio, summoning evidence from personal anecdotes and high theory, vignettes and statistics. In its range of themes and reconstructions, The Age of Interconnection invites favourable comparison with that other survey of the 20th century, Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes. Yet it is quite unlike it. Where the Marxist historian offered a sweeping narrative arc illustrating the relentless advance of capitalism, Sperber dispenses with a unifying theme altogether. It’s a sign of the times: we’ve lost faith in grand narratives, more’s the pity. His framing sheds little light on his period. As every historian knows, all ages are ages of interconnection.

But what he loses in explanatory depth, he gains in intellectual breadth. Reading the book is a bit like watching a pentathlon. In lieu of fencing, riding, swimming, shooting and running, we have sections on the environment, economy, politics, society and cultural and intellectual life. It appears Sperber has taken Proust’s dictum to heart: “to write on everything to the point of exhaustion”. The exhaustiveness verges on redundancy at times, as in his tortuous excursions on staphylococcus and streptococcus infections, and rocket velocity. Class in the 20th century “took the form of a hierarchy”, he explains, as if to a Martian.

But even if he doesn’t spell it out, there is a story being told. He divides his Age into three sub-periods: the Postwar Era (roughly, the baby boomer generation), the Age of Upheaval (the children of Marx and Coca-Cola), and the Late Millennium Era (the heirs of the end of history). A simpler schema would have been just as serviceable: the first half was the age of ambition; the second, one of apathy.

Nothing screamed mid-century ambition like five-year plans. There’s something touching about the confidence of the Soviets’ state planning committee, whose annual inventories of necessary commodities ran to 70 volumes and 12,000 pages. Not so China’s Second Five-Year Plan, the famous Great Leap Forward, which redirected farm labour to backyard furnaces to augment steel output, destroying crop yields and also some 30 million lives in the process.

But it was colossal state power, Sperber reminds us, that made modern public heath possible. Mass production of penicillin helped secure allied victory in the second world war. It took scarcely a decade to eradicate smallpox by 1977. The insecticide DDT came close to dispatching the gypsy moth and fire ant in the US two decades earlier. Asahi Gurafu, Japan’s answer to Life magazine, informed readers in the 50s that nuclear power would prevent sashimi from spoiling. The director of the Kurchatov Institute, the nerve centre of the Soviet atomic programme, thought it could be harnessed to transform Siberia into a subtropical paradise.

Nature had its revenge, of course. The decimation of insects’ avian predators called into question the wisdom of spraying the midwest with DDT. Drug-resistant superbugs emerged. TB and malaria returned. Aids appeared on the scene. The blase response did little to help. “Aids is primarily a disease of homosexuals and there is no homosexual in Botswana,” an official declared. One of the statements must have been wrong, because by 2000, one in four adults there was HIV positive.

Five years after the release of David Bowie’s Life on Mars?, a 1976 Viking expedition to the planet answered his question. Nuclear missiles remained in their silos, but cigarettes accounted for the death of one in five men in the second half of the century. The oil shock revealed the dark sides of both communism and capitalism. Struggling to pay off dollar-denominated debts, the GDR had a Stasi agent sell art and literary manuscripts to western collectors for hard currency. Romania went further, “selling” Jews to western governments for $25,000 per person. Labour, king in the middle of the century – saving Juan Perón, then Argentina’s vice president, from a military coup in 1945; overthrowing Edward Heath in 1974 – lost to capital, which regained the upper hand after a string of strikes were put down in the early 80s, from Girangaon to Orgreave.

Sperber offers a sobering balance sheet of “heavily regulated capitalism”, which delivered phenomenal growth but also produced trade imbalances and global hierarchies. He doesn’t say as much, but I get the impression that he thinks this is the worst way of organising societies except for all the others. It’s a worldview that puts him in the company of sociologist Raisa Gorbacheva, who road-tripped around Rome in 1971 fleetingly with her husband, to whom she said, I imagine over pasta alla carbonara and frascati: “Misha, why do we live worse than they do?”

Pratinav Anil is a lecturer in history at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford and author of Another India (Hurst).

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