The Commanding Heights by Daniel Yergin is a book that tells the story of the epic twentieth-century battle between socialists and market advocates.
It traces the rise of free markets during the last century as well as the process of globalization. The authors illustrate how eagerly totalitarians have—and in the future, will—pounce on every economic crisis as an opportunity to grasp more power.
The book’s title is lifted from a saying of Lenin’s, that socialists must aim at seizing the “commanding heights” of a nation’s economy if they are to succeed in their plans.
Yergin and Stanislaw embark on an ambitious journey to describe the eight-decade-long, worldwide struggle among economists and politicians with conflicting visions about government’s role in the economic and social life of their citizens.
What I Liked
I originally saw the film adaptation of this book in my International Political Economy class at the University of Georgia. I loved that the book is even better with much more detail and nuance.
I liked the nuance that the authors brought to topic, and how, even though politicians liked to divide the world into black and white…in practice, power is still power and the real question is how do you get the most out of what you have without giving up control.
This book pairs well with The Profiteers: Bechtel and the Men Who Built the World that goes into further detail on how the free market, capitalist West maintained control of their Commanding Heights while allowing companies to stay private (the short version – taxpayers just paid for it).
What I Did Not Like
I didn’t like how the authors gave too much attention to the communist system and not enough attention to the true costs & flavors of the West’s privatization program. It’s one of those topics where the more you know…the more complicated it gets.
For example, what was the true cost of the US privatizing our nuclear fuel manufacturing when the private owner ended up going bankrupt (even after taxpayer subsidies)…thus forcing our utilities to source enriched uranium from Russia’s state-owned nuclear fuel manufacturing firm during a hostile war?
As a Georgia Power customer paying for a giant nuclear plant…I can’t say that it feels the same as shopping for toothpaste or tacos. But that’s exactly the point. And based on this book, it seems like too many politicians and voters are making huge decisions based on ideology rather than a clear, pragmatic assessment.
Either way – the book is still solid. It’s a great window into a world that I don’t think I’ll ever be a part of, but will still be affected by everyday.