Globalization and the Great Exhibition: The Victorian New World Order

October 29, 2009

In the run-up to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in Hyde Park during the summer of 1851 in Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, Prince Albert declared that, by bringing the products of the world together for comparison, the exhibition would furnish "a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived" in the "great task" of "conquer[ing] Nature" and adapting it to human ends. It would also afford "a new starting point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions". Industrial progress and the economic, social and even moral progress of the human race were conjoined in the Consort's vision for the exhibition, which, following on the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846 and the summer of continental revolutions in 1848, would inaugurate a new era of international peace and prosperity, to be sustained by the spread of free trade. This was the Great Exhibition's "grand narrative", a tale in which, naturally, industrialised Britain would figure as protagonist.

Young's title accurately expresses his book's priorities, for rather than giving us a narrative about the exhibition's planning and execution before launching into analysis, as some recent books have done, he plunges right into his theme of how the exhibition "became a decisive moment in the formation of a world picture" that "continues to exert a strong hold over global politics and culture today".

The book's four chapters divide the labour of, first, characterising the anthropological and geographical "fantasies" on which the Great Exhibition's grand narrative was based, then showing how the narrative adapted under pressure from the reports of dissenting commentators and the allure of emergent ideas about race.

In chapter one, Young demonstrates how, like the classical political economists, exhibition promoters imagined human nature on the model of the Homo economicus, a creature naturally amenable to free trade and rational pursuit of self-interest, although deflected from his essence, in many lands, by the force of distorting custom, which the exhibition's display would redress. The second chapter describes the efforts to "generate a vision of the world as a stage designed to house the rational and emancipatory acts of Economic Man". Conceived of as "one systematic entity", the world would become the arena in which nations imitated this ideal individual in exploiting their comparative advantages in the global marketplace.

Chapter three considers how, in the responses of some commentators, this idea of global interconnectedness acquired a dark side, and focuses on efforts "to recuperate a globalised fantasy that served Western interests, even as it undercut the idea of the world as a structure ... of self-regulating and self-determining parts". By the fourth chapter, the innocuous image of a world ever-enriching everyone through peaceful exchange of goods has morphed into the Pax Britannica under which non-European peoples were forcibly deindustrialised and assigned the subordinate roles of supplier of raw materials and markets for European goods.

Young has clearly read everything on the subject there is to be found. His argumentation is often tortuous, partly because he clots his pages with explications of the various theorists on whom he draws. His style is marked by certain tics: things are being "brought to the fore" so often in his prose that one wonders what's left in the background. But in showing the role played by the Great Exhibition in still-pertinent concepts of globalisation, he draws a convincing line from Adam Smith to Niall Ferguson, with the Crystal Palace poised in the contested space between.

Globalization and the Great Exhibition: The Victorian New World Order

By Paul Young. Palgrave Macmillan, 264pp, £50.00. ISBN 9780230520752. Published 29 January 2009

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