The Global Cold War and the Empire of Justice

In my last post I outlined historian Odd Arne Wested’s argument for the ideological foundations of American policy during the Cold War. Unlike earlier generations of Cold War historians he places American Cold War policies in the the context of a long history of territorial expansion based on an ideology of progress with the US as uniquely qualified to export the first political system based on scientific principles. These principles were founded on individualism and the centrality of the market. On this basis, Wested emphasizes a line of thinking coupled with foreign intervention that runs from Jefferson’s Barbary Wars of the early 19th century through the occupation of the Philippines in the 1890s to the quagmire of the American war in Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s.


Marx, Engels, Lenin: the personification of Marxism-Leninism, the universalist ideology of the Soviet version of modernity.

He takes a parallel tack in addressing the roots of Soviet thinking during the Cold War and Soviet foreign interventions, particularly in the Third World. In both cases, policies were inspired by ideologies related to historical missions each state took upon itself for the (presumed) welfare of societies everywhere.

Like the United States, the Soviet state was founded on the ideas and plans for the betterment of human, rather than concepts of identity and nation. Both were envisaged by their founders to be grand experiments, on the success of which the future of humankind depended. (39)

Wested is careful to acknowledge that there are many factors which distinguish the Soviet and American contexts from one another. Russia on the eve of the Communist revolution was overwhelmingly rural. Serfdom was not abolished until the middle of the 19th century– hundreds of years after the waning of feudalism among the British ancestors of the American revolutionaries. The Russian middle class was minuscule.

These important differences aside, the Russian/Soviet and American trajectories embody important parallels. Like their American revolutionary counterparts, Russian Communist revolutionaries– the Bolsheviks– inherited an old expansionist empire much as the United States developed out of the British Empire. Like their American counterparts, Russian Communists believed their version of modernity was a gift to the world.

In both cases the ideologies that justified intervention had developed from concerns that were formed in earlier centuries, under different regimes. For the Russian Communists, this meant that not only did they inherit a multicultural space in which Russian was spoken by less than half the population, but they also took over a state in which the tsars for at least two generations had attempted a policy of Russification and modernization of their non-Russian subjects. Many Russians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including some who became Communists, believed that their country had been endowed with a special destiny to clear the Asian wilderness and civilize the tribes of the East. (40)

On this foundation of parallel, if opposed, ideologies and of inherited presumptions of cultural superiority in an age of territorial expansion, Wested charts the development of the peculiarly Russian/Soviet version of this trajectory. Two elements are at the forefront of this discussion: 1) Soviet communism as a distinct version of modernity and 2) the Russian imperial inheritance. He concludes this discussion with an examination of Soviet interventions in the Third World during the Cold War.

The essence of Soviet ideology– Marxism-Leninism– was the belief in a class-based revolution that would end in a system of universal equality and justice.

While most Americans celebrated the market, the Soviet elites denied it. Even while realizing that the market was the mechanism on which most of the expansion of Europe had been based, Lenin’s followers believed that it was in the process of being superseded by class-based collective action in favor of equality and justice. Modernity came in two stages: a capitalist form and a collective form, reflecting the two revolutions– that of capital and productivity, and that of democratization and the social advancement of the underprivileged. Communism was the higher stage of modernity, and it had been given to the Russian workers to lead the way toward it. (40)


The Russian Empire at its most extensive (1866) in dark green. The lighter green indicates areas of Russian influence, not outright control.

In addition to this commitment to their ideology, Russian communists inherited a massive empire from their tsarist predecessors. Along with that inheritance, came many of the attitudes of superiority alluded to above. Russian territorial expansion began in the 16th century and reached its apogee in the 18th and 19th centuries. Under Peter I (d. 1725) and Catherine II (d. 1796), Russia acquired territories along the Baltic, took over Poland and Lithuania and much of the Ukraine, and acquired territories along the northern rim of the Black Sea from the Ottomans. They also advanced into Asia throughout this period and, to the north, took control of Alaska by the end of the century. During the 19th century, Russia conquered almost all the territories in the Caucasus and large swaths of Central Asia engaging the British in a rivalry (the “Great Game”) over this region throughout the century.

Wested criticizes those historians who would say that Soviet expansionism in the 20th century was just a continuation of Russian imperialism of the previous centuries. In fact, Russian imperial adventures suffered a series of setbacks in the early 20th century including the loss of a war to Japan in 1905 and a poor performance in World War I. When the Bolsheviks overturned the tsarist system, the Bolsheviks pulled out the war and disavowed many of the imperial arrangements made with other powers. But:

The Bolsheviks shared with the elites within the Russian empire a conviction that their country would eventually become the center of a new world civilization that would be both modern and just. Lenin believed that having been the first country that experienced a socialist revolution, Russia could do much to help revolutionaries in other countries… (46)


A Comintern poster celebrating the joint struggles of working people from around the world.

As the Soviet Union took root, institutions were built to export the revolution, most prominently the Communist International or Comintern, established in 1919. Lenin and his associates believed that the the capitalist countries were on the verge of defeating one another through imperialist rivalries for resources and markets. The Comintern was to be the mechanism by which communists around the world would set off anti-colonial rebellions.

Lenin was the master theoretician of the Russian Revolution but he died in 1924, too early to see its accomplishments and failures.

That task fell to largely to his successor, Stalin, who was just as committed to the ideology of communism but also as imperial and autocratic as his tsarist predecessors. Much of the story of Soviet Cold War relations with the Third World is a story of authoritarianism and condescension inspired by a distinctly Soviet communist missionary zeal.

That story will have to wait for another time.

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The Global Cold War and the Empire of Liberty

For a global phenomenon, it is striking that the Cold War has traditionally been interpreted almost exclusively as a European affair. “Cold War” brings to mind cloak and dagger intrigue involving CIA and KGB agents knocking one another off in Berlin, ground zero in the European theater. It was a “cold” war rather than a “hot” one because– aside from the spies and hit men– the US and the USSR did not directly engage one another on the battlefield.

ImageThe Norwegian historian Odd Arne Wested puts a host of myths about the Cold War to rest in his 2007 tome The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times.

The crux of Wested’s argument is that the US and the USSR were driven to intervene in Third World countries by competing ideologies.

Locked in conflict over the very concept of European modernity– to which both states regarded themselves as successors– Washington and Moscow needed to change the world in order to prove the universal applicability of their ideologies, and the elites of the newly independent states proved fertile ground for their competition. By helping to expand the domains of freedom or of social justice, both powers saw themselves as assisting natural trends in world history and as defending their own security at the same time. Both saw a specific mission in and for the Third World that only their own state could carry out and which without their involvement would flounder in local hands. (4-5)

Contrary to prevailing interpretations, the Cold War was not a continuation of European colonialism. Nor were American and Soviet interventionists interested primarily in the economic exploitation of Third World peoples or lands. Rather, Americans and Soviets were motivated first and foremost by rival ideologies. Wested’s argument is revisionist on many levels but it is a curious revisionism that takes seriously the stated objectives and intentions of the ideologues themselves. Wilson or Eisenhower and Lenin or Stalin would probably agree with his conclusions. That does not make Wested’s argument any less compelling.

Today’s post will focus on Wested’s interpretation of US Cold War ideology as presented in a chapter titled “The empire of liberty: American ideology and foreign interventions”.

Wested traces the roots of American intervention in the Third World to the very beginning of the republic. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson gets credit to anticipating the logic and the actions that would culminate with Cold War interventions in Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. The basic tenets of a uniquely American ideology are: the American concept of liberty; anti-collectivism and fear of unruly masses; aversion to centralized political power; science and the idea that the United States was the first country build on the scientific principles of the Enlightenment; and the market as the guarantor of rational action.

