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Deconstructing EuropeJ.G.A. Pocock
Vol. 13 No. 24 · 19 December 1991

Deconstructing Europe

J.G.A. Pocock

9275 words

History is about process and movement: yet up to now, it has taken as given the perspectives furnished by relatively stable geographical communities, of whose pasts, and the processes leading to their presents, history is supposed to consist. All that may be changing, with the advent of the global village, in which no one’s home is one’s own; with the advent, too, of a universally-imposed alienation, in which one’s identity is presupposed either as some other’s aggression against one, or as one’s own aggression against someone else, and in either case scheduled for deconstruction. Yet the owl of Minerva may continue to fly, as long as there is an ark left to fly from; and the historian, who must today move between points in time, must recollect voyages and may still recollect voyages between known points with known pasts, recalling how the pasts changed as the presents shifted.

Two voyages, then, furnished the prelude to this essay in historical reflection: one beyond what is known as ‘Europe’, the other within it. The former was the later, and is therefore the nearer in time; it is therefore remembered first. It was a voyage in May 1991 to New Zealand, which is this historian’s home culture; he is aware that few of his readers know that there is a culture there, or can readily believe it stands at the centre of anyone’s historical consciousness. It was in that month a culture very deeply in crisis and threatened with possible discontinuation: more than for most reasons because the Europeanisation of Great Britain had deprived it of its economic (and like it or not, its previous spiritual) raison d’être, and it had not yet found another. Not having found – wherever the fault might lie – new markets of outlet, it had resorted to policies of privatisation which amounted to the forced sale of national assets in the hope of attracting new investment capital, a subjection of national sovereignty to international market forces such as the European Community – only in this case there was no community – is supposed to stand for. This had reached the point where it was being seriously proposed to sell New Zealand public schools to their own boards of trustees, and the trustees were making it known that they had no money to buy them with. In the midst of this scene of understandable demoralisation, relations between the largest minority and majority ethnic groups – Maori and Pakeha, Polynesian and Anglo-European – were giving rise to a complex, serious and conceptually sophisticated debate over the legal, moral and historical foundations of the national identity.1 The owl had taken flight, but the dusk could be felt approaching. In history nothing is as certain as night and day: but it was a measurable possibility, if not an inevitability, that the history being intelligently debated might simply be terminated because the international economy had no further need of the community whose memory and identity it was.

An effect this had upon a historian who had lived for twenty-five years in the Northern Hemisphere, while remaining a product of the Southern, was sharply to jolt his awareness of ‘Europe’. The historic process he saw before his eyes in New Zealand had begun with the British entry into the European Community, and had not been alleviated by that Community’s economic policies. This is to say nothing of the moral policies of some of its member nations: the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior has not been forgotten in New Zealand, and there is a deep conviction that the French do not care, and cannot understand that anybody else does. In New Zealand – as when resident in the United States of America – he found himself in a culture governed by ‘Western’ values and given shape by then historic (and imperial) expansion: yet it seemed that there was a mystique of ‘Europe’ which laid claim to these values while excluding others from the community which claimed to base itself upon them. And the same mystique seemed to proclaim the subjection of national sovereignty to international market forces without making more than sporadic progress toward the creation of any new kind of political community governed by its citizens, to replace that whose obsolescence it so readily proclaimed. New Zealand, only yesterday a viable social democracy with policies and a government of its own, looked like an extreme because extra-marginal case of where the post-sovereignty process might lead.

The response might be a retreat into militant and even violent local populism – the Third World, to which New Zealand was threatened with relegation, was full of examples of the kind. But New Zealanders had been and still were a non-impoverished, civilised and international people, used to travel, to join the world and its history – distant though they found them – and to look at history through looking at others, way of seeing it.

