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Economic and Social History Blog

30. The Calimero Effect and Original Sin (21-4-2020)

The Calimero Effect and Original Sin (21-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were two hot debates in Dutch economic and social history. The first and perhaps most classic one was about the late, tardy, delayed industrialization in the Netherlands during the 19th century. The second one focused on the causes of the long duration of the depression of the 1930s. The first one was in a way initiated by the first overview of the economic and social history of the Netherlands by the poet and social-democratic author Henriette Roland Holst, who published her ‘Kapitaal en Arbeid in Nederland’ in 1902. The central question she addressed was why the labour movement was so weak in the Netherlands, compared with almost all other Western European countries. The obvious Marxist answer was that modern, large-scale industry had been very slow to emerge and remained underdeveloped, which nicely explained the fact that the trade unions were still small and powerless and that the social democratic party was equally weak. The explanation for this underdevelopment of industry was that the bourgeoisie had grown fat on the proceeds of colonial exploitation, and was not sufficiently dynamic to compete with big entreprise elsewhere.

It is significant, I think, that this book by Roland-Holst remained an isolated voice until the 1950s, when the real debate began. I am not going to review it here, but the discussion centred about the question whether it was the ‘lethargic’ mentality of the elite – social-psychological factors as stressed by Roland Holst – or ‘economic circumstances’ (such as the need to import coal), that explained the slow industrialization during the 19th century. The dominant view was that mentality mattered, which became increasingly challenged by authors stressing economic factors.

The debate about the 1930s developed differently. The consensus had been, starting with the classic analysis by Keesing published in 1947, that policy mistakes, and in particular the fact that the Netherlands stuck to the gold standard, were the main explanation for the long duration of the depression of the 1930s. The debate in a way only started in 1973, when Peter Klein in a famous lecture presented an alternative interpretation according to which structural weaknesses of the Dutch economy – its reliance on agriculture – and the limited possibilities for politicians to influence the economy, were mentioned as the causes of the deep crisis. The revision was initially accepted widely and dominated the debate for quite some time.

What these debates had in common is that they received a lot of attention from outside the academic community. The dissertation by J.A. de Jonge about the industrialization of the Netherlands between 1850 and 1914 – who was the first to use a lot of statistics to answer the question about the timing of the industrialization process, which made his book not an easy read at all – became a  blockbuster after being published by the ‘Socialistische Uitgeverij Nijmegen’. Even more striking was the fact that both debates focused on economic failure, on backwardness, on remaining behind. The Netherlands had been and still is one the most successful economies in the world, and instead of explaining this, economic and social historians focused on failure, on a delayed industrialization and a long depression. To some extent, I think, these debates were so popular because they were linked to a kind of minority complex, a Calimero sentiment, which resulted from Occupation by the Germans during the Second World War, and the Independence of Indonesia that followed. The Dutch learned the hard way that they were insignificant, and trying to cope with this, to understand it, and to get some kind of absolution, was the point of the two (or in fact one single) debate(s). Klein offered this absolution: we/they could not help it that the crisis of the 1930s was so huge, was his message. The scholars who argued in favor of the ‘economic circumstances’ also pointed out that we/they could not help it that the modernization of the economic was so slow during the 19th century. Small, open economies are the ‘toys’ of international forces, was the consensus conclusion, and people in the 1970s could relate to that idea.

And then the econometricians, the ‘modern economic historians’ came in and in a way spoilt the party. What happened subsequently is that scholars such as Joel Mokyr, Richard Griffiths and Jan de Vries started to study Dutch economy history in a fresh way, without being bothered by the idea that this was a story of failure and backwardness. By contrast, they pointed out, in the words of Griffiths, that Dutch economic performance in the 19the century, was not a story of being behind or being backwards, but that the Dutch economy had simply taken its own, ‘different’, development path. And people working in the tradition of Angus Maddison made the same point: in the 19th century the Netherlands had grown almost continuously, and had belonged to the most successful economies of Europe. Similarly, the explanation offered by Klein that the problems of the 1930s were related to the backward structure of the economy, simply did not fit the facts.

And then the two debates collapsed. In the 1980s interest in the 1930s flared up for a brief moment, but nobody really cared anymore about the slow industrialization of the 19th century, and also the 1930s disappeared from the agenda. Perhaps both debates lost their appeal because the tension between ‘original sin’ (the initial failure during the 19th century or the 1930s) and ‘absolution’ (we could not help it) disappeared as the ‘modern economic historians’ had shown there was no failure. Perhaps, a more likely interpretation, we had overcome the Calimero complex and found with new confidence our ‘poldermodel’ identity, and therefore did not need to explain failure anymore. But whereas in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the Dutch felt the need to reflect on failure, they clearly did not care about this anymore in the 1980s and 1990s. The story of backwardness was replaced by happy stories of almost continuous growth and rising prosperity, of being the ‘first modern economy’. The debates disappeared because society did not need them anymore.

What can we learn from this for the big stories we want to tell? Only recently have the twin debates about capitalism and about slavery been able to attract the kind of public attention that is comparable with the debates from the after war period. They are good candidates for playing such a role in the future: there is plenty of original sin (the emergence of capitalism, the introduction of slavery) and absolution is not within sight.

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