According to Jefferson and others, liberty was what distinguished the United States from other countries. And liberty could not exist without private property and a dedication to an ordered society informed by science. In Jefferson’s words:

The American by his property or by his satisfactory situation is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs, and a degree of freedom, which, in the hands of the canaille [masses] of the cities Europe, would be instantly perverted to the demolition and destruction of everything public and private… But even in Europe a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of man. Science has liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example has kindled feelings of right in the people. (10)

Bombardment of Tripoli.

Oil by Michael Felice Corne (d. 1845) depicting US naval forces engaging the Tripolitan gunboats (in North Africa) and fortifications during the first of the US-Barbary wars in 1804.

Jefferson launched America’s first intervention into what would become the Third World during the Barbary Wars, beginning in 1801, to protect American merchants from North African corsairs. (Interestingly, these wars were pivotal for the creation of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps).

During the 19th century, the focus of spreading American ideals focused on: 1) interventions against Native Americans; 2) efforts to control the internal African “colony” of slaves; 3) and countering the perceived threats posed to American values by foreign immigration. In all cases, the driving force was progress and rationality (whether under the guise of “manifest destiny”, “betterment” of blacks, or immigration quotas against the “racially inferior”).

Thus, American notions of “liberty” were (and remained) inexorably tied to a vision of modernity for which most peoples– eliwhite American males excepted of course– were ill-equipped. To enjoy the fruits of American-style liberty, most people– certainly those in the Third World– needed American assistance.

Caricature showing Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Porto Rico [sic] and Cuba in front of children holding books labelled with various U.S. states. The caption reads: "School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): Now, children, you've got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!" Originally published on p. 8-9 of the January 25, 1899 issue of Puck magazine. The blackboard reads: "The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact. — England has governed her colonies whether they consented or not. By not waiting for their consent she has greatly advanced the world's civilization. — The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without their consent until they can govern themselves." Note the Native American reading a book upside down, the African-American washing the windows, and the Chinese figure outside.

Caricature showing Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Porto Rico [sic] and Cuba in front of children holding books labelled with various U.S. states. The caption reads: “School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!” Originally published on p. 8-9 of the January 25, 1899 issue of Puck magazine. The blackboard reads: “The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact. — England has governed her colonies whether they consented or not. By not waiting for their consent she has greatly advanced the world’s civilization. — The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without their consent until they can govern themselves.” Note the Native American reading a book upside down, the African-American washing the windows, and the Chinese figure outside.

Beginning with the Barbary Wars, stretching to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 (which gave the US the right to intervene in the affairs of other American states), through Admiral Perry’s forced opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854 and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 to the occupation of the Philippines, Cuba, and Hawaii in the 1890s, the US gradually became an imperial power.

To repeat: Cold War interventions have a history that goes back the origins of the republic.

That said, the post World War I context created the more immediate circumstances for 20th-century interventions. The first was the Wilsonian project of promoting nationalism as a way of containing radicalism and “anarchy”. Second, and more importantly for the future of this story, was anti-collectivism particularly of the Communist brand. Communist posed a threat internally and externally because

There was simply no room, within or without the United States, for a universalist ideology that constructed a world operating according to different principles and with a different endpoint from that of [American elites’] own images. Communism– and, by implication, collectivism in all its forms– in this view had to be grouped with all the traditionalist and antimodern traits of Europe that had so disastrously manifested themselves in World War I. (18)

As the main victor after World War II, American elites inherited new opportunities to remake the world in their image. This process started in Europe with the Marshall Plan. But the restructuring of Japan provided the model for future US adventures outside of Europe. US planners agreed that “it was only through becoming more like the United States that Japan– the only non-European economic and military power– could be redeemed.” (24) Unlike their predecessors, all postwar US administrations, from Truman through Reagan, used state power to impose social development projects on Third World countries in which they had a foothold. In addition, decolonization processes in the Third World, domestic American struggles for equal rights, and the growing rivalry with the Soviet Union created an alliance among liberal and conservative American elites to create the political will for increased American involvement abroad in a “battle for the hearts and minds” that became the hallmarks of US interventionism under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Here Wested argues against the populist and Marxist critiques of American business interests or capitalism as explanations for American imperialism in primarily economic terms. The US, he argues, has “proven itself a reluctant economic imperialist.”

During every decade– except, perhaps, the 1970s– the huge domestic market always had the upper hand in attracting capital: it was all the outside world (and especially the Third World) was not– rich, socially and geographically mobile, and politically stable. And even though the hope of greater returns always kept American capital coming to the Third World, very few of those investments and trade links turned out to be highly profitable. During the Cold War the government always wanted private companies to increase their investments abroad– and especially in the Third World– in order to create influence and “development”– but with limited success. One of the main reasons why Washington had to turn to direct and indirect aid to Third World countries in the 1950s and 1960s was the lack of a willingness to invest on the side of US business. (30)

Instead of trying to promote the interests of US business, US foreign policy makers were really engaged in a project of taking “systematic responsibility for the world economy, attempting to define its shape both with regard to Europe and the Third World.” (32)

Ideology blended well with strategy in this mission: the Third World had to choose the market, in part because the periphery had to sustain the former imperial centers– Western Europe and Japan– through trade, and thereby both contain Communism and reduce the need for increased access to US markets. In the period 1956-60– in spite of the fear of Soviet advances– only slightly less than 90 percent of all official aid to the Third World came from advanced capitalist countries, and between 60 and 70 percent of that percentage came from the United States. (32)

An important theoretical model developed out of these impulses– especially the anti-Communist convictions– which came to fruition in the early 1960s under the broad rubric of “modernization theory”. The prime exponent of this approach was Walt Rostow whose 1960 title sums it up: The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Rostow, who became Kennedy’s head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor, argued for “positive intervention”:

American society [Rostow wrote in a book co-authored by Max Millikan] is at its best when we are wrestling with the positive problems of building a better world. Our own continent provided such a challenge throughout the nineteenth century… Our great opportunity lies in the fact that we have developed more successfully than any other nation the social, political, and economic techniques for realizing widespread popular desires for change without either compulsion or social disorganization. [The two social scientists wanted to] give fresh meaning and vitality to the historic American sense of mission– a mission to see the principles of national independence and human liberty extended to the world scene. (34)

The main instrument of this new version of an old mission was the diffusion of technology and good ole “American know-how”. Initiatives like the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress and education and military training for Third World elites in the US were emblematic of these impulses.

US policy planners, however, realized that the power and prestige of Soviet efforts could not be combated by limited interventions of the educational sort alone. Thus, the US military engaged in “hot” wars such as those in Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Third World.

Ultimately, there was very little “cold” about the Cold War in the Third World.

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Cultural Brokers: Exploring the Complexities of Historical Encounters

All too often, we are led to understand history in terms of the clash of monolithic political and cultural bodies, like states and civilizations. We assume, for example, that the conquest of the Americas was a zero-sum struggle pitting Europeans against indigenous peoples, Spaniards against Arawaks, Aztecs and Incas; Dutch against the Delaware Nation; English against Pequots; and the French against the Kickapoo in the part of the country where I live.


An Aztec representation of smallpox from what is popularly known as the “Florentine codex” to refer to the best preserved copy of “The Universal History of the Things of New Spain” by a Spanish friar and a team of Aztec assistants, compiled between 1545 and 1590 and written in both Spanish and Nuatal, a native tongue of Mexico. Were these, both Spanish and native authors, “cultural brokers”?

There is no underestimating the horrors and devastation wrought upon native peoples by the advent of European conquest and settlement. What historians call the “demographic collapse” killed around 80% of the indigenous population of the Americas between, roughly, 1500 and 1650 CE. That is almost impossible to digest. Latin America would only regain its fifteenth-century population by the 20th century, and that after a couple of centuries of migration from Europe. Most of these people died as a result of disease, most notably smallpox, which Europeans brought from Europe. Native Americans had none of the immunities that Europeans, Asians, and Africans had built up over millennia of migration, trade, and all the other social and economic vehicles which inevitably bring pathogens in their wake.

Some people call this genocide or biological warfare on a continental scale. There is some truth to those claims. During Pontiac’s War (1763-1766), the British deliberately sent contaminated blankets to their Delaware rivals.