An owl departing from the South Island of New Zealand must define the region in which its flight has navigational meaning. Until half a century ago, New Zealand’s national existence was situated less in the Pacific Ocean than in a global area defined by British naval and imperial power, running from Britain and Flanders through the Mediterranean and India to Australia, Singapore and beyond. New Zealand’s wars were fought along the length of this system, as late as the Malaysian emergencies of the 1950s; even in 1942, New Zealand troops were not withdrawn from the Mediterranean for war against Japan, as those of Australia were, but ended the Second World War keeping Trieste from becoming part of Yugoslavia. This imperial area possessed a consciously-preserved history which was less that of empire or imperialism than that of British culture, political, religious, social and historical. Of this, New Zealanders – and, subject to their own more Irish mythology, Australians – saw themselves as part; it was believed to be the history of a culture with a global capacity for creating and associating new nations. Even now, when it has survived the power that once held it together, this history is part of their perception that they inhabit ‘Western civilisation’ though they do not inhabit ‘Europe’. The accession of the United Kingdom to the European Community entailed a rejection by that kingdom’s peoples of the former global capacity of their culture; it was a confession of defeat, and at the same time a rejection of the other nations of that culture, which seemed to entail a decision that there was no longer a British history in which New Zealand’s past or future possessed a meaning. The South Pacific owl of Minerva, finding its environment endangered, faced the task of rewriting New Zealand’s British history, while taking part in the revision of all British history in which the historians of the United Kingdom have engaged in the post-imperial and quasi-European era now going on.

An assertion by means of which the owl defined its flight path and air space was therefore the assertion that ‘Western civilisation’ extended beyond ‘Europe’ into those oceanic and continental spaces irreversibly Westernised by navigation and settlement in the 17th through 19th centuries. Europeans are often anti-American enough, and the United Kingdom British hostile enough to their imperial past, to deny and wish to sever this relation to the world: but the inhabitants of the world thus created are under a necessity of keeping its history alive, and an obsessive ‘Europeanness’ can appear to them a device aimed at excluding them from visibility. As part of the assertion that ‘the West’ extends beyond ‘Europe’, therefore, there are owls of Minerva who define themselves as navigating in the continental spaces of North America and Australia, or – and this is the case of the subspecies under examination – the enormous oceanic spaces of the austral Pacific ocean, which Polynesian and European navigators have lodged in their memory and tradition. Take a globe in your hands, one not mounted on a spindle which preserves the intellectual dictatorship of Gerardus Mercator, rotate it until the islands of New Zealand are at the centre of the hemisphere you face. You will be looking at one facet of the New Zealand historical imagination, and you will be able to see Australia and Antarctica, but nothing worth mentioning of Indo-Malaysia, Asia or the Americas. There is a history which has to be created in this space, and when it is not a history looking back up the lines along which culture has travelled – toward what Maori call Hawaiki paa-mamao, the spirit land high up and distant – it has to be the history of small communities in an ocean of planetary size. Writing Pacific history is a challenge to the imagination: it both is and is not a history of ‘the West’, and it certainly is not a history of ‘Europe’, even when a history of ‘Europeans’.

These are spaces by which the Antipodean historian defines his relation to the world, and the need to see the planet as if the Southern Hemisphere contained its centre makes him aware of others. There is the Indonesian or Indo-Malaysian space from which he is separated by the mountains of New Guinea and the deserts of Australia; there is the northern ocean defined by the ‘Pacific rim’ and the movements of Japanese, American and neo-Confucian capital; there are the spaces defined by the major civilisations of Asia, and west of them the extensive and at present disastrously incoherent domains of Islam. There is the enormous space of northern Eurasia, formerly coextensive with the Soviet Union, which may be glimpsed from cruising altitude on a flight from London to Tokyo. These last two offer the imagination a post-colonial route toward Europe, and toward the memory of the second voyage by which this essay is dominated.

This is the memory of a seven-months sojourn in Europe during 1989, moving through Calabria, Sicily, Tuscany, the Alpine region, south-west Germany and the Netherlands. The revolutions of Eastern Europe were beginning, and it would have been possible to set out by ferrovia or autostrada and watch the borders crumble: but there was work to be done, and in any case a lingering feeling that history is for its immediate participants and not a spectacle for tourists. One was close enough, at all events, to experience a sensation that we were witnessing the end of a European era forty years long, and of a definition of ‘Europe’ predicated on the partition collapsing before one’s eyes. The term ‘Europe’ had come to be often used co-terminously with ‘the European Community’, an association of former imperial states having in common the experience of defeat – Germany of defeat and partition, France, Italy and the Low Countries of defeat and occupation, Britain of exhaustion following victory – and the loss of colonial empires – in all cases except the first after 1940 – which had recovered enough to form a powerful combination based on the pooling of some sovereign powers and the removal of obstacles to the movement across their frontiers of international economic forces and some of the ways of living immediately dependent on them: this is the process intended to reach a culminating point in 1992.

