204 – adrift on history’s perilous sea of necessities

Posted on January 10, 2013 by


In my http://wp.me/p81We-zo I mused that we are just beginning to understand the complexity of social realities and of history. Sounds clever, but what do I really mean? As luck would have it, I’ve been reading recently on the origins of the American Revolution. This historical period has been studied so much, and in such detail, that one can use the period as an example.

Traditionally, history has been the fearless quest for the sufficient cause of past events – Ranke put it concisely when he spoke of “wie es eigentlich gewesen”[1] – be it the prime moving fact, or the prime mover Himself, or Hegel’s and Marx’s teleology[2]. I’d call it a straight and simple quest for “begats” – be they kings or facts. Upon closer inspection, I’d venture, one finds himself adrift on a perilous sea of infinite necessary factors – and the serene shore of Sufficient Cause turns out to be a fata morgana.

Deep undercurrents of change

In America as much as in the rest of the world the period leading up to the 1776 was one of profoundly change[3]. Population was expanding rapidly, people moved about in search of land and trades, transnational production systems were being established[4], international trade flourished. These changers reinforced each other in intricate and bewildering ways with no inevitable direction. We can plumb even greater depths – so the emergence of internationally traded consumer goods like sugar, molasses (rum!), tea, cocoa, coffee, which opened up for non-elites a new and expanding world of consumption. It was luxury for the masses, in a way, and a far cry from (medieval) subsistence[5]. We should not ignore the deep impact of such mood-changing products on our brains[6], as they came to replace socially sanctioned psychotropic mechanisms like liturgies, ceremonies and spectacles[7]. The “pursuit of happiness” had become a very personal and physical affair.

The material world was being transformed, but few recognized, let alone understood, the import at the time. Elites had neither the awareness nor the means to shape such change in a way to preserve the social structures which underpinned their authority. Increasingly they were perceived as corrupt and tyrannical – even when using physiocratic principles (or because of such “progressive” policies).

Transformative experiences

Buffeted by these forces, people reacted and tried to make sense of their experiences. Often they felt anger and passion[8], which were cast in terms devilish conspiracies and prophecies of impending doom. People needed words to express their emotions: they resorted to trusted analogies – ready-made stories that easily resonated. Religion[9] – a central and everyday experience in a community – and its language of truth, absolutes and destiny provided a popular fit. Others found inspiration elsewhere among the classics, which were rapidly becoming available. It was just all part of a “massive, seemingly random eclecticism”[10]. It was often rather superficial and hodge-podge, nay undigested. They vented these emotions as best they could, sharing these experiences through emerging systems of communication (newspapers were becoming popular).

Yet “these long popular, though hitherto inconclusive ideas about the world and America’s place in it were fused into a comprehensive view, unique in its moral and intellectual appeal.” (pg. 22) What happened? All these “inconclusive ideas” were poured into the crucible of popular experience, and were transformed by it. As a concrete example of the transformative effect of experience let’s look at the central role of Committees of Observation. The First Continental Congress created them to enforce the boycott of English goods. They did so, in very effective fashion: imports dropped by 90% or so. Flush with success these local network of committees moved on to pursue ideological crimes – the root cause of non-compliance. The behavior of these Committees was religiously tinged, which gave them grassroots legitimacy. They sought “confessions”, “remorse”, “new political birth”, and coerced “reconciliation” by “shaming” and the threat of  “civil excommunication”, while eschewing physical punishment. These local structures channeled the anger into procedures, and became “schools of revolution”.

Meanwhile a new elite began to emerge – the Band of Brothers, which moved to shape these forces into a more coherent whole. It would be grievous error, however, to view the Committees – micro-history as it were – as subaltern to the macro-history played out at the national level. The impulse for the boycott policy came from the Suffolk Resolves of one such local entity, and micro-history was just as much in the lead as the macro-history – in fact there was a steady tension between these two realms.

The solitons of chance

A soliton is a “self-reinforcing solitary wave that maintains its shape while it travels at constant speed” and I use it here as a metaphor for the unexpected and violent effect of sheer chance.

In September 1774 a rumor flew across the Americas that General Gage had destroyed Boston. People everywhere – figures of up to 50’000 have been mentioned – rose in arms, converging on Massachusetts. The rumor was soon dispelled, but not before Americans had seen each other in arms – it was a serendipitous plebiscite of wills – and one that forever raised the horizon of the possible. The First Congress scuttled plans to compromise with Britain and endorsed the Suffolk Resolves.

As context dissolves agency

History teaches everything including the future.


History has long been imagined as a list of personal or impersonal forces creating inevitabilities. Historians have relegated infinite necessities to introductory background in the process of enucleating the sufficient cause(s). Chance was a distraction best hidden under sweeping generalizations.

If modern historiography teaches us anything it is that between the polar views of history as “begats” and the view of history as “a series of accumulated imaginative inventions” (Voltaire) there lies a world of complexity, where everything from biology to ideology interacts in profound but understandable if not predictable ways. Within this complexity of infinite combinations and possibilities it is the transforming experiences that create path-dependent outcomes – a creative, not an ineluctable process.

Observing the complexity of the context dissolves the dream of the human will mastering the future. Knowledge of the social and material context, however, allows us to adapt and to exploit opportunities, in a trial and error fashion. This may be the best we can do – but may be just “good enough”.

[1]          Conventionally wie es eigentlich gewesen means that the historian should only document facts without offering any interpretation of these facts. Following Georg Iggers, Peter Novick has argued that Ranke, who was more of a romantic and idealist than his American contemporaries understood, meant instead that the historian should discover the facts and find the essences behind them. Under this view, the word eigentlich should be translated as “essentially”, the aim then being to “show what essentially happened”. (Note that Ranke wrote “wie es eigentlich gewesen”, rather than the more common German phrase “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”. His omission of the final “ist” (“was”) suggests, according to some scholars, a less literal meaning.) Ranke went on to write that the historian must seek the “Holy hieroglyph” that is God’s hand in history, keeping an “eye for the universal” whilst taking “pleasure in the particular”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leopold_von_Ranke

[3]          Gordon S. WOOD (2002): The American Revolution. A history. The Modern Library, New York.

[4]         See: Kenneth POMERANTZ (2002): The great divergence – China, Europe, and the making of the modern world economy. Princeton UP, Princeton; x + 382 pp.

[5]          See e.g. Marcello CARMAGNANI (2010): Le isole del lusso. Prodotti esotici, nuovi consumi e cultura economica europea, 1650-1800.  UTET, Torino.

[6]          See e.g.: Daniel Lord SMAIL (2008): On deep history and the brain. University of California Press, Berkeley.

[7]          I know: it sounds abstruse, but Etiénne de la Boétie (d. 1563) said it well in his Discours sur la servitude volontaire: “theatres, games, plays, spectacles, marvelous beasts, medals, tableaux, and other such drugs were for the people of Antiquity the allurements of serfdom, the price of their freedom, the tools of tyranny.”

[8]          Timothy H. BREEN (2010): American insurgents, American patriots. The revolution of the people. Hill and Wang, New York.

[9]          See e.g. Eric NELSON (2010): The Hebrew republic. Jewish sources and the transformation of European political thought. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

[10]           Bernard BAYLIN (1992) (2nd ed.): The ideological origins of the American Revolution. Belknap, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.