Tag: American History

Who Is Responsible? An Interview with Tracy Neumann on “Remaking the Rustbelt” and the Transnational Fortunes of Post-Industrial America and Canada

Pittsburgh, in case you haven’t heard, is on the rise.

But don’t take it from us. The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked Pittsburgh as the most livable city in the United States. Zagat calls it the #1 food city in the United States. Money magazine names it one of the best places to live in the Northeast United States. Travel and Leisure magazine calls it one of the places to visit in the United States. The former steel city located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers in western Pennsylvania appeals, it seems, to a wide variety of audiences. The Huffington Post calls it one of several cities that aspiring techies should consider moving to. And startup founders who leave Silicon Valley or New York’s “Silicon Alley” for the more affordable setting of Pittsburgh, and its top research universities, might find themselves moving in next to retirees, as well, as Kiplinger magazine has selected it as a top location to retire. (These, and more of the myriad accolades Pittsburgh has garnered, are exhaustively catalogued by VisitPITTSBURGH, the tourism agency of Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located).

Pittsburgh, in short, seems like an island of prosperity and success in North America’s Rust Belt, a region more commonly associated with economic involution, plant shutdowns, and “ruin porn” than food trucks and hipsters. How did it avert the fate of post-industrial economic decline that blighted many a Youngstown, Ohio, Gary, Indiana, or Elkhart, Indiana? Yet perhaps the better question to ask might be why Pittsburgh embraced a post-industrial future as avidly as it did. After all, many other cities in the Rust Belt, particularly those in neighboring Canada, retained their steel factories far longer than did Pittsburgh, all the while managing a transition to white-collar employment far more successfully than did their southern cousins of Youngstown, Gary, or Elkhart. When one casts their field of vision across the horizons of Lake Erie or Lake Huron to the smokestacks and chimneys of Canada, the trajectory and choices involved in the transition of the Rust Belt from the 1940s to today looks quite different. Such a narrative frame casts into question the narrative of inevitable de-industrialization, and makes clear how post-industrialism was as much as policy choice as it was a historical inevitability.

"Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America," the recent book of Professor Tracy Neumann (Wayne State University)

“Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America,” the recent book of Professor Tracy Neumann (Wayne State University)

Such is the intervention of Tracy Neumann, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Wayne State University in Detroit, in her recent book Remaking the Rustbelt: The Postindustrial Transformation of North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). In the book, Neumann compares and contrasts the trajectory of two North American steel towns, Pittsburgh and Hamilton, Ontario, showing how de-industrialization was as much the result of a set of policy choices embraced by civic elites as it was a historical inevitability. Even before the decade of the 1970s most commonly associated with de-industrialization, policy elites in both Pittsburgh and Hamilton drew on a limited set of post-industrial urban visions as they sought to plot out what a city built more on services, rather than manufacturing—on briefcases than lunch pails—would look like.

Drawing on a number of city, provincial and state, and national archives in the United States and Canada, Neumann shows how in spite of a shared vision of post-industrial flourishing, the very different institutional settings in which Hamilton’s and Pittsburgh’s civic elites operated created a very different set of policy outcomes. Unfettered by federal or state restrictions, Pittsburgh’s corporate leaders and Democratic mayors were able to rapidly transform their city into what they envisioned would be a Mecca for white-collar workers—causing, in the process, immense pain and dislocation for the city’s actual, rather than desired, residents. In Canada, meanwhile, civic leaders in Hamilton aspired to a similarly service industry-oriented future for their city, but remained captive to provincial policies that channeled post-industrial growth toward Toronto. In Neumann’s telling, the global structure of economic change matters—but so, too, do institutions and the menu of policy choices with which elected officials and corporate elites imagine themselves presented.

At a moment when many Americans and Canadians, and other denizens of a North Atlantic Rust Belt are posing the question of whether the move from pig iron to management consulting—or, for many, from stable lifetime employment to a McJob—Neumann’s book comes as a welcome entry into the conversation. More broadly, however, Remaking the Rustbelt provides an example of how Americanists are writing urban history in a transnational and global key. Readers interested in what, exactly, the relationship of post-industrialism to “neoliberalism” in the United States will find much of value in Neumann’s work, but so, too, will scholars studying how processes of global change find their way to the ground across regions through the grinders and gears of policymaking. That makes it a valuable contribution whether the pair of cities one is interested is Pittsburgh and Hamilton, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, or Mumbai and Dubai. The Executive Director of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, Timothy Nunan (TPF), recently had the opportunity to sit down with Tracy Neumann (TN) to discuss Remaking the Rust Belt, some of the arguments of the book, and what she has in store following the June release of her first monograph.…