However, history does not unfold in such a black-and-white, them-against-them manner. I know it is cliche and sometimes a way of avoiding realities, but “it’s complicated”.

The curious role of “cultural brokers” points a beam of light through some of the “cracks” in cultural encounters and illuminates their complexity. “Cultural broker” is a term used to describe people who functioned at the interstices between between groups at moments of encounter. They are conduits, mediators, and usually begin their careers as linguistic experts, translating from one tongue to another. The kinds of encounters that brought first nations (the indigenous people of the Americas) face to face with Europeans required such individuals. Even in event of a violent encounter, some kind of accommodation had to eventually be reached. Who but a translator could help facilitate such an exchange? Eventually, such translators were translating more than languages. They functioned as political, social, and cultural translators or, better yet, as brokers.


From a statue of Dona Marina in Mexico City. The statue includes figures of Cortez and their son Martin Cortez and has caused some controversy among residents of Mexico City.

The history of the encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the Americans is chock full of such figures. They are often people one might not expect to carry such enormous political and cultural weight: outcasts, individuals of mixed heritage, women. One of the most famous is Doña Marina also known as La Malinche or Mallinali (d. 1529), a Nahua woman of the Gulf Coast of Mexico who was an interpreter, advisor, and mistress to the Spanish conquistador Hernan  Cortez. Their son is considered by some to be the first mestizo, or person of mixed native and European blood. Doña Marina played a critical role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a fact that has made her a controversial historical figure. For the Spanish settlers, however, she was unequivocally a heroine (attested to by the reverential title “Doña”). Contemporary Mexicans are divided: was she a founder of Mexico or a traitor to her people?

Being a “cultural broker” is no easy task and requires balancing a host of conflicting interests, maybe even with the person herself.

Margaret Connell Szasz edited a volume on cultural brokers in the Americas titled SzaszBetweenIndianWhiteWorldsBetween Indian and White Worlds: The Cultural Broker (Norman and Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994). She articulates the importance of the cultural broker thus: “Cultural intermediaries have contributed to the history of North America in significant, albeit unheralded, ways. Moving among the diverse peoples of the continent, they have breached language barriers, clarified diplomatic understandings, softened potential conflict, and awakened that commonality of spirit shared by the human race. Across the centuries, from the colonial era to the present, they have endured hostility as well as danger, but their persistent curiosity about “the other side” has given them the incentive to thrive on that super sensory awareness necessary for moving between and among different worlds. They have stepped outside, while others have remained within.” (21)

Some of these brokers were native, as among the Pueblo of New Mexico when confronting Spanish settlers in the 17th century. In the 18th century, contests between the Iroquois  Confederacy and the British and the French led to the emergence of the skilled interpreter of mixed heritage, Andrew Montour. In southern New England at roughly the same time, English pressure on the Algonquian-speaking peoples led the rise of Samson Occom, who helped his people adapt to the European presence and thus preserve some degree of autonomy.

I subjected my students to a very dense article on this very subject which, again, sheds light on the complexities of the colonial encounter. “Cultural Brokers and Intercultural Politics: New York-Iroquois Relations, 1664-1701:” (Journal of American History, Vol. 75: 1 (June 1988), Vol. 75, 40-67). Richter makes the broad historiographical point that the study of American colonial history is caught between two distinct trends, each valuable in its own way. On the one hand there are “community” studies which stress “the minutiae of everyday social interaction” and, on the other, the “North American perspective” which “sees the continent as the grand stage for the interaction of Indian, European, and African cultures.” (40) Richter is interested in seeing how the two perspectives might be synthesized to offer a picture that is at once true to local realities while, at the same time, connected to wider developments. Mediators, he finds, live at the nexus of the local and global. The provide for nodes of communication between worlds.

Richter focuses on relations between the English and the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy in New York during the latter half of the 17th century. Looked at exclusively from the point of view of great power politics, the fate of the Iroquois in alliance with the English against the French in the 1670s and 1680s appears as one of unmitigated disaster for the Iroquois. However, looked at more closely, the large scale alliances are revealed to have depended on a complex web of dealings between native communities and between European communities and, conversely, an array of rivalries between native communities as well as rivalries between European groups. Only skilled brokers could navigate these treacherous political and cultural waters.


This French reproduction of Iroquois pictographs illustrates native conceptions of political brokerage. Here the Bear Clan speaks across a council fire to the Turtle Clan. From Richter, “Cultural Brokers”, 62.

This story has many chapters and I will limit my comments here to the central role played by a Dutch community, living under English rule in and around Albany, and a group of Iroquois bands. All these communities lived on shifting borders between the French-dominated north (around Quebec) and the English-dominated area of what is today New York state. The fate of the Dutch community was shaped by a coterie of local Dutch cultural brokers who tied their fortunes to those of the English. The premier Dutch figure in this project was a Peter Schuyler (d. 1724) who got himself appointed as a deputy to the English governor at the time. He ran up against members of an older Dutch community who resisted English control. As Schuyler’s group ascended, they become key intermediaries between the Iroquois nations and the English. The Dutch “anglicizers” were aided in this effort by an interpreter named Hilletie, a woman of mixed Mohawk and Dutch parentage. “By 1680, her bicultural background and linguistic talents had come to the attention of the Albany anglicizers, who could always use someone fluent in both Dutch and Mohawk. Although her twin handicaps as a woman and a metis [the offspring of European and native parents] prevented her from ever becoming an equal to [her Dutch counterparts], Hilletie possessed the ideal credentials to mediate between Dutch anglicizers and Iroquois anglophiles, and by the early 1690s the province was regularly paying her a salary for her services.” (53)

What is the use of a term like “European” when we are speaking of members of the Dutch community who are divided into pro- and anti-English factions while the French and the British are at each other’s throats?

And what of the Iroquois? They were divided into three factions, anglophiles, francophiles, and neutralists. In the end, the outcome of relationships between the Iroquois and the English depended, at least from the Iroquois perspective, on the result of internal, inter-Iroquois, political struggles. Key to this maneuvering was an an alliance between Dutch anglicizers and Iroquois anglophiles facilitated by cultural brokers like Schuyler and Hilletie.

In the end, the Iroquois and the Dutch were deeply involved in a continental war. When the war between the French and the British ended, however, the Iroquois were marginalized. Their English and Dutch allies turned their attention elsewhere. This, in turn, led to the breakdown of the brokerage system.

Concludes Richter, “The rise and fall of the late seventeenth-century Anglo-Iroquois alliance and of the political factions and mediators who helped create it illustrate the complexities of interactions among the people and polities of colonial North America. Neither a focus on monolithic European empires and Indian tribes or on isolated localities can fully convey the texture of colonial history, nor can the empires and the localities be understood apart from one another. All colonial Americans– Indian, European, and African– lived in ‘little communities’… A faithful reconstruction of the larger whole that the native and European peoples of early America shared, therefore, requires simultaneous attention to the broad North American context, to the internal dynamics of local communities, and to links between the two levels of experience. The Albany anglicizers and the Iroquois anglophiles exemplify those links. As members of local political networks and as brokers between their communities and the outside world, they struggled and allied with imperial officials and with similar individuals elsewhere to serve the interests of their compatriots, their particular political factions, and themselves. Their behavior in the small-scale politics of their little communities shaped the global imperial struggle during the late seventeenth century.” (66-67)

It goes without saying the phenomenon of “cultural brokers” and of the intersection of local and global history that they represent is of consequence to many other parts of the world. In the part of the world that I study, I am immediately reminded of the role played by “eastern” Christian dragomen (translators) of late Ottoman period. Or, perhaps of the ulama  and ayan of Arabo-Islamic history who often mediated between the central state, often in the hands of Turkish overlords, and the native Arab urban population. Albert Hourani famously dubbed this “the politics of notables”.

Can you think of other examples of “cultural brokers”?