The formation of this Community had been accompanied by an ideology of ‘Europeanness’, which sometimes affirmed that the culture possessed in common by these national communities, and the history of this common culture, was of greater moral and ideological significance than their several distinct national sovereignties or than the history shaped and written – as in the classical age of European historiography it had been – by their several existences as sovereign nation-states claiming to exercise control over their several histories. Politically as well as historiographically, there had been problems attending this fecund and exciting enterprise: it was not asserted, for example, that there existed or should exist a ‘European people’ or a ‘European state’, using these terms in the singular; and consequently – following the logic of political historiography – the ‘European history’ which was developing was (rightly enough) a plural history of divergences and convergences, in which a cultural commonalty interacted with a diversity (often a warlike and destructive diversity) of political sovereignties and national histories.

In this, European historiography continued in its classical patterns, the history of the state retaining its primacy even after giving up its claim to be a moral absolute. In partitioned Germany, and in an Italy still plagued by consequences of the forced unification of the Pied-montese and Neapolitan kingdoms in 1861, there continued to be debate whether the national state had been a historical necessity or could have taken some other path. There was less sign that the French were inclined to regard ‘France’ as a contingency or accident of history2: but even in Britain – which came to ‘Europe’ late, reluctantly, and with many signs of self-contempt – there was an enterprise of considering ‘British history’ as existing distinctly from the history of ‘England’ and of asking whether the extension of English sovereignty had created a ‘British’ nation with a history of its own.3 The historian writing this essay and remembering these voyages could claim some role in furthering this enterprise; and since the questions which it posed could be answered in the affirmative or the negative, it might either reinforce or subvert the existence of ‘British history’ as a distinct and intelligible field of study.

In ways such as these, the process of ‘Europeanisation’ stimulated the classical historiography based on the conception of the state: it became more exciting, and yielded richer information, when the state and the nation were perceived as precarious, contingent and ambivalent rather than as moral absolutes and historical necessities. At the same time, however, the experience after 1945 of Western Europe, and the planet’s advanced cultures in general, was conducive to post-modernism and alienation – meaning by these overworked terms that there were many competing memberships, allegiances, values and involvements, of which none was altogether satisfactory and each might be seen as competing with the others for mastery of the individual subjectivity which they had formed among them without rendering it satisfactory to itself. This was a problem at least as old as the European Enlightenment, and long antedated the temporary settlement of 1945. Under these conditions, however, it greatly encouraged an ideology, historiography and sub-culture of alienation in which every historic formation bearing on the individual consciousness became a candidate for deconstruction and rejection by that consciousness, which was in turn forced by the logic of historicism to deconstruct and reject any self or identity it might seem to possess. Since ‘Europe’ was the classical locus of this kind of consciousness, the deconstructive attitude became part of the ideology of ‘Europeanness’ and ‘Europe’ was thus well placed to deconstruct its competitors, while retaining for itself an essential lack of identity, of much tactical advantage in the assertion of hegemony: the Great Boyg won by refusing to name himself.

It was of course open to anyone to give him a name. When one saw praise of la cultura europea in graffiti on South Italian university walls in 1989, one was given to understand that some conservative Catholic program was using these words in a code of its own; ‘Europe’ meant different things to different people, and they were busy deconstructing one another’s meanings. All this, however, was ideologically and historiographically normal: a ‘Europe’ which incessantly challenged and debated its own identity was part of the civilisation to which as a ‘Westerner’ one belonged, and ‘America’ in its own way did the same thing. What left the closed or open character of ‘Europe’ in greater doubt was its geopolitical situation. Demarcated down to 1989 by a military, political and ideological barrier running through central Germany and Europe, the European Community could look like a neo-Carolingian construct: a regrouping of Neustria, Franconia, Burgundy and Lombardy in the areas defined by the Treaty of Verdun in the ninth century, modified by one major exclusion and one inclusion of lands not so defined. The exclusion was that of eastern Germany, the inclusion that of the British islands; both areas had been historically dominated by differing forms of Protestantism.

