Andrew Marr presenting "History of the World". Photograph: BBC
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Popular history has been conquered by a complacent liberalism

Television history, in particular, has changed - and not always for the better.

At the end of September, the BBC screened the first part of its eight-part History of the World, written and presented by Andrew Marr. Within days of the show’s first episode, another world historian, Eric Hobsbawm, died, at the age of 94. Although the proximity of the two events was coincidental, it did seem as if the baton was being passed from one public historian, keen to paint the “big picture” and with a taste for the grand sweep, to another.

However, a closer comparison of the two men reveals how far popular history has changed and not always for the better. For Marr’s series shows the extent to which the struggle to interpret our history has been won by a complacent liberalism. And victory has been rather easy, as many historians have simply refused to join the fight.

This is a triumph with serious consequences – especially for anyone trying to make sense of the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Our view of history shapes our attitude towards contemporary politics. Consciously or not, we are perpetually judging the present by the measure of the past. Once a particular “history” that supports the status quo becomes all-powerful, it is very difficult to make alternative political and economic solutions seem either plausible or necessary.

Hobsbawm and his generation of intellectuals were keenly aware of how damaging liberal complacency could be. In the 1920s, the postwar victors were convinced that they could impose the pre-1914 laissez-faire order without fully incorporating the working class – as if the First World War and the Russian Revolution had never happened. Hobsbawm, a teenager in 1930s Berlin, witnessed for himself the disastrous consequences of such conventional thinking – soaring unemployment, social breakdown and the rise of Nazism.

Yet after the Second World War the tables were turned. Now the western elite accepted that states had to control markets and improve workers’ lives. This analysis lay behind the grand social-democratic projects of the era – welfare states, the Bretton Woods system and the Marshall Plan. It also underpinned the “Marxist” history that dominated the postwar era: socio-economic forces were central; and educated experts, who understood those forces, could use reason and science to improve society and help the working classes.

However, just as Marxist-influenced history reached its high tide in the 1960s and 1970s, serious signs of decay had set in. For the convulsions of 1968 triggered a powerful – and in many ways justified – critique that left it looking deeply old-fashioned. The main target of the ’68-ers was the technocrat-worker alliance that characterised the era of social democracy. Scientists, the new radicals argued, far from being progressive, were apparatchiks of the military- industrial complex. As for the supposedly heroic working class, they had sold their souls to consumerism. History’s real heroes were the victims of cultural discrimination – whether ethnic minorities, colonised peoples, women or homosexuals.

This political sea change required an entirely new view of the past. With cultural identity now central, historians scrutinised subjective perceptions, not objective economic conditions. In the vanguard were Ranajit Guha and the “subaltern” historical school, who sought to rescue the cultures of the Indian poor for posterity; meanwhile, gender historians surveyed the many ways in which patriarchy shaped everything from progressive politics to the micro-power relations of everyday life.

This cultural turn was accompanied by an attack on notions of historical “progress”. Marxists were now lumped together with liberal “Whig” historians, such as Macaulay, as the false sirens of an Enlightenment that claimed “rationality” would make society more fair and free, when it often did the exact opposite. Newly fashionable “postmodernist” thinkers now saw progress as the highway to the Gulag and the death camp.

Postmodernists insisted that historians themselves, with their simple-minded “grand narratives” – whether “Whig” stories of progress towards liberal democracy and capitalism, or Marxist fables of progress towards communism – were contributing to this oppressive way of thinking. Historians had to avoid all grand theorising and concentrate on the marginalised and the powerless.

One casualty of this approach was economic history. Once the aristocracy of the profession, economic historians were now regarded as servants of hegemony. As free markets swept across the globe after 1989, there were even stronger reasons for historians – like most humanities academics, generally people of the left – to concentrate on the cultural sphere.

Hobsbawm represented all the postmodernists hated: the mandarin surveying the world from Olympian heights, uninterested in everyday life. Surely this was the attitude that led to grandiose projects of social engineering that caused the death of millions (not least in the Soviet Union, of which Hobsbawm was an unrepentant supporter)?

