Interviews January 13, 2021

On Global History: Avatars, Dilemmas, Partitions, Problems—A Conversation with Jeremy Adelman

This conversation with Toynbee Prize Foundation Trustee Jeremy Adelman took place during the global COVID-19 pandemic, the final weeks of the US Presidential election, and the end of the Brexit negotiations. Through the lens of global history, we discussed tense relations amid the most recent wave of globalization and our present moment of resurgent nationalisms.

—Fernando Gómez Herrero (Birkbeck, University of London)

Toynbee Prize Foundation Trustee Jeremy Adelman

Fernando Gómez Herrero: Could you tell us a bit about your current book project Earth Hunger: Global Integration and the Need for Strangers?

Jeremy Adelman: On the heels of writing my biography of Albert O. Hirschmann, I was thinking through the big themes of the 20th century, and that exploded into this book, which is a history of interdependence—that is when strangers affect each other’s lives, even if they don’t realize it and they never know one another or meet one another. It is a phenomenon that really arises in the middle of the 19th century. It is recognizable in the middle of the 19th century to observers and critics like John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx and many others, but it thickens and deepens by the end of the 19th century. By the First World War, I would say, the world is an enclosed, interdependent survival unit, and people at that point are arguing over what that means: what are our responsibilities, obligations, and burdens when it comes to dealing with strangers? And dealing with strangers not because they have needs, but because we have need for them. It is very important that the thematic is the need for strangers, and not the needs of strangers, which is the traditional way international and cosmopolitan thinking has been framed.

By the First World War...the world is an enclosed, interdependent survival unit, and people at that point are arguing over what that means: what are our responsibilities, obligations, and burdens when it comes to dealing with strangers? And dealing with strangers not because they have needs, but because we have need for them. It is very important that the thematic is the need for strangers, and not the needs of strangers, which is the traditional way international and cosmopolitan thinking has been framed.

So, I am trying to reset the conversation about interdependence that looks at the anxieties and the euphorias that surround the way we need strangers and strangers need us—for food, fibre, security, and so on. That tension and debate has been unfolding since the middle of the 19th century and I think it is the debate that has defined the modern condition. We are not even aware that we are having this debate now, even as the nationalists and the Brexiteers and the Trumpistas of the world have particular global imaginaries. The nationalists don’t believe in dismantling the world order; they just dream of a hierarchical world order rather than a more horizontal, egalitarian one where countries cooperate with each other. They like the language of domination over cooperation. So, it is trying to capture the narrative of what those big debates look like that the book is really about, starting with the 18the century and coming up all the way to the present.    

FGH: Would native and foreign be a valid binary for what you are trying to describe?

JA: In a way, except that part of what happens with global integration and this debate is that natives themselves may sometimes feel estranged from their own country. I think in fact the Brexit vote and the vote for Trump is in some senses a reminder that the voices of the natives are in fact outcries of the estranged—that they become near-strangers, within what they thought was their own country. And that is in itself a global phenomenon.   

FGH: Turning the discussion to the field and to methodology more broadly, if we take Global History to be multi-sited, decentred history, why do we need it?

JA: You framed it in an interesting way: do we need it? I don’t know. What do we need? I think it helps the conversation and it helps the arguments about our times. It is in fact a field that is responsive to the urgencies of our time, and, with it, it carries a lot of historic baggage. It is not a coincidence that global history emerged just as globalization became a reality. There was a connection between what was happening in the real world and the way historians were re-setting their questions. I would say right now global history really consists of three commitments: one is trying to get beyond “methodological nationalism.” So, for instance, even the nation—super-relevant, super-charged—is itself the effect of global processes, and not some product of what we may call an auto-poietic process that emerges from the inside of the society, sticks out the grounds for a national identity, and then agrees to lock arms with other nations and societies in the creation of something called international. The causality goes the other way around. And you have to understand that. So, getting beyond methodological nationalism.

Getting beyond Eurocentrism: that is number two. That does not mean that Europe and the centrality of Europe in the global narrative isn’t relative. In fact, it means that it must be explained, and it must be explained globally.

The third is simply: much more attention to complexity, acknowledging that the forces that give rise to the categories that allow us to make sense of the world are really complicated.

...even the nation—super-relevant, super-charged—is itself the effect of global processes, and not some product of what we may call an auto-poietic process that emerges from the inside of the society, sticks out the grounds for a national identity, and then agrees to lock arms with other nations and societies in the creation of something called international. The causality goes the other way around.

FGH: If you were to be self-reflexive about your own perspective as you approach the history of ideas, what would you say?

