By Donald Sassoon
Capitalist enterprise has existed in some form since ancient times, but the globalization and dominance of capitalism as a system began in the 1860s when, in different forms and supported by different political forces, states all over the world developed their modern political frameworks: the unifications of Italy and Germany, the establishment of a republic in France, the elimination of slavery in the American south, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, the emancipation of the serfs in Tsarist Russia. The Anxious Triumph magnificently explores how, after the upheavals of industrialisation, a truly global capitalism followed. For the first time in the history of humanity, there was a social system able to provide a high level of consumption for the majority of those who lived within its bounds. Today, capitalism dominates the world.
With wide-ranging scholarship, Donald Sassoon analyses the impact of capitalism on the histories of many different states, and how it creates winners and losers by constantly innovating. This chronic instability, he writes, 'is the foundation of its advance, not a fault in the system or an incidental by-product'. And it is this instability, this constant churn, which produces the anxious triumph of his title. To control or alleviate such anxieties it was necessary to create a national community, if necessary with colonial adventures, to develop a welfare state, to intervene in the market economy, and to protect it from foreign competition. Capitalists needed a state to discipline them, to nurture them, and to sacrifice a few to save the rest: a state overseeing the war of all against all.
Vigorous, argumentative, surprising and constantly stimulating, The Anxious Triumph gives a fresh perspective on all these questions and on its era. It is a masterpiece by one of Britain's most engaging and wide-ranging historians.
Adam Tooze on The Guardian wrote:
"Donald Sassoon is sure that capitalism is here to stay, though he is no apologist. His comprehensive account of the origins of modern capitalism make clear the human cost of a system of institutionalised greed: colonialism, neo-colonialism, wage slavery, inequality, and insecurity. Especially insecurity. The book is called The Anxious Triumph because Sassoon believes insecurity is written into the DNA of capitalism. It is a system founded on what Joseph Schumpeter called 'creative destruction', and is as liable to destroy the capitalist, through competition, as the worker."
Harold James on Financial Times wrote:
"Neither the utopian notion of the 'invisible hand' nor the Lego-brick conception of the national economy captures the dynamic, disruptive, creative destruction that is the reality of actually existing capitalism. It is a protean force perpetually generating inequality, crises and the all-pervasive anxiety that gives Sassoon’s book its title. [...] Sassoon’s book speaks to the present by conjuring up the era between the 1850s and 1914, in which the tensions between global capitalism and modern politics came clearly to the fore. This was the first age of modern politics, if not of democracy – the age of Gladstone, Disraeli, Lincoln and Bismarck. It was the age of imperialism and early experiments in social insurance. It was the age of railways, steamships and the boom and bust of the global cotton industry. Sassoon offers us a sprawling map, studded with fascinating details. [...] As one is thrown from cameo to improbable cameo, reading Sassoon becomes a hallucinatory experience. Insights are proffered and then repeated, sometimes several times. Familiar facts mingle with jaw-dropping novelties. The chronology drifts, at times roaring into the present before retracting not just to the 19th century, but deep into the 18th. Is there some artful design at work behind the apparent confusion? Is the book’s swirling disorder meant to mirror its subject? If, as Sassoon remarks, capitalism moves “without a goal or a project”, would it be misleading for a historian to impose too much order or narrative coherence? If so, it is a pitfall Sassoon triumphantly avoids. But in a book of 758 pages, the effect is mind-boggling, and not in a good way."
