The Best Of All Possible Worlds.
Above: a screen cap from shipmap.org.
This is an essay about ideas — specifically, political thought and the current moment of globalization. It’s led to editorials about cosmopolitanism and the general call for the need to defend globalization, which Barack Obama and Malcolm Turnbull have both taken respective turns doing. But when they have defended globalization (and, let’s be clear: just because the far-right is in the middle of an act of globalizing — Le Pen trying to travel to UK before the Brexit vote, Farage traveling to the U.S. to offer up a speech in praise of Trump, the far-right in Austria on the verge of winning the Presidency––doesn’t mean they should get to set the agenda), they’ve done so in ways that strike me as still not having the ability to reach the people they need to reach and empower the people they need to empower. I think that that task can partly be accomplished by taking some of the academic discussions that have been happening around the concepts of political thought and global history and breaking them down to a conversational level.
I’d argue that not only is there a need to push for a more academic interest in our own political history, but that there ought to be a much more pronounced academic interest in a global sense of political history and thought, because the conversational version of what that would be is something sorely needed right now against far-right political groups who are trying to find ways to globalize in this present moment.
John Dunn, a political theorist and professor emeritus at King’s College, Cambridge, argued for the need for a global history of political thought in 2013. “Modern social sciences equip us very poorly to understand what is going on in the human world, and … what prevents them from doing so better — beyond human frailty, the limits of human cognitive powers, and the internal obstacles to their individual success as any point in time — is that they’ve conscientiously crippled themselves in one fundamental respect: by incapacitating themselves to grasp comprehension and experience of politics. In that sense, my case is for seeing a global history of political thinking as a partial epistemic remedy for an epistemic wound the modern academy has inflicted on itself.”
As if on cue, The Prospect of Global History (OUP) was released in January of 2016, partly as an extension of the work being done at the Centre for Global History. During a panel discussing the book, Professor Hannah-Louise Clark noted that “It’s much harder to talk about what doesn’t travel and the unevenness of connections … How do we know a micro-story [perhaps the story of a laborer] belongs to the Qing Empire and not some other kind of macro-level unit?”
It’s a hard question to answer. For instance, when I spoke with a friend in Scotland, I was told of the story of James MacPherson, a Scottish poet who travelled the Highlands who wrote and published a book filled with what he claimed to be stories that had been told to him when he travelled there. The book was a hit, so much so that Jefferson learned Gaelic to read these ‘poetically pure’ stories in the original — the problem being, of course, that MacPherson made the stories up, raising the question as to why it was worth traveling in the first place.
But the reactive response a story like this implies would also lead to a deterministic — if not outright fatalistic — conclusion: context is too perpetually specific and culture too permanently different to be able to translate political thought adequately. If translators sometimes have a hard time jumping from language to language, wouldn’t politics be all the harder? If it took Steve Silberman nearly 3,000 words in 2011 to properly contextualize the fact to Americans that — hey — the NHS in the U.K. isn’t actually as scary as you might think it is, what hope did an activist like Garry Davis have in pushing and agitating for a “World Passport?”
A week after the UK voted to leave the European Union, I attended a day and a half of a conference on political thought and utopias at the University of London. Of all things. It was not logical to think that attending a conference on political utopias at University College London would have any impact, bearing, or relevance to the fact that the vote happened and the vote was what it was — one speaker even plainly acknowledged the disconnect between the nature of what graduate students and guest lecturers were speaking on and analyzing.
But that belied the potential of the moment at hand, because what good is political thought if not to remind ourselves that something doesn’t have to be the way it is — that there is a gap between action and ideal worth closing? Why couldn’t we react as Herman Melville did to travel, where — in his words — when one travels …
… you get rid of a few prejudices … The Spanish matador, who devoutly believes in the proverb ‘Cruel as a Turk,’ goes to Turkey, sees that people are kind to all animals; sees docile horses, never balky, gentle, obedient, exceedingly intelligent, yet never beaten; and comes home to his bull fights with a very different impression of his own humanity. The stock-broker goes to Thessalonica and finds infidels more honest than Christians; the teetotaller finds a country in France where all drink and no one gets drunk; the prejudiced against color finds several hundreds millions of people of all shades of color and all degrees of intellect, rank, and social worth, generals, judges, priests, and kings, and learns to give up his foolish prejudice … In the adornment of our houses, frescoes have taken the places of dead white. God is liberal of color; so should man be … Travel to a large and generous nature is as a new birth.
Or why couldn’t we react as E.B. White did when asked to pen a few words on democracy?
Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the don’t in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.
Where is the global language that contains that kind of perpetual capacity, the kind of language where miners can see the coming end of coal, look out to the rest of the world, and begin to transition in a way that doesn’t dishonor the honor of that work and the fact that it was so central in the identities of so many for so long? To avoid — as Grayson Perry suggested in the documentary All Man — the kind of modernist-styled fracturing that came about as a result of losing a job like that? How do you define the economic value of a place for a single person in an economically globalized world? Is there something in the recent Deliveroo strike that could be illustrative here?
And that’s the one thing that’s continued to come to mind when I look at a raft of articles that have come out accusing social media of destroying democracy, of global elites supposedly forsaking their countrymen, modern life destroying democracy (though the idea of a contagion effect crossing itself with ‘the polarization effect’ is an interesting idea worth exploring further) all the while ignoring the procedural way by which democracies socially self-regulate and instead letting one prescriptive item after the other mark the ethereal agenda: Netenyahu appeasing the far right in the West Bank, David Cameron appeasing the far right and allowing a vote on the UK’s membership in the United Kingdom to go ahead, and Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent attempt to appease and appeal by suggesting that a ban on the Burkini should be applied to all of France.
Above: Estimated daily truck traffic: 2020, via The Department of Transportation.
That doesn’t have to be our fate. Instead, I feel like some activist somewhere ought to be handing out maps like the ones included here at every conceivable sort of political gathering: the number of economic opportunities in the world often exceeds the attempts of political rhetoric to match it — when’s the last time you heard a Presidential candidate talking about helping small businesses capitalize on trucking routes between Texas and California, for instance? — and it would do us well to remember that as we head into the future and ask ourselves what kind of globalism we might want, how that will square with climate change and the probable need for geo-engineering projects, and how it all ought to be done.