JA: I’d say one thing I worry about sometimes is what happens to the economy. I started off as an economic historian very concerned with economic development and distribution; and sometimes I ask myself: is my interest in cognitive processes and ideas in the making of the world been allowed to float too far away from the mothership of the economy and to do so without collapsing into vulgar Marxist habits of saying that all ideas are just reflections of class interests? How can we think about the relationship between the economy and what the economy needs and incentivizes and the kinds of ideas and cognitive processes that we rely upon to make sense of the world? That is something I am very concerned about.

FGH: I am not after some easy or cheap confessional declarations, but it seems to me that in “going global” your ideology and politics go out of the window—whether it is the issue of nationalism, democracy, or any issue. You lay out the landscape, and you say that there are plural options, forces of integration and disintegration, people like this and people don’t like that. You are selling a plurality of living options, but you seem to be rather careful about your own landscape, ideological lens, or own community. What about your own politics of knowledge production? Isn’t it missing?

JA: The question is very meta but it is also, let us say, personal. You want me to answer on a personal level. I will say one of the challenges I face—and that I think a lot of us face; I am not unique in this way although I try to be very conscious of it—is not to assume that I am right. Either in the way I answer a question or in the way I pose a question. This gets to the global temperament of thinking about what something looks like from somebody else’s perspective. What concerns me a lot now is the poverty of the arguments about the state of the world—including local worlds—falling between standoff positions of rival certainties. I try to tout the virtues of uncertainty and doubt because I think we are listening to a cacophony of arguments, in which rival positions are invested, and are not listening to each other, because we are committed to being right, even before we articulate the arguments. That is getting us absolutely nowhere. It is anti-intellectual and it is boring and it is creating a lot of problems. So, I am trying to think more consciously about writing stories that are not premised on that kind of certainty. 

What concerns me a lot now is the poverty of the arguments about the state of the world—including local worlds—falling between standoff positions of rival certainties. I try to tout the virtues of uncertainty and doubt because I think we are listening to a cacophony of arguments, in which rival positions are invested, and are not listening to each other, because we are committed to being right, even before we articulate the arguments. That is getting us absolutely nowhere. It is anti-intellectual and it is boring and it is creating a lot of problems. So, I am trying to think more consciously about writing stories that are not premised on that kind of certainty.

FGH: I suppose the automatic tension will be between this “global” (which is not apparently universal or total) and the various “area studies” (Latin America, Atlantic, Iberian, etc.).

JA: The global isn’t the whole world. But it is a way of thinking about societies’ development as they are connected to and integrated with others’ societies. That can happen at many scales. It can be planetary. And we are living in planetary scale when we are worried about nuclear Armageddon or climate change. But in other moments and in other dynamics it does not necessarily have to be the entire planet. What the global means is that you don’t think of societies as existing in isolated, self-developing units. They exist within a wider constellation of the inter-social or international (because we choose the unit of the nation-state as the repository for sovereignty for the modern world). So, the scales can shift and move. It is about not being, what we call in history, 'internalist' about the units we are describing, but rather an attention to the external dynamics, not as the only ones, but as having power in shaping the internal ones.

FGH: So how do such “global” areas fare in the dominant matrix of the Anglo world?

JA: That’s a tough question. Not particularly well, I would say. You know as well as I do that the Anglo sphere is still excessively self-referential. It has been a life-long struggle. Whether I was in Canada, or Britain, or the United States, those units—whether Central America, Africa, the Middle East, or wherever it may be—were screaming from the fringes. The way in which the academy in the Anglo sphere keeps those voices at the margins, and continues to, is really remarkable.

FGH: Nevertheless, sometimes it can seem as though everybody is “doing the global.” Global History is almost like a scatter-gun advertisement technique addressed to whoever is out there via Zoom (good morning here, good afternoon there, good night elsewhere…). We are selling knowledge to whomever is out there. I remember the rubric ‘global Latin America,’ which seems to be a contradiction in terms. Why do you think everyone is selling it?

JA: I am not sure I agree with the premise of your question. They may be selling it, but it is like snake oil in the sense that the global can just be a brand for nothing. I think there is a lot of that going on. Yet, I am not convinced that everyone is doing this. I think there has been a very strong counter-push, a resurgence of the local and of the national. In fact, I think we are seeing that, in part, too as a response to COVID-19: a re-identification with and a re-signification of the nation itself.  So much so that Jeremy Farrar, who is head of the Wellcome Trust in the U.K., has argued that we have seen is “vaccine nationalism.” So, I am not sure we are all global now, even if it is kind of an empty category. I think there are a lot of counterpoints and resistance to it, and that is healthy. There was way too much comfort in 2008 with global this, global that.

FGH: What do we do with area studies?

JA: It worries me. I think area studies matter. We can go on about it, but it is not a choice of either-or between the global and area studies. Just as the nation was not made obsolete through global interdependence, regions matter though not in the ways that the traditional Area Studies configuration held—that these were “civilizations” with their own internalist logic, that they became highly racialized, etc. I would say in fact regions are ways to think about the positionality of actors that does not assume their universality and uniformity.

