The End of (National) History

Whether you consult John Adams in 1775 or Desus and Mero two weeks ago, it’s remained an American truism that we have always been a multiple people bound in a single state. On a recent podcast, the two Bronx comedians entertained the possibility of national dissolution. “There’s no way [America would] still be one country” were the centralizing power of the federal government removed, predicted Desus Nice. “Oh, hell no,” Mero immediately concurred, offering that New York and California would naturally secede from whatever political entity West Virginia was a part of. “It’d be, like, six countries,” speculated Desus. Little had changed since John Adams remarked on the eve of America’s revolutionary birth that the loose confederation of colonies differed “as much as several distinct Nations.” Nearly 250 years have not mended the seams to make the motto e pluribus unum ring any truer; the many never became one, not really.

Two recent attempts from historians to explain our current state of discord and disunity are themselves a bit at odds. Or, rather, one seems an answer to a call made in the other, but after reading both one is left feeling less confident that either fully assesses the crisis. Issued this spring as a sort of postscript to last year’s ambitious single-volume American history, These Truths: A History of the United States, Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s This America: The Case for the Nation is an “urgent manifesto” to the profession to return to writing American national history instead of “investigating groups — divided by race, sex, or class — or taking the vantage promised by global history.” There is a sort of good nationalism to combat the bad, argues Lepore, but only with a concerted effort to tell an inclusive national story, not a fragmented one, will the good nationalism not be commandeered by illiberal forces.

“Nations, to make sense of themselves, need some kind of agreed-upon past,” Lepore writes, warning, “They can get it from scholars or they can get it from demagogues, but get it they will.” And in recent decades the scholars have left the field to the demagogues, Lepore laments, when they abandoned the study of the nation qua nation. Recoiling from the catastrophic nationalisms of the 20th century (the genocidal German nationalism under Nazism and Italian fascism looming large), historians saw national histories as complicit in the building of nationalism. “If nationalism was a pathology, the thinking went, the writing of national histories was one of its symptoms.”

Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer’s Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, published early this year, is the most recent attempt, after Lepore’s last year, to tell a national story, albeit with a narrower temporal scope than Lepore’s epic. Kruse and Zelizer are, despite their book preceding Lepore’s by a few months, answering Lepore’s call while remaining clear-eyed about the divisions, the titular “fault lines,” that carve at national unity. Fault Lines is grim enough in its account of the “political, economic, racial, and sexual divisions” that have riven the country that one might mistake it for that which Lepore condemns. Is it still her preferred national history if it reads like a national unraveling? “From the 1970s on, the United States would seem less and less united with each passing decade,” worry Kruse and Zelizer. But theirs is still a national history; the story is still bounded by the nation-state, and the forces at work, both of unity and disunity, are mostly endogenous. America is the main character. It is a story of a nation that, though while stricken with divisions, can choose, or not, to remain whole. National sovereignty is assumed. There remains, then, a certain Leporean hopefulness in their story; unity is a choice we can still make. America can still choose to remain in a united state.

But that’s not a choice left to nations, not if global capitalism continues to exist in anything like its current form — which it will, most likely. Each country now increasingly features a globe-facing population and an inward-facing one, one ascendant and one left behind, one cosmopolitan and the other nationalist. That’s not a choice that somehow the United States, India, Germany, Brazil, Turkey, China, Iran, Spain, Egypt, Mexico, Ethiopia, and France (to name only a few) all made independently by wild chance, each exercising their sovereignty to identically divide their populations into irreconcilable sections. No, each nation is increasingly transected by the power of capital as it courses over the surface of the earth, and that exogenous power increasingly directs activity inside each nation.

Even the nationalist movement Lepore warns against is paradoxically a global phenomenon. It is a broadly shared impulse, now present on every continent on earth and still expanding, to restore national sovereignty and agency in the face of what is understood as the greater power of transnational (or, better, metanational) capital. That is why Lepore laments a global resurgence of old nationalist notions in the first pages of This America, citing the growing “influence and power” of “Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Marine Le Pen in France, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines,” as well as Brexit demagogues in the UK and Trump in the US. She doesn’t even mention the new nationalism of Narendra Modi in India, the world’s largest democracy, or that of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, or the nationalist bent of President Xi in China, movements in countries comprising more than a quarter of the world’s people. Nationalism is global because the causes are global.

Though currently threatening stability across the globe, and even a unique threat to the world’s most powerful nation, nationalism’s return is unlikely to stop the juggernaut of global capitalism. Global capitalism, in order to function, requires the suppression of state power and sovereignty. It doesn’t work some other way. There is simply not a way to use your iPad to shop at Amazon without setting into motion global supply chains that require each country along its path, and its borders, to be largely overridden. Early on, this diminution of borders was imagined to result only in a reduction in difference, one connected world. But as the spokesman for the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico that accompanied the creation of the NAFTA zone in 1994 pointed out, the capitalism that erases national borders doesn’t make the many countries into one but each into many. The global sameness that does indeed come with capitalism’s spread brings a dark sibling: new difference that sunders each country.