In the latter case, standing nearer to the concerns of the owl of Minerva, the entity’s insular situation had separated it in some degree from two of the major historical experiences undergone in western Eurasia. Through military weakness, it had avoided involvement in the Wars of Religion fought down to 1648 (though some argued that it was by that date caught up in a war of religion of its own insular kind); through oceanic, mercantile and industrial power, it had escaped conquest and liberation in the Wars of Revolution after 1789, and had succeeded in playing a dominant role from an external situation. From the time of their consolidation at the end of the 17th century, the British kingdoms had been able to exercise power in Europe while maintaining their distance from it. Only the loss of that capacity was obliging the United Kingdom to seek membership in the European Community, and however strongly the step could be justified it could not altogether lose the character of a historic defeat and an enforced separation from a past by which the British had previously known themselves. It was this step which had left the British nations of the Pacific ocean denied a role in ‘European’ history and in ‘British’ history considered as part of it: oceanically situated in the face of the economic power exerted by Japan and the Lesser Dragons, and liable to be told that as neither ‘European’ nor ‘American’ (nor ‘British’?) they belonged to no ‘Western’ community acting together to maintain itself.

These were the circumstances in which the ideology of ‘Europeanness’ could appear closed, exclusive and deconstructive. It is, in fact, not the case that the European Community has developed an accredited historiography of its own; there have been tentative ventures in that direction, which down to 1989 would have led toward a neo-Carolingian synthesis addressing itself to Germans on the loss of the east, Italians on the miseries of the south and British on the loss of detachment from the adjacent continent. What took a much more visible shape was an ideology of ‘Europeanness’ which enjoined the rejection of previously distinct national histories without proposing a synthetic or universal history to take their place. When the British are enjoined to consider themselves ‘European’, it is usually with the implication that they should not consider their history as in any way distinctive; and though this injunction has not been notably effective, it has strengthened the tendency toward the kind of post-modernism in which any Lebensform is presupposed an act of hegemony, an imposition to be deconstructed. ‘Europe’ could therefore become the ideology of a post-historical culture, in which varyingly affluent and varyingly alienated masses – there is an alienation of the consumer as well as an alienation of the deprived – float from one environment to another with no awareness of moving from one past, and one commitment to it, to another. It would be a problem in historicity to determine whether this freedom from commitment were an illusory or a real condition; either seems possible.

The mystique of ‘Europe’, which has often made it possible to use the word as an incantation with which there can be no argument, may have been the product of a turn toward a post-historic consumer culture, but it has also been a product of the Community’s singular success in creating a common economy, elements of a common culture, and some institutions of a shared administrative – it seems too soon to call it ‘civic’ – political structure. All these were the connotations of the word ‘Europe’ as it was being used down to 1989, and as it is still used as it looks toward 1992.

In the former of these two years, however, the collapse of the Wall, the Curtain, and much more besides, deprived ‘Europe’ of its partition along the militarised and policed frontier which had defined its identity as opposed to the presumed alternative culture of late Leninism. It turned out that this alternative was not merely a failure, but had for a long time been no more than a pretence; mass action and mass sentiment rejected it, because for many years nobody had believed in it enough to make it work; and the liberal-democratic capitalism of the Community was faced with the task, not of transforming a counter-culture, but of filling a vacuum and tidying up a gigantic mess. The collapse extended beyond the Central and Eastern Europe occupied in 1944-45, deep into the Soviet Union itself and the heartlands of northern Eurasia, where what collapsed in 1991 was not only an economic and political order but a system of states possessing sovereignty distributed among themselves: so that the ideological transformation of the continent instantly took on a geopolitical dimension. ‘Europe’, used both as a term of mystique and a synonym for the European Community, came face to face with a Central Europe, an Eastern Europe, and a Eurasia extending through Siberia, which had not been integrated into its post-modern culture and did not belong with any simplicity to its history. The Community proved to be a regrouping of the lands of west Latin culture, as modified by Enlightenment, Revolution, and the wars of Germany with France and Britain, uncertain in its relations with the historic consequences of Protestantism, and now obliged by the reunification of Germany to recall how far the 20th-century wars had been a consequence of German-Russian encounters in the environment formed by Eastern Europe. Beyond a Slavonic Europe of largely Catholic culture could be discerned a wide cultural zone whose history was Orthodox and Ottoman beyond the point of belonging to the history of Latin Christianity and its secularisation.

