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The return of big history: the long past is the antidote to short-termism

Historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have created a powerful, ambitious rebuttal to "the spectre of the short term".

Photo Op (2006) by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps

“There never has been a time when . . . except in the most general sense, a study of history provides so little instruction for our present day,” Prime Minister Tony Blair declared in a speech to the US Congress in July 2003. Nowadays Blair is not exactly deemed a voice of authority, but the opinions he expressed are still widely shared. In an era when technology has revolutionised our daily existence – even the nature of life itself – understanding the past may seem irrelevant when planning the future. But history does matter. And many academics are anxious to explain why.

A striking contribution comes from the historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage. At a mere 165 pages, their book The History Manifesto is modest in scale but not in ambition: its first sentence mimics the opening of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting our time: the spectre of the short term.” Guldi, who teaches at Brown, and Armitage, a British-born professor at Harvard, point to politicians trapped in the electoral cycle, business leaders fixated on profit returns and bureaucrats obsessed by performance targets. Academics, one might add, have also been sucked into the vortex, with the rigid six-year cycle of the Research Excellence Framework deterring big historical projects that take time to mature.

Yet Guldi and Armitage insist that historical writing can provide the answer to short-termism, if properly conceived and delivered. In the last quarter of the 20th century, they argue, most historians produced scholarly monographs or doctoral dissertations about narrow periods and specific topics, or they indulged in microhistories of “exceptionally normal” episodes from everyday life, such as Robert Darnton’s investigation of a bizarre cat massacre in 18th-century Paris. There seemed little appetite to explore the longue durée, a term popularised in the 1950s by Fernand Braudel and other scholars associated with the French journal Annales.

This obsession with the miniature reflected the increasing professionalisation of historical writing. In contrast to earlier centuries, when the historian’s craft had been the preserve of amateurs such as Gibbon and Macaulay, the 20th century was the era when history professionals emerged – men and women who earned their living from teaching and writing history as employees of universities. Like other professionals, they sought advancement by becoming unquestioned masters of a small terrain, fenced off by their command of specialist archives. The explosion since the 1970s of new subdisciplines – including social history, women’s history and cultural history – encouraged further balkanisation of the subject. Academic historians seemed to be saying more and more about less and less.

In consequence, Guldi and Armitage lament, the big debates of our day lack the benefit of historical perspective. They spotlight a trio of vital contemporary questions – climate change, international governance and socio-economic inequality – that have been addressed mostly by economists and other social scientists, often using data and assumptions that are rooted in the short term. Yet these subjects cry out for a longue durée approach. And Guldi and Armitage show how historians have started to respond over the past decade, exploiting the mass of information that can now be marshalled thanks to the digitisation of archives and other databases, combined with the ubiquity of keyword searching. In the age of IT, social problems on a scale previously beyond the grasp of a large research group are feasible for a lone, but digitally smart, scholar. And so, The History Manifesto proclaims, big history is once again possible, thanks to big data.

Guldi and Armitage write with brio and passion and their ambition should be applauded. Yet their supposedly universal panacea is in many ways very American. The Manifesto offers a reworking for historians of a tradition of “big” thinking that has characterised American intellectual life since the Second World War. “Big science” led the way (in projects such as the Bomb, mainframe computers and the transistor), followed by big social science (through foundations such as the Ford and Rockefeller and the RAND Corporation) – all closely harnessed to the needs of the federal government. Big history, now much in fashion in leading US history departments such as Harvard’s, is another facet of that academic-governmental nexus: the cover of the Manifesto proclaims a desire to “speak truth to power”.

And yet, like many programmatic writings, The History Manifesto seems strangely indifferent to practicalities. It does not make clear how these big historical projects would grab the attention of people in power. Simply addressing topical issues such as climate change is not enough: as Guldi and Armitage acknowledge, politicians are creatures of the short term who prefer to ignore big problems that cannot be solved, or at least visibly ameliorated, within an electoral cycle. They are also busy people who do not have time for lengthy reading and reflection. All this shows that big historical truths must be served up in politically digestible, bite-sized chunks.