Regions matter though not in the ways that the traditional Area Studies configuration held—that these were “civilizations” with their own internalist logic, that they became highly racialized, etc. I would say in fact regions are ways to think about the positionality of actors that does not assume their universality and uniformity.

FGH: Isn’t it true that what you say about the social sciences or nomothetic fields of knowledge (using Wallerstein’s nomenclature) also applies to the maligned idiographic fields (“modern languages, literatures, and cultures”)?

JA: Yes. That’s right. That is why I don’t think we can go back to all those internalist stories about regions or civilizations, which would be the idiographic style. But nor do we want to collapse into the alternative, which is nomothetic. And I think this was a device that opened up in the 1980s. We are plagued by it. It is an important debate, but it is now sterile and exhausted, and we must find strategies for moving past it.

FGH: Tell us more about your ‘Declaration of Interdependence.’ We are moving away, somewhat, from an Appiah-type eulogy of cosmopolitanism, and we are entertaining mixed feelings about general interconnectedness. Now, neither are we enthusiastic cosmopolitanists nor backlash Nation-Firsters. Yet, between these, it can seem to me at points as though you are developing a kind of pallid humanitarianism in which the prose has a tremendous level of generality.

JA: You are not the first to have this concern about my work, and I would ask to distinguish my position from that of simply occupying a middle ground as if there was some space in the middle between these polar positions. That is very different from creating a space in which we are capable of hearing the counter-arguments, considering them, and refuting them. These are two different ways of thinking about the centre. Not the centre as an alternative to extremes, but the centre as a place where we agree to commit to civic arguments, the condition of which is scaling back over-commitment to our own correctness and being open to the falsifiability of our claims.

So, interdependence. That is kind of a style and an approach, and it is toward that end that I chose to have conversations across divides. Interdependence takes from the Latin American critique of capitalist development that says that all capitalist development systems are hierarchical and stratified, even when they integrate. And, in fact, that integration creates stratification. That was then a marker for dependency theory: that some societies in the course of becoming developed and wealthy do so by exploiting and dominating other societies. What I am trying to add is the prefix “inter-,” which is to say, that the flow goes both ways, always.  Even if it is asymmetrical, unfair, and unjust, the flows and the dynamics always go both ways.

FGH: I really enjoyed your article “War and revolution in the Iberian Atlantic,” included in the volume The Iberian World: 1450-1820 edited by Fernando Bouza, Pedcro Cardim, and Antonio Feros. Is your conclusion that there were multiple options for multiple subjects overstepping newly formed national boundaries across the Atlantic expanse? You lay out the landscape: we are not reading back the nation; so we are dealing with a big expanse, call it ‘water’ or ‘the Atlantic,’ and we see two notions, war and revolution, but not the drastic-Russian type, the Bolshevik option, instead the bourgeois-liberal nineteenth-century type of revolution in Latin America, the ‘criollo’ modality. I am wondering: is this the way to go? No big Platonian origin of things that matter, no big catastrophic teleological end of anything, but a rich plurality of social actors doing a plurality of things and narratives with an invitation to the reader to help his/herself to his/her favourite “dish”?

JA: First, what I tried to do is to exhume the native categories of an experience of a shattering world. What was that native category? It was empire and monarchy, not nation. Nation was the effect of the crisis; not the cause. Nationalist historians have never really got that, right? That the epic struggle was over the future of the empire. Only later on do we think of the nation as the necessary outcome for the Age of Revolutions, and after that comes a nationalist historiography that reads it backwards and totally anachronistically. Second, if we think about it globally, the struggle over the existence of the empire itself is not something that just goes on inside the empire, but goes on within the set of complex relationships between imperial parts and rival empires. So you have to put war and the organization of mass violence in the middle of it. There are many things to be said about the nature of violence in the making, unmaking, and remaking of world systems. And so that is what that essay is trying to get at.

FGH: If I were to listen to you in my provincial locality, I could still ask you: and what are we learning—wars, revolutions and all—down there in those Latin American movements that I could add to my celebratory impulse of the American Revolution?

JA: One thing is to think about the American Revolution differently. I have written another piece titled “An Age of Imperial Revolutions,” in which I am taking the Latin American perspective on the crisis of the Ibero-American imperial systems as a way to rethink the Anglo-American system, which is to say that you can’t tell the story of the American Revolution without thinking about the role of the Spanish and the French Empires in that struggle. And secondly, that for much longer than American nationalist historians have reckoned with, the fight was not over the birth of the nation but over the future of the empire. So, for instance, you have to put the loyalists back into the story of the American Revolution and stop assuming that every colonialist was a proto-nationalist. Huge numbers of settlers remained loyal to the Crown. Many colonies in what was considered British North America remained loyal to the Crown. All the Caribbean colonies did and of course Canada did. So, the American Revolution is an invention that has been projected backwards. It was an imperial revolution that produced this thing called the United States, which, even back then, before the Civil War, was always spoken of in plural terms. Only after the Civil War did they call the United States in the singular form. It was always many jostling, fighting ideas with many unresolved conflicts that you can see repeat themselves in what is often called the Second American Revolution, which is the Civil War. Even now we can see all the unfinished business of that conflict.

FGH: The nation is not the final teleology of history, fair enough, we are not nineteenth-century historians anymore, our “decimonónicos” say, but I suppose complicating the narrative of the nation, is taking place at this moment of nationalist resurgence…

JA: Absolutely.

FGH: Within the second wave or third wave of globalization.

JA: I agree, and that is the uphill struggle in the fight over methodological nationalism.

FGH: You write at the end of that chapter, and you do it very carefully and parenthetically, that “the influence of North American constitutionalism has been altogether exaggerated.” Would you be able to expand on this for us?

JA: I think this was partly an invention of Americans and partly of many liberal constitutionalists later on in the nineteenth century. You’ve alluded to this earlier—the “failurist default” of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American historiography: we failed and because of our failures there is nothing redeemable at all about our historical experiences. Therefore, all of our constitutionalist experimentation that just went on was doomed to fail, and so later on in the 1860s some jurists will invent this idea that we had been trying to borrow from the Anglo-American, particularly the American model, ever since, especially when it comes to issues of federalism. I just think that is wrong. All of the constitutionalists were reading documents all the time, imported from all over the place, translating, cutting and pasting, and yet we pick out the American articles as if they had this totemic significance. I spent a lot of time looking at those constitutional debates at the River Plate: Swiss conceptions of federalism were enormously important. They were very global thinkers. It does not mean they were thinking about the global system, although many of them were, but that they were drawing inspiration from many parts simultaneously.

Jeremy Adelman and Fernando Gómez Herrero

FGH: I am going to ask the same question that you include at the beginning of the magnificent volume Empire and the Social Sciences:
Global Histories of Knowledge
: why empire in the grand scheme of things?

JA: That is a good question. Because, I would say, for long, long periods, as world systems were being made and remade, imperial units were the units through which actors constructed the world system. We can unpack what an empire is, but among other things, empires for many centuries were the units wrestling with governing difference. That they were internally heterogenous and recognized heterogeneity is in fact what defined them as empires, as opposed to other forms of political community. 

FGH: And, following empire, why the generic “social sciences” in no specific time and place? If I were a sociologist or an anthropologist, I don’t know if I would see myself addressed in this work.

JA: Returning to an earlier point, I agree with you that the global has very often been an instrument for reprovincializing the academic discourse. We can talk more about this but that is a big problem. In fact, in some cases it has led to a revitalization of empire and of imperial history, which comes to empire in the social sciences. So, why the social sciences so generically put? Because I really think we have to be careful about being anachronistic and anachronistic about professionalization. The term of “social sciences” is a relatively recent one. What would have been called sociology, even in the late nineteenth century, was an admixture of economics, anthropology, etc. What was then imagined as disciplines were much more porous than the norms that govern them now. So, I am also trying to capture this fluidity and openness in that volume. The other is, of course, that there are many different kinds and styles of social science mobilized by imperial actors. I took advantage of imperial systems to do the kind of work that they did. And, in fact, to a large extent the creation of the modern world of social sciences has been branded by empire. The discipline that has been most conscious of this has, of course, been anthropology. We can talk about that as an example of why it happens, but economic development, the origins and theory of international relations, etc., they are all connected to the ways in which social scientists got employed by and for empire to do fieldwork for the empire itself. And it was not just a European habit. It was also a Japanese one, Australian, etc.

FGH: The final question has to do with your mood or your emotional tonality. I see it in your prose, in your lectures, in conversation: something comes across that is very even-tempered, very measured, as though there was no pain, hurt, blood, shout, scream, etc. How would you address your own affect in your practice of global history or in your own professional craft as a historian in 2020?

JA: Partly, I am trying to be contrarian, and this is may be a dissatisfying answer to a good question, which is to say we live in such an impassioned world, and it is not that I am dispassionate, but that I think the emotional attachment to the stories and the narratives—and I have been using these words a lot—has been privileged at the expense of setting aside one’s own identity to be able to understand where the emotion of the other is coming from. If you live with your emotions that very often produces a dialectic that gets in the way of understanding, which is really what I am trying to do. So, my mood right now is very often to be calm or cool, or even-tempered, yes.  I have a lot of colleagues who are outraged all the time, and it is not that I am not outraged, or that I am not scared or worried about the future of the planet, and of our kids, but leading with that, just adds fuel. I am trying to say, what if we step back, how then can we re-imagine and reformat histories for the present?

 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. The complete interview can be accessed here.

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