Conference: “Ronald Reagan and the Transformation of Global Politics in the 1980s” (University of Texas, Austin, January 2017)

For scholars of American history in particular, but also for scholars from other fields interested in US history, here’s a recent call for papers for a terrific conference, “Ronald Reagan and the Transformation of Global Politics in the 1980s,” taking place this coming January 19-21, 2017 at the University of Texas at Austin. The call for…

Ryan Irwin, “Denizens of the Center: Law as American Grand Strategy” (Yale U., March 31, 2016)

Readers of the Global History Forum may remember our interview with SUNY-Albany historian Ryan Irwin on his book Gordian Knot and his work more broadly in international history. If you liked that piece and are located in the Northeast, then mark your calendar. This March 31, Irwin will be giving a lecture at Yale University on…

Lecturership in International History, University of Leeds

For those readers on the job market this year, the School of History of University of Leeds has recently announced a Lecturership in International History after 1945 beginning this September. The position is especially advertised for specialists on the foreign relations of the United States, but all are encouraged to apply. Read on: Applications are…

From Swadeshi to GDP: Discussing India’s Paths to Development With Corinna Unger

India, or so the geopolitical soothsayers tell us these days, is on the rise. Soon to be the world’s most populous country, since liberalization in the early 1990s, the South Asian giant has seen rates of economic growth that approach China’s. And while regional frozen conflicts like Kashmir, internal guerilla movements, and the decades-long rivalry with nuclear Pakistan do not leave New Delhi with a no-problems neighborhood, India has mostly managed to avoid troubling its neighbors too much. With an aggressively re-assured nationalist Prime Minister in Narendra Modi and with aspirations of, someday, becoming a upper-income country, seeming less far fetched than in a long time, India appears to have escaped the centuries-long reputation of being a place of hunger and famine.

For those days are not far removed. As scholars have shown, not only was the late British period marked by deadly combinations of market forces and climatic event that devastated Indian farmers; as late as 1943, the Bengal Famine wiped out three million people in eastern India. After independence from the British in 1947, independent India’s leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru made it a point to turn the agrarian nation into an industrial country, turning to outside powers like the United States, the Soviet Union, West Germany, and others, to build turnkey steel plants. At the same time, as we have seen in early Toynbee Prize Foundation interviews, agriculture and the transformation of Indian communities formed a crucial arena of developmental politicking, too. India had global significance, too, for not only was it seen as a crucial “swing player” in a Cold War world seen as threatened by a massive Communist Bloc; more than that, the sheer size and scale of the place made it a gigantic laboratory for various models of economic development often first pioneered in the Global North.

Corinna Unger’s “Entwicklungspfade in Indien. Eine internationale Geschichte, 1947-1980”, the focus of this installment of the Global History Forum.  Pictured on the cover of the book is a road-building project in the Punjab in 1958.

Still, as Cold War diplomatic archives have opened their doors only recently–and as historians have also only relatively recently recognized the quest for socioeconomic development as a legitimate object of study–our knowledge of how undeveloped nations became “developed,” or “developed” themselves remains clouded. Until, that is, a book like Corinna Unger’s Entwicklungspfade in Indien. Eine internationale Geschichte (Developmental Paths in India: An International History) appears. In her book, published this year with the Wallstein Verlag, Unger, a Professor of History at the Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany, explores India’s engagement of foreign expertise (especially that of the United States and West Germany) from 1947 to 1980.

More than diving further chronologically into the history of development than many works, Unger’s work sets itself apart from much of the historiography by showing how many macro-narratives of development, like the Green Revolution or the perception of urban slums as spaces of rural-to-urban economic transition, emerged during the years after the romance of steel plants and hydroelectric dams lost its luster. Based on exhaustive research across multiple continents, Unger’s work sheds a light into the international history of development–and into the biography of an Indian state and economy that now looks, less nervously in the past but still not without anxiety, towards “growth,” “modernization,” and “development” as key markers of the nation’s progress. We had the chance recently to sit down with Professor Unger to discuss some of the themes in her recent work–and how she came to it in the first place.…

Thinking Big … and Small About U.S. History in a Global Context with Daniel Immerwahr

