History begins


History begins

How 2016 rekindled the historical imagination.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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One of the most striking things over the past 12 months has been the according of sentience to 2016. In the intellectual imagination 2016 is no longer a mere number recording the passage of time; it’s an actor in itself, aware somehow, visiting cruelty upon us. It has been a ‘cruel year’, observers say. It is the worst year, a demonic year. ‘Fuck you, 2016’, says the Huffington Post; ‘I hate you, 2016’, says a much shared video meme. It’s as if 2016 were a person, or a creature, or more accurately a force, a cognisant thing we might confront and curse and perhaps cast out. Indeed, in New York City there was recently a ‘Good Riddance Day’, where people listed their least favourite things about 2016 on pieces of paper and put them in a shredding machine. ‘I’m saying goodbye to the presidential election’, said one participant in this ritualised expulsion of 2016. There’s a medieval feel to this, 2016 playing the role witchcraft once did: a mysterious force shaping a world that seems – seems – to be beyond human design or control.

The objectification of 2016 reflects a broader objectification of history. Indeed, another striking thing about this year has been the higher public profile given to historians. Following the Brexit vote in June and the victory of Donald Trump in November, historians have been drawn out to give us the ‘lessons of history’. ‘History tells us’ – that’s their stock phrase, as if history were a form of instruction, a moral corrector, a force the rest of us had better heed. These historians invited on to TV and into newspapers to intone about how 2010s America is very much like 1930s Germany, or how Brexiteers should remember that all revolutions end up ‘eating their own’, are best understood as the mediators, interpreters, of objectified history’s stern lesson for mankind. They give us ‘warnings from history’. ‘History tells us what will happen with Trump and Brexit’, a Newsweek headline says. And we ignore history’s whisperings ‘at our peril’, according to one account. Here, history is power, the revealer or even determinant of our fortunes. Witness how the accusation of being ‘on the wrong side of history’ is wielded against those who ignore history’s doctrine or grate against mainstream thought — history is a force one mustn’t cross.

In 2016, history was treated both as potential instructor of mankind and sentient enemy of mankind. So alongside the objectification of the past as a lecture we’d be foolish to ignore, there has also been the idea of ‘the revenge of history’. That’s how a New Statesman editorial referred to the victory of Brexit and Trump — as ‘the revenge of history’, the upset of the post-Cold War period in which ‘liberalism appeared to have triumphed’ by various ‘global forces’, by the impolitic return of history.

Francis Fukuyama has been much mocked this year for his 1992 thesis The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argued that the post-Cold War period represented ‘the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution’ and the ‘universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’. Fukuyama has been getting it in the neck for years, in fact. In 1993 Misha Glenny published The Rebirth of History, on the stirrings of a new nationalism in post-Soviet Eastern Europe. Leftists such as Alex Callinicos and Seumas Milne talked about ‘the revenge of history’ in the 1990s and 2000s, their argument being that history was still brewing, seething under the surface, occasionally bursting forth in foreign conflicts or things like Occupy. Yet the clash this year and in previous years over Fukuyama’s claims about the end of history disguises what both he and his critics share in common: a view of history as an awesome entity, the embodiment of human fate, which has either reached its apogee, in Fukuyama’s view, or has some way to go, in his critics’ view. History always speaks and warns, subsides or explodes; it is sleeping or it is seeking revenge: it plays, it acts.

Something incredibly important is missing here: the human agent. The very thing, the only thing, that makes history. The objectification of history represents a negation of human agency, of our operation of intelligence and will, of our shaping and reshaping of the nature of society through ideas, engagement and revolution. This negation has been explicit in 2016. The investment of this year with a kind of menacing power, the treatment of it as a uniquely disruptive year, the according to it of the qualities of cruelty and unkindness, is fundamentally a means of nullifying, or at least mystifying, the cause of political disruption over the past 12 months — which was electorates, individuals, conscious and alert, thoughtful and engaged. And decisive too. Witness the end-of-year poll confirming that the vast majority of the 17.4million people who voted for Brexit, who knowingly authored this moment of history, would do so again.