In somewhat diluted form, postmodernist ideas have reshaped both academic and popular history, and with many positive effects. In their insistence on the value of the experiences of ordinary people, such histories fit with a more democratic age. The recent BBC series presented by Pamela Cox, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs, is an excellent example – giving us the real voices of the domestic servant class and driving a coach and horses through the Tory romanticism of Downton Abbey. These histories have also had a broader cultural effect, contributing to a growing intolerance of the abuse of power in ordinary life.

Necessary and important as these gains have been, the rejection of the most influential grand narratives has brought serious losses. In their abandonment of the big picture in favour of the fragment, academic historians have ceded the political high ground. And this crucial strategic space has been occupied by popular historians from the liberal centre and the right, such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts.

Until the 1980s, it was the right that was most suspicious of grand narratives, whether Marxist or Whig. For them, history was one damn thing after another, a long series of accidents and of great men making decisions; or, for a more “new-age” right, of randomly significant butterflies fluttering their wings in some corner of the globe or other.

Yet after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it suddenly seemed that history was going their way; the right embraced grand narratives with relish. In his history of the cold war, The Atlantic and its Enemies (2010), the Thatcherite Norman Stone shamefacedly admitted that he had ended up writing a Whig history of progress, even though he had spent much of his youth condemning the very idea.
 
And it is various forms of Whiggery that dominate our history today – whether propagated by those on the centre-right, such as Stone, or on the centre-left, such as Marr. Much of this is ideological rather than economic Whiggery: history is seen as a battle between liberalism and totalitarianism, and liberalism has won. The political theorist Francis Fukuyama put the argument most eloquently in his 1989 essay “The End of History?”. But it also underpinned some of the most popular histories of the early 21st century, including Simon Schama’s A History of Britain (2000-02).

We also see it in the widespread notion that Nazism and Stalinism were essentially the same – violently utopian ideologies created by dangerous anti-liberal intellectuals. We are still battling with their heirs, we are told, but the struggle will inevitably be won. This, in essence, was the history that George W Bush used to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Economic Whiggery is equally influential, though it is more frequently peddled by science writers and economists than by historians. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011) tells an optimistic story of the defeat of warrior values by a peaceable liberalism. More forthright is Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010). Yoking Darwinism to free market economics, it casts merchants as the main agents of progress in human history.

Ridley’s analysis is a cruder version of a fashionable “big history” that combines the insights of evolutionary science with praise for economic globalisation (though it tends to be much more pessimistic about its environmental consequences than Ridley is). In his History of the World, Marr has whipped up all these trends into a tasty dish, mixing evolutionary history with Whiggish enthusiasms about global trade and warnings about “utopian” ideologies, though marinated in a conservative pessimism about human nature and political improvement.

Marr’s series is expertly crafted and stimulating; but it rests on an unexamined assumption common to much popular history today: it assumes, as Margaret Thatcher once put it, that “there is no such thing as society”. Marr gives us evolutionary imperatives, economic forces, ideologies and great (or evil) men. But the social groups Hobsbawm saw as central to history are in the background.

The Marxists certainly saw these social groups in crude terms – the postmodernists rightly argued that history was not just driven by economic “classes” but by a range of different groups, in part founded on culture and identity. Even so, occupation is enormously important in creating those identities. To ignore that is to deprive ourselves of a powerful tool for understanding.

The violence of the 20th century was not primarily caused by the pursuit of illiberal utopias, nor by evil dictators. It was largely caused by struggles between groups – social, national and ethnic – over questions of hierarchy and equality. These were the battles that brought Hobsbawm and his fellow Berliners on to the streets.

We saw the consequences of this analytical failure in the incomprehension of commentators and policy-makers when confronted with the turmoil of the Arab spring. Having seen the Middle East as the site of a struggle between liberals and “totalitarian” Islamists, they were bewildered as conflict exploded between competing social and ethno-religious groups – poor Islamists, their more business-orientated co-religionists, leftist workers, cosmopolitan liberals, Shias, Sunnis and Christians.