A more user-centred approach is exemplified by the work of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May – Harvard academics, now sadly deceased – who for many years taught a course on the uses of history to American politicians, officials and senior military. The book that grew out of it, Thinking in Time, was published way back in 1986, and The History Manifesto makes no reference to it. Yet Neustadt and May offer an instructive alternative response to the curse of short-termism in high places.

Their main injunction derives from Avram Goldberg, the chief executive of a New England grocery chain. Whenever a manager came to him in a flap, he wouldn’t ask, “What’s the problem?” but say, “Tell me the story.” That way, Goldberg said, “I find out what the problem really is.” His maxim became the premise of the book by Neustadt and May. Rather than focus on the crisis at hand (while already straining for a quick-fix solution), one should stand back and ask, “How did we get into this mess?” That is the first step to seeing a way out.

Telling the story requires identifying critical events and turning points, asking what happened when. This basic chronology then has to be fleshed out by addressing “who” and “why” questions about personalities and motivations: what Neustadt and May call “journalists’ questions”. Digging out this kind of human detail is as much a historical activity as constructing a chronology. It requires probing into the past of a person or a country, just the sort of thing that Blair, Bush and their aides did not do properly before the invasion of Iraq.

Asking “What’s the story?” may seem a strange way to define the practice of history. Our normal definition is content-based – the names-and-dates regime that destroyed any feel for the subject among millions of schoolchildren and that still features in the UK citizenship test. Nor does “What’s the story?” chime with the idea that history provides a stock of useful analogies, such as the “lessons of appeasement” that have seduced many political leaders, from Anthony Eden in 1956 to Blair and Bush in 2003. Instead of history as a body of facts or a toolkit of lessons, Neustadt and May presented it as a way of thinking: thinking in the stream of time.

Actually, that is not such an alien idea: it’s what we do every evening, constructing a narrative of what has happened during the day by highlighting some events and downplaying others within an arc of what seems, with hindsight, to be significant. Thinking in Time essentially urged policymakers to apply the same narrative mode of thinking more systematically when making decisions that relate to government.

Neustadt and May’s prescriptions still seem to me apt and perceptive. They are rooted in the recognition that human beings fundamentally are historical animals and they provide simple, practical advice about how people in power can be their own historians. But the Achilles heel of Thinking in Time in 1986 was how would-be practitioners could speedily obtain the essential historical information to put flesh on the bare bones of their narrative timelines. Neustadt and May suggested a range of useful books, articles and bibliographies, but it seemed implausible that most busy policymakers, or even their aides, would have time to do the necessary research.

Nearly 30 years on, however, the IT-age tools that Guldi and Armitage identify can also help the policymaker who wants to become historically literate. There is now a profusion of information out there, available at a few clicks of a mouse. The new problem is quality control: identifying the information that is reliable and that rises above mere WikiHistory.

One answer comes from History & Policy, a web-based think tank run jointly from Cambridge and King’s College London. This posts short papers of 2,500 to 3,000 words, each offering a historically informed view on issues of current concern. To date, nearly 200 papers have appeared, covering a wide range of issues; recent topics include power-sharing in Northern Ireland, the London airport debate, treatment of the mentally ill and the Ukraine crisis. The organisation also runs specialist seminars targeted at specific interests, with the aim of providing the busy politician, civil servant or business person with a broader perspective but in succinct, manageable form. Although each paper suggests further reading, it is assumed that most users won’t have the time for a long academic tutorial. The aim here is not big history but applied history, useful at the point of decision-making.

For some traditionalist scholars, this search for relevance threatens a core value of professional history – the recognition of the past as a foreign country. But, as John Tosh has insisted in his book Why History Matters (2008), what we need is “a critical applied history”, one that is attentive to both continuity and difference. Neustadt and May developed the same point: “the future has nowhere to come from but the past”, yet “what matters for the future in the present is departures from the past” – hence the predictive capacity and also the potential pitfalls of historical analysis. Those departures may be slight and subtle but recognising them is essential when trying to anticipate the future.