The pre-modern treatment of 2016 as a disturbing force represents the externalisation, and in the process the delegitimisation, of humanity’s history-making potential that was much in evidence over the past 12 months. People’s consideration, choice and action upon politics, upon history, their deployment of their will to the end of altering the manner and content of the political realm, is reimagined as ‘the revenge of history’ or the peculiar workings of a warped annus horribilis. Even when the role of human agents in making history this year is acknowledged, it is in order to denude it of true agency, and reduce the authors of the new politics to unwitting facilitators of disorder. They are ‘low information’, unconscious of their own interests, and worse, ignorant of history. They’re treated, not as possessors of agency who have impacted upon history, but as illiterate ignorers of history’s warnings. They’re less history-makers than creatures who have failed to heed history’s correctives, and who will be punished, whether by economic hardship or political chaos, as a result.

The objectification of history at the expense of the human agency that makes history is one of the most powerful ideological themes of our times. Historical determinism is widespread. Many now conceive of themselves as the products of history, as the damaged goods of historical events or as fragile specks of anomie who must heed history’s warnings, be dutiful to the past, or at least to the reading of the past by a newly emboldened history class. Movements like Rhodes Must Fall, consisting of black students who want statues of Cecil Rhodes taken down, claim to be victims of ‘the colonial wound’. The children and even grandchildren of Holocaust victims or survivors claim to suffer from ‘Holocaust trauma’. Everywhere from Ireland, with its unsavoury obsession with the Famine of the 1840s and its impact on the Irish psyche, to the US, where slavery is now treated as a kind of original sin that the republic will never wipe clean, history appears not only as a power in itself, but as the sealer of nations’ fates and shaper of individuals’ minds and souls. History makes us, we don’t make it.

Even when instances of history-making are celebrated, even when it is acknowledged that there is more to human history than slavery, famine and war, there is a tendency to mystify the authorship of these impacts in history. Consider the much-loved Martin Luther King quote, about how ‘the arc of the moral universe is long’, but ‘it bends towards justice’. This speaks to the pacification, or even obscuring, of the actors in the impact on history made by the likes of the civil-rights movement. As one account puts it, King almost downplays his own ‘considerable amount of bending’ and the role he and his supporters played in ‘persuading Americans to end racial segregation’. President Obama adopted the ‘arc’ metaphor to create a sense, as one observer described it, that there is ‘an arc of history’, where ‘history is a story of progress toward an ever larger government at home and an ever more assertive America abroad’. However, with the rise of Trump and various other developments, ‘the arc of history seems to be bending toward something other than justice’, say the critics of Obama’s view of history. Here, again, we can see what the fearers of history and celebrators of history share in common: a view of history as a march, a force we’re at the mercy of, a thing that might bend towards justice or horror, and we can but hope for the former. We await history’s judgement; we dutifully heed its earlier judgements.

This externalisation of the making of history, this reduction of human agency to a mysterious, bending, powerful movement of history itself, has been a phenomenon for years. Marx noted it in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances’, he famously wrote. Furthermore, said Marx, they tend to rely on the moral authority of the past, on the heroism of history, to justify and embolden their own making of history. ‘Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody 1789’, he wrote. We ‘conjure up the dead of world history’ to impute our own history-making with authority, or as a cover for the limitations of our own history-making and our failure fully to realise our ambitions. We have seen some of this in 2016, with Brexit talked about as a British version of 1776 or as an achievement ‘more impressive than the French Revolution’: even the intellectual class’s supporters of Brexit borrow from the dead to imbue an event they cannot quite explain, their own event, with historic momentum.

This plundering of the past for moral authority, and this objectification of history either as a well of warnings for mankind or an arc that bends society and us towards something good, something better, speaks to mankind’s continuing discomfort with, or even doubt in, the idea of himself as history-maker. Yet what is history if not man’s deployment of judgement and will, his impact, his transformations? For all the claims of history ending or returning or seeking revenge and punishing us, the truth is history does not exist outside of human agency. History is human agency. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Holy Family, ‘History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.’