It is no surprise that the left is not flourishing in this intellectual environment. For the left is primarily concerned with equality. And if social hierarchies and the struggles of social and ethnic groups to flatten or bolster them are airbrushed from the historical record, the left’s agenda appears wholly irrelevant.

But even more serious, perhaps, is the effect of Whiggish ideas of gradual progress on our understanding of the financial crisis. We are so used to thinking of history as a process of gradual improvement that we find it difficult to remember how suddenly world orders break down – as they did in 1918, the 1930s or the 1970s – and how radically our ideas have to change in response. Whig gradualism simply cannot prepare us for the very serious challenges ahead.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote that “life must be lived forward, but it can only be understood backward”. The British are right to value their historians, and the BBC should be investing in grand histories. Yet they have to choose the right ones. For bad history may be worse than no history at all.

David Priestland is the author of “Merchant, Soldier, Sage: a New History of Power” (Allen Lane, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

MATTHIAS SEIFARTH FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Moby: “The average American IQ is around 98”

Moby, the vegan king of chill-out pop, talks wealth, David Bowie’s hat and the average intelligence of his fellow Americans.

In January 2012, two women walking their nine dogs on the hill beneath the Hollywood sign found a man’s severed head wrapped in a plastic bag. His decomposing feet and hands were discovered nearby. First theories pointed to the work of a Mexican drug cartel, or the murderous Canadian porn actor Luka Magnotta. The story piqued the interest of the electronic dance music mogul Moby, who wrote about it in a New Statesman diary in May this year.

Today, the smell of cedar and pine hits you on the canyon path, which is hot, steep and sandy – an immediate wilderness in one of LA’s most exclusive areas. The Griffith Observatory shines like a strange white temple on the hill. Brad Pitt, a local resident, was doorstepped after the head was discovered: he lives near Moby on the streets of Los Feliz, near Griffith Park, where the only sounds are hedge strimmers and workmen’s radios. Moby’s 1920s mansion is all but obscured by Virginia creeper.

As we sit down at his kitchen table, Moby tells me that the body parts were found to belong to a 66-year-old Canadian flight attendant called Hervey Medellin. Shortly before Medellin’s disappearance, his boyfriend, Gabriel Campos-Martinez, had used a computer in the flat they shared to find an article titled, “Butchering of the human carcass for human consumption”. The head, feet and hands showed signs of having been frozen: the rest of the body was never found. He says it was one of those rare times in life where reality was more intriguing than the conspiracy theories.

Moby, of course, eats no meat. Fifteen minutes’ drive away in the hipster neighbourhood of Silver Lake, his vegan bistro, Little Pine, serves a variety of plant-based dishes, proceeds from which go to animal rights organisations including the Humane Society and Peta. His own music is never played there. We are meeting to talk about his new album – but, he says: “It’s 2016 and people neither buy nor listen to albums. And they certainly don’t listen to the 16th album made by a 51-year-old musician. I don’t care if anyone gives me money for this music or for live shows ever again. Once a record’s released, I couldn’t care less what happens with it. I liked making it, but I don’t care.”

He is currently working his way though the stages of grief outlined by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. To denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance he has added a new phase: Schadenfreude. On the night of the US election, he left the house at 6pm west coast time to watch the coverage with some friends. He checked his usual round of sites on his phone: CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the BBC, politico.com. He was concerned to see that no one was calling any of the early states; with Obama’s election, exit polls suggested the victory by noon. Days earlier, Moby had been predicting humanity’s “wake-up call” in the form of the destruction of Greenland or a zoonotic virus – but not this. He is softly spoken, with a quick laugh and the kind of intelligence that seems to warm him up from the inside when he talks, but today he is angry.

“It is disturbing on so many levels,” he says. “One, that we have elected an inept racist as president. Two, just seeing how dumb and delusional so many Americans are. Because really – in terms of the subsets of people who would vote for Trump – you have to be delusional, or racist, or stupid. I am so confused as to the fact that such a high percentage of Americans are either really stupid or incredibly bigoted.”

