27 October, 2014Issue 26.2History

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Historians Getting Things Done

Tom Cutterham

The History Manifesto
Jo Guldi and David Armitage
The History Manifesto
Cambridge University Press, 2014
175 pages
ISBN: 9781107432437

History, according to Jo Guldi and David Armitage, needs a confidence boost. It needs to be bolder, more assured, more engaged—and most of all, it needs to be bigger.

If history today is in trouble, they argue, the roots of the problem lie in the 1970s, when historians began to focus their attention more closely than ever before on the obscure stories of the ordinary, the marginalised, and the oppressed. This kind of history, what the authors call the Short Past, “reflected a call of conscience, a determination to make the institutions of history align with a more critical politics.” But that sense of purpose has gone astray. Its call has been drowned out by the demands of the historical career itself, by a cacophony of articles and monographs speaking to smaller and smaller audiences of anxious, precarious professionals. The History Manifesto is an intervention not just in the scholarly sense—it’s also the kind you organise for an addict.

For Guldi and Armitage, the most important element of history’s recovery plan is the return of long chronological spans, what they call (following French historians like Fernand Braudel, writing in the early- and mid-twentieth century) the longue durée. Rather than deep investigations of specific moments, or studies on the scale of an individual life, historians, they say, should be working with centuries. In the past, this was mainly achieved by relying on an existing body of work; history in broad sweeps, like Eric Hobsbawm’s four-volume history of the modern world, was done by synthesizing and reinterpreting the more detailed investigations undertaken by colleagues. In order to construct a complex edifice, lots of people had to do the groundwork. Guldi and Armitage’s book suggests this may no longer be the case. Now, after all, we have computers.

“In the era of digitised knowledge banks,” the authors write, “the basic tools for analysing social change around us are everywhere.” With Big Data, historians can capture the longue durée unmediated by local studies. Compiling and analysing enough quantitative information can generate qualitative interpretations and conclusions. If historians aren’t rushing to adopt this approach, it’s because they lack “the ability, the willingness, or even the courage” to do so. But Guldi and Armitage list trailblazers working in three crucial areas—climate, global governance, and inequality—who are apparently bringing data and long-term thinking to bear in new and exciting ways. Their most prominent example is Thomas Piketty and his recent blockbuster, Capital in the 21st Century, which used “the power of data” to shake the “prejudices and supposed laws of economists.” His book “exemplifies the power of historical studies, driven by data, to speak to policy and publics well beyond professional history.” Historians, not economists, are the ones who should really be best placed to follow his lead.

The History Manifesto envisages historians not in the study, the library, or the classroom, but striding the corridors of power, getting things done. The engaged historian is one who gets called in to impart the long view to civil servants and select committees. “In a crisis of short-termism,” with horizons determined by electoral and business cycles, “our world needs somewhere to turn to for information about the relationship between past and future.” With their specialism in critically comparing heterogeneous data, the new breed of historians will be there to help “intelligence services, the finance sector, and activists […] to interpret the long and short events that make up our world.” In the midst of what Guldi and Armitage label a war between experts, the role of the future history department will be “the arbitration of data.”

This is a manifesto aimed at the deciders of our world—inspiration-starved politicians, sceptical administrators, and the holders of purse-strings across public and private sectors. That includes the eighteen-year-olds currently doing cost-benefit analyses on the backs of their UCAS forms, and the cash-strapped Vice-Chancellors wondering which department to shut next. As the American Historical Association scrambles to redesign graduate programmes that will actually get people jobs, Guldi and Armitage are setting out a tempting package that could seriously impact future generations of training and scholarship. In 2008, the economists started to lose their grip on the sceptre of technocratic authority. This book is history’s pitch to take over as metadiscipline.

But it’s possible the authors have taken the wrong message from economics’ recent loss of face. Once they were brought inside the magic circle, once their way of looking at the world became the one that trumped all the others, economists largely stopped speaking truth to power. The discipline had more to gain from showing how the existence of billionaires was ultimately good for everyone than it did from questioning the wisdom of deregulation. Of course Guldi and Armitage advocate keeping history’s critical edge. The problem is that their vision of engagement is so embedded in the structures of elite political and financial power. The new generation of historical data-arbiters may find themselves checking their critique at the door to the boardroom.

Is there a way for historians to be engaged in the work of building a desirable future, without turning themselves into tools of the already-powerful? Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, historians in the first wave of critical social history took on precisely that task. They saw history as a way to puncture the ideological assumptions that underpinned a reactionary Cold War liberalism. In Guldi and Armitage’s telling, though, their approach had more to do with “Oedipal” rage and youthful “true rebellion” than with a serious attempt to solve the problem. Besides, that generation could rely on the expansion of universities to keep providing them with jobs, even while they set out to radically challenge the system. We can’t. The aim of The History Manifesto is to square the circle, by offering a vision of historical practice that hopes to justify itself to both capital and its interlocutors (“the finance sector, and activists”) at the same time.

That attempt is symptomatic of the much larger effort to mount a defence of the arts and humanities, along with the liberal university, the public intellectual, the printed newspaper, and the rest of it. Guldi and Armitage have gone one better than most, by refusing to be on the back foot. Their initiative should at least make us think about what it would mean to rebuild the discipline of history—and whether the interests of the different audiences they address can ever really be reconciled.

Tom Cutterham is the Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford. He is a contributing member of the early American history blog, The Junto.