Whether they know it or not, Americans are a people ruled by community organizers, indeed fascinated by them. Barack Obama, many will know, worked as a community organizer in Chicago for three years in the late 1980s, while former Secretary of State and 2016 Presidential hopeful Hilary Clinton wrote her thesis on the community organizer Saul Alinsky. The current slate of potential Republican challengers may not boast quite the same communitarian credentials – Scott Walker was a Boy Scout and Bobby Jindal a volunteer at LSU football games – but the once-touted David Petraeus was, of course, famous as a master of counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, a man who (prior to his resignation as CIA Director) was famed to have mastered the community scale as the proper war against Iraqi rebels and the Taliban. Fittingly for a nation that supposedly bowls alone, Americans are obsessed with community – what it was, how to get it back, indeed, how to develop it.

Daniel Immerwahr, assistant professor of History at Northwestern University and our most recent guest to the Global History Forum

Daniel Immerwahr, assistant professor of History at Northwestern University and our most recent guest to the Global History Forum

As our most recent guest to the Global History Forum, Daniel Immerwahr, shows, this American fascination with community is not some recent invention. Indeed, even as the scholarly literature on the United States in the world these days is in the midst of a focus on development in the Third World, typically the term (“development”) means heavy infrastructure. “Dams are the temples of modern India,” said post-independence Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru, and the same could be said of the 21st century historiography of the United States in a global context. Yet as Immerwahr, an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, shows in his recent book Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development, this dream of large-scale development was always accompanied by a parallel drive to use the small scale – the group scale – of community development as a tool to guide Third World societies away from the temptations of Moscow and Beijing.

How did we forget this story? Given the prominence that the historiography today tends to assign to dams, power plants, and railroads, why did we lose the focus on community in America’s outreach to the world? Most importantly, given that community development’s accomplishments in both the Third World and in America itself are so ambiguous, why do Americans remained fascinated with it as a panacea for poverty? These are precisely the questions that were in our mind when we had the chance to speak with Professor Immerwahr about his latest work and his forthcoming projects on American international history.…

Of Nation-States and the United States: An Interview with Ryan Irwin

It’s hard to escape the conclusion today that writing about American decline is a growth industry. For at least the last decade, pundits have spoken of a “post-American century” in which, China, the BRICS, or the “Next Eleven” will constitute an alternative power center to Washington. Scanning global headlines, whether it’s the recently published The Governance of China (a collection of speeches on global governance by Chinese General Secretary Xi Jiping), Vladimir Putin’s assertion of a “Russian world” or the inauguration of the Eurasian Union, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s pretensions to lead the Muslim World against an alleged upswell in anti-Islamic attitudes launched by Europe, the world does not lack today for leaders of global and regional powers claiming to articulate a post-American moment. Conversely, in the United States itself, neoconservatives like Robert Kagan argue that “superpowers don’t get to retire“–that the United States must re-assert itself globally around the world to respond to challengers like China, Russia, or Turkey.

Lost, however, in all of the debates about new powers or the reinvention of old ones is what exactly the American project stood for in the first place. What do we mean when we talk about a “post-American world”? About an international system of rules and practices anchored by Washington? True, look to the writings of pundits like Walter Russell Mead or Thomas Friedman, and you can find some articulation of this vision. Even then, however, it’s difficult to understand the roots of our current global system of economic and financial globalization secured by overwhelming American military might and the embedding of American power into alliance systems in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. How did America, “the most belated of all nations” (Theodore Roosevelt), come to occupy such a dominating position in the international system? Why did American élites come to favor this style of internationalism, as opposed to flat-out imperialism and annexation of territory? Assuming this system is actually coming to an end today, challenged by the emergence of a multipolar world system, why didn’t the whole house come crashing down when faced with the Soviet challenge, the explosion in the number of sovereign nation-states through decolonization, or the collapse of Bretton Woods?

In short, understanding the present and future of American internationalism requires understanding its past–not only through the lens of America, moreover, but understanding how the American project interacted with exogenous shifts and shocks to the international system, too–the ebb and flow of German, then Russian power, or decolonization, for example.

Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

It’s for this reason that the work of Ryan Irwin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum, is so valuable. Irwin, an Assistant Professor of History at SUNY-Albany, writes on the United States in the world, but from an international perspective that makes his work unusual. As comfortable in U.S. national archives as in those of the United Nations–or South Africa, Irwin seeks to understand the trajectory of American power as it interacted with an international order of its making, but not always under its control. We were delighted, then, to sit down with him this winter to discuss his evolution as a historian, his early work, and his ongoing projects.