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World History in My Backyard: Cahokia Meets Bali

When I first came to Edwardsville, IL to teach more than 10 years ago, if someone had mentioned Cahokia Mounds to me I would have scratched my head wondering what they were talking about. I knew about the Gateway Arch and about the Mississippi (19 miles away from where I live now) and about Mark Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal, Missouri (130 miles away), and I was familiar with the line from Oklahoma, “everything’s up-to-date in Kansas City” (260 miles away). I need not mention that Disneyland and Disney World loomed large in my imagination from the time I was young through to raising young children.

Little did I know that scarce 10 miles from my current home, lies Cahokia, the largest archeological site (in terms of land, the population that lived there, and the number of earthen mounds) north of Mexico. It is one of only eight UNESCO World Heritage culture sites in the United States (Cuba has 7, and Mexico 27).

It took me ten years to realize I had to incorporate Cahokia into my modern World History curriculum even though it flourished between roughly 1,000 and 1350 CE. In the past I would make a nod to it as a “backyard treasure” and show the compelling BBC film Cahokia: America’s Lost City to bring it to life. In sum,  I didn’t know much about the history and certainly didn’t appreciate its importance on the world stage.

This year I called the experts in, like an Emergency Response Team, to help me conjure its world historical significance and to help my students and I realize that what we have is more than a quaint link with a distant and all-but-invisible past. It is, in fact, a tangible connection between the land we live on and the history of the world. My colleagues Julie Holt and Michele Lorenzini  of SIUE’s Department of Anthropology are helping us find our way.


Monks Mound is the largest man-made earthen mound in the North American continent. It is named after Trappist Monks who lived nearby during the 19th century. Its base is comparable in size to the base of the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt and to that of the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan. My home is in the background.

Many of my students come from the area and may have taken school trips to Cahokia and are familiar with the diorama at the interpretive center and the fun of scaling Monk’s Mound which towers over a sea of lesser mounds, most of which have been destroyed and built upon over the last two centuries. But I am not sure they understand where it stands in the bigger picture. I didn’t. For that I had to go no farther than an article by Julie Holt, “Rethinking the Ramey State: Was Cahokia the Center of a Theater State?” (American Antiquity 74(2), 2009, 231-254).

The story begins with debates among scholars (archeologists mostly) about the nature of rule in Cahokia. One side holds that Cahokia was a chiefdom, that is, a relatively limited political system relying on the power of an individual. Others argue that Cahokia was at the center of a state which exerted political and economic influence far beyond this locale into the farther Mississippi Valley as far north as Wisconsin and Minnesota.


An excavated burial pit from Mound 72 at Cahokia is said to contain the remains of victims of female human sacrifice. According to some, this is evidence of the power of a state to control a population. Pictures by Jim Anderson.

A state, in contrast to a chiefdom, is sustained by institutions rather than by individuals. Such institutions include bureaucracies and standing armies. The term “Ramey State” derives from a style of incised pottery that originated in and flourished during Cahokia’s heyday, roughly from 1100 to 1200 CE. Ramey Incised pottery can be found throughout the American Bottom. (“American Bottom” might take some getting used to if you are not from this region, but there is nothing naughty about it. It simply refers to the Mississippi’s flood plain on the eastern side of the river in our part of southern Illinois). “Pro state” scholars, notably Patricia O’Brien, argue that to have held sway over the vast territory where this pottery is found meant that rulers in Cahokia had to have the standard tools of states at their disposal, namely a monopoly on the use or threat of use of legitimate violence; a class division of society including political elites; and a bureaucracy. Evidence of massive human sacrifice (including some 250 skeletons, mostly of young women, interred at Cahokia Mound 72) demonstrates that some group had a monopoly on the use of violence. Evidence of labor specialization and urban as well as rural communities point to class divisions and elite burial arrangements point to a bureaucratic hierarchy. My students will remember our discussion of Chinese statecraft and the concept of “tribute” that enabled the Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE) to compel Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese and other southeast Asian populations to recognize their suzerainty. Similarly, O’Brien, argues that evidence of exotic materials such as shark’s teeth, copper, and marine shells as well as more mundane materials found their way to Cahokia as tribute made by subordinate political entities in recognition of Cahokia’s power.

Prof. Holt, takes the debate between chiefdom vs. state in a new direction in her article. On the whole she agrees with O’Brien and those who make the case for a state. Cahokia’s shear size, prominence, and longevity (roughly 1000 to 1350 CE) means that institutions, rather than a succession of chiefs, had to be in place. But, she is not convinced that that standard mechanisms that scholars look for to explain the staying power of a state (bureaucracies and armies) are necessary or sufficient. Holt, an archeologist, turns, instead, to the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz (d. 2006) to make the claim for a theater-state.


Clifford Geertz’s Negara (1980) makes the case for the power of performance and spectacle in the political realm.

Geertz’s most lasting influence is in the subfield of symbolic anthropology and his most important monograph focused on the Balinese state in the 19th century. In Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (1980) he argues that court ceremonies were the driving force of politics and mass ritual, rather than being used to manipulate the populace. Rather, they fully engaged participants of all classes. In the case of Cahokia, argues Holt, such practices as human sacrifice do not necessarily point to coercion. Instead, as in Negara, people may have wanted to be part of the spectacle. Power is not, as we might imagine, just a question of territory or material wealth but of prestige, loyalty, and deference. Those who argue that Cahokia was simply a chiefdom point to the lack of evidence that the rulers of Cahokia were able to control large swaths of land. According the Holt, this is besides the point. There is plenty of evidence (in the form of artifacts spread all over the Mississippi Valley) for the prestige of Cahokia and its leaders.  This prestige itself is a sign of the power of the theater-state, a Negara on the Mississippi.

Two final points that Holt makes apply to principles we have used in our study of world history this semester. Both are intimately related to the concept of a theater state. Geertz and Holt argue that Western scholars usually search for characteristics that are familiar to them. Thus, the state conjures up the idea that ceremonies attached to states are purely functional, they serve to strike terror in the observer, to mystify the real nature of power, to celebrate a shared will or to legitimize a state’s rules. To their way of thinking this is a Eurocentric pitfall. I prefer to see it as common to all those coming from certain kinds of bureaucratized and militarized states, some of which are in the East. In either case, the functionalist explanations don’t account for ceremony and ritual as power in and of themselves. Secondly, this caution also brings to mind the work of Sam Wineburg, an educational psychologist who has studied the power of “historical thinking”. He argues that historians (and anthropologists and archeologists in this case) should strive to avoid relying on the familiar and, instead, stretch their imaginations to accommodate perspectives and behaviors that might not appear natural to them. Holt’s move away from the functionalism of most scholarship on the state to the concept of the theater-state does exactly that. It draws a line between 19th-century Bali and our dear Cahokia to boot. What more can someone struggling to knit world history together ask for?

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Haitian History as Antidote to Eurocentrism

I have to remember to tell my mother how much she influenced me as a historian. Mary Ellen Tamari lived in and studied a rural community, Bellevue la Montagne, in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, Haiti for the better part of a decade. One of the many insights she shared with me before I had any inkling of its importance is how Haiti embodies so much of the world. Among its fewer than ten million people and in a space that is six times smaller than that of Illinois, it manages to be thoroughly African and, at the same time, European and Caribbean to the core.

Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot (1942-2012) published his first book in 1977, Ti dife boule sou Istwa Ayiti, a history of the Haitian revolution reputed to be the first book-length monograph ever published in Haitian Creole.

Last year, the social sciences lost a powerful intellect and writer in the Haitian anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot whose Silencing the Past: Power and Production of History (1995) amplifies my mother’s point many times over. He offers a critique of West-centric modern history that is one part theoretical, even philosophical (he proposes a “theory of the historical narrative”) and one part super empirical and grounded in the details of the Haitian Revolution, a field in which he has few peers. (Nod to Wikipedia: I just discovered that his first book, a history of the Haitian revolution, was the first book-length monograph published in Haitian Creole.)

