From technoglobalism and its discontents to uncovering 21st-century slave auctions, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
The rise of populism in the politics of the Global North—to be found most telegenically in the Trumpenproletariat in the United States and the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom—has several causes. One particularly salient one is the growing sense among the losers from globalization that their elites have at best ignored their interests or at worst deliberately tried to rig the system against them. The first claim is undoubtedly too often true; the second may resemble a conspiracy theory, but, to take just one example, the Panama Papers revelation that trillions of dollars annually escape lawful taxation, turning tax codes that are progressive on paper into codes that are regressive in reality, makes charges of willful plutocratic shenanigans hard to discredit.
Traditional working classes in many countries are increasingly feeling the churn of economic change playing out on a global scale, and if this churn is an example of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” they sense mostly the destruction, not the creativity. Economists tell the newly déclassé and dispirited that, while the Gini Coefficient in their country has widened, it has shrunk for the world as a whole, and that eventually the newly empowered middle classes in formerly poorer countries will generate a huge demand for the Global North’s imports. Such arguments among disemployed steelworkers in Sheffield and autoworkers in Detroit play poorly, to put it mildly. They sense that, by means fair and foul, lawful and not quite lawful, redistribution in recent decades has been upward, sometimes very high upward. It suits not their mood to wait patiently on the dole while burgeoning Chinese, Nigerian, and Bangladeshi middle classes generate some import demand. [continue reading]
Age of Revolutions
The usual story told of the Cherokees in the revolutionary era is a dire one. Starting with the catastrophic Anglo-Cherokee War of 1760-61, this story traces devastating land cessions from 1765, further horrendous warfare through the summer of 1776, and then complete surrender by July 1777. Whenever historians have tried to shine some light into this sorry tale, they have often reached for the example of the Chickamaugas – a band of mostly young Cherokees who split from the main group in late ’76 and continued the armed resistance to revolutionary settlers for nearly twenty more years. In the face of such a “hopeless” and “ruinous” general history, the feisty militancy of a minority of hold-outs offers some welcome relief.
A biographical perspective does not change the basic contours of the Cherokees’ narrative, of course. But biography can propose something other than relief. Zeroing in on the individual indigenous experience of colonial revolution presents ways of rethinking both catastrophe and resistance. This, in turn, offers a more nuanced and usable past for indigenous survivors. [continue reading]
At a recent conference I attended, I was seated next to a prominent American trade policy expert. We began to talk about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which President Donald Trump has blamed for American workers’ woes and is trying to renegotiate. “I never thought NAFTA was a big deal,” the economist said.
I was astonished. The expert had been one of the most prominent and vocal advocates of NAFTA when the deal was concluded a quarter-century ago. He and other trade economists had played a big part in selling the agreement to the American public. “I supported NAFTA because I thought it would pave the way for further trade agreements,” my companion explained. A couple of weeks later, I was at a dinner in Europe, where the speaker was a former finance minister of a eurozone country. The topic was the rise of populism. The former minister had left politics and had strong words about the mistakes he thought the European policy elite had made. “We accuse populists of making promises they cannot keep, but we should turn that criticism back on ourselves,” he told us. [continue reading]
There was a time, not long after the cold war ended, when it looked as though the vast investments the west had made in Kremlinology were about to be liquidated. Having failed to foresee communism’s collapse, the west’s Soviet experts faced grim prospects in a world that had apparently left them behind. How fast things change: today, Russia is back in the news, reprising for the internet era its familiar role as antihero to the freedom-loving west. Putin’s muscle-flexing has produced an old-fashioned territorial struggle in Ukraine and Crimea; the Kremlin’s newfangled cyberwar has generated a firestorm in the US and the results of the 2016 presidential election, far from calming relations between the two old superpowers, have made them tenser than they have been for years.
Yet amid this drama, the response to the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution has been curiously muted and not only in Russia itself. Fifty years ago, there was an outpouring of high-calibre work that testified to the west’s desire to understand its adversary. This year, there has been relatively little. One reason for this is obvious. Communism itself, as a system of thought counterposed to capitalism and private property, is more or less dead in Russia and moribund outside. And with communism gone, anti-communism has become meaningless. But not only communism. Socialism more broadly suffered a heavy blow after 1989. Most leftist parties tacked sharply to the centre, drawn by the dream of a new third way and only austerity economics has done anything to staunch the trend. [continue reading]
Nima Elbagir, Raja Razek, Alex Platt and Bryony Jones
“Eight hundred,” says the auctioneer. “900 … 1,000 … 1,100 …” Sold. For 1,200 Libyan dinars — the equivalent of $800. Not a used car, a piece of land, or an item of furniture. Not “merchandise” at all, but two human beings.