Paul Collier on The New Statesman wrote:
"History is a good way of getting to grips with capitalism and its discontents, especially when it is told by someone who is rhetorically gifted and also deeply learned. [...] Fortunately Donald Sassoon, an emeritus professor of European history at Queen Mary College London, who has written extensively on cultural and political history, is both a brilliant writer and has a polymathic range. With The Anxious Triumph, he has produced a magnum opus, an accessible and genuinely global history of the transformative but unstable character of the capitalist phenomenon. [...] The half-century before the first world war has remarkable parallels with our own uncertain times. It is often thought of as the first age of globalisation [...] Sassoon is less concerned than many recent authors with telling the story of the brutal origins of capitalism. That approach has been a staple of the anti-capitalist literature since Karl Marx but has been revived in today’s anxious age, especially by a school of younger writers who call themselves 'historians of capitalism' and pride themselves on lambasting modern economic science. [...] By contrast, Sassoon doesn’t worry too much about whether the initial profits were generated by rapacious plantation owners working with slave labour or from the expropriation of peasant farmers or simply from the appalling conditions of work in the early mines and factories. That is just a meaningless bit of mythmaking prehistory. Instead, Sassoon tells a story that could easily be a celebratory one of how capitalism established the links and connections that made for a staggering general increase in prosperity and welfare. One of the most effective sections of The Anxious Triumph is the discussion of the mortality regime of the pre-capitalist world. [...] Capitalism sometimes relies on spinning and mis-selling. The only slight mis-selling of this book is in the chronology offered in the subtitle, 1860 to 1914. It’s really also a study of modern capitalism that looks back to the early phases of Britain’s Industrial Revolution but also forwards to modern globalisation and hyper-financialisation and today’s populist backlash. Sassoon slaps capitalism, but it is in part a congratulatory (and deserved) slap. This is a book for today and tomorrow."
"The Anxious Triumph is a big book of comparative history stretching across a global canvas. Written by Donald Sassoon, an emeritus professor at Queen Mary, University of London, it is hugely erudite: everyone can learn from it. A truly global history usually struggles because for most of the past, globally common forces have been negligible relative to those that are localised. But when it works, getting beyond the nation brings valuable insights [...] Sassoon nicely debunks romanticism about the pre-capitalist era. The European peasantry epitomised the Malthusian nightmare of a population that had expanded to the point at which food consumption was at bare subsistence. The escape from Malthus during the late 19th century was unprecedented: the miracle delivered by capitalism. [...] Sassoon’s core contribution is to demonstrate the accompanying conditions for the triumph over Malthus. First, capitalism needs an effective state. [...] Sassoon’s next step is both more important and somewhat sketchier: an effective state needs a national community (his italics). To be effective, states need to build a web of reciprocal obligations with which enough citizens are happy to comply [...] most people must come to believe that co-operation, rather than conflict, will deliver a better future. This inclusive optimism was the key social transformation of the late 19th century [...] By what criteria should we judge the capitalist system? Sassoon accepts the conflation of purpose with profit as inherent: the system is unethical, but is justified by its result: mass material progress warrants the designation 'triumph'. But the neoliberal profit-as-purpose philosophy is very much a post-1950s, America-driven intellectual fashion that is already in retreat. During the late 19th century, while there were plenty of unethical capitalists, there were also many remarkably ethical ones. [...] Sassoon is heavy on politics but light on banks, yet the details of bank regulation matter. [...] As Sassoon argues, anxiety is intrinsic to capitalism: its inherent dynamism propels societies into the unknown. [...] In reducing a vast topic to manageable, evidence-based proportions, Sassoon, a historian, has done social scientists a service. From his work we can distil wisdom on the conditions for states to be effective without being dangerous, and for keeping capitalism within manageable bounds."
About Donald Sassoon
Donald Sassoon is Emeritus Professor of Comparative European History at Queen Mary, University of London. His previous books include One Hundred Years of Socialism (1996), Mona Lisa (2001) and The Culture of the Europeans (2006), all widely translated. He gives lectures at universities and conferences all over the world.
Table of Contents of The Anxious Triumph
Part One: The Condition of the World
- New States, Old States
- The Lives of the People
Part Two: Becoming Modern
- Westernizing the East
- The Allure of Industry
- The State
- Laggards and Pathbreakers
- Russia: the Reluctant Laggard
- The American Challenge and the Love of Capital
Part Three: Involving the Demons
- Building the Nation
- A Yearning for Democracy Sweeps the World
- Keeping the 'Outsiders' Out
- Private Affluence, Public Welfare
- Managing Capital and Labour
- God and Capitalism
Part Four: Facing the World
- Europe Conquers All
- The Great Colonial Debate: The French and the British
- The First Global Crisis
- Protecting the Economy
- Conclusion: Still Triumphant? Still Anxious?