The Use and Abuse of History   /   Summer 2022   /    Book Review

Market Failure

Recovering the meaning of the most important words of our age.

Jay Tolson

The Marketplace of Ideas, nineteenth century, by Bertall (Charles Albert d’Arnoux, 1820–82); Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo.

A British-born and Cambridge-educated economic historian who has taught at Princeton University since 1986, Harold James has written extensively on topics ranging from German financial history to larger questions about European and world orders. While the presumed audience of much of his prodigious output includes fellow economic and financial historians as well as students of international affairs, The War of Words: A Glossary of Globalization might profitably be read by all who belong to that amorphous but ubiquitous social formation variously dubbed “knowledge workers” (by Peter Drucker) or “the new class” (by Daniel Bell, among others). However labeled, these are the people commonly engaged in leading and managing various precincts of what Max Weber called the Iron Cage: modernity’s highly bureaucratized and technocratic institutional order. Filling the middle to higher ranks of the professions, corporate and government officialdom, the media and entertainment complex, academia, and any other fields in which the mastery of knowledge and the manipulation of symbols is indispensable, they are often referred to simply as elites—just as often disparagingly, particularly by politicians and pundits seeking populist approbation by denying their own elite credentials.

Whether the objects of emulation or contempt, or both, these elites are caught up in what might be called a crisis, although James’s typically shrewd scrutiny of that term and its promiscuous uses makes me hesitate to do so. Nevertheless, crisis it must be called, because in addition to facing widespread distrust and hostility from wide swaths of the demos (or the “real people,” as we are now conditioned to say), the elites are also dealing with an internal crisis of confidence. The organizations they oversee and the professions they dominate are in many cases losing coherence, integrity, and salience, while they themselves are struggling to maintain a clear sense of vocation and purpose. Having mastered the meritocratic game—itself now subject to widespread suspicion and criticism—many feel entrapped or marginalized in the cage they thought they had been trained to run. Little wonder, then, that their self-confidence was rattled even before the pandemic revealed, to many of them at least, their “nonessential” status.

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).