The Commanding Heights

Part One: The Battle of Ideas

Recently, I stumbled across a documentary series that had appeared on PBS about seven years ago called The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy. The film is based on a book by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, first published in 1998 as The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace That Is Remaking the Modern World, which attempts to trace the rise of free markets during the last century, as well as the process of globalization.

The documentary’s website at PBS and Wikipedia entry both provide a wealth of information on the thesis of the book and film, so I won’t bother reinventing the wheel here in that regard. Save to say that it’s very supportive of free-market capitalism, taking the view that “globalization” is generally beneficial on balance in terms of narrowing economic gaps and fostering wider prosperity. Despite being what some might call “neo-liberal” in its stance, the authors of the book somewhat implausibly claimed that there’s no ideological support for capitalism, only the pragmatic fact that the system works better than any other. Much like Churchill’s famous quip about democracy, I guess. Even so, the film expresses some concerns about the possible end of the current era of globalization if inequality in economic growth remains high, and if Third World nations are not offered the proper opportunities and incentives to support capitalism.

I’ve watched this couple of times now and seemed to come away with different impressions each time. Maybe that’s a result of viewing it in a sort of disjointed way. Whether you agree with the largely pro-globalization premise of the authors/filmmakers, it’s very informative (although by no means comprehensive or definitive) as a backgrounder to the subject.

3 Replies to “The Commanding Heights”

  1. Great job linking to these, I really enjoyed them when I watched them a few years ago. They really need to do a fourth episode where they document the pendulum swinging back to the Keynesian school.

  2. Maggie Thatcher looks positively barking in that video. She seemed to be revelling in the memory of the unemployed coal miners.

    Anyway, the program seems almost dated now (2003 was soooo long ago), which just goes to show how quickly things can change. My biggest criticism of the assertion that markets represent the public interest is not that it’s wrong, but that the type of capitalism we have (focused obsessively on individualism) leaves no room for discussion of the public interest until there’s a crisis. And then all the free marketers go quiet and the economic illiterate socialists gain the upper hand.

    Camps. That’s what we need. And lots of ’em.

  3. Funny that it should seem kind of “dated” given that it’s dealing with quite contemporary events, but you’re right, it does.

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