This region was ethnically diverse and politically indeterminate. Among the disturbing consequences of the liberations of 1989-91 – the tunnels at the end of the light, as someone put it – was the discovery that seventy-five to forty-five years of revolutionary totalitarianism, long credited with a capacity to wash brains and rebuild minds, had eliminated none of the ethnic and sub-national antagonisms of western Eurasia. (It did not help to add that two centuries of West European colonialism had enjoyed no better success in Africa and southern Asia.) The collapse of socialism proved to be a collapse of empire, the only if inadequate force which had attempted the subjugation of these hostile identities; and the Russian-dominated federation of the Soviet Union, the Serbian-dominated federation of Yugoslavia, began a disintegration which has continued through the revolution of August 1991 and the war in Croatia. Both European and United States policy-makers face a choice between encouraging the devolution of sovereignty as a means of creating larger market economies, and maintaining existing centralisations of sovereignty as a means of preventing endemic inter-ethnic warfare – war having become less a means of asserting the interests of states than of posing ethnic challenges to their authority. The European Community faced this problem in respect of Yugoslavia, the United States of Iraq, both of the Soviet Union; and there were uncomfortable parallels in Canadian North America. This problem has many aspects. It raises the conceptual question – now extended from west to east – whether sovereignty can be rearranged without rearranging the pasts of which sovereignty makes human communities aware, and whether sovereignty can be treated as a contingent convenience or inconvenience without history itself becoming similarly contingent and manipulable.

This is a familiar problem in Central and Eastern Europe, where the distinction between ‘historic’ and ‘non-historic’ peoples was invented as a debating device in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and turned against it – but by no means eliminated – by the policy-makers of Versailles and Trianon. A New Zealander has some reason to know what it may be like to belong to a people which thought it had a history and is now instructed by others that it has none. These are devices in the discourse of empires and the unmaking of empires. The next discovery is that ‘Europe’ may be at the point of becoming an empire uncertain of the frontiers of its own discourse, as it faces the question of how far to intervene in the ethnic strife of Croats and Serbs, and as differences between the policies of its major nations emerge over the admission of central and eastern states to the Community. The greatest single truth to declare itself in the wake of 1989 is that the frontiers of ‘Europe’ towards the east are everywhere open and indeterminate. ‘Europe’, it can now be seen, is not a continent – as in the ancient geographers’ dream – but a sub-continent: a peninsula of the Eurasian land-mass, like India in being inhabited by a highly distinctive chain of interacting cultures, but unlike it in lacking a clearly-marked geophysical frontier. Instead of Afghanistan and the Himalayas, there are vast level areas through which conventional ‘Europe’ shades into conventional ‘Asia’, and few would recognise the Ural mountains if they ever reached them. In these regions the states and cultures of Latin, Catholic-Protestant and Enlightened ‘Europe’ both merge and do not merge with others, of Orthodox, Islamic, Russian and Turkish provenance, as what we call ‘Europe’ is ambiguously continuous with what we had better learn to call ‘Eurasia’.

In this perspective, to imagine ‘Europe’ as a cohesive entity raises questions of demarcation and definition. Are Serbians, Moldavians, Georgians and Armenians ‘Europeans’ because their culture is historically Christian and post-Christian; are Albanians, Bosnians, Turks and Azeris not ‘Europeans’ because theirs is Islamic or post-Islamic? On what grounds could such questions be answered, and who would have the authority to decide them? In such geographical and historic circumstances, a culture which regards itself as cohesive and autonomous may find itself playing the role of empire, claiming the authority not merely to extend its frontiers but to extend or retract them at will, telling others that they are or are not ‘European’ as the British claim the authority to tell New Zealanders or Hongkongers when they are or are not ‘British’. In the special circumstances of western Eurasia, ‘Europe’ may find that it has the power to do this unshared by others, but not the authority to command the consent of the cultures affected, which alone can legitimate the inclusions or exclusions of empire. Kurds, Albanians and boat people know what it is like to be ill-informed as to whether the protection of empire is being given or refused; indeed, all Gastarbeiter know.

