The Future of History

Friday, 18 October 2013

What is History For?

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.  When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

- George Santayana

You might not have noticed it, but economists aren't really scientists.  They like to pretend that they are, and that they devote themselves to the objective and dispassionate study of statistics in order to arrive at universal and immutable truths.  But that's not true.  Most of the time, they're making it up.

This has undoubtedly been the case in the past 30 years or so.  The emergence of so-called "think tanks" (like the Institute of Economic Affairs) and the neoliberal ecomomists of the Chicago School (patron saint, the loathsome Milton Friedman) allowed the political agenda to be hijacked.  The post-war consensus was thrown out.  Suddenly, economists and pundits were spouting free market fundamentalist dogma.  And a right old mess it's gotten us into.

If you look carefully at what these people say, the studies the produce and the arguments they advance, something really should strike you.  The "evidence" they quote is ... well, how shall we put it? ... selective, to say the least.  Rather as if a government department chose to prove that crime rates have fallen by citing the number of highwaymen arrested last year, these ideologues decide in advance what they believe and then seek out the "facts" to prove it.

Their studies do not proceed from the basic question, "What does the economy need?  What would work best?"  They start with a belief, an assertion, and then move heaven and hell to come up with something that looks a little bit like science.  But it isn't.  After all, the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea was able to prove by means of mathematics and logic that Achilles would never win a footrace against a tortoise.  Common sense, experience, and limitless amounts of genuine evidence tell us that, more often than not, Achilles would beat the tortoise hands down.  But if you're willing to cheat when trying to prove your point, if can be done.

"What's this got to do with history?" I hear you cry.  Simple.  We like to think of historians as being essentially scientists.  They comb the records of the past to bring us the truth of what happened.  But that's poppycock!  Just like those economists who don't care how ludicrous their methodology has to be so long as they prove their point, so many historians start out with a set of prejudices and then bend history to fit them.

A few months back, I got hold of a copy of Sir Arthur Bryant's Set in a Silver Sea, the first volume of his sweeping "History of Britain and the British People".  After reading a few pages, I felt such absolute disgust that I gave the book away.

The problem I had with the book was that, in just the first few pages, Bryant repeatedly stressed, in the ripest of terms, that Christianity was the best thing that ever happened to the British Isles.

Now, you might agree with that.  And I'm not attacking Christianity, here.  The point is that there is another side to the argument (e.g. "Christianity destroyed the native culture and plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, from which it didn't emerge until the Renaissance").  But Sir Arthur Bryant was stating his personal belief as if it was undeniable fact.

That's not how history works.  Or rather, it's not how history is meant to work.  It's the equivalent of those economists who load the dice before they write up their reports.  Everything that followed Bryant's opening remarks would naturally be skewed in support of his fundamental beliefs.  He would, in short, not be giving us an objective history of the British Isles.  It would be history as Sir Arthur liked to see it - a history which was extremely selective with the evidence.

Sir Arthur Bryant grew up in a house next door to Buckingham palace.  His father was the chief clerk to the Prince of Wales, before becoming registrar of the Royal Victorian Order.  Young Arthur was schooled at Harrow.  He was, you could say, born and raised to defend the monarchy.

As I have observed elsewhere (including my recent post, "The New Heroic Age"), aristocracy and religion go hand-in-hand.  One might say, you can't have the one without the other.  Both represent an entrenched point-of-view and a hierarchy which, so they claim, is divinely ordained.

Such an outlook is profoundly medieval.  It is hardly surprising that Sir Arthur Bryant's paean to a Britain of lords and bishops was first published in 1984.  You could hardly pick a more appropriate year for the start of the New Heroic age and the reintroduction of feudalism (by the back door, of course, and at the insistence of neoliberal economists).

By 1984, the process of social evolution was turning around.  Slavery was being hailed as "freedom", social progress as "communism".  We started heading backwards, away from equality, meritocracy, social mobility, and towards inequality and oligarchy, nepotism for the rich and inescapable poverty for everybody else.  Sir Arthur Bryant's obsessively religious-aristocratic vision of British history could not have appeared at a more apposite moment.

But here's the point: there was some history in Bryant's book, but it was not history as such.  No more than Milton Friedman's ravings were genuine economics.  Both were biased, lopsided arguments - a pickled past in which all good things sprang from the Church (and the monarchy, of course) and a ruinous future in which all good things are snatched up by private corporations.

It is noteworthy that Sir Arthur chose to entitle his revisionist puff-piece, Set in a Silver Sea.  It's a quote from Shakespeare.  I analyse it at the start of the second section of my Who Killed William Shakespeare?  The speech is routinely mistaken for a gushing hymn to England, a sort of "Land of Hope and Glory" written by our very best playwright.

But the speech is nothing of the sort.  Those who quote the "patriotic" part of it ignore the speech as a whole, it really being a furious condemnation of the betrayal of England by greedy aristocrats and self-serving lawyers.  In other words, the speech as Shakespeare wrote it is the exact opposite of what the flag-waving demagogues imagine it to be.  It is not a praise poem for merry old England.  It is a bitter critique of neoliberal economics.  And, since Shakespeare wrote it, all we have done is turn full circle.

Being selective with the evidence in order to bolster a point-of-view based on deep-rooted ideological convictions results in a false and gravely misleading message.  We remember only the "set in a silver sea" part of Shakespeare's Richard II speech and quietly overlook what was actually said.  We choose the bits we like and ignore the rest.  We rewrite history to suit our prejudices.

The period since Bryant published his attempt to airbrush reality out of British history has also been the period of neoliberal economic dogma.  It is impossible to divorce the corruption of genuine history from the blinkered and dishonest diktats of various right-wing institutions.  They are, if you will, two sides of the same coin.  One misleads us about the past, the other lies to us about the future.  The results are economic chaos, political disenfranchisement and Downton Abbey.

So this poses a crucial question.  Do we really want to return to the stagnation of medievalism and the enforced ignorance of the Dark Ages?  Or do we believe in the rights of man (and, more importantly, woman), along with science and democracy, opportunity and reward, truth and freedom?

If we want to pursue the latter course - resuming, as it were, where we were heading before the crazies took over - then we must reclaim history from the deluded pedagogues of the New Heroic age.  We must stop them flogging us their pseudo-historical religious-aristocratic nonsense.  We must demand that they tell us the truth about the past.  That way, we can make our own minds up and decide which mistakes we wish to avoid repeating.

If we don't - that is, if we'd prefer to be serfs toiling in the fields for our idiot masters, punished for having ideas and dying of preventable diseases - then we're heading in the right direction.  We're letting false prophets frame our past, our present and our future.

The decision is ours.  True history, or party political propaganda?  Evidence-based economics or ideological gibberish?  Enlightenment or fanaticism?  Democracy or feudalism?

If we're not sure, we need only do some proper research into life in the Middle Ages - because that's where one-sided history books, rose-tinted costume dramas and neoliberal economists are leading us.

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