By “silencing the past”, Trouillot wants to point to a reality that may not be obvious to the lay person. History is not, as some might imagine and as we are usually led to believe in grade school, “the past”. History is what a society collectively remembers about the past. It is, to some extent, a purely human creation. One popular reflection of this truth is the commonplace “history is written by the victors.” This does not mean, Trouillot cautions, that history is fiction, as some postmodernists might have it. The past is retrieved selectively to serve certain purposes and certain interests.

As a way of reaching his American audience, he begins with the story of the Alamo. There are at least three completely different versions of this story and it is no coincidence that the one staring Davy Crockett is best known to most Americans. “Remember the Alamo!” was a call to arms issued by a grossly outnumbered crew of freedom-loving patriots who were willing to fight to the death. Now it is Texas’ main tourist attraction where sales of coonskin caps fortify what is probably a myth. There are other, completely legitimate, versions of what happened that have totally different implications. The souvenir shops may be located on a native American burial site. If that’s the case, perhaps the story is really one of violent US westward expansion. Or did the defeat of the Anglos at the mission actually serve as a pretext for annexation of the territory from Mexico? Trouillot points out that as Texas’ Mexican-American population grows (it more than a third now), Davy Crockett may be unseated.

What matters, says Trouillot, is not what actually happened but what is remembered and… what is silenced. (One consequence of this observation for historians is that professional scholars have little impact on the outcome. What gets remembered (or forgotten) has to do with forces far beyond the academy).

To illustrate the power of silence, Trouillot offers two compelling examples from Haitian history.

The first is offered as a criticism of Haitian nationalist versions of the Haitian revolution. According to this version, Louverture and his band of rebels launched the first successful slave revolt and defeated the mightiest army on earth to create the first black republic in history.

Actually, demonstrates Trouillot, Louverture and the other revolutionaries, including Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Christophe, actually tried to squelch the slave revolt after they were initially defeated by the French.


Sans Souci (Milot) Palace: built on the grave of Congolese slave rebel Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci?

Troulliot unravels this singular case of a lost history with such care and precision this chapter alone is worth the price of the book. It all hinges on the name “Sans Souci” which has three “faces”. Sans Souci is best known to Europeans as the name of Frederick the Great’s palace in Potsdam near Berlin. To Haitians, Sans Souci is the name given to King Henry (Christophe) I ‘s palace in Milot near Cape Haitian, the capital of northern Haiti. It lies in ruins in the shadows of Henry’s famous fortress, the Citadel.  Finally, Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci was an ex-slave who refused to compromise with the French and kept on fighting until he was killed by forces loyal to Henri Christophe.

Here’s the chronology: the Haitian revolution started in 1791. A French expeditionary force quelled the revolt between 1802-1803 and managed to enlist former revolutionaries, like Louverture, Christophe, and Dessalines. (The French officially abolished slavery in 1794 so there was a carrot added to the stick.) But, unlike these Creole leaders (who were born into slavery), slaves born in West Africa like Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci never surrendered and were only subdued at the hands of former revolutionaries like Christophe who had Sans Souci ambushed and killed. Once a lieutenant of Christophe’s, Sans Souci refused to continue serving one whose allegiance to the cause of freedom was suspect.

The significance of the story hinges on why Christophe, once he became one of independent Haiti’s first rulers, named his palace “Sans Souci”. Most historians, Western and Haitian, assume it was in tribute to the Prussian king whom he emulated. Trouillot argues, however, that the evidence suggests Christophe built it a few yards from where he had Jean-Baptiste killed as a transformative ritual (with West African roots) to absorb all that his rival represented.

Henri Christophe effectively erased Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci from history twice. Once by killing him and once by naming his palace after him. Haitians (politicians, journalists, and historians alike) have prefered to leave him silenced as his story illustrates the uncomfortable reality of revolutionaries who were not as revolutionary as they would like to believe.

Though Trouillot’s telling of this story is more finely wrought, his chapter on the world historical significance of the Haitian revolution will give pause to anyone who thinks they know modern history.

The events of the Haitian revolution made real the principle that racial or ethnic or geographical categories were irrelevant to who could govern. Any group can rule itself. The deeds of the Haitian revolutionaries also embodied for the first time in history the right of all peoples to self determination. Did you get that? The first time. Ever.

These principles were not part of the American Revolution, the French Revolution or even widely held until the middle of the 20th century. More, the idea that anyone but Europeans were able to rule themselves was unthinkable to Europeans before the revolution, during the revolution, and more than 100 years afterwards. Europeans had no conceptual framework for this kind of eventuality. So, it was not simply forgotten, it was a non-event. It did not fit. IT could not be accomodated to the patterns of thought shared by European intellectuals and elites… since and up to the present.

The significance of the Haitian revolution remains unacknowledged. Western historians have basically retooled 18th- and early 19th-century “formulas of erasure” to ignore its power. The fate of Haiti since (as a pariah state, as an economic and political basket case) invalidates  the revolution’s accomplishments; blacks were not up to the task.  Or, the revolution was really inspired by external influences. In 1996 Eric Hobsbawm, English Marxist historian extraordinaire, published The Age of  Revolution, 1789-1848, which many consider a classic. It scarcely mentions Haiti. It is still in print and widely used as a textbook. Western historians of Haiti have done little better. In the hands of specialists, the Haitian revolution has suffered what you might call “death by historiography”. Working in their empirical fields of expertise they have uncovered masses of data and have yet to see the forest for all the trees. Or, it is still “unthinkable” to the Western mind.

Trouillot ends this chapter on this very point:

“The silencing of the Haitian Revolution is only a chapter within a narrative of global domination. It is part of the history of the West and it is likely to persist, even in attenuated forms, as long as the history of the West is not retold in ways that bring forward the perspective of the world.” (107)

 NotebookHow could I resist this meme? I wonder if Michel-Rolph Trouillot ever considered that he might be remembered in this way. Jean-Baptiste Sans Souci and the Haitian revolution may have been silenced but not Trouillot himself.

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Witch Hunts and World History: A Feminist History of Capitalism

Thus far in our exploration of Eurocentrism (and its crtics) in the writing of modern world history, my graduate students and I have not seen radical challenges to keeping Europe at the center. For all their efforts to redress the balance in favor of the non-West, critics of Eurocentrism– not surprisingly– remain constrained by the very Eurocentrism then want to challenge.

Here is the first of two overviews of scholarly interventions which approach modern history “laterally” and strive to avoid reproducing the very fundamentals that under gird a Eurocentric outlook. The first comes from a feminist working in the Marxist tradition.

Manchester, UK-based cartoonist P.J. Polyp's "Gold Diggers" illustrates the concept of primitive accumulation nicely.

Manchester, UK-based cartoonist P.J. Polyp’s “Gold Diggers” illustrates the concept of primitive accumulation nicely.

In Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004), Silvia Federici reaches back farther than we have ventured so far to locate the advent of the capitalist relations of production. As a Marxist, Federici believes that understanding capitalism is the only way to comprehend the nature of exploitation in our world. She rejects, however, the Marxist view that capitalism in Europe represented progress in the direction of freedom and equality over what preceded it. She also holds that “primitive accumulation”, Marxese for naked conquest, pillaging, and robbery, remains at the heart of capitalism. (Forcing peasants off their lands through land enclosures and robbing the Americas of their gold and silver are examples.) This goes counter to the view among many Marxists that primitive accumulation predated capitalism and explains how some people started out with enough wealth to create more wealth, ie. capital itself.

Yes, fine, but what about history and women? Between the 9th and 11th centuries, western European serfs had made significant gains against their overlords such that they were on the verge of creating a more egalitarian political and economic system than what preceded it and what was to follow. They had successfully resisted forced labor commitments (corvée) and military duties and, in many areas, had unfettered access to land. Dissident Christian movements of the late medieval period–notably the Cathars and the Waldensians, in Federici’s words, “liberation theology for the medieval proletariat” (33)– combined with urban protests and peasant uprisings to signal unprecedented gains on the part of the masses of medieval Europe. “What this meant for the European proletariat was not only the achievement of a standard of living that remained unparalleled until the 19th century, but the demise of serfdom. By the end of the 14th century, land bondage had practically disappeared. Everywhere serfs were replaced by free farmers– copy holders or lease holders– who would accept work only for a substantial reward.” (47)

So, you ask, what went wrong? Federici’s argument about the transition to capitalism hinges on two transformations: 1) the monetization of peasant duties– whereby peasants could pay cash in lieu of labor duties or payments in kind — created a new class antagonism that would ultimately undermine previous gains; and 2) the ability of states and municipalities to co-opt males by decriminalizing rape and promoting prostitution  “turning class antagonisms into antagonisms against proletarian women.” (47) Between 1350 and 1450, publicly managed, tax financed brothels opened in every town and village in Italy and France creating what Federici dubs a “Sexual New Deal”.

Caliban (Todd Scofield) in Folger Theatre's production of Shakespeare's The Tempest in 2007. A rebel slave born of a witch, Caliban (anagram for "cannibal"?), personified the fears of Europe's capitalist elite in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

Caliban (Todd Scofield) in Folger Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in 2007. A rebel slave born of a witch, Caliban (anagram for “cannibal”?), personified the fears of Europe’s capitalist elite in the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

The degradation of working women coincided with the creation of an alliance between richer peasants, urban elites, the nobility, and the Church which turned the economic crisis of the late medieval period into what became the world capitalist system. The three prongs of this effort were witch hunts in Europe and the enslavement of native Americans and then Africans.

Before turning to the witch hunts, Federici, demonstrates how the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment created the ideology of the body-as-machine and strove to dispel all notions, such as magic, that are predicated on the unity of matter and spirit. Capitalist rationality was needed to eradicate all beliefs that might suggest one could obtain what one wanted without work.  Prophesy and fortune telling needed to be replaced with the calculation of probabilities. In sum, “The human  body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.” (146).

The witch, here depicted by German artist Hans Weiditz (d. 1537) embodied magic, herbal remedies (including birth control), and other qualities that threatened a capitalist order.

The witch, here depicted by German artist Hans Weiditz (d. 1537) embodied magic, herbal remedies (including birth control), and other qualities that threatened a capitalist order.

Woman’s body was the primary site for eradicating resistance to capitalism and to a rationalist ordering of the world. Witch hunts reached their peak between 1580-1630 when hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, and burned. This period corresponds to a time when male political elites were concerned with population decline. In addition to offering correctives to some of her Marxist colleagues, Federici also strives to reclaim feminism from those who would discount “woman” as category of analysis. Since reproduction is central to woman’s place in the capitalist order, social and cultural factors are not sufficient for understanding capitalism’s assault on women’s bodies. Furthermore, witch hunts also uncover the central role of new state structures in engineering the success of capitalist relations of production (and reproduction). Though some of their methods may have derived from the Inquisition, the witch hunts were administered by states and secular courts and not by the Church. “Witch hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal.” (170)

Here are two ways in which Federici offers alternatives to Eurocentric narratives of modern world history. On the one hand she argues for as deep a fissure as one could possible conceive of (that between the sexes) in Europe itself. You can’t have a center if it is completely divided against itself. On the other, her critique of capitalism (and of its Marxist critics) is fundamentally a critique of modernity itself insofar as capitalist exploitation and Enlightenment rationalism triumphed at the expense of medieval communalism and an enchanted view of the world.

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Competing Approaches to Modern World History, Part II: The Case of Europe’s Late Take-off


The illustration from March from the early 15th-century book of hours, Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Barry. Books of hours contained liturgical texts for appropriate prayers to accompany the Christian calendar. In contrast to the days when European historians saw medieval Europe as foreign to modern European history (as they did non-European history), in the last generation or so, economic historians of Europe have argued that the wealth that made the “age of exploration” possible had accumulated over the previous 500 years. In addition to other purposes, this buttresses the claim that modern Europe’s expansion owed more to internal developments than to the pillaging of the Americas or the sweat and blood of slaves.

This week my graduate students and I explored a new front in the battle over modern world history. To recap the first installment in this series: David Landes argues for the cultural factors that explain European economic success in the modern period. This is not all that surprising since scholars like Max Weber have been making such claims for the better part of the last 100 years. What I am realizing now, however, is that starting with the publication of Eric Jone’s influential The European Miracle: Environments, Economies, and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia (1981), European historians have adjusted the claim that European countries burst forth as economic powerhouses around 1500 (as was the standard explanation a generation ago). Instead, historians like Jones and, following him, Landes, argue that European economic success was predicated on the slow accumulation of wealth, expertise, and capitalist-friendly laws and institutions over the previous 500 years or so. Expansion in the Americas and the industrial revolution was fueled by a half century of economic, social, and cultural developments.

This week we read and discussed Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2000). Pomeranz offers a powerful corrective to the version of European history outlined above through close empirical attention to Europe, China, and Japan during the period from 1600 to 1800.

His most important conclusion is that in terms of all the factors that count (so to speak) economically (population, family size, wealth, access to and exploitation of land, reliability of markets, ability of labor to move), Europe (particularly western Europe) and China and Japan were on the same footing as late as 1800. Europe was developing no advantages (over these regions) in 1000, nor in 1500, no, not until 1800. That’s late! All our world history textbooks and most world history surveys come in two parts, before 1500 and after 1500.

Pomeranz cover

Cover of Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence.

I find his evidence compelling. This is a quick overview.

In terms of population growth, there is an argument that says that a European fertility pattern (late age of marriage, tradition of celibacy among clergy) kept populations low and therefore reduced pressure on the land allowing for more productivity. In fact, families in China and Japan were relatively small, too. Life expectancy was also similar across these regions.

In terms of wealth, there is no evidence that Europeans were wealthier or more productive than their Asian counterparts during this period.

In terms of science and technology, ditto. The “scientific culture” attributed to Europe was not unique to Europeans. The Chinese dominated irrigation technology, for example. Europeans were behind in land conservation.


The misfortunes of Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham have introduced today’s audiences to the persistence of non-market factors in the distribution and transfer of land in Britain even into the 20th century.

How about market economies? Landes repeats the claim (over and over) that Chinese producers were subject to the ills of “oriental despotism” which smothered any drive by entrepreneurs, merchants, artisans, or peasants to be inventive, creative and more productive. There was  no room for private property and, therefore, private initiative. To the contrary, argues Pomerantz. In China, the overwhelming majority of land was freely alienable. Not so in Europe where hereditary estates often stifled the consolidation of land holdings. (Consider, for example, the fictional Crawleys of Downton Abbey who are struggling with the problem of how to keep land in the family as late at the early 20th century; it’s not all fiction. Read this interesting piece on “entails” and the Crawleys).

How about the idea that a new ethos, the much heralded “Protestant” or “work” ethic– which is supposed to be so singularly northern European–sparked rationalized economic behavior in early modern Europe? Pomeranz argues that, to the contrary, what drove consumption and thus production in Europe was demand for luxury goods and what he terms “everyday luxuries” like sugar, tobacco, and tea which became more and more important to the up and coming classes. Even here, however, Europe is not special. The Chinese had cultivated a sweet tooth earlier and produced their own sugar and, of course, tea.

In just about every category in which historians of Europe have postulated a European advantage at least as early as 1500, China and Japan were not behind and, in many cases ahead, of their western counterparts. Labor and land markets in China, in particular,  conform more to the neoclassical ideal of free trade than was the case in Europe.


Who would have known you could calculate kilograms of manure to acre of cropped land for the 18th century to support claims about releasing population pressure on the land, the greatest ecological challenge faced by pre-industrial economies in Europe and Asia?

