Researching the so-called "Golden Age" of economic growth in France: Q&A with Guillaume Yon

Guillaume Yon is an LSE Fellow in the Department of Economic History.

Understanding the past changes our views on the present. Conversely, the unfolding of the present changes our views on the past.

Guillaume Yon
Guillaume Yon

What are you currently researching?

I am researching the so-called "Golden Age" of economic growth in France. This refers to the 30 years after the Second World War with high growth rates, a reduction in inequality and the rapid – some would say brutal – modernisation of the country.

I am interested in the role of the state, specifically in how a form of co-ordinated capitalism was developed in the nationalised electricity industry. Engineers and economists managing the electricity sector invented powerful tools that shaped the allocation of resources within the national economy, through sophisticated pricing mechanisms.

These mechanisms played a crucial role in the emergence of a mass-consumption society following the American model. The new prices aimed at shaping energy choices, supporting the modernisation of the manufacturing sector and introducing more electric goods into the daily lives of domestic users.

It was capitalism, but without the trials and errors of actual competition: ‘synthetic capitalism’ as some American economists at the time called it. It worked because the technologies and the future uses were known through the American model. Engineers and economists could make accurate predictions of the long run evolution of costs and demand, pushing the development of the sector, making it more linear and minimising waste.

It worked also because of the sophistication of these calculative devices: they helped introduce technocratic management of the national economy by depoliticising it.

Why did you choose this area of study?

After the fall of the Soviet Union economic planning was widely considered as bound to fail and/or inefficient - the quicker the creation of free markets the better, this was considered as the march of history. However, the economic superpower of the 21st century, namely China, is a centrally planned economy. This has renewed public interest in the role of governments in the economy.

How will your research have a wider impact on society? Can you give some real-world examples of the impact your research will have?

I try to convey in my research the basic historian’s message: history never repeats itself. This is not to say that economic planning is a thing of the past, but that specific forms of economic planning fulfilling specific (one could say narrow) aims, worked in specific economic, technological and political contexts. Conducting research on these specific circumstances and achievements might help us to get a better understanding of the present role of government in the economy, by contrast with its past.  

What have been the highlights of your research work so far?

As for many historians, working in the archives stands out. You get in touch directly with the past. The progressive construction of a narrative is also a fascinating process. Understanding the past changes our views on the present. Conversely, the unfolding of the present changes our views on the past. Experiencing this strange movement of co-constitution of a present and its past is highly entertaining.

What has been your biggest challenge so far?

These highlights have downsides! Understanding the sources is hard. Understanding what changed over time, defining the historical significance of the episode studied, is also challenging.

What advice would you give to prospective students on the most effective way to approach research and keep stress levels down?

Talk about your research as much as possible, to as many people as possible, within or beyond academia. Discussions help in finding one’s place in a community, in sorting out what to do next, in building a sense of purpose and in making your research relevant.

In a few words, what is the best thing about studying at LSE?

LSE is a large and well-organised institution, one that actively generates many opportunities for discussing your research with people from all over the world. LSE is also an institution that has produced research in the social sciences that has impacted the world for more than a century. This rich historical depth makes LSE a special place. The School has a mission.