These are practical problems, which lie beyond the province of this essay, though it does seem permissible to point out that the mentality of 1992 cannot safely be any longer, but dangerously may be nevertheless, a projection of the mentality of ‘Europe’ as it was before 1989 and the German reunification. This is an essay in and on historiography, a meditation for owls of Minerva watching history change behind them under changing global light-conditions in which it is monocentric any longer to speak of ‘gathering dusk’, since dusk to one culture may be dawn to another; though again, it has to be remembered that we claim to be diversifying the world’s cultures precisely when, and because, we are in fact homogenising them. The debate over multi-cultural education has to be read in that complex of lights and shadows. At the outset of this essay it was premised that historiography was the study of change and memory, which is why it lies both behind and before the owls flying against the time-stream: the study of the processes of change in which we are all involved, counter-pointed by the maintenance in the present of identity as members of coherent communities possessing coherent and recollectable pasts. Since it has been regularly assumed that these communities in the present are relatively autonomous political entities – it is less than a century since ‘history’ could be defined as ‘present politics’ and ‘the memory of the state’ – these definitions of historiography have a political dimension. They presuppose that one of the aims of the state is to exercise some control over its own history, defining its past and seeking to determine its future; that the liberal state associates individuals with it in this enterprise, that of seeking the freedom – thus history used to be defined as ‘the history of freedom’ – to act as citizens in the determination of their own historicised identities; that political sovereignty was so far the state’s means of prescribing its historic past and future that it was doubtful whether the individual could be accounted free, in history as in politics, unless a citizen of an autonomous and sovereign political community.

There is consequently an association between sovereignty and historiography; a community writes its own history when it has the autonomous political structure needed if it is to command its own present, and typically the history it writes will be the history of that structure. Such a history need not, though it very often will, be written uncritically; it may be written in ways that reveal its existence within a historical context larger than itself, its contingency upon many historical processes which it does not command. There are other kinds of history which can and should be written, and a historian or person of historical sensibility is at liberty to decide that these kinds possess priority over political history and history of the state. A class, gender or ethnic group which has been excluded or repressed by the political community must write its own history and that of the state in terms of this experience, though whether history can be written in exclusively negative and eristic terms is another question. A national community which has existed by assimilating diverse ethnic groups to an ethnically specific culture – the United States is a major example – must decide how to measure the history of the assimilating culture against that of the cultures undergoing an assimilation which may be incomplete or false. There is nothing sacrosanct, or privileged, about the history engendered by sovereignty: and yet the history of historiography as we know it obliges us to ask whether it would exist without history of this kind, whether historiography would exist without the state. One reason for this is that sovereignty and historiography, a voice in controlling one’s present and a voice in controlling one’s past, have been and may still be necessary means by which a community asserts its identity and offers an identity to the individuals composing it. Certainly, it can and must be asked whether it can pursue this enterprise, and maintain the means of doing so, without making war against other communities or denying an identity, a politics and a history to subjugated communities within its hegemony. But if the abandonment or the redistribution of sovereignty are to become general practices recommended to or imposed upon states, or communities of states, which were formerly sovereign and wrote their national histories as histories of their autonomous politics, one must also ask: if the sovereignty is to disappear, what is to happen to the historiography? If the historiography is to disappear, what is to happen to the identity? If the autonomous political community is to disappear, what is to happen to the political identity and autonomy of the individual?

These questions appear to be intimately linked, and one can imagine an ‘Austro-Hungarian’ set of answers, in which the surrender of sovereignty to a common set of institutions is found to have privileged some communities, but not others, to claim certain kinds of hegemony as ‘historic peoples’, while failing to provide the governing structure itself with a history which was that of a community or provided anyone with an identity. There was in that case an ‘imperial’ mystique, as there is now a ‘European’ mystique, which claimed to have a history but on the whole failed to make good that claim; and to this it may be added that empires commonly claim to be communities and to possess histories, but often fail in a diversity of ways to satisfy the communities they incorporate that their claim is good.

