This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From why ‘liberalism’ means empire to the global struggle over the value of money, here are this week’s top recommended reads in imperial and global history.

Why Liberalism Means Empire

Daniel McCarthy
American Conservative

History ended on October 14, 1806. That was the day of the Battle of Jena, the turning point, as far as philosopher G.W.F. Hegel was concerned, in humanity’s struggle for freedom. Once Napoleon triumphed over the reactionary forces of Prussia, the ideals that post-revolutionary France represented—not just liberté, égalité, and fraternité, but the modern state and its legal order—would serve as the model for Europe and world. When Francis Fukuyama revisited this idea in “The End of History?”—with a question mark—in the pages of The National Interest a quarter century ago, he had to remind readers what Hegel had meant. Events would still happen, including big events like wars. What had ended was a sequence of political and cultural forms whose internal contradictions each gave rise to the next step in freedom’s development: from the ancient world to medieval Christendom to, finally, what one 20th-century interpreter of Hegel called “the universal homogeneous state.” Or as Fukuyama called it, “liberal democracy.” [. . .]  “The victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas of consciousness,” Fukuyama wrote, “and is as yet incomplete in the material world.” America’s mission would hence be to complete it, through international trade agreements, promotion of human rights, and of course war.

But what if Fukuyama was wrong and liberal democracy is not the end of the history after all? What if, on the contrary, the American way of life is an accident of history—one made possible only by a special kind of global security environment? What in fact has triumphed over the last 250 years—not since the Battle of Jena in 1806 but since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763—is not an idea but an institution: empire. Successive British and American empires created and upheld the world order in which liberalism could flourish. Fukuyama’s “liberal democracy” turns out to be a synonym for “the attitudes and institutions of a world in which Anglo-American power is dominant.” [continue reading]

Obituary: Nadine Gordimer

Morakabe Raks Seakhoa
Africa is a Country

My first introduction to Comrade Nadine was through her writing during my student activist days in the mid-1970s and later when I was serving five years on Robben Island as a political prisoner from 1979 to 1984. Her writing struck me so powerfully as it spoke of the lived experiences of people like me fighting the everyday trauma of the inequities and horror of apartheid. Alongside the writings of Karl Marx, Rosa Luxembourg, Samora Machel, Fidel Castro, Mariama Ba, Chinua Achebe and countless other revolutionary authors and thinkers, Comrade Nadine’s work occupied a pride of place in the reading and study menu of Robben Island prisoners and activists in the streets of townships, rural villages, exiled freedom fighters, or university lecture halls.

It was after my release from a year-long (1986-1987) State of Emergency detention that I met Comrade Nadine face to face in July 1987 when she and other comrades (Prof Njabulo Ndebele, Achmat Dangor, Andries Oliphant, James Matthews, Gladys Thomas, Nise Malange, Mavis Smallberg, Barbie Schreiner, among others) converged at Wits University to form the once-vibrant but now-defunct Congress of South African Writers (COSAW). She was, and continued to be, a live wire of COSAW until its demise in the late 1990′s. She was always ready to serve, through its regional and national structures, the course of empowering young up-and-coming writers by organizing and taking part in creative writing workshops, encouraging “barefoot publishing,” straddling the country distributing books through what COSAW termed “suitcase” libraries, fundraising, international writer-exchange programmes, interaction with other writers’ organizations on the African Continent and elsewhere. She even put her own money into uplifting an already accomplished musician’s knowledge of reading and writing music and awards to encourage short story writing in African languages. [continue reading]

Roundtable: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left (Chapter 1)

Louis F. Cooper
U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Perry Anderson calls the period from the early republic to Pearl Harbor “the pre-history of the American empire” (‘Imperium’, p.11). Foreign policy in this era oscillated between a hemisphere-oriented relative isolationism and “a messianic activism” (p.8). With World War II and the postwar settlement, “hemispheric separatism” and “redemptive interventionism” began “to fuse into a durable synthesis” (p.20). The synthesis reached fruition during the Cold War with the construction of “a global empire” (p.110) based on both “the general interests of capital” and the “supremacy of the United States” (p.111). Since 1945, the operation of this imperium, Anderson writes, “has been largely insulated from the internal political system” (p.5). “Commonality of outlook and continuity of objectives set the administration of empire apart from rule of the homeland” (p.5).

[. . . .] Speaking very generally, critiques of U.S. foreign policy can take two forms. One option is to examine the contradictions, pathologies, and dynamics of the “empire.” Or, while acknowledging the value of that task, the critic might also suggest ways in which the U.S. role in the world should change. There is a risk that the latter sort of intervention into the foreign-policy debate will be insufficiently radical, but running that risk is probably unavoidable if one wants to address, even if superficially, the content of policy. [continue reading]

Currency Wars, or Why You Should Care About the Global Struggle Over the Value of Money

Steven Bryan

In October 2010, the Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega made news by claiming an “international currency war” had broken out. According to Mantega, countries worldwide were simultaneously attempting to force down the value of their money in order to reduce the price of their products sold in foreign markets. Central banks in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan had recently intervened in currency markets to control their currencies’ appreciation. The Bank of England, similarly, had encouraged the pound to fall since 2008. The Swiss National Bank had intervened in foreign exchange markets as well. For Mantega, such maneuvers signaled that these and other countries were entering into a competitive spiral of devaluations in an effort to export their way out of the ongoing economic slump.

And the inescapable conclusion for him and other finance ministers was that no country could gain if all countries devalued their currencies at once. They feared that such fiddling with currency would only serve to damage those countries most dependent on exports (such as Brazil), and increase political tensions worldwide. The term “currency war” promptly became a global buzz phrase. Commentators and public officials—like Dominque Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, and his counterpart at the World Bank, Robert Zoellick—warned about the dangers of conflicts over money. Such wars, they argued alarmingly, had proven disastrous historically and, most chillingly, had worsened, if not actually caused, the Great Depression. [continue reading]

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