History is man. It is what we have thought and done and fought over. Yet in the reading of so many today, history stands above man, separate from him, imploring him to avoid certain things or ‘bending’ him towards other things — it is ‘a person apart’. What this objectification of history points to is a profound misunderstanding, or even fear, of man’s history-making potential. This potential scares us, even when it does good, so we project it elsewhere, hand it over to others, whether to figures from the past whose garb we put on as we make historic decisions ourselves, or to some abstract force or arc called ‘history’. We seem incapable of having, or unwilling to have, a reckoning with our history-making power; we seem reluctant to recognise that we have this power, even if we must use it in difficult situations, in circumstances not of our choosing, and so we disavow it, effectively. It’s one of the most peculiar phenomena in the modern historic period: our tendency to outsource or symbolise or even disown our making of history. So progress becomes a blessing of history, and things like Trump the revenge of history.

What ends up happening is that history, in the objectified and even weaponised sense it is understood today, becomes the enemy of history-making. History is conjured up to counter change, to weaken and dilute the very urge to make history. 2016 has made this clear. It has confirmed a profound fear of change among the West’s intellectual and political classes, which look upon Brexit and Trump and other events with an extraordinary sense of dread. They fear in particular for the standing of the Third Way, of what they view as the stability conferred on Western affairs by the wrapping up of the Cold War and the winding down of the historical political conflict of left vs right. In their eyes, that was history’s greatest achievement — history being the bestower of occasional fortunes — and now a more vengeful history threatens it, and threatens to unleash uncertainty, violence and possibly fascism. So they marshal history, objectified history and its warnings and threats, against change, against the making of history, against human agency. History becomes, not Marx’s ‘activity of man pursuing his aims’, but a check on the activity of man. It becomes a means of questioning and slowing man’s activity and thinking and choices. History becomes the controller of men, and a warning against change.

In this situation, it is imperative that we argue against history, against history as power. That we rage against it, in fact. The wonderful thing about 2016 has been its rekindling of the historical imagination. Vast numbers of people, using their intelligence and will, decided to impact on history. To strip away a temporary institution that had been naturalised by the elite as the normal and historically correct way of doing politics: the EU. And to deliver a salvo against an American establishment that presumed its way of politics is the only way of politics. People said, ‘There must be an alternative’, and in doing so they thought and acted historically, upon history.

Their greatest blow was against technocracy: the new politics as management, as the skill of overseeing society and fixing its fixable problems. Technocracy, in both the EU and Hillaryite versions, fundamentally represents the disavowal of, and certainly disapproval of, the desire to make history, or even to inject society and our lives with meaning. As Fukuyama put it back in 1992, ‘the end of history’ represented a passing on from the old ‘ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination and idealism’, and its replacement by ‘economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands’. That is, the new technocratic era seeks explicitly to rest, even to retire, human ‘courage, imagination and idealism’, human history-making, in preference for focusing on solving the small problems of daily life. It puts out to pasture the historical imagination itself, the idea that society could be dramatically different to how it is now, more meaningful, and that we might make it so through the operation of our daring and idealism. The dent to technocracy delivered in 2016 gives voice, not to history, but to historical thinking — to man as maker of history.

But something stands in our way: history. That is, history objectified, history used against us, history turned into a warning to prevent any challenge to the status quo, to technocracy, and to a fetishised stability that is nothing of the sort. When this is how history is understood and deployed, then yes, we should ignore it, and oppose it. Give me the ‘peril’ of ignoring history over the dead conformism and empty stability of obeying it. This stability is built on the suppression through technocracy of politics, of ideology, of the ‘daring, courage, imagination and idealism’, in Fukuyama’s words, that earlier historically conscious periods frequently called into action; it is a soulless stability, a stability that hinges on the demeaning of the historical imagination, and as such it deserves to be destroyed. So in 2017, do not heed ‘history’; challenge it. Challenge the dead lessons dredged up by a new political, expert and history class keen to correct our estimation of ourselves as the potential makers of history. Use the ‘daring, courage, imagination and idealism’ that technocracy has sought to decommission, and think and act historically. One ought always to be on the wrong side of history.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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