A timely call for recovering the true meanings of the nineteenth‑century terms that are hobbling current political debates
“Masterful. . . . James cuts through the tangled terminological and conceptual jungle of modern globalist discourse . . . [with] fascinating discussions of the origins and meanings of the words.”—G. John Ikenberry, Foreign Affairs
“James delves into the often-surprising intellectual origins of key concepts in the arguments about globalisation—and illuminates the debate in the process.”—Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, "Best Books of 2021: Politics"
Nationalism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, and capitalism are among the most fiercely debated ideas in contemporary politics. Since these concepts hark back to the nineteenth century, much of their nuanced meaning has been lost, and the words are most often used as epithets that short-circuit productive discussion. In this insightful book, Harold James uncovers the origins of these concepts and examines how the problematic definition and meaning of each term has become an obstacle to respectful communication.
Noting that similar linguistic misunderstandings accompany such newer ideas as geopolitics, neoliberalism, technocracy, and globalism, James argues that a rich historical knowledge of the vocabulary surrounding globalization, politics, and economics—particularly the meaning and the usefulness that drove the original conceptions of the terms—is needed to negotiate the gaps between different understandings and make fruitful political debate once again possible.
Harold James is the Claude and Lore Kelly Professor in European Studies and professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University. His numerous books include The Creation and Destruction of Value.
“James delves into the often-surprising intellectual origins of key concepts in the arguments about globalisation—and illuminates the debate in the process.”—Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, “Best Books of 2021: Politics”
“Political debate was once regarded as a noble competition among ideas, but, as Harold James shows in this wonderful book, it has become a brutal clash of ‘isms’ with a profusion of different interpretations. It is hard to disagree with his conclusion that political language needs major intellectual decluttering.”—Diane Coyle, University of Cambridge
“Harold James never ceases to demonstrate the power of applying history to contemporary problems. I warmly recommend The War of Words to anyone who wants to clarify in their own mind what we mean by terms such as capitalism, socialism, populism and globalization. This is a master class in the history of economic ideas.”—Niall Ferguson, author of Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe
“Words have histories, and The War of Words is essential reading for anyone tempted to say anything about technocracy, or Weltpolitik, or globalization, or neoliberalism. It is provoking and enlightening, and tells the history of modern times.”—Emma Rothschild, author of An Infinite History: The Story of a Family in France over Three Centuries
“Globalization calls for understanding! Communication across cultural boundaries can only be successful if we develop a shared understanding of key terms. Harold James provides a global history of terms—thus making a vital contribution to intellectual self-reflection.”—Wolfgang Schäuble, president of the German Parliament
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