Review: God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World



God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World by Walter Russell Mead
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's been 14 years since Walter Russell Mead's God and Gold was published. That's one global financial crisis, one global pandemic, one Brexit, two Presidents (and starting the first term of a third), and a US insurrection ago. Does this book still have anything to tell us about "Britain, America, and the making of the Modern World"? Well, perhaps.

Despite that subtitle, this book is not a history of how Britain and America made the modern world order. It's not a history book at all, which the author acknowledges in his introduction. It's more of a philosophical dissertation. Mead takes as a given the "Anglo-Saxon" primacy in creating the modern world order, and proceeds to  lay out what he sees as the underlying conditions that led to the leadership role of these two nations.

There's a lot to quibble with about this book. 

First off, it's well documented, with appropriate footnotes, but there is much too much taken as given. Mead never really defines the "modern world order" that the whole book is about. Is it economic, legal, moral, technological, industrial, military, diplomatic? Mead, I think, might argue that it's all or at least pieces of all of the above, but by not defining it, he gives himself free rein to marshal his argument unfettered by definitional constraints. 

Secondly, this book is way too long for the case it's trying to make. Mead wanders. And wanders. While wandering with him was fun in parts, you do get to the end of the book asking yourself whether all that wandering really bolstered the argument he's trying to make.

Mead does have a likable writing style - he keeps things moving and provides a "light touch" even when the topics of discussion are heavy subjects. He covers a lot of ground, he raises a number of points, he posits a number of arguments. Then, in the final chapter he tells you what it all means (the name of the chapter is literally "The Meaning of It All"). Like the rest of the book this is a pretty generalized discussion, but basically it says that global capitalism will eventually lead the whole world not to Utopia, but to a "perpetual revolution" of higher and more transcendental human meaning. Really.

So does this book have anything to tell us 14 years later? About as much as it did when published. Which is to say - there is a lot of interesting stuff here, and it might lead you to pick up some of the works he references in his arguments, but ultimately, for me, it doesn't build to a holistic, convincing argument.

God and Gold links

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