At this point new sets of questions may be asked. Is the supra-national community we look at in the double perspective of this essay – the European Community, since no Pacific community is in process of formation – a species of empire, in which ultimate political control belongs to some institutions rather than others, to some national communities rather than others? The problems placed before the Community by the changes taking place in Central and Eastern Europe seem to make this a reasonable question; there are said to be differing German, French and British policy preferences regarding the future of the states of Eastern Europe. If we answer the question in the affirmative, we return ‘Europe’ to the domain of reason of state. ‘Empire’ and ‘confederation’ are not mutually exclusive terms, but are ranged along a spectrum of meanings: it may be said, however, that if there is to be a ‘Europe’ commanding its political present, there must be a political structure capable of defining its own past and writing its own history. On the other hand, the ‘mystique of Europe’ that has taken shape does not seem to offer a political history, which as far as can be seen would have to be that of a plurality of states acting in their own history and never yet confederated or incorporated in a lasting imperial structure. This opens the way to the reply that the question has been wrongly posed, and that the community being shaped is not a political community in the sense of a redistribution of the sovereignty possessed by states, but a set of arrangements for ensuring the surrender by states of their power to control the movement of economic forces which exercise the ultimate authority in human affairs. The institutions jointly operated, and/or obeyed, by member states would then not be political institutions bringing about a redistribution of sovereignty, but administrative or entrepreneurial institutions designed to ensure that no sovereign authority can interfere with the omnipotence of a market exercising ‘sovereignty’ in a metaphorical because non-political sense. There would be an ‘empire’ of the market which would not be an empire as the term is used in the vocabulary of politics, because that vocabulary would itself have lost its hegemony.

One might emerge with an uneasy hybrid, an ‘empire’ of the market in which residual political authority was unequally distributed between the political entities subject to its supra-political authority; or with a more benign, at least a more familiar, scenario in which confederated nations successfully operated shared institutions designed to allow market forces that freedom of operation which it had been agreed should belong to them. The problem of empire would not have disappeared, since it would be possible to find former national communities which had been denied their sovereignty and their history, or simply abolished as viable human communities, either by inclusion within or by exclusion from supra-national common markets of the sort being imagined. It will be remembered that this essay is being written in part from a New Zealand point of view. In the East European and Eurasian settings – perhaps also in the North American as regarded from Quebec – member states of hegemonic confederations are to be seen claiming an independent sovereignty, very possibly with a view to joining common markets to which sovereignty must be given up as soon as asserted; the pooling of sovereignty in some regions and the fragmentation of sovereignty in others may be two sides of the same medal; but there may be yet other regions in which market forces simply reign without bothering to exact common institutions from the communities they rule, make and unmake. There have been informal empires as well as formal.

This essay is designed to ask questions about the voice of politics and history in the conversation of mankind. What happens to the sometime citizens of a formerly autonomous community when it is enjoined to give up its political sovereignty and the capacity to write its own history; to the United Kingdom British when they are enjoined to cease claiming a history of their own and accept that they have no history except that of a Europe which has not been written yet, to the New Zealand British when they are ejected from Anglo-European history and enjoined to consider themselves part of a Pacific world which has no common history and may never acquire one? The craft of historiography suggests some responses to these predicaments. The United Kingdom British have the option of writing the history of Europe on the assumption that the history of the British peoples does indeed form part of it and radically modifies the ways in which it must be understood once this is admitted. The far more isolated and threatened New Zealanders, to whom others rather deny than extend options, may easily recognise that they are made up of voyaging peoples, Polynesian, European and latterly Asian; they may write their own history as shaped by voyaging, and voyage themselves in search of other histories to which oceanic distances connect them by the very radicalness of separation. Owls of Minerva may send back messages from other points in what is only planetary space.

But this is to presuppose that the voice of self-defining political and national historiography will survive. There have been political and social preconditions of its existence, and these may be in process of supersession. Let us imagine a state of affairs in which political communities had been effectively reduced to insignificance, and humans could identify themselves only as existing in market communities, engaged in no other self-defining activities than the manufacture, distribution and consumption of goods, images and the information (if that is the right word) relating thereto. It would in principle be possible to write the histories of such communities, and these histories might be full of unexpected and intriguing information about their conduct and the character of human life as shaped by them. The proposition that life in the non-political community is as historically informative as life in the political is as old as the New History, which has cropped up at intervals since Voltaire published the Essai sur les moeurs : but New Historians have usually been political actors, with political motives for de-emphasising the political. If we imagine a dystopia or eutopia in which market communities exercised complete hegemony, we may ask whether the ruling élites of such communities would have much interest in seeing their official histories written, or whether the individual as consumer would have the same grounds as the individual as citizen, or as social actor interacting with the political, in seeing herself or himself as a critical actor modifying rule by his or her responses to it, and wishing to see the history of such modifications written.

