A global perspective

By Haines Brown, 9 February 1998

On 28 October, 1996, on the H-World List, Eric Martin posed an interesting question. Unfortunately, as best I can make out no one replied. I repeat his query here with my own response in the hope that people on the list will leap to the defense of Mazlich.

Eric Martin writes:

I have just finished reading “An Introduction to Global History” by Bruce Mazlish which is in “Conceptualizing Global History” (Westview Press, 1993) edited by he and Ralph Buultjens. I picked up the book because I am doing some research on Migrations and World History and this book contained an essay by Wang Gungwu on this topic, but of course being a World Historian in training I just could not pass up the introduction and in the process discovered something I thought was very interesting.

According to Bruce Mazlish there is a difference between “World” history and “Global” History. Perhaps I am the last person on this list to become aware of the distinctions, but I have been on this list for over two years and have seen these terms used as if everybody accepted that they are identical concepts. I had no idea there may be some sort of debate in this area, until now.

I will quote an important passage in Mazlish's work

“The starting point for global history lies in the following basic facts of our time (although others could be added): our thrust into space, imposing upon us an increasing sense of being in one world—”Spaceship Earth“—as seen from outside the earth's atmosphere; satellites in outer space that link the people of the earth in an unprecedented fashion; nuclear threats in the form of either weapons or utility plants, showing how the territorial state can no longer adequately protect its citizens from either military or ecological related ‘invasions’; environmental problems that refuse to conform to lines drawn on a map; and the multinational corporations that increasingly dominate our economic lives.

These and other ‘signs’ require us to design a new perspective to guide our understanding of what is happening around us.” (p. 2)

Mazlish argues that the essential difference between “World” History and “Global” History is that “Global” historians consciously begin from the present and specifically with the issue of “the globalization proceeding apace today” (p. 4). He criticizes “World” historians such as Braudel and Wallerstein for not extending the time frame of their work far enough into the present. (although he does parenthetically credit Wallerstein for correcting this problem with more recent work) Mazlish argues that most efforts at “World” History focus on the premodern period.

Mazlish states that there are many overlapping areas in the fields and that “a terminological quarrel is unhelpful” (p. 4) Yet at the same time he indicates the need for a Journal of “Global” History, an association, and “Global” sessions and panels and professional conferences. (p. 21) It sounds like a “terminological quarrel” would be helpful, and I would like to hear what other “World”/“Global” historians have to say on the matter.

Eric Martin
Northeastern University
Department of History

Here is a response which I did not send to the H-List. It is long.

I regret I do not have ready access to Mazlich's book, but allow me to infer a definition of “global history” and then address it without pretending to engage Mazlich himself. I gather that in the contemporary era the entire world represents an interaction sphere, and as such it offers a basis upon which a “global” history might be constructed. “World historians,” to the extent they do not engage the contemporary integrated world, really have no global vantage point from which to see and therefore interpret the world's past. This viewpoint I think raises some very interesting points that need to be looked at carefully.

How can an abstract relation can offer a vantage point at all? It is one thing to look at the past in terms of peoples' relations, but quite something else to suggest a relation offers a vantage point. Our outlook is determined by our social location, by the time, place and circumstance in which we happen to find ourselves. A relation is abstract and so is indeterminant. The absence of determination is not universality, but vacuity. Does an escape from time, place and circumstance lend a universal outlook (such as Stavranos' “lunar vantage point”) or only vacuity? Besides, other than an occasional shaman priest, I've never known anyone able to escape the limitations of this world.

The kind of relation with others implied by the term global integration tends to be commercial. That is, a relation that is highly mediated and impersonal, even alienated. Does this mean that global history is necessarily blind to the specifics which distinguish people and give them identity? What kind of relation do I have with others when I buy a cup of coffee? How does my awareness that I am somehow connected with the coffee manufacturer give me a universal outlook? Of course, when I order my coffee, I am not thinking of the manufacturer, and so why assume market participation has any significant or useful impact on how I see things?

On the other hand, I might actually feel some solidarity with the peasant growing the coffee beans, but that solidarity is not based on any commercial relation, but upon a shared experience of exploitation. In other words, why are global relations defined in causal terms rather than in, say, a common experience? Arguably, the proletariat is universal, not because one member of the class affects all others, but because they share a common relation of production.

Not all relations are ones that lead to shared interest of mutual benefit. Global war is a global interaction; global imperialism is universal exploitation; class contradictions are to be found everywhere. These are all relations among people, but it is hard to imagine how they could support a universal perspective. If one is to base a world history on globalism, the kind of relations implied must surely be defined and that definition justified.

Not all relations are significant. The air we breath encompasses the globe and is breathed by everyone else, but that does not provide everyone with a universal world view. Why are commercial relations privileged? The really significant relations I experience in daily life certainly are not commercial.

There seems to be an ambiguity about the profound difference between commercial relations and capitalist relations. Not all exchanges involve the circulation of capital, at least not in the classic meaning of the term. Some “trucking and bartering” may indeed be widespread, but the globalism of the definition I presume means modern commerce, which is the circulation of capital between the spheres of production and exchange. In the sense of contemporary globalism, the relations do not extend very far back in history. Either the vantage point is that of modern commercial relations, which is very narrow, reducing world history to just part of the world in relatively recent times and for a minor aspect of life, or it refers to all exchanges, in which case it is to too abstract and generalized to be of service.

Capitalist society is arguably contradictory, in which case the perspective of capital is that of an exploiting minority. Admittedly that's the way history has usually been written, but I'm not sure I want to embrace it for the coming century. I can't imagine a world history for the 21st century that is not fundamentally democratic and populist, not to mention scientific. It is the capitalist who is (although one wonders after the Asian financial crisis, for why not assume the global order is anarchic rather than rational?) the active agent in this global network. “He who has the gold rules!” Most of us ordinary people lack that kind of wealth and are simply buffeted about; we can only riot when food is no longer available at a price we can afford. It seems to me that a Global History, that adopts the vantage point of the owners of capital is not what the world really needs, and it necessarily deprives historical study of legitimacy.

The definition also leaves ambivalent the difference between universal relations, without any necessary effect upon consciousness, and the universal outlook that may result from such relations. If the focus is on a universal outlook, then the definition is hardly new. From the Enlightenment, the universal element was understood to be an aspect of the human psyche, a spark of the divine, perhaps. The argument is flattering, but not very sound, I'm afraid. To the extent we can define elements common in human nature, they are too abstract or vague to be of use. Also, historical explanation is not just in terms of the abstract, but also of the immediate and tangible, for which such abstract capacities such as man's “Promethean Spirit” fail to account. The pyramids are certainly evidence of human creativity, but knowing that people are creative hardly explains them.

It seems to me that the search for an abstract universal is essentially a European approach born in Medieval Judeo-Christian historiography and achieving a high point in the European Enlightenment where it gained secular form, although no less metaphysical. Some may conclude that any effort to achieve universality is hopelessly ideological and typical of a ruling class. However, why not try to define that universality in real, rather than metaphysical, terms? I believe this can be done if the particular and the universal are represented as (contradictory) aspects of one reality rather than as categorical opposites. We cannot avoid explaining just what we mean by “universal,” and why a world history must have such a perspective.

It is not clear if the definition refers to a vague interaction sphere, in which many people in many places affect each other in terms of economics or culture. A generalized interaction sphere is not a particularly useful concept, for it does not specify what is included. Westernization in the sense of certain values and life-styles? A scientific outlook on the world? The replacement of viable societies with lonely urbanized individuals? Modern productive technology? The list could go on. Also, the notion of interaction sphere must respond to the understanding of cultural anthropology that the global diffusion of culture is really a two way dialog between outside influence and local constraints, so that universalization is accompanied by emergent diversification (for example, interaction in the family gives rise to distinct personalities). Why assume that global interaction results in shared culture rather than greater cultural differentiation?

The notion of World System apparently avoids some of this ambiguity, but I'm not sure from the extract if the definition really means this rather than a vague “indeterminant interactionism” (Marx's phrase applied in a very telling critique). World Systems theory, however, has problems of its own. I get the impression that what distinguishes a world system is that there are system effects, a regular pattern of system behavior such as economic cycles. Perhaps there are such world systems, but I'm left with the impression that such a systems theory is too rigid and for most historical processes.

For example, suppose we are scientific realists and start with the historical processes actually observed. While there may be regular economic cycles at certain times and places, much more obvious are the two opposite thermodynamic processes: dissipation and emergence (entropy increase and decrease respectively). These are not “regular” behaviors in the ordinary sense. The former is not a “pattern,” and the latter, by definition, is unpredictable. And yet all historical processes or events are either dissipative or emergent. Things are winding down or winding up.

Applying this universal Second Law of Thermodynamics, we have no choice but to conclude that, everything else being the same, an “interaction sphere” will represent only an example of dissipation and as such be of no interest whatsoever to the historian. Emergence seems to characterize historical processes. Historians are interested in improbable outcomes, evidence of human creativity, active agents who shape the future. To avoid representing the whole of history as nothing more than universal dissipation, it is incumbent upon the historian specify the conditions for emergence in various times and places. World Systems theory does not do this because it embraces the quaint capitalist notion that trucking and bartering in itself creates new value, in direct violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Putting this objection aside, at least World Systems theory tries to keep in touch with the empirical dimension. But surely there's more to history than economic cycles or other regular systemic behaviors. For example, even in capitalist terms, the engine is the rational decision maker looking out upon a world of opportunity. This is not a regular pattern of behavior, but gets closer to what people actually do. If there are regular patterns of behavior, on what basis can we assume that they are significant beyond the particular aspect of life manifesting them. The answer, I fear, is that the cycles are evidence of regular interaction, and regular interaction the engine of historical development. The problem is that this tends to leave out the real creative energies of people. The engine of history becomes abstract, impersonal, spontaneous, and unexplained, and this worries me.

Having a present state serve as the basis for explaining the past is also problematic. Often history is written as if it were simply a path leading to an inevitable present. Hegel might suggest that the Owl of Minerva takes flight only at the gathering of dusk, but what he referred to was a singular process, perhaps what Spengler would call a “civilization.” Our understanding of world history today is that it is a multitude of profoundly diverse processes, some of which have entirely disappeared, while others have endured profound transformation and contradictions. So Hegel's insight is really hard to apply. Is globalization the outcome that expresses the implicit rationale of the world process from its beginning, or is it merely an expression of our arbitrary subjective vantage point?

Is there a “Vernunft der Geschichte?” I suspect this question depends on what we mean by it. Is history intelligible without some inner logic? This is a good question until we look at it, and as soon as we do it fades into the mists. For example, what is the logic of the moon's topography? Well, we have no doubt that the way thing are there are resulted from regular natural laws, which are sort of logical, but the outcome is highly irregular and surprising, which is not at all logical. In a sense, la Hegel, the outcome manifests the natural laws, but that's to miss what is really interesting and significant, which is the result, not of laws, but of a complex emergent process that has liberated itself from its original state. We understand the history of the moon's topography, and while this understanding does require we take into account covering laws, it also includes what is irregular and unique. If we understand the moon as an intelligible emergent process that has a logic but which also transcends that logic, why do we have such a problem with world history? Is the reason ideological?

Another kind of logic is that of functional coherence. One problem is that functionalists often do not define what they mean. In terms of system theory and thermodynamics, one might define functionalism as a mode of explanation based on the probable relation of the empirical qualities of the parts of a system. Arguably, this is a powerful tool, but only for systems with high entropy, not the systems of interest to the historian. For example, we see in world history the emergence of distinctions, not a dissipation toward homogeneity. Another problem is that life often seems contradictory, rather than functional. More precisely, it has long been argued by Marxists that the engine of history is social contradiction, and so any analytical tool that presumes a functional coherence necessarily obscures the historical process. It makes little sense to say that history is intelligible without also making very clear just what the engine of history is. That engine may be some divine spark, it may arise magically simply from trucking and bartering, it might arise from contradictory processes, but in each case, the “logic” of the outcome depends very much upon the driving engine. Merely offering an indeterminant interaction sphere as a universal vantage point for world history leaves out any logic of the whole that is sensitive to how things got the way they were.

It seems that the definition sees the logic of history as manifest in its outcome. This really causes some problems. Is the domination of finance capital through globalization in the last decade or so an indication that the engine of change in antiquity was a drive to accumulate capital? There is a danger that history read backward betrays the profound difference of the various pasts that undoubtedly marched to drummers who would not have understood the capitalist beat. Again, this seems a perpetuation of Enlightenment ideology, with its representation of history in terms of the stages of savagery, barbarism and civilization as steps toward the development of productive property. What would the classical political economist have thought of our world today in which such property is not only concentrated in the hands of a few, but is also usually controlled by impersonal institutions insensitive to the divine spark needed to make rational choices. That is, the Enlightenment ideology is not only Eurocentric, but is no longer suited to a world in which the base of the population are no longer small productive property owners. In short, seeing the world as a manifestation of property owners interacting to achieve optimal economic outcomes seems highly Eurocentric and ideological.

To see the whole of the past as simply an inescapable path leading to capitalist domination today becomes an ideological justification for that dominance; seeing globalization as the end of history is conservative, discouraging not only revolution, but also reform and democracy itself because history is presumed to be fulfilled in the present. Of course, to point out the ideological implications of a historical view does not invalidate it, but suggests at least that it is one-sided and incomplete.

In short, while “globalization” is certainly a popular term and seems especially attractive to imperialists, it lacks definition and carries with it too much ideological baggage. Perhaps if these problems were addressed it would shine a little brighter, but the quoted passages did not allow for that.

Haines Brown