Public awareness of the interconnection of past, present and future has been particularly keen at moments of dramatic rupture or transition. The end of the Second World War, with the total collapse of Hitler’s European empire and the horrific exposure of his “Final Solution”, constituted one such moment; another was the end of the cold war in 1989-91, when the “Iron Curtain” disintegrated and the Soviet Union fell apart. Such evidently “historic” moments have kindled an interest in “contemporary history”, or Zeitgeschichte, as the Germans call it. In this area, too, historical awareness has relevance for political debate, by helping us to locate our contemporary problems in the longer sweep of events.

Definitions of the appropriate time span for “contemporary history” lack precision: surveying various writers, Kristina Spohr of the London School of Economics suggests that the term has generally been employed to signify the history of “one’s own time”. She quotes Geoffrey Barraclough, an exponent in the 1960s: “Contemporary history begins when the problems which are actual in the world today first take visible shape.” When exactly that was will vary from case to case and is a matter of judgement for individual historians, requiring them to construct narratives on the Neustadt-May model but over the longue durée.

To Eric Hobsbawm, a lifelong Marxist, his own time was naturally defined by the rise and fall of the Soviet state and he framed his Age of Extremes around the dates 1914 and 1991. Hobsbawm’s book has become a classic, but in the 20 years since it first appeared our sense of the “contemporary” has moved on from the cold war. In an era preoccupied by globalisation, historians, when trying to discern how today’s problems took visible shape, have looked back to moments and markers that differ from Hobsbawm’s.

One significant trend is the vogue for “transnational” history, transcending the conventional western focus on the evolution of nation states: what the Harvard scholar Charles Maier calls the principle of “territoriality”. One of these new frameworks for understanding contemporary history is the cultural “clash of civilisations”, attractive to many American conservatives preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of China. Another framework is the emergence of supranational structures such as the European Union, intended to break out of the cycle of ruinous nationalist wars between France and Germany and to escape the perpetual “bloodlands” of eastern Europe. If European integration is indeed the trajectory of our own time, it implies a very different way of telling modern history from the conventional narratives about territorial nation states.

This approach is, of course, unlikely to have much appeal in our dis-United Kingdom. A political class trapped between the erosion of a once-solid state based on shared Britishness and a Continental behemoth depicted as the embodiment of alien “European” values does not seem in any mood to venture beyond territoriality. However, for those who are inclined to escape the bunker of Britishness, asking “What’s the story?” has utility in this larger sense. It invites us to interrogate the grand narratives we tell ourselves as a country about where we have come from and where we might be going.

Big history, thinking in time, applied history, alternative narratives: these are just a few ways that those who study the past are engaging with the present. That pioneer of “contemporary history”, Thucydides, writing 24 centuries ago, presented his account of the Peloponnesian wars as a warning for future decision-makers – for those who, as he put it, “want to understand clearly the events which happened in the past and (human nature being what it is) will at some time or other and in much the same ways be repeated in the future”.

He described how an ill-conceived foreign adventure – the disastrous attack on Syracuse – triggered the climactic phase of a long power struggle that not only destroyed Athenian democracy but also sapped the power of the Greek city states, laying the peninsula open to foreign domination. In our own day, after a year of national mourning for the men who marched away in 1914, we might raise our eyes to take in the bigger historical picture and the haunting parallels with the lost grandeur of Greece: an international conflict that exploded out of the blue in 37 days, which was sustained for four blood-soaked years by the intransigence of national leaders and from whose suicidal destruction Europe never recovered. We may not share Thucydides’s idea of a universal “human nature”, but his proclamation that history matters still has resonance today.

David Reynolds is Professor of International History at Cambridge. His latest book is “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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