Jürgen Osterhammel’s macro-history

This review was first published in Overland.

I’ve been reading Jürgen Osterhammel’s history of the nineteenth centuryThe Transformation of the World. What can you say about this breath-taking kaleidoscope of narrative (and meta-narrative) history? It’s almost as impressive and various as the century it dissects.

Transformation of the world coverThe Transformation of the World attempts at once a synthesis and a critique – you might even say an exegesis – of contemporary historical scholarship on this most vital and arresting of periods. ‘The histories that interest me,’ Osterhammel writes, ‘do not involve a linear, “and then came such and such” narrative spread over a hundred or more years; rather they consist of transitions and transformations.’

By training, Osterhammel is a specialist in Chinese history, but he clearly knows a thing or too about the burgeoning field of ‘macro-history’. His command of the historical literature is staggering. Each chapter reads like a self-contained essay, often of startling originality, on topics such as ‘energy and industry’ and ‘imperial systems and nation-states’. His turn of thought is inquisitive but also rigorous, and his approach to various topics is by turns surprising and provocative. Beginning his chapter on economic history, for instance, Osterhammel is confident enough to approach the industrial revolution by writing, in a teasing tone, that ‘it may be appropriate to place an essay on industry and energy at the beginning of the third part of this book’ (p. 637). The chapter is a crystalline masterpiece of historical writing. ‘It is time to decenter the Industrial Revolution,’ he quips. My response: hey, why not?

Osterhammel’s method is syncretic and panoramic. His chapter on cities, for instance, harks back to the classic work of Asa Briggs, while his chapter on the frontier wars that everywhere pressured and subjugated Indigenous peoples in the period is a masterpiece of historical scholarship and mordant style. While one reviewer has criticised ’a drastic mismatch between the immensity of scale and the modesty of argument’, for mine it is precisely his humility and polyglot historical philosophy that makes this such an enjoyable book.

Osterhammel concludes with another surprise: a rather optimistic perspective of the century’s achievements. Ideas, resources and people became more mobile than perhaps any time in world history since the break-up of the western Roman Empire – not always for the good, certainly, but dynamic and transformative nonetheless. Despite the century’s atrocities, it was also an epoch in which liberal tenets of equality and liberation made great strides, culminating in the miraculous year of 1863 when serfdom was abolished in Russia, and slavery emancipated in the Union-controlled United States. The century produced a global capitalist system and vast empires that spanned the globe. But it also incubated new ideologies of dissident ideas: socialism and anarchism, Jacksonian democracy and liberal constitutionalism. In the case of socialism, this ideological movement created an entirely new sort of state.

Finally, Osterhammel decides, the nineteenth century was a time of emancipation, which survived an era of rapacious colonialism and imperialism to flourish in unexpected places, particularly in Africa and Asia. Gazed at across the smoking ruins of Europe in 1918, ‘the world of yesterday’ described by Zweig seemed to have vanished forever. But the seeds of the social flora of the later twentieth century – Osterhammel names liberalism, pacifism, trade unionism and democratic socialism – had demonstrably been sown in the nineteenth.

The best article about freelancing – ever

Richard Morgan has written the best article about freelancing I’ve ever read at The Awl.

Excerpt below, but make sure you read the entire bitter-sweet funny-sad melancholy-hilarious magnum opus.

Heroes be damned; a writer should not model themselves after an editor. That is probably the single best realization I have made as a freelancer.

Moss said the thing that all editors inevitably tell all writers—something along the lines of “I really admire your determination, because I tried freelancing and didn’t last six months.” Editors like to talk about how much they need freelancers and how much they envy our freedom and our work ethic and our Rolodex. Whenever a friend loses his staff job at a magazine or newspaper, his ensuing panic reminds me that they put all their eggs in one basket and that I am cushioned because I have my eggs spread across so many baskets (which is a different kind of panic). Freelancing has great rewards, but trajectory is not really one of them. You do not go from being a freelance writer to a freelance editor to a freelance deputy managing editor. Essentially, I’m doing the same thing I was doing in 2003. The market for my vaudevillian sales of wonder tonic can dry up at any moment. An editor leaves. A magazine folds. And poof! Gone.

For the record, I’ve been freelancing for nine years and I’ve liked nearly all the editors I’ve ever written for. Editors are a writer’s best friend!

Charles Taylor’s modern social imaginaries

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately of Charles Taylor’s work, particularly his magisterial A Secular Age.

Today – a link to a PDF of his which summarises one of his key ideas: “modern social imaginaries”:

This essay seeks to shed light on both the original and contemporary issues about modernity by defining the self-understandings that have been constitutive of it. Western modernity in this view is inseparable from a certain kind of social imaginary, and the differences among today’s multiple modernities are understood in terms of the divergent social imaginaries involved. This approach is not the same as one that might focus on the ideas as against the institutions of modernity. The social imaginary is not a set of ideas; rather it is what enables, through making sense of, the practices of a society.

So – what are the modern social imaginaries? Let’s take a brief journey through Taylor’s argument. (It’s worth mentioning here Taylor is talking about “the West” – roughly the industrialising nations of north-western Europe and their colonies in the new world, in quite conscious homage to Weber).

Taylor thinks that a new “moral order” emerged in the 17th century in the wake of thinkers such as Grotius and Locke. This new moral order was distinguishable from pre-modern moral orders like that articulated by Plato in The Republic:

The picture of society is that of individuals who come together to form a political entity against a certain preexisting moral background and with certain ends in view. The moral background is one of natural rights; these people already have certain moral obligations toward one another. The ends sought are certain common benefits, of which security is the most important.

This new moral order brings about a change in the way God is envisaged:

The notion that God governs the world according to a benign plan was ancient, even pre-Christian, with roots in Judaism as well as Stoicism. What is new is the way of conceiving his benevolent scheme […] what is added in the eighteenth century is an appreciation of the way in which human life is designed so as to produce mutual benefit. Emphasis is sometimes laid on mutual benevolence, but very often the happy design is identified in the existence of what one might call “invisible hand” factors. By this I mean actions and attitudes that we are “programmed” for, which have systematically beneficent results for the general happiness, even though these are not part of what is intended in the action or affirmed in the attitude. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith has provided us with the most famous of these mechanisms, whereby our search for our own individual prosperity redounds to the general welfare.

This last sentence is worth dwelling on, if only because of the astonishing number of economists who appear unaware of the overtly religious subtext of one of economics most cherished theories – it’s still quite easy to find economists who nowadays think of “the invisible hand” in explicitly secular terms, as for instance the emergent property of markets in equilibrium. Another fascinating factoid: Taylor cites Antoine de Montchrétien as the apparent coiner of the term “political economy.”

Moving on, Taylor argues that what we can see here is the beginning of economic liberalism, and the “the gradual promotion of the economic to its central place, a promotion already clearly visible in the eighteenth century.” Hence, one of the key aspects of the modern social imaginary is the economy. Taylor identifies two more: “the public sphere” and “the practices and outlooks of democratic self-rule.”

So, to sum up, Taylor think that there are three dimensions to the “modern social imaginary”:

  • 1) the liberal economy
  • 2) the public sphere of newspapers, feuilletons and political speech, and
  • 3) the citizen state and civil society more generally

    In a future post, I’ll explore perhaps the most interesting of Taylor’s imaginaries, his ideas of “stranger sociability” and their concomitant expressions in political mobilisation, fashion and sexual expression as means towards personal identity making in modern societies.