This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

Has Downton Abbey played an imperial role in Anglo-Chinese relations? Ever heard of the Cold War’s socialist internet? What is the current state of international history? What if the US Civil War had turned out differently?

 Here are the top reads of the week.

Welcome to the Empire Club

Here are some ideas for that perfect downer of a present for the future, the dark side of British culture. Keen diplomatic observers will have noted and analysed the geopolitical ramifications of David Cameron’s present to Li Keqiang during the Chinese premier’s recent visit to London. The widely publicised gift, a shooting script of the first episode of Downton Abbey signed by the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, was rich in subtext. It is, I suppose, just about possible that Li is simply a fan of the programme. But that seems preposterous. This is politics. There was some kind of power-game going on, have no doubt about that.

Here is what may have been intended. First, the simplest scenario: Cameron was proudly showing Li how life was during the final years of the golden age of the British Empire. All that gentility, those plush interiors, that hegemonic drive. Intimidation through costume drama: soft power at its finest.

But hold on to your teacups. We learn that it was Li, in fact, who expressed his admiration for the series, and even wished to visit its Hampshire location, Highclere Castle. How devilishly clever. A softly powerful serve returned with stinging topspin. This, Li says as he receives the epochal document from Cameron, is what you used to have. This was the high point of British life. How far you have fallen. Now you huddle around your television sets to watch Britain’s Got Talent. How does that feel? Li will doubtless have seen the most recent episode of Downton, set in 1923. Guess what is coming up in three years’ time? The General Strike, that’s what. It was all downhill from there.

But Cameron has followed his softly powerful serve with a neat volley. Yes, Britain used to be this great. It was good to have an empire. But you know what? All empires flounder. You may be feeling the rush of power right now, and feel like you can do anything you want (enter stage left: fleeting reference to human rights) but don’t for one moment think it is easy, or that it is going to last.

This, I think, was Cameron’s hidden message. But he might have gone further. Downton Abbey is all very well, but he could have really stretched the point of imperial decline with some further well-chosen gifts. The prime minister, steeped in popular culture, or at least Dark Side of the Moon, missed an opportunity. But here are some ideas for that perfect downer of a present for the future, the dark side of British culture: [continue reading]

Picture Piece: Cybersyn, Chile 1971-73

Mark Fisher
Frieze Magazine

Photo of Cybersyn, Salvador Allende's socialist version of the internet.
Photo of Cybersyn, Salvador Allende’s socialist version of the internet.

This is a tantalizing glimpse of a world that could have been our world. What we are looking at is the heart of the Cybersyn system, created for Salvador Allende’s socialist Chilean government by the British cybernetician Stafford Beer. Beer’s ambition was to ‘implant an electronic nervous system’ into Chile. With its network of telex machines and other communication devices, Cybersyn was to be – in the words of Andy Beckett, author of Pinochet in Piccadilly (2003) – a ‘socialist internet, decades ahead of its time’.

Capitalist propagandists claimed that this was a Big Brother-style surveillance system, but the aim was exactly the opposite: Beer and Allende wanted a network that would allow workers unprecedented levels of control over their own lives. Instead of commanding from on high, the government would be able to respond to up-to-the-minute information coming from factories. Yet Cybersyn was envisaged as much more than a system for relaying economic data: it was also hoped that it would eventually allow the pop­u­la­tion to instantaneously communicate its feelings about decisions the government had taken.

In 1973, General Pinochet’s CIA-backed military coup brutally overthrew Allende’s government. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. [continue reading]

The State of International History: Where We’ve Been, Where We Are, and Where We’re Going

Marc Trachtenberg

There are two things I’d like to talk with you about today.  First, I want to talk about how our field—“diplomatic history,” as it used to be called, or the history of international relations, or even just plain “international history”—has changed over the last thirty or forty years—that is, even since I did my own graduate work in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  And then I want to move on to what many of you might find a more interesting, although not unrelated, topic, and that’s the question of how this field should develop in the years to come.

But let me start by talking neither about the past nor about the future of the discipline, but about the present.  Where do we stand now?  What are we to make of the kind of work that is being done today?  This is not an easy question to answer in any simple way.  I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the phrase Charles Dickens used at the start of A Tale of Two Cities—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”—but I couldn’t get that sentence out of my mind when I was trying to decide what to say here today.  In some ways, we’re living in a golden age…[continue reading]

If the Civil War Had a Different Ending

Paul J. Sanders
National Interest

Some American conservatives appear to revel in discussing what the world might be like if the United States didn’t exist—a sentiment today indulged by Dinesh D’Souza’s new film “America.”  Nevertheless, while Americans are justifiably proud of their past, and of their contributions to the world, independence for England’s North American colonies was bound to happen sooner or later.  And the nation that emerged was likely to draw heavily upon its colonial master’s classically liberal political and legal traditions, though possibly expressed differently if the country emerged later with other leaders.  Still, this world-without-America speculation can be both thought-provoking and entertaining.  In that spirit, as Americans celebrate July 4, they might also consider an independence day that didn’t happen and how different America and the world might be if it had. [continue reading]

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