On learning something from the lessons of history

Published online 23 November 2009.

I am being challenged to support my assertion that history has lessons to be learned, and that these lessons are meaningful in terms of “what we should do next.”  There will be a long prologue in which I spell out possible metaphors for the momentum of history — readers who are interested in this discussion are recommended to read it well, whereas those who crave controversy are recommended to skip to the conclusion below, which talks about “health insurance reform” and speculates upon the future.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” — George Santayana

At some point last week I was getting a lot of flak over at Firedoglake for insisting that there are lessons to be learned from history.  This time is unique, the respondents argued.  The only thing you can learn from history, they nattered, is what not to do.

So here I will try, as briefly as I can, to expound upon what it means to learn from history.  Learning from history is not about learning how history repeats itself.  But there are, indeed, lessons to be learned from history.

It must be said that the “lessons of history” can be overstated.  History is just a record of human activity; it supplements academic fields such as sociology, which offers us a global view of society, or geography, in which people can be studied in their natural and social habitats.  And of course history does not “determine” anything.  A famous quote from Marx and Engels’ The Holy Family illustrates this idea: “History does nothing; it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living, who do all this.”

A meaningful metaphor which dramatizes the value to be gotten from history is that of momentum.  Imagine a train on a track.  We can observe from the train, the track, and its momentum that the train is going to follow the track in whatever direction it is headed.  Thus also with history.  If we can determine history’s momentum, we can then understand what sort of momentum we have as we head into the future.

Think of how this would work in the catastrophic worst-case scenario.  If the train is headed off of a precipice, we can conclude from its momentum that (barring some other event) the precipice will be reached, and that all of the train’s passengers will probably die in the wreckage beneath.  Claiming that we can learn nothing from history, or that the train can stop any time it wants to, will not save the passengers.  So, to save the passengers, we need to understand its momentum, and thus also the force which will be necessary to stop the train before it heads off the precipice.  Learning from history, then, means using it to learn where we are headed.

However, this is all to write metaphorically.  History is not a train; thus, it does not have momentum in the way in which a train has a momentum.  So this is what needs to be explored: either history can be said in some way to have a momentum, and thus a direction in which it is headed, or it can’t, in which case we will need another metaphor with which to grasp history.

*****

Metaphors for history’s momentum:

1) “Progress”

Continual “progress” toward a “goal” of world history is an old notion, dating (if J. B. Bury is to be believed) from the sixteenth century and the Renaissance.  The fundamental notion of “progress,” or at least the idea we can look forward to, is that things will get better; its most assiduous apple-polisher was the Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), a participant in the French Revolution who believed that the triumph of reason (through vehicles such as science, technology, and rational education) would lead to a gradual improvement in the lot of the human race.  Condorcet thought that history proved him right in this belief: his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind is his attempt at a demonstration.  Condorcet’s version of “reason,” however, equates progress in reason with scientific progress, which rather limits his scope of ideas.  Still, Condorcet was an impressive thinker for the 18th century.

A more fine-tuned philosophy of reason (and thus of its continual and compounding benefits to society) is given by the present-day German philosopher Jurgen Habermas (in his magnum opus Theory of Communicative Action).  Habermas’ contribution to the progress of reason goes under the name of the “rationalization of the lifeworld.”  The idea of the rationalization of the lifeworld is to credit rational discussion (following a model built in argumentation) with the power to improve the world, through the collective search for truth, ethicality, and sincerity.  There is a counter-force in Habermas’ universe, however: in Theory of Communicative Action he calls it the “colonization of the lifeworld.”  The colonization of the lifeworld is when our understandings of the world are determined by the political/ economic/ social system.  In the real world, ideologies corrupt our minds, while our bodies struggle to make a living in a world corrupted by bad politics.

Condorcet’s optimism about reason, then, does not seem to have been entirely justified.  We humans have shaped the world which exists for us today: yet today the world controls us, and not vice-versa.  Nevertheless, reason, by the Habermasian model, is what we’ve got; it’s the only game in town.

2) Increasing technological complexity with time

From the Renaissance forward, we can indeed say that there exists a momentum of technological development; but it’s hard to say where it all is headed.  Improvements in technology since the Renaissance have clearly made the world of mass production possible, though that seems to have been based on the scientific universe of mechanistic physics, and perhaps also on the creation of machines which burned oil instead of coal.  Most of the most recent technologies appear to me to be the product of two major scientific advantages: nanotechnology, the product of advances in quantum physics, and biotechnology, the product of advances in our knowledge of genetic coding.  It seems to me that science precedes technology, and that scientific advances can then be seen as foreshadowing future technological invention.

