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There has been an explosion in the writing of history in the last half-century. Those who believe in the importance of the humanities in a civilised society cannot but welcome the vast flow of books on ancient, medieval and modern history in the English-speaking world, books that now encompass the history of just about every country on the planet. The tale that is being told is again and again the tale of the human condition: how we have become what we are from what we were, or, to put it even more succinctly, who we are. In a short and ambitious book The History Manifesto, Jo Guldi and David Armitage (a justly celebrated historian of ideas from Harvard) have now extended the idea of who we are so that it becomes who we will become. They challenge the idea that history is all about the past by insisting that the insights of historians will enable us to cope more confidently with problems in the future, particularly the course of climate change. 

This is not simply a variant on the idea that we can learn from the past, something we are not very good at doing (just consider the recrudescence of anti-Semitism in contemporary Europe). Their programme of "looking at the past in the service of the future" has an ethical dimension. Does capitalism even out inequalities or increase them? Who should take the blame for the damage being done to the earth's climate?  With questions such as these, historians should surely join national and international debates alongside economists and sociologists; indeed, these authors maintain, historians are better placed to contribute to these debates because they are able to handle evidence drawn from very long periods of time. If you go back to the election of Thatcher or Blair, you might find an answer to the question of whether the poor have become poorer during the last few decades; but that quite obviously is not the whole picture, which has to be placed in a much longer setting, and taken out of the hands of party politicians.

Guldi and Armitage are well aware of a problem. The historians whose company they keep, in the universities, are not generally interested in the very big picture. This has often been tackled by talented historians outside the universities, such as Tom Holland (for the ancient world) or Antony Beevor (for the 20th century). Meanwhile, academic historians have for several decades been talking of themselves as a "profession". This idea of history as a profession has created barriers between those writing history and their readers, who do not just consist of fellow-historians and students, but of all those with a curiosity about the past.  Maybe, indeed, it is intended to do that.  Among too many university-based historians, the writing of history has become something of an esoteric art that demands the use of opaque and pretentious language to mask banalities (remember the Emperor's New Clothes). Right across the humanities, in every university, scholars produce a succession of monographs that are read by a few dozen specialists and that then gather dust on the shelves of university libraries. What one has to show is that one's arguments are more sophisticated, more deeply researched, more important, than one's rivals, whom one can of course damn in the review pages of equally little-read journals. The dividend is appreciable: promotion step by step up the slippery ladder that takes a humble Junior Research Fellow towards a full Professorship. 

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Tom Barson
January 3rd, 2015
5:01 PM
There is kind of a contradiction between recommending that historians both return to la longue durée AND that they become counselors to politicians. What you point out about Braudel’s approach is exactly what politicians are not elected to hear: that our options are a lot more constrained than we like to admit and that political leaders’ actions, decisions, and policies matter less "in the long run" than is often assumed. Now, Braudel was always at pains to point out that he was a pre-industrial historian, writing about an age that was less dynamic and far more confronted with the slow-changing “limits of the possible” than our own. How to deal with possibilities and limits in our more dynamic age is in some way a whole different problem. So I suspect what really excites the manifesto’s authors, in their quest for relevance, are the types of modeling and scenario running (“counterfactual analyses”) that are coming into vogue as historical tools. History is way more fun and exciting if you can re-write it and, even better, manipulate it to point to any future you want. Of course, you need long-series data to do that; hence this turn from the micro. It remains to be seen how this will turn out. To me, it seems like a kind of history informed by science fiction and simulation games – so I’m eager to actually read some research of this type to see if this bears out. I think whatever smoothing Piketty did to handle gaps in his series data is going to seem tame compared to calculating the effect, say, of our having switched to wind power a hundred years ago. The irony, perhaps, is that the longue durée never went away. But Braudel’s followers turned out be world-systems sociologists (Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi), regionalists (Janet Abu-Lughod) or more interested in military/political (William NcNeil, Paul Kennedy) than in social history. There is plenty in all of these writers for politicians to consider and scant evidence they are doing it. Or, perhaps, that they can or should. Adam Tooze, recently, quotes Woodrow Wilson as “playing [at Versailles] for the next hundred years” and then proceeds to show what a hopeless approach this refusal of the short-term can be. It was the more press-of-circumstances set of ideas floated by the French, revised after the next war as NATO and the European Community, that actually turned into long-term solutions.

November 19th, 2014
5:11 AM
The fourth words means "truculent elephant"

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