The stupidity of Americans is, he says, a matter of “anthropological curiosity” – or simply demographics. “The average American IQ is around 98,” he notes. “So that honestly means – in a vaguely non-pejorative way – that there are a lot of really, really dumb people. The nonsense that people were spouting before the election – that Trump was a good businessman, for example? This phenomenon has been particularly egregious of late: people have an almost adversarial relationship with evidence. Climate-change deniers are another example.”

As a self-described old-timey alcoholic, Richard Melville Hall (nicknamed Moby by his father in honour of his great-great-great-uncle Herman) has a pervasive interest in neurochemistry. He uses it to explain much of the past six months in Western politics. Our failing political systems – the subject, in fact, of the album he doesn’t want to talk about – are underpinned by “a kind of delusional motivation, which is basically to ignore the countless things that are actually going wrong in the world and focus all your attention on things that are arbitrary. In the United States, you have people who have perfectly good jobs in safe communities who are obsessed about Mexico, crime and unemployment. We have these quasi-Orwellian responses to stimuli, and they come from a place of fear and scarcity. Humans are still built to amass as much wealth as possible, and fight off the enemies as quickly as possible, but the only threats are the ones we generate ourselves.”

There’s a dishcloth on the table, a few magazines, a bit of a draught and Moby in a black hoodie pouring two glasses of water.

Fear and scarcity pervade American society, he says, because social policy is an extension of corporate process and “nothing is free from the cadres of professional lobbyists”. Meanwhile the ravenous news consumption that helped drive Trump reflects a human addiction to the “neurochemical jolt” of engaging with the media.

“People have a profound and almost feral attachment to that which makes them feel good in the moment,” he says. “Without thinking of long-term consequences, does their belief give them a shot of dopamine right at this second? If so, they hold on to it. Eating junk food, voting Brexit and voting for Trump.”

 

***

 

Moby is the model of an addictive personality well-practised at controlling itself. He was a fully fledged alcoholic by his early twenties: at ten, he’d been given champagne and made himself the promise, “I always want to feel this good.” Now, he cannot touch a drink, but his modern-day addiction, he says without a beat, is his phone. Every thought is pursued to extremes. He recently released an animated video for a new song, “Are You Lost In the World Like Me?”, showing a procession of grotesque, phone-addicted cartoon characters filming a girl as she throws herself off a skyscraper and hits the ground.

The house is vaguely baronial, airy and open-plan: all dark wood and furniture polish. An Annie Hall poster in the pool house; a coyote postcard on the kitchen wall.

This particular property is a result of serious downsizing: Moby has a habit of buying very big places, doing them up and then moving out. When he was still in New York, he bought a remote mountaintop retreat in Kent Cliffs, 50 miles north of Manhattan. He created a magnificent bedroom of 1,500 square feet with ten skylights – but quickly learned he could only get a decent night’s sleep when he pulled his mattress into the cupboard. He told the New York Times that, living all alone in the big house, he “felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane”.

He moved to LA in 2010, swapped vodka for quinoa smoothies and took the keys for another large building – the Wolf’s Lair, the turreted, 1920s Gothic castle in Hollywood once inhabited by Marlon Brando, with the swimming pool historically used for porn movies and the hidden tiki bar. He bought it for $4m and sold it for $12.5m four years later – allegedly to Banksy. He rattled around in that house, too. Right on cue, he tells me: “I felt like Orson Welles at the end of Citizen Kane.”

On the one hand, these were sensible ­investments for the man who’s sold 20 million records; on the other, large impersonal spaces appealed to Moby long before he was in a position to buy them. Raised by his single mother on food stamps and welfare in Darien, Connecticut, he started his adult life squatting an abandoned lock factory, where he could ride his moped around his bedroom, piss into a bottle and read battered Star Trek paperbacks while working on early demo tapes, rather like a ragged, vegan version of the boy in the movie Big.

He was very happy in his penniless state, as he records in his memoir, Porcelain. He’d like to propose something he calls the End of Wealth – but we’ll come back to that.

In the past few years Moby has broken free from the “Beckettian purgatory of touring”. When his biggest-selling album, Play, was released in 1999, his music career was effectively “over”. Before Play, he had changed creative direction, going from progressive house to ambient to thrashy punk – to which he has just returned – and no one knew what to do with him. The only reason he hadn’t been dropped by his UK label, Mute Records, was that its owner, Daniel Miller, was “an old egalitarian socialist”.