The preconditions of historiography would not be met if the market communities had acquired an unlimited capacity of changing the produced and distributed images of what they were and what human needs they were designed to satisfy, if there were no alternative to responding to the images presented by the system that distributed them, and if the communities were incessantly and therefore uncritically engaged in this transformation of their self-images. There could then be no critical histories of images, but only images of history. To imagine this is, of course, to imagine the dystopia of Brave New World or 1984, in which rulers as well as ruled are totally assimilated to the systems they operate. It may be replied that market communities do not deprive the individual of agency to the dystopian extent, while leaving open the question whether they will, under post-political conditions, contain individuals with enough sense of agency to require histories, as we know them, to be written. The problem will become more acute if we imagine market communities as lacking temporal stability, as constantly dissolved, transplanted and transformed by the market’s insatiable demand for new human needs to satisfy; or if we imagine communities marginalised by the market, mere pools of unwanted labour with little or no purchasing power. Such fluctuating or frozen human masses would have little history and less need or will to write it; perhaps there are prerequisites for having a history at all. For the purposes of the present essay it is not necessary to predict the prevalence of such non-communities: but it is not mere fantasy to imagine them.

It is nearer description than imagination to say that we already have the makings of the historical or post-historical ideology which might take the place of historiography in such communities and non-communities as we have been supposing. This is the ideology of post-modernism, which – to simplify matters – may also be called the ideology of alienation, and a great deal of post-political historiography is already being written according to its specifications. It presupposes that all history is invention, and that all invention is alien and an imposition; any context in which the self might find meaning is imposed on the self by some other, or by the self acting out of a false consciousness imposed on it by some other, and any specification of the self is similarly imposed, with the consequence that the self is always false, an imposition or imposture against its own unrealisable existence. History is the study of constructs, and its aim is invariably their deconstruction. It used to be argued that this knowledge was the escape into freedom, until it was discovered that there remained no subject to be free, and it can still be argued, within limits, that it teaches a critical skill very useful to selves constantly threatened with identities imposed by others, and constantly obliged by the nature of history to be on the move between contexts in which identity must be varyingly realised and asserted. As a strategy, it is a good one for living and fighting back in the world of uncriticised market forces which incessantly impose new and non-referential images of who one is and what one wants: but as an ideology, it is the instrument of that world and operates to reinforce it. The marketers of images instruct us that we have no selves other than those they choose to impose upon us; the deconstructionist intellectuals, if they are not willing to stop somewhere and make a stand, tell us exactly the same thing. In all too many cases, they have become anti-humanist enough to get no nearer making a stand than casting us either as oppressed – which is not so bad – or more commonly as oppressors of some Other, to whose alienated consciousness they then enjoin us to submit our own. Their motives in doing so should be scrutinised and may be conjectured.

It is easy enough to see how this could become the ideology of a post-political, post-industrialist and post-modernist Europe. The affluent populations wander as tourists – which is to say consumers of images – from one former historical culture to another, delightfully free from the need to commit themselves to any, and free to criticise while determining for themselves the extent of their responsibility. How far this is a freedom to make their own history, how far a freedom from any need to make it, may be debated. Meanwhile the non-affluent form underclasses, pools of labour ebbing from one area of under-employment to another. The ideology of alienation, a luxury to the affluent, is a necessity to them, and as long as the state, feeling little need of a highly educated work-force, chooses to underpay its teachers, public education will be a means of perpetuating the underclass’s pseudo-revolutionary discourse, which will double as the means of promotion into the educated bureaucracy. It will produce quite an intelligent, articulate and disenchanted populace, offered by history no means of associating themselves in politically active communities, but only in self-congratulatory yet self-accusatory sects and counter-cultures of the apparently or really alienated, capable at best of the special-issue activisms which constitute populism but not democracy. Thus the post-historical and post-political culture one can imagine taking shape in Western Europe or North America; more isolated communities might be more deeply threatened. When the historian writing this essay spoke in New Zealand and argued that neither Europeans nor Polynesians there were tangata whenua – people of the land – but both were tangata waka, peoples of the ship who could remember the voyages that had brought them,4 it was a Maori discussant who remarked that both were threatened with becoming boat people. We were recognising the power of market forces to uproot communities and turn them into migrant labour.

There are regions of continental and oceanic proportions beyond the common markets in which post-modernism can flourish. Early in 1991, Tatyana Tolstaya drew attention to such a region in western Eurasia not far beyond Europe: ‘in the West the sense of history has weakened or completely vanished; the West does not live in history, it lives in civilisation (by which I mean the self-awareness