As much as he’s been derided for his 1989 prediction that the capitalist powers’ victory in the Cold War would bring the “end of history,” Francis Fukuyama was not wrong in borrowing a term to characterize the coming world of totalized global capitalism: the “universal homogeneous state.” There did continue to develop a matrix of capital flows and nodes, an increasingly homogenized cosmopolitan global archipelago that straddles continents and aligns the interests and affinities of its denizens in increasing antagonism with the old affinities binding those within the nation-state. This emerging universal homogeneous state links, for instance, New York, London, Frankfurt and Beijing in a global body distinct from the erstwhile American, British, German and Chinese conationals outside of that cosmopolitan formation. New York City is in many ways closer to São Paolo than Poughkeepsie. The internet complicates this arrangement even more, making physical proximity matter less and less. Each country now is in some degree of internal conflict between what British writer David Goodhart calls the “Anywheres” and the “Somewheres,” cosmopolitans and those still rooted in place, the inhabitants of the new world versus the old.

Fukuyama predicted his “universal homogeneous state” to share a distinctly Western, consumer capitalist culture, and while there will no doubt eventually be more sharing than the one-way West-to-East cultural transfer he described, Fukuyama wasn’t wrong in foreseeing the “Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores, and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran” in the universal homogeneous state. The presence of something like a universal homogeneous state is the only way a movie like last year’s Crazy Rich Asians can make any sense whatsoever. Already one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time due to its global appeal, the movie is about diasporic Chinese, principally a capitalist economist and a family of financiers and CEOs, where the central event is a Christian wedding in Singapore, the bride walking down the aisle to an Elvis song. It reads like Fukuyama consulted on the script. The movie’s pivotal proposal for marriage occurs on a transcontinental flight while a British pop song is sung in Mandarin.

Goodhart’s “Somewheres” see in globalized culture the same forces that remove factories and place billions of people across borders in sudden competition for low-wage work. The “Anywheres” can be seen as representatives — or, worse, active agents — of the threat. It is increasingly difficult for each group to see the other as fellow citizens. A phenomenon well-described by Kruse and Zelizer, the two American political parties have sorted over the last four or five decades into warring camps that map pretty cleanly onto the framework of “Anywheres” and “Somewheres.” Once the national ties that bind are loosened, the divisions detailed by Kruse and Zelizer can widen to untenable degrees without the old gravitational, centralizing force of the nation-state to contain the distance. American politics is now more polarized than at any time since the onset of the Civil War, when the country was two. That polarization has now infected the entire body politic. A 2012 study found that interparty marriage is looked down upon more broadly now than interracial marriage. “In 1960, about 5 percent of Americans expressed a negative reaction to party intermarriage; in 2010, about 40 percent did,” the study found. Clocked early in Obama’s tenure, one can only assume that number has expanded in the Trump era. We are only growing more foreign to each other.

Lepore’s promise of a way out of the current crisis is alluring. The centrifugal force we all feel spinning us out from the old center is scary. We feel the distance widening. If a fresh, credible American narrative and mythos could rebind us, most of us would still lend an ear. The problem is that, if one agrees with Lepore about the dire stakes and liberalism’s fate being contingent on the explanatory power of histories, the nation-state cannot remain the unit of analysis. That telling of history going forward only becomes less and less legible, its explanatory capacity becoming more and more insufficient to the task. Eventually, it will be to tell the story of dinosaur extinction by describing their particular vulnerabilities to a sudden change in weather — not mentioning the meteor.

The globe is now the unit of analysis. The global climate and global capital are what dictate the future. As long as sequestered carbon is pulled from the earth and burned so that I can use my Chinese-made phone, powered by Congolese cobalt, to buy from Amazon, using my HSBC card, something made in Honduras from Egpytian-grown cotton, I will each time be contributing to this eventuality. The accumulation of our contributions to this global system is what renders the state less and less able to hold us together. The most ardent nationalist relies on the same supply chain I just described, and very few will, in the end, pursue the troglodytic asceticism demanded in a return to their imagined mercantilist, sovereign past. They will find they are more ensnarled and entangled in the system than they knew. Mistaking themselves for citizens, they learn they are primarily customers. A safe full of Heckler & Koch, a Tacoma in the driveway and a Sanyo TV set to an Australian magnate’s news product only means you choose a different sub-identity of consumer. The politics of that identity is mostly a consensus. It is less unthinkable to imagine national fracturings than it is to imagine the conditions necessary to return to sovereignty and solidity of nation-states. That would be the end of global capitalism as we know it. At best, the nation-state and nationality might remain in the same way the British crown does or in the same that we’re increasingly only culturally Christian or culturally Jewish, our holidays drained of their sacrality and resurrected as ceremonies of consumer capitalism. And, in that case, national histories will still be valuable, of course, but as lore or elegy. Or they might tell the story of places we no longer know. Histories, truly.

Writer — bylines at Salon, Alternet, McSweeney’s, Flagpole Magazine

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