Blogs > Cliopatria > toward an increased focus on political history, part ii: the globalizing

Feb 9, 2006 5:08 pm

toward an increased focus on political history, part ii: the globalizing

Previously, on"toward an increased focus on political history," I made a case that even if what we really want as historians is to understand"history from below," we actually need to understand quite a bit of history from above, more than we do now, and would therefore benefit from knowing, doing, and thinking more about political history than we as a profession presently do.

But really, that was easy! and old news. It's already been eight years since a political scientist, Rogers Smith, showed historians that he could win a bunch of our awards for a book* on how laws relating to citizenship construct and are constructed by these categories.

For today, let's try something that superficially seems a little tougher: arguing for an increased focus on political history in the age of transnational history. Because really, isn't transnational history supposed to deal a death blow to political historians' donnée?

Well, yes:

The reason we talk about border-crossings now is because we believe those crossings destabilize the very concept of monolithic nations.

What are political historians to do without our Westphalian nation-state? It's even worse for us historians of the U.S.: the qualifications of the American nation-state as a distinct subject worth specific study are in question:

Transnational histories, by arguing that nations are invented, that their boundaries are protean, try to avoid the related errors of national essentialism and national exceptionalism. That is the first reason why you find scholars these days calling for more transnational histories. They can provide an antidote to national histories that accept, uncritically, various kinds of American exceptionalism.**

Logan Pearsall Smith isn't the only one in love with the adverb: that"uncritically", cradled betwixt commas, keeps this debate open. Because neither transnationalism nor its bosom companion globalization can exist without specific national politics, of which in the past century or so the American flavor, distinctive or exceptional as you please, has been the most dominant.

the globalization myth

Some historians object to the use of"globalization" as a useful term of analysis on the grounds that it is presentist to do so. I've done a good deal of arguing for presentism already, and want to forestall doing so in greater specific here. So let's just note the presentist charge and move on.

There is, to be sure, a problem with what Caleb McDaniel calls capital-G Globalization, this idea of a magnet at the end of history drawing us all ever onward so that we will know, in the end (and in Arthur C. Clarke's phrase), How the World was One. Part of the problem is, if you let yourself believe in the encroaching one-ness of the world, you start talking like this:

[A] constantly expanding market.... must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.... We have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.... And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible....

What Marx and Engels foretold, every taxi driver in the developing world is now alleged to spout, at least when he has a Western pundit in his car. Except, like so much of Marxism, it ain't so. And there are two ways in which it ain't so: process and outcome.


There may well be some minimally credible sense in which Globalization, as an impersonal force, exists, and crunches onward irrespective of what we do. Probably the best case for it is that of John Gray (not that one, this one):

globalization comes about as a result of the elimination or reduction of technical obstacles to worldwide production, not as a consequence of policies such as market deregulation or political developments such as the collapse of communism.... As a technology-driven historical process, globalization goes back at least as far as the laying down of transoceanic telegraph cables in the last third of the nineteenth century.

And this process of technological advance has about it the air of historical inevitability because"new technologies cannot be disinvented."† A certain degree of truthiness attends this claim: the un-re-bottleable genie, let out into the world, must run its course will-we nill-we. Because it now plainly can be done, so obviously it will. And maybe -- but just maybe -- in some long-run sense this is true.

But all assertions about the long run are subject to Keynes's demurrer:

... this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.‡

That long run is too long for a human lifespan and, Keynes's point was, any run that long makes a lousy yardstick for measuring economic change, or policy prescription. It's also a lousy yardstick for measuring human history. In the long run the planet will be a cinder; in the long run the Millennium will come; history concerns itself with what happens between now and the allegedly inevitable singularity or equilibrium.

And in the short-to-medium run, the business of globalization depends very much on politics. Take Gray's own example of the undersea telegraph cables. No, wait, look at Gray's own example of the undersea telegraph cables:

Apart from being a really nice bit of engineering -- which it really is, and the story of how it got to be that way, told briskly, is really (not to sound too Boys' Life, but) neat -- it's also a political product; also, owing to its engineering requirements, it necessitates further political products.

Set aside the obvious, for a minute -- the obvious being, the reason you want an undersea telegraph cable, at least at its initial cost, is assuredly for international military and financial -- i.e. imperial and thus political -- reasons -- anyway, set that aside, and consider that building the cable entails imperial work. That wire is made, for starters, of copper (section 1), and insulated (in this pre-synthetics era) with gutta percha (section 2). These are exotic products, the supply of which -- located in the colonized world -- must be secured.

So not only do you want that cable because you have an imperial ambition, probably for control of raw materials; building the cable requires that you further extend that imperial ambition, so you can control other raw materials that you need to build cables. And empires are very definitely political projects, undertaken by nation-states, with Olde-Fashioned policies and diplomacy and strategy.

Moreover, all those cables didn't just appear, running from everywhere to everywhere all at once -- nor do they run equally everywhere today. In the c19, Britain had more wires running into and out of it than elsewhere, and for good, old-fashioned political reasons. In fact, if you want to know what that early network of wires looked like, politics must be your guide: you can find a map of the cables among the League of Nations documents explaining what happened to the nation-state of Germany's physical property, as negotiated and disposed of by political actors, after the Great War.¹ And onward goes this thing of ours.

The same goes for our modern era. Virtual reality depends on real reality. It runs over wires. Those wires get spooled, strung, sunk, and kept safe from cutting owing to political decisions. And before we get all excited about WiFi, remember the massive physical plant, depending on exotic products, required to produce those ethereal connections. So too does the wireless spectrum get cut into pieces and hired out or sold off, according to political processes. Political history is all over the essential stuff of globalization.

Border crossings too depend, at the very least, on political sufference. No amount of transborder culture can exist outside of a political commitment to open borders. Which leads us to....


The predicted outcome of the globalization process is (whether in the Marx and Engels version or the Friedman version) a world in which any place is indistinguishable from every place.² In this theory it doesn't much matter whether globalization is being driven by (let's say)

  1. unrestricted immigration -- in which case, wages sort themselves out to an equilibrium because low-wage workers seek higher-wage economies, where they increase the supply of labor and thus lower wages, while their departure creates labor scarcity in their home country, thus raising wages there -- or by
  2. technology that allows"outsourcing" -- in which case,"jobs move" to lower-wage countries, thus increasing labor scarcity there and raising wages, while their departure from higher-wage countries increases labor supply and thus lowers wages there --

in either case the theory is that in a fluid, open market everything seeks its level and, unimpeded, finds it. Which might be true, in theory.

But in fact, dislocation generates discontent. And discontent gets voiced through the channels that politics makes available. In the U.S. during the period of great immigration at the end of the c19, between 1897 -- when the literacy test for restriction was first put to a vote -- and 1917 -- when it was finally passed over President Wilson's veto -- the pattern of discontent and opposition to immigration had tremendous political effects on major and minor parties, on their ability to hold national coalitions together, and on the policies they supported -- policies that ultimately came to represent a reaction to the effects of globalization. These policies shaped the course of globalization -- what kinds of immigrants came and in what numbers, what products could come into the U.S. at what tariff rate, what channels capital could seek to invest in the country -- and they finally determined whether globalization could continue at all.³

What brought globalization to a halt in and after the crisis of 1914-1918? Not the predicted long-run reaching of equilibrium, but the short-run effects of political policies: protectionism, immigration restriction, and that exercise of politics between nation-states berating each other by other means, war.

What brought globalization back in the post-1945 period? The concerted opening of markets under pressure from political actors, particularly American ones, who created and sustained the Bretton Woods framework, and later liberalized immigration and trade in terms consistent with political necessity.

So we can't understand transnationalism without understanding the political processes that permit and promote it, that shape what kind of globalization we get and how long we get it for. The more we look at what crosses borders and how easily, the more we realize that border-crossings are politically constructed processes. As with the Venn diagram I proposed toward the end of our first episode, there is a policy that permits and shapes social and cultural behavior; that social and cultural behavior in turn affects policy formation. We need to see the whole map of overlapping areas to understand what's going on.

Which would lead naturally to a discussion of eb's further comments on foci but my typing fingers are tired, and that will have to go in a future installment of taifoph. Stay tuned.

*Note that technology is defeating Yale University Press in its efforts to focus our attention on the Bunche Award. <sigh>

**I am totally not picking on Caleb McDaniel by citing his definitions of transnational history. Rather, he does it so well, so succinctly, and so intelligently that it's better to cite him than someone who's woollier on the subject. What he has to say about transnational history as he is doing it strikes me as very smart, especially here.

†John Gray,"The True Limits of Globalization," Ethical Perspectives 9, no. 4 (2002): 191-199, 191, 194.

‡John Maynard Keynes, A Tract on Monetary Reform (orig. 1923; New York: Prometheus, 2000), 80.

¹Which you can in turn find, in cleaned-up form, in my forthcoming book, Blessed Among Nations (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006). Whose concern with these matters is not wholly incidental to this post.

²Though not in the John Gray version; see the article cited in † above. Gray argues that even now, the erosion of sovereign states is vastly over-rated; whether you think that they're being replaced by transnational corporations or transnational NGOs, you're probably to a considerable degree mistaken.

³See e.g. Claudia Goldin,"The Political Economy of Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1890-1921," in Claudia Goldin and Gary D. Libecap, eds., The Regulated Economy: A Historical Approach to Political Economy, 223-257 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

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Jeffrey P. Kimball - 2/8/2006

Harold Meyerson's op-ed in the Washington Post today describes how state to state policy agreements, such as NAFTA, produce transnational effects, in this case bigger profits for some transnational corporations, whose political activities helped bring about NAFTA policy, and income/demographic/wage dislocations for others; namely, farmers and industrial workers.

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