As for the general effect of new technology, we can say for sure that access to technology has vastly increased the versatility of the human species, which was its main asset as a species from the beginning.  Since its origins, the human species has been distinguished not by its special adaptation to any particular niche, but by advantages contributing to its versatile adaptation to a number of niches: opposable thumbs, bipedalism, binocular eyesight, higher brain capacity, oral language, and the complexity of its toolmaking abilities.  With these things human beings became the dominant large land mammals on planet Earth.  Technology adds greatly to that versatility.

However, technology has been taken to the point at which individual human beings are now capable of seeing the planet, its life, and each other as mere objects for technological appliances.  We mow lawns with lawnmowers, and in the same vein our leaders might use nuclear weapons to destroy nation-states and the planet.  Both actions involve the use of an appliance.

This has allowed said human beings to misuse its planet through appliances, to the point at which the Earth’s climate will be significantly altered for centuries to come.  Abrupt climate change, of course, is only the “tip of the iceberg” as regards human misuse of planet Earth.  One can cite, for instance, the astonishing rate of species extinction, the sheer number of animal and plant species which have been done into permanent doom by human beings throughout history; the dead zones in the ocean, the rapidity with which we’ve been able to kill off coral reefs, chop down forests, urbanize planetary ground, plunder resources, and so on.  It is easier to bring the Earth to ruin than it is to improve the planet.

Technology, then, is limited in its impact by the fact that each technology is a mode of interaction with the natural world.  This has made possible the appearance of environmental catastrophes, in which people discover that technology can undo what technology has done only to a limited extent.  I know of no technology, for instance, which will directly extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere so as to significantly reduce Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide component, and so in applying geoengineering strategies we will have to work with what is possible, rather than assuming that technological “magic” will solve problems.

3) The cyclical theories: the rise and decline of civilizations (including ours)

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on the history of cyclical theories of history.  There is a nice Wikipedia page on them.  I’m not terribly enthused about them, either; but such theories are of very old pedigree, and so I will cover them here.  Cyclical theories of history suggest a pattern in which civilizations rise and then decline, to be repeated ad infinitum.  What I will tell you about these theories is that the most interesting of them, from my perspective, is that of Sing C. Chew, who suggests that civilizations throughout history have created weaknesses in ecosystem resilience, which becomes the fatal flaw of each.  If historical change is to be viewed as going in cycles, and equated with the “natural order of events” as one sees in ancient authors such as Polybius, then the “natural order of events” needs to be based upon an analysis of the natural world.

This, indeed, is what Chew does.  Analyzing the data at his disposal, Chew suggests that each civilization creates (on its own turf) fragile ecosystems which are eventually blown over in situations of climate change.  The ensuing dark ages are, for Chew, a chance for Mother Nature to recover from the damages civilization has inflicted upon her.  In Chew’s trilogy of books, the historical record is “filled in” to adapt to this thesis.  I’m not sure how he decides how, for instance, the Roman Empire is supposed to have collapsed in the West; Chew’s argument is that Roman agriculture stripped the land of its forests, thus making it difficult to turn the same crops year after year with the same proficiency, leading to its decline and fall with the weather changes of the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.  Chew does, however, offer an interesting historical perspective which can be considered in light of abrupt climate change.

4) The ongoing expansion of the capitalist system

Now, capitalism is a controversial subject: praised by some, declaimed by others.  As with the “system” in Habermas, or technology as regards abrupt climate change, or the rise and decline of civilizations in the cyclical theories of history, we might well be prompted to ask: Do we (humans) control it, or does it control us?

There is a common idea among many historians of history from (more or less) the 15th century onward, but especially after 1688, as bearing a specifically capitalist stamp.  You can read this especially in Fernand Braudel and in world-systems theory approaches to historiography.  The suggestion common to the various “capitalist history” approaches is that capitalist history is unique because it describes an ever-expanding trend toward global integration to the point where unified systems of communication (the Internet), trade (the WTO), security (US dominance), language (English as the universal standard), political class rule (the Trilateral Commission, the WEF, and so on) have integrated world-society in a net of global governance.  Thus capitalist integration, (and perhaps also “globalization”) as a metaphor for historical momentum.