Play sampled slave songs of the Deep South – recorded by the ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax in the 1940s – and wove them into a backdrop of cerebral chill-out. The songs of pain and emotion took on an eerie neutrality, and TV shows and ad companies came calling. He was approached by Will and Grace and Grey’s Anatomy. At that point, selling records and touring were still more lucrative than licensing a song to TV – and licensing a song to TV was still considered selling out. But Moby considers himself an ugly duckling: “If someone who was once unattractive suddenly gets asked out on loads of dates, of course they say yes a lot.” He licensed every song on Play and it became the soundtrack of the millennium.

His memoir was unusual because it concentrated on the ten-year period before he got famous. It captured his enthusiasm – and his strangeness – at its source and showed him to have a sense of humour that may have passed people by the first time round. “I’m in London! London!” he wrote. “Benny Hill, Joy Division, Peter O’Toole!” He visited the vegan café in Covent Garden.

The book is filled with money: or with the constant, practical concern of not having it. Navigating poverty is an everyday routine: he is an “alchemist” turning used beer bottles into nickels at the recycler, and thence into soya milk and oranges. In his early twenties he becomes a Christian, partly so that he can repeat the Sermon on the Mount at Bible classes in the households of Greenwich Village and “judge” the rich children.

Book two, which Faber & Faber is waiting for, is more difficult. The period of his fame and fortune in the 2000s is too much of a cliché. “Ten years ago I was entitled, narcissistic, bottoming out, alcoholic, selfish and feral. Robbie Williams has done that story, so has Ozzy and Mötley Crüe. Who wants to read that? It’s tautological.”

Instead, he has decided to write about the first ten years of his life. It will look into his relationship with his mother, who loved him but raised him in various drug dens. He was at her side when she died in 1997, but he missed her funeral, having woken late in the morning to discover that at some point in the night he must have got up and set his alarm clock three hours late. He took a taxi to the wake, worrying about the fare, and for reasons he can’t really explain, turned up cracking jokes.

He has a strange nostalgia for the kinds of friendships you have in early adulthood, when everyone is equal, “before that point when someone starts making money and they think they’ve won: they’re going to have access to a different kind of happiness”.

In 2003, when he turned 38, he was famous, wealthy and miserable. “I’ve been able to see and inhabit almost every stratum on the socioeconomic scale, from extreme poverty and obscurity to wealth and fame, and it gives me an insight into it,” he says. “Because a lot of people who experience wealth are born into it, and a lot of people who experience poverty never leave it. I can safely say that for me there has been no causal effect between increased fame and wealth and increased basic happiness and well-being.”

When Moby talks about himself, he applies many apologetic epithets: clichéd, meditating, yoga-loving, mealy-mouthed. In 2007 he developed mobygratis.com, a large online resource offering independent film-makers and film students a licence to use his music for free. If their films are commercially successful, the revenue from licence fees must go to the Humane Society. He says he wants to propose a more rational, evidence-based approach to wealth.

“We are still attached to the idea of the redistribution of wealth,” he says. “As progressive lefties, we’re all brought up to think that is a good idea. In the old days, it meant the difference between eating and not eating. Nowadays the person on $30,000 consumes twice the calories of the millionaire, and has a bigger TV and works fewer hours.

“There is an underlying assumption that if wealth were distributed more evenly then people would be happier, but there is unfortunately very little anthropological or sociological evidence to support that idea, unless there are institutions to support the basic needs of community, like food and shelter. Confusing materialism with happiness is the essence of our culture.”

While west LA is plastic surgery and gold-plated toilets, he says, his own neighbourhood is “David Lynch wearing an old T-shirt and mowing the lawn”. Among the millionaires of Los Feliz, conspicuous consumption is frowned upon. He knows several who live “incredibly austere lives. I was having tea with Jim Carrey the other day. He’s basically just giving everything away. He just realised that owning three planes was stressing him out . . .”

In his New Statesman diary, Moby said that life in LA offered him miles and miles of lavender-scented name-dropping.

“Coldplay played the Rose Bowl recent­ly,” he says. “And the Rose Bowl holds 75,000 people. It’s a struggle for me to sell 2,000. At first, I winced with a little jealousy. But then I thought, ‘If my career was at that Coldplay level, how would that actually affect my daily existence? Would it make my shoes fit better? Would it make the water pressure in my shower better?’ As long as you’ve satisfied the basic hierarchy of needs – enough to eat, clean air to breathe, bears not eating your legs – happiness is all where and how you put your attention.”

***

He goes to his kitchen cupboard and from among the colanders and measuring jugs he extracts a black velvet fedora – size seven, silk-lined, from a London company established in 1879. In green marker around the inside rim are the words “With love from David – Christmas 2005”. Bowie gave it to him over Christmas dinner that year. “It’s the hat that he wore in The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Moby says. “There’s this amazing picture of him wearing it with John Lennon and it’s clearly when he was doing a lot of cocaine.”

Moby lived on Mott Street in Little Italy and Bowie lived on Mulberry Street. “I had a little roof deck, and he had a beautiful roof terrace, and we could wave at each other.” They were neighbours and friends, worked on music together, went on tour together, had barbecues together. He says the title of Bowie’s last album, Black Star, is a reference to the 1960 Elvis Presley song of the same name “about the end of a life” (“And when a man sees his black star,/He knows his time, his time has come”).

“David had been sick for a long time,” he says. “Or ill, as you say in the UK. So, David had been ill for a long time. I was very pleased that . . . after he died, people were asking me, ‘How do you feel?’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, I’m just kind of happy that he lived as long as he did.’ Because I . . . had thought, yeah, I had thought that he was going to die a little before that. So.”

The Radiohead singer Thom Yorke lives just up the street from him in Los Angeles but Moby has never met him “as far as I know”. Apart from Bowie, he claims not to have musician friends.

“Musicians – and I’m sure you’ve encountered this many times – have a sense of self-importance that is off-putting,” he says. “It is very hard to be friends with someone who thinks that just by showing up, they’re doing something special. At the end of the day, you want to say to them, ‘You know what? You wrote a couple of good songs. Let’s put it in perspective.’”

He was born on 11 September 1965, and on his 36th birthday he watched the twin towers burning from his roof deck. He tells me that when the second plane hit and it became clear the first was no accident, he heard “the cumulative effect of ten thousand rooftops covered with people, and the weirdest scream. A scream of horror but also a scream of understanding.”

Fifteen years on, he talks about this year’s politics as a Manichaean thing. “Half the world are motivated by fear and desire to move backwards, and the other half are motivated by optimism and a desire to move forward rationally. It’s religious tolerance versus fundamentalism; it’s racism versus inclusion. I wonder if there’s a way we can make peace with that whole other half of humanity who are holding on to a non-evidence-based approach to the future. But I don’t know what it is.” He has known Hillary Clinton for two decades, was a vocal supporter of hers during the election run and released a pair of anti-Trump tracks for Dave Eggers’s music project 30 Days, 50 Songs.

He says that many celebrity Clinton backers were cautious to come out for her during the primaries “because Bernie supporters wanted to crucify you. Now Trump has united and inspired Democrats more than anything since the Vietnam War.”

The election result, he says, might just be “the equivalent of a crystal meth addict going on one last bender. Maybe this bender will finally convince Americans to stop voting for Republicans. Because they are terrible. There has always been an understanding that if everyone in America voted, there would be no Republican politicians. The reason Republicans win is that most Americans don’t vote.

“Those of us on the left who were brought up to be tolerant of people who had different opinions from us – well that’s great, ­unless the opinions are bigoted and wrong. If someone is a climate-change denier, they are wrong. If someone voted for Brexit, they are wrong. If someone voted for Trump, they are wrong. There is a lot of ambiguity in the world, but not about these things.”

The clock ticks towards 11.15am and Moby, ever punctual, is done.

“These Systems Are Failing” is out now on Little Idiot/Mute

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump