history and politics

Global/Universal History: A Warning

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

Last week, in an essay on the state of global history, historian Jeremy Adelman asked, “In our fevered present of Nation-X First, of resurgent ethno-nationalism, what’s the point of recovering global pasts?” In the wake of last November’s election in the United States, and the slew of executive orders, hate crimes, and retaliatory moves by other governments that have followed, it is a fair question: have the unequivocal challenges to the project and paradigm of global integration put into jeopardy the very task of the global historian? Adelman concludes that the challenges to interdependence and “the togetherness of strangers near and far” levied by “the anti-globalism movement” must be met by historians willing to engage with disintegration as well—willing to listen to the “tribalists out there and right here.” In other words, it would not be helpful or honest to write another global history that does not account for the reasons behind the apparently widespread and domino-like backlash against sunny, cosmopolitan narratives about a world seen, as though from space, as a single swirling orb.

Global history is not necessarily the history of globalization. It is also not, as Adelman notes, “the history of everything.” It is “both an object of study and a particular way of looking at history… it is both a process and a perspective, subject matter and methodology” (Sebastian Conrad). Despite the myriad approaches to and existing volumes on this very subject, I want to return to the version of global history predicated on the interconnectedness and integration of our global present (and the anxiety around this present now quickly fading into the past). When the avowed raison d’être of a historical narrative that calls itself “global” is to explain how the world became so connected in the first place, dialogue among historians of global history has until now meant contending with the assumption that one is participating in this “moment.” The language of historiographical change is replete with the imagery of movement: the current, the turn, the shift, the trend—toward global history. Sitting still for too long isn’t great, but even worse is getting caught out of touch with the “out there.” Given the waning interest in foreign-language training and the desire to strengthen borders and drive out the “foreign,” if one had been proceeding all this time with an understanding of global history as tied to globalization – and its enduring possibilities for a new kind of humanistic citizenship, as Lynn Hunt suggested in her 2014 book—then one might imagine that a threat to that vision might mean a threat to the mission of the global historian.

What did one have to believe about the world to look around in 2014 and see a process of closer integration and interconnectedness? What did one have to ignore? In the news were rising deportations by the Obama administration, the prominence even then of an anti-globalization movement (granted, with a different character), and the success of far-right parties in the European Parliament elections in May 2014. These were not considered part of a single phenomenon as widely or nervously as similar, as much more large-scale events are now. Indeed, the difference seems to be regime change: anxiety about a wave of right-wing governments upending the post-war liberal project mark the advance of every major election in the wake of November’s unexpected win by President Trump. The democratically elected far-right cannot any longer be dismissed as the purview of the newcomers to the West, like Hungary and Poland, or those who lie outside its borders, like India. The jeering faces of Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, and Geert Wilders loom the morning after every Trump “win”—in congratulations and promise/warning. This is a critical distinction: it is only with regime change, with the “fall” of governments to illiberalism that a trend has taken shape and been given a name in the columns of commentators. Yet the persistence and violence of border regimes, right-wing successes, and anti-globalization have been a part of the before-time just as they are a part of this epoch—post-Trump, post-Brexit, post-insert-catastrophe-here.

It is at junctures like these that it becomes most obvious that our historiographical preoccupations lie flat on top of our anxieties.

Samuel Moyn and Andrew Sartori have sketched an overview of the field of global history as part of their exploration of the possibility of global intellectual history. The current flowed from Hegel to Marx to the present. In Hegel we see the world-historical, the paradigmatic, the antecedent to the global history of our own time (taking some slightly unsavory detours through the “universal”). Indeed, much work on transnational connections and “connected histories” contains an explicit challenge to the Hegelian view of history and all its apparently outmoded Eurocentrism: “Hegel himself might have ended the narrative of the self-realization of ‘reason in history’ with the European state, but others carried the project forward to examine the implications for other parts of the world of the claims of European modernity to universality.”

In 2000, the philosopher and intellectual historian Susan Buck-Morss wrote an essay in Critical Inquiry arguing that “Hegel and Haiti belong together.” In her essay and the book that followed, she demonstrates that Hegel and his contemporaries were aware of and critically engaged with the events surrounding the Haitian Revolution via the widely read journal Minerva. She asks why Hegel scholars, with few exceptions, have chosen to read the dialectic of master and slave in Phenomenology of Spirit as mere metaphor. She also asks, “To what degree is Hegel himself accountable for the effective silencing of the Haitian Revolution?” Buck-Morss notes that the political metaphor of slavery as the embodiment in Western political philosophy of “everything that was evil about power relations” came about at the same time as the “systematic, highly sophisticated capitalist enslavement of non-Europeans as a labor force in the colonies.” She then wonders, why has the uncanny relationship between Hegel and Haiti been ignored so long? “Not only have Hegel scholars failed to answer this question; they have failed, for the past two hundred years, even to ask it.”

Buck-Morss takes this simple observation—the absence, the unasked question—to untangle the meaning of universality in history. What kind of subjectivity was assumed to be held by the singular and universal protagonist of history that moves in Hegel’s work and that of his heirs? (You and I number among them, reader, if the trajectory of intellectual history proffered by Moyn and Sartori above is to be believed.) It is the same protagonist at the center of the teleology of Marxism and indeed, at the center of globalization (and the strain of global history with which it is associated). In place of this sort of universality, Buck-Morss suggests that asking the hitherto unasked question “creates the possibility for rescuing the ideal of universal human history from the uses to which white domination has put it…. If the historical facts about freedom can be ripped out of the narratives told by the victors and salvaged for our own time, then the project of universal freedom does not need to be discarded, but rather, redeemed and reconstituted on a different basis.” Indeed, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has written in Provincializing Europe, without Hegelian universals like history and freedom, “there would be no social science that addresses issues of modern social justice”.

Buck-Morss shows us that inquiring after the unasked question—refusing to take it on faith that Hegel and Haiti were worlds apart—can expand the possibilities of historical inquiry. Permit me an exercise in parallelism: If the historical facts about globality can be ripped out of the narrative of globalization told by the victors and salvaged for a time in which the Western academy seems to have woken up to the fact that “globalization” is neither telos nor panacea, then the project of global history does not need to be discarded either.

In reading this version of global history through Buck-Morss’s Hegel, Haiti and Universal History, I have tried to suggest that we make ourselves unhelpfully vulnerable as historians when we drive the stakes of our narratives into shifting sands. I am not suggesting here that global historians did not, or do not, see the complications or limitations of the approach. As I noted above, there are many ways to write global history, and hindsight will always see blind spots and stumbling blocks more clearly than those who were writing histories even a short while ago. I have been concerned here with a very specific feature of this field: a mission to write a story of the past shaped by an occluded and willfully blind cohesion. Orienting an historical approach around an assumption about the future “progress” of the world does little more than make us prone to hasty retreat as soon as that future is jeopardized by the caprice of the “real world.” In Buck-Morss and in Adelman’s essay, I read a warning. If a single, redeeming, and final world-historical force ever calls out to you, either plug your ears with wax or tie yourself to the mast, because there are other, more distant calls the siren song is doubtless drowning out.