Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"History tells us nothing of the sort:" One historian's reaction to some discouraging political events

A lot of my friends are appalled and cast down by the just-past local elections in Ontario (including me), but my Brit friends are even more discouraged by the Tory resurrection (and for good reason).   In the case of Guy Halsall, events inspired this blog post, which I excerpt here not so much for its current political stance, but for its interesting remarks on the philosophy of history.  The bold emphasis is mine.
More to the point, as concerns me today, the teleology of the longue durée takes short-term sets of events and experiences, like the common man’s involvement in the baronial reform movement (by the way, I’m not trying to claim the Barons’ Revolt really was some sort of democratic revolution; it is just a suitable example to use for this thought-exercise) and turns them either into blips or dead-ends or ‘steps’ on the road to a major change, depending upon how the course of history is interpreted from a particular vantage point. Both are mistaken ways of seeing. That the common freeman of Leicestershire, hit by the royalist backlash after Evesham, drew no comfort from the fact that ‘only’ 400 years later Parliament would overthrow and behead a king, and introduce a constitutional monarchy, goes without saying. To turn his and his allies’ efforts into a dead-end or a blip because they failed is similarly teleological. The triumphalist grand narrative denies the pain and anguish of lived experience; the ‘dead end’ approach denies us hope. Indeed, maybe it is intended to deny us hope: don’t try and challenge the natural, the ‘right’ order of things. “History tells us …” How often do we hear that phrase? But history tells us nothing of the sort. Ever. So they failed. Try again (as Žižek is fond of quoting); fail again; fail better.

The approach rules out (as I have also argued before) the irony of history. It leads us to the absurdities of, to take just one egregious example, Peter Heather’s arguments that ‘The Goths’ were a people with a coherent set of aims (on the basis that at some later point, some people called Goths ended up with a kingdom within what had been the Roman Empire). In the hundred years preceding the deposition of the emperor Romulus in 476 it is well-nigh impossible to identify anyone who was actually trying to bring down the Roman Empire, rather than trying to re-establish the imperial political system of the fourth century, with them in a controlling position. A great deal of the history of the creation of what we see as the new political and social world of the ‘Middle Ages’ is in fact the history of people trying to recreate the Roman Empire. Napoleon may have realised that the game was up late in the evening of June 18th 1815 but when he signed the Treaty of Tilsit a few years earlier, or when he married Maria Louisa of Austria, or when his son was born, he and his followers can be forgiven for thinking that he (and they) had won. What interests me about the generations around 600 is that the motor for change, as it appears to me at the moment at any rate, is an awareness that they were living through a new phase: that the old world of Rome had gone (note that it had taken the best part of a century after Romulus’ deposition, and some fairly horrible wars, to establish this point). They were trying to figure out how to respond to this, new situation, with (naturally, but perhaps more obviously than usual) little idea of where they were going.

You might well have guessed where I am going with these meandering thoughts. It looks to me that we are at a point where those of us on the Left might well think that the game is up, that that’s it, we lost. If we can draw lessons from the way we think about history, though, I think we might make several important points. One is that many people do not seem (surely?) to realise the implications of what is happening, so there is still a battle to be fought and won. Another is that the game isn’t up yet; or rather that it only is if we give up on it. Cameron and his order-paper-waving right-wingers may think they have won, and that they can go ahead and dismantle the welfare state, and sell its opportunities off to themselves and their chums in the private sector (in effect returning us to a 21st-century form of feudalism) but they can be stopped. And they must be stopped. But that is down to all of us. The alternative is that everything – every little change, every little baby-step, to improve the lot of the ordinary person – that people have fought and died for over the past seven and a half centuries becomes a dead-end, a curious blip that right-wing historians will be able to point to as showing the futility of challenging the ‘natural’ order. Every backlash against fairness, every move against the Welfare State, the National Health Service, free education and so on, will be made into a step on the road of Progress. Is that the history we want to bequeath to future generations?

If we work hard, this may not be the Waterloo of the Welfare State but the Ligny** of the Right. The alternative is not worth thinking about. It’s not over yet, and (to return to my earlier metaphor) David Cameron is no Lord Edward.


** For those less interested in Napoleonic military history than me, the battle of Ligny was Napoleon’s last victory, fought two days before Waterloo. Napoleon, it has to be said, played a blinder in the Waterloo campaign up until the battle itself. Such is the irony of history.


  1. Look, all history (even microhistory, and the most detailed philology) uses hindsight.

    I think the current fashion against "grand narratives" is merely that - a fashion (inspired in fact by a grand "anti-grand narrative" grand narrative.)

    History requires stories, and interesting stories require narratives. I agree that such narratives should be challenged, but I take that as part of the to and fro of history.

  2. The first step toward defeating this trend will be to get rid of the idiotic notion of "left and right". As long as barbaric ultra-conservative doctrines like Marxism are thought of as somehow being the "opposite" of the current patterns of Conservative barbarism, then it shouldn't surprise one that such barbarism triumphs. When people grasp that they are one and the same, then they will finally be able to fight them successfully.

  3. Anonymous10:07 pm

    Oh My God! The sky is falling!!! The end of “government” in Britain is now a certainty! The British "state" will be abolished! Anarchy is on the way! Libertarians rejoice!!!
    Cameron elected = All the rights for the last “seven and a half centuries” from the time of the Magna Carta going to become null and void. LOL
    (Sarcasm off.)

    What hysterical hyperbole! How can intelligent people actually give any credence to what this individual says? It is ridiculously absurd!

    And for Mr. Paine to suggest that Cameron (Conservative barbarism?) and his democratically elected government can somehow be equated with Marxism in any shape or form is pure silliness!

    What the left apparently is unable to comprehend is that Britain (or any other nation including the U.S.) cannot keep running deficits of 10-12% of GDP forever.If it is not reduced within a relatively short time period the end will be bankruptcy, hyperinflation and/or societal and economic collapse. (Historians remember Weimar Germany!)

    Alas, the standard, typical Marxist response? Tax the 'rich'! But there are not enough ‘rich’ people in Britain to tax to pay this level of deficit! The spending has to be reduced!

    Mr. Halsall states, “Every backlash against fairness, every move against the Welfare State, the National Health Service, free education and so on, will be made into a step on the road of Progress. Is that the history we want to bequeath to future generations?”

    If the present situation (the status quo)is not changed NONE of those aforementioned government services will be affordable when the interest on the accumulated debt keeps on increasing dramatically at the level that it has been.
    The irony is, (and contrary to what Mr. Halsall argues); Cameron MUST succeed at getting the finances in order to maintain any semblance of a ‘Welfare state’ for ‘future generations’.

  4. The deficits run up by the United States were entirely the product of Conservative ideology run rampant. For a generation, now, Conservatives have engineered the collapse of America's productive industries and the transfer of most of its wealth the Communist Party, which now owns much of America's debt. That Conservative ideology is not based on respect for human rights or on rational, pragmatic responses to experience. It is not based on any interest in the well-being or prosperity of the ordinary citizen. It is based on mystical revelations, pseudo-scientific economic dogma, fantasies of historical "destiny", and a craving for aristocratic power. These are essentially the same as Marxism, merely tricked out with different flags and slogans. The psychological type who once was a Parlour Pink is now a Neo-Con zealot.

    Any politically rational nation can provide for its citizens a reasonable safety net of risk-reduction strategies, such as pensions and health insurance. It can take care of the aged and educate the young. The techniques for controlling the costs of these things are elementary. It cannot do so, however, at the same time as pursuing endless wars, giving massive handouts to corporations and other parasites, allowing gigantic banking and stock-market frauds, and forcing its people to "compete" for wages with the slave labour of Communist dictatorships.

    There are some differences between the Conservative ideologists of the United States, Canada, and the U.K., but at bottom, they are all driven by the same obsession with ideological revelation, and all seek the same barbaric outcome as their Marxist predecessors.