At one point in capitalist history, it might have appeared as if capitalism were under control.  I have in mind the period of populist Keynesianism, from the period of FDR’s New Deal in the ’30s to LBJ’s Great Society in the ’60s (and to a certain extent even into the first Nixon administration).  This, however, was the product of a class compromise: during this period of capitalist development, the working class held a significant amount of power in unions, and so the owning class was obliged to create a regime of populist Keynesianism for the sake of economic growth.  Things are no longer so comfortable for the working class, and so the owning class need not compromise in the same way.

So, no, we are not in control of capitalism anymore, if at any point we ever were.  Capitalism is in its neoliberal phase; capital is in command, and its demands for profit are out of control.  I have discussed this in great detail elsewhere.  Eventually, we can reason, the expansion of the capitalist system must reach limits, and this appears to be a time in history when those limits are beginning to be felt.

To conclude this portion: In each of the suggested metaphors for the trajectory of history, I have pointed to a central dynamic of the momentum of history: are we in control, or does history control us?  The best way for us to control history, I argue here, is for us to learn about history, to understand the social forces that have been at work in its making, thus to be fully aware of the world in which we are working.  Once possessed of history’s knowledge, we will know at least part of what we need to know in order act in a proactive fashion.

*****

OK, real life now: lessons to be learned from history for OUR future

We have just discussed through a number of conceptual frames for discussing where history is headed.  So what is the momentum of history?

Now, the “health insurance debate” is, to be sure, one of history’s sideshows.  The bills currently making their way throughout Congress, moreover, threaten to make this debate even more of a sideshow, for if we are debating whether or not to have weak mandates and a weak public option in 2013 or 2014, we aren’t debating a lot.  However, the “health insurance debate” is illustrative of certain historical trends, as well as the possibility of learning something inappropriate from history, so I will continue in that vein.

In the (online) debate about the current “health insurance reform” bills, I often see this meme of “learning the lesson from the 1993-1994 push for reform.”  This is supposed to mean that progressives need to STFU and get a bill passed, otherwise “health insurance reform” would be off the table for another fifteen years.  The “lesson” apparently learned from history here is one of progressive passivity — progressive members of Congress are supposed to pass whatever bill the “leadership” wants so that the “leadership,” regardless of how sold-out its members really are, can get brownie points for defeating those evil Republicans.  As for the bills themselves, they won’t be worth a whole lot.  Once 2010 rolls around, it will be “welcome to the Band-Aid Period.”

The problem, then, is that the progressives learned the wrong lessons from history.  History could have told them that the past thirty-five years of the hypertrophy of capital and of neoliberal ideology were preparing Congress to pass a “health insurance reform” measure which was mainly going to be a sop to insurance companies.  History could also have warned them of the bad end which corporate dominance has set out for all of us.  The interests of the health insurance companies are inimical to ours because 1) the companies themselves are for-profit entities which seek to maximize profits by any means necessary and 2) all insurance companies really do is act as gatekeepers, standing between you and your doctor.  If the progressives had at least drawn the line at a public option available to everyone, then they would not be in the position they are in now, which is one of fighting for symbolic victory.

Now, of course, Congress is made up of human beings, possessed of free will, and at some point they really could choose to do something significant for average folk.  They could, for instance, choose to expand access to the public option to everyone, and make its rates competitive.  But that would require another significant effort, unrelated to the current “public option,” which will occupy the Federal government over the next four years hiring insurance corporations to design an entirely different public option.

The momentum of history which began in the 15th century with the ideologies of progress, with the capitalist system, with the current round of civilization, may have been beneficent at times in the past; this is not one of those times.  Abrupt climate change will play havoc with our climate; our economy is not likely to recover in any way close to what we want, as the dollar declines in value while the Federal government continues to give away the store to the military-industrial complex and the bankers.  Poverty will worsen as the state crisis in funding worsens and as the government continues to pretend that “economic health” means corporate profits.    Americans continue to avoid discussion of disparities in class power as American society itself comes apart at the seams.  The capitalist system was at one point, regardless of its vast inequities, the world’s engine; now it increasingly tends to eat its seed corn.  Technology is a good thing, but this isn’t a technological problem, it’s a social problem.  Progress in our rational capacities will only benefit all of us if we can be motivated to act for a better tomorrow.

If we want to halt the momentum of history, we actually have to throw something onto the tracks, something strong enough to make it stop.  The progressives in Congress, having voluntarily given up the progressive power of “no,” did not do that, and are not planning upon doing that with the current health care bill, nor with any of their other planned votes.  If past behavior is an indication of future behavior, they will present few roadblocks to corporate domination with any other issue, or associated piece of legislation, one cares to name.

Despair about this situation will not be proactive.  One needs to think: what will actually work?  The future depends upon it.

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