[Lest you think these dramatic conclusions are based on conjecture, Pomeranz marshals all manner of empirical evidence. The book concludes with appendices under titles like “Estimates of Manure Applied to North China and European Farms in the Late Eighteenth Century, and a Comparison of Resulting Nitrogen Fluxes,” “Forest Cover and Fuel-Supply Estimates for France, Lingnan, and a Portion of North China, 1700-1850” and “Estimates of Earning Power of Rural Textile Workers in the Lower Yangzi Region of China, 1750-1840.”]

The lynchpin in Pomeranz’s argument is what happened after 1800. He does not dispute the fact that by 1800, Europeans were moving ahead in all the factors of production, access to markets, technological innovation, and the accumulation of wealth.

Conquest of the Americas provided Europeans with the perfect periphery for raw materials and markets for their manufactured goods that the Chinese and Japanese could not match. It’s not that slave labor generated enough wealth to give Europeans the edge. No, it was that new sources of land and resources as well as markets that created the perfect solution to western Europe’s diminishing access to land and raw materials and a new captive (so to speak) market for its manufactured goods.

The benefits accrued to Europe from the exploitation of the Americas (and of its native peoples) as well as of African slaves (non-market and non-European factors of production) made “transatlantic trade  a uniquely self-expanding route by which Europe (especially Britain) could use its labor and capital to relieve its hard-pressed land and thus turn even a demographic and proto-industrial expansion that (unlike in east Asia) far outpaced advances in agriculture into an asset for further development.” (296)

Not only was Europe not ahead of the pack until very late, but the circumstances that made for its success were primarily non-economic forces and clear violations of theories of free market capitalism (as touted by free-marketeers such as Landes) like unfree (slave)  labor.

I was bowled over. And a few of my students were likewise very impressed. My only Chinese student who said she had been brought up on the same theories of a European   “miracle” that are so widespread in the West and was inspired by Pomeranz’s work. Others, however, remained unmoved. They had two main criticisms: 1) so what if Europe zooms ahead in 1800 rather than 1500? the result is the same; and 2) the new American periphery may have not yielded the results that gave Europe the decisive edge until 1800, but since most of these territories had fallen under European control as early as the 16th century, isn’t it true that the die had been cast earlier?

The debate continues.

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Try Some Radical for a Change


This image of the leader of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint L’Ouverture, is the journal’s logo. In the words of managing editor Connor Kilpatrick, “Because as much as the idea of Jacobinism is associated with a single nation, the Haitian Revolution is the story of how an ideology that sprang up in a country thousands of miles across the ocean could make it’s way over and inspire the most oppressed to rise up and accomplish the impossible.”

What a welcome surprise to find that young writers are thinking and writing about radical change, and are even–dare I say– agitating for socialism. I just discovered a new journal that demonstrates (once again) the poverty of Liberalism in its many guises. At the same time, it strives to rescue Marxism from ideological and jargon-induced irrelevance. Jacobin is the brainchild (when am I going to have one of those?) of Bhaskar Sunkara who just got a nice write-up in the New York Times. 

I checked out their back issues and discovered this gem: “Burn the Constitution”. Seth Ackerman lays bare the ugly (and simple) reality behind what we are so often told is the marvel of human political thought, the American Constitution. In actuality, the Constitution enshrines a system created by a band of landowning white men to guard against “mob rule”.

[They] rendered it virtually impossible for the electorate to obtain a concerted change in national policy by a collective act of political will. The Senate is an undemocratic monstrosity in which 84 percent of the population can be outvoted by the 16 percent living in the smallest states. The passage of legislation requires the simultaneous assent of three separate entities — the presidency, House, and Senate — that voters are purposely denied the opportunity to choose at one time, with two-thirds of the Senate membership left in place after each election.

Not to mention the Amendment process:

[The] entire system is frozen in amber by an amendment process of almost comical complexity. Whereas France can change its constitution anytime with a three-fifths vote of its Congress and Britain could recently mandate a referendum on instant runoff voting by a simple parliamentary majority, an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires the consent of no less than thirty-nine different legislatures comprising roughly seventy-eight separately elected chambers.

Yes, we should all have remembered this, but what makes Jacobin‘s brand of up-to-date radicalism so compelling is the kind of analysis Ackerman offers next concerning what has happened to thinking about the Constitution more recently. After WW I, when the desire for radical change inspired Europeans to curtail the privileges of elites, American progressives began to challenge the rigidity of the political system here. That, in turn, inspired a backlash which has solidified resistance to change. Presently, we are consumed by Tea Party-inspired Constitution fetishism and what have Liberals done to combat it? In defending the Constitution against Right-wing interpretations, Liberals take it as an article of faith that the document is actually a living document whose meaning is open to constant negotiation. Hogwash, concludes Akerman, the Constitution is little more than a “charter for plutocracy”.

Ackerman’s article (not the Constitution) should be required reading on Sept. 17, Constitution Day, which itself is a Senate invention of very recent vintage (2004). By law,  Constitution Day must be recognized by all schools receiving federal funds. Next time SIUE (or any other public university) holds this remembrance it may be worth noting that this is not an outpouring of civic pride but a government mandate.

There is much more to recommend Jacobin as well. Find out for yourself.

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Competing Approaches to World History: Part 1, NeoEurocentrism

McArthur's Universal Corrective Map of the World

McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World was the first mass produced map to offer an “upside down” view of the world. Despite their ubiquity, conventional maps with a northern orientation are not more accurate. Stuart McArthur from Australia (“down under”) did not like always being positioned at the bottom. Others feel the same way. There is an interesting story behind McArthur’s project. He drew his first South-Up map when he was 12 years old (1970). His geography teacher told him to re-do his assignment with the “correct” way up if he wanted to pass. Three years later he was an exchange student in Japan. He was taunted by his exchange student-friends from the USA for coming from “the bottom of the world.” It was then, at age 15, he resolved to one day publish a map with Australia at the top. Six years later, while at Melbourne University, he produced the world’s first “modern” south up map and launched it on Australia day in 1979. It has sold over 350,000 copies to date.

During the last 20 years or so in American education, courses in World History have replaced courses in Western Civilization as compulsory for most undergraduates. The Illinois State Board of Education, for example, now requires students who want to be certified in Illinois public schools to have at least two semesters of a World History, rather than a Western Civilization survey. This change is the result of a host of factors including decolonization in the post-World War II era; the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s; and the rise of Ethnic and Women’s Studies and of Social History and Environmental History in the more recent past.

There remains, however, much debate about how World History should be conceptualized. Should the organizing principles (or explanations) be cultural, environmental, economic, social, or political? Even more contention surrounds the relative weight given European powers and economic forces during a period in which some European states were able to exert unprecedented control over the globe. As one might imagine these debates are not entirely “academic”. They resonate with the “culture wars” and the debate over multiculturalism that are themselves the result of profound demographic and political changes affecting the American social fabric.

I am in the process of teaching a graduate course on this subject. I have come up with a reading list that spans the spectrum from the unabashedly Eurocentric (David Landes, The  Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1999)) to largely empirical challenges to Eurocentrism in world history (Kenneth Pomerantz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2011)) through the efforts by post-colonial writers to recenter history-writing (Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) who I just discovered passed away last summer) to more radical feminist and Marxist critiques (Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004) and Peter Gran, The Rise of the Rich: A New View or Modern World History (2009)). There are others in between.

Where to start?


Does David Landes’ 1999 work The Wealth and Poverty of Nations represent something new or a rehashing of old Eurocentric theories about economic history? Certainly the wide acclaim it has received suggests it touches a nerve regardless of the vintage of the ideas therein.

The first book the students are reading is the one by David Landes. The book opens boldly: “My aim in writing this book is to do world history. Not, however, in the multicultural, anthropological sense of intrinsic parity: all peoples are equal and the historian tries to attend to them all. Rather, I thought to trace and understand the main stream of economic advance and modernization; how have we come to where and what we are, in the sense making, getting, and spending.” (xi) The author’s revulsion for the changes in the academy over recent decades is palpable. 

What is most curious about the book is that Landes has resurrected a host old economic and social theories that I thought had been discredited long ago. His question is: why, today, are some countries (the West) very rich and others so incredibly poor (the Rest). His main argument, in a nutshell, is that Europeans (and perhaps the Japanese) are culturally superior to other peoples at least in the arenas that have led to technological innovation and the accumulation of material wealth. But this overarching proposition is buttressed by other arguments that consider climate, politics, and society.

As the title of the book suggest, his biggest single inspiration is Adam Smith, author of Wealth of Nations (1776). Smith was an individualist first and foremost. His concept of laissez faire economics was developed in reaction against the mercantilist and monopolizing policies dictated by states upon merchants and producers in his day. Smith believed that if restrictions were lifted on those with capital and those who could offer labor or expertise, then each individual pursuing his individual good to the best of his ability would naturally (but not on purpose) lift those around him by selling goods, making wealth, and providing jobs. Sound familiar? I hear echoes of Mitt Romney and others on the American political Right.

Landes opens his book, however, not with a discussion of economics but with  environment and climate. I think historians since Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) have thought that climate and environment shape societies. The Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu (d. 1755) Spirit of the Laws (1748) pioneered the idea of separating powers but also promoted the theory that climate shapes society. So, not surprisingly, his native France’s temperate climate was the ideal. In hot climes, however, people were liable to be “hot tempered” and lazy. Several of Landes’ chapters take up this approach, both in celebrating those in temperate zones where the will to work is strongest and in pitying those in the south where disease and lethargy hamper human progress. In Landes’ version, heat impedes activity (because the body needs time to cool) so we find the siesta and other impediments to realizing one’s full economic potential.

Related to the environment, the use of water in particular, Landes employs another well worn theory about how societies have historically organized their economies. Here, he follows Karl August Wittfogel (d. 1988) who promoted a “hydraulic” theory of empire in 1957. For the ancient riverine civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus, and China, argued Wittfogel, the accumulation of surplus depended on a hierarchical division of labor overseen by autocratic rulers. Over the ages, this produced what Karl Marx first called the “Asiatic mode of production”. A parallel political concept was that of “oriental despotism”. In these societies, individual initiative and even the desire to innovate and create has been snuffed out of the entire population. In sum, “Bad government strangled initiative, increased the cost of transactions, diverted talent from commerce and industry.” (56).

But, concedes Landes, “geography is not destiny”. (15) Culture looms even larger. What are the cultural attributes that made Europeans prime candidates for economic and technological advancement? Landes argues, first, that the Judeo-Christian tradition set the stage for key two key components: the sanctity of private property and resistance to autocracy. “The concept of private property rights went back to biblical times and was transmitted and transformed by Christian teaching. The Hebrew hostility to autocracy, even their own, was formed in Egypt and the desert.” (34)

These ancient cultural characteristics combined with medieval-era progress in lifting restrictions on peasants and artisans and in creating corporate autonomy in the cities in western Europe set the stage for a 1000-year incubation period in which economic and technological developments gradually took shape. Then, around 1500, a series breakthroughs took place western Europe, and in England in particular, that would stun everyone and lead to a revolutionary transformation of the world on par with the Neolithic Revolution which gave us settled agriculture 10,000 years ago.


This is the edition of the Weber’s Protestant Ethic that I read in college many, many years ago. I think it was a vintage version even then.

The breakthrough, in Landes’ telling, was due more to habits of mind and behavior which were fostered by Protestantism. Here he is following in the footsteps of Max Weber whose The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) proposed this link. According to Weber, Protestantism (Calvinism in particular) was more conducive than Catholicism to making money rationally (through investment) as Protestants did not believe that there was anything sinful about worldly pursuits and that, in fact, prosperity in this world might signal being among the elect, those predestined for rewards in the next world. These values contributed to the “work ethic” that powered capitalism in the northern and predominantly Protestant European countries in contrast to their primarily Catholic neighbors to the south.

Landes’  has updated the history of capitalism in Western Europe and has new evidence for challenges to economic development in the global south (eg. AIDS in Subsaharan Africa) but he has not offered much more than a conglomeration of old theories which may help explain developments in Europe but offer very little empirical or theoretical insight into the nature of economic disparities in world today. There is more to the gap between the rich and poor in the world today than can be explained by culture or nation or geography.

More interesting from my standpoint is why such a book gets such attention and receives such acclaim at the beginning of the 21st century. It is as if those social and political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s have been ignored and their impact on scholarship discarded. Does the appearance of a book like this mark a revival of Eurocentrism in world history? Is this neo-Eurocentrism at work?

Please stay tuned as I will try to keep this up as the semester proceeds. Please offer any insights or suggestions you can.

Posted in What is Modern?, World History | 3 Comments

The US and Arabic Language Instruction: Serve the Empire or the Globe?

It is my firm conviction that anyone who wants to learn about the Middle East (or, for that matter, any part of the world) has to actually live in the region that interests them. Even better is to learn the language. Language offers a window on a world that you can approach but never really look through in translation.


A genealogical tree for one of the major northern Arabian tribes, the Annaza. From the website Arab Family Trees.

Keeping all the requisite caveats about stereotyping and over generalization in mind, Arab societies (including immigrant and exile communities) are very much kin-based. When teaching about early Arab and Islamic history one of the first lessons has to do with genealogy. How else to explain names like Ali ibn Abi Talib? In Arabic, unlike English, the words for maternal uncle and aunt, khaal and khaala, are different from the words for paternal uncle and aunt, ‘am  and ‘ama. Arabic speakers are by nature more precise than English speakers when it comes to delineating families and family history. Lots of other important social and cultural implications follow.

All this is to say that if you are interested in the Middle East, please learn one of the languages of the region as soon as you can.

The American Association of Teachers of Arabic is the best single source for Arabic language instruction in the US, during the summer, in the Arab world, and on-line.

When I started writing this post, I was hoping to alert my students to the many opportunities offered by the US government for language study, particularly Arabic. The US government offers opportunities for study of Arabic, among other “critical” languages. This means languages that US policy makers deem important for the maintenance of “national security” which, in turn, boils down to the requirements of US military and economic designs; in short, the needs of the American empire.

I don’t want to truck in imperial interests and I hate to see my students do the same. But, if the government (we taxpayers, that is) will foot the bill for broadening our linguistic and cultural horizons, can it be that bad?


Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says, “I’m a big believer in language training and in getting our people equipped with the ability, not only to speak the language, but to understand the culture of the countries that we’re dealing with. And I say that not only because [it’s good] for each individual to be able to have that capability. But I have to tell you, it’s important to our national defense to have that capability.” Translation: yeah, language training is fine an’ all, but we really need spies. “Dealing with…” sounds benign but doubtless covers the most nefarious and bloody activities of US military and intelligence agencies.

On the one hand, the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which oversees a host of these programs, defines national security broadly as “including not only the traditional concerns of protecting and promoting American well-being, but also the challenges of global society, including sustainable development, environmental degradation, global disease and hunger, population growth and migration, and economic competitiveness.”

On the other hand, awardees for Boren Scholarships– one of the programs administered by the NSEP– are expected to serve for a year in the Defense, State, or Homeland Security Departments or in one of the intelligence agencies. Is it possible to serve the American empire as well as the challenges of global society?

The record of the US national security state in the Middle East and the death and destruction wrought by US military conquest suggests the contrary.

The Fulbright program is still, I think, not as tied to the militarist and intelligence objectives of the national security state as is the NSEP. There are modest short-term language programs for students interested in Arabic in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco through the Fulbright Critical Language Enhancement Program.

At SIUE we are very fortunate to be able to offer first-year Arabic through the Fulbright Foreign Language Assistant Program. We are currently have our fourth teacher in this program and these teachers have done more to bring the Arab world to our campus than any one else.

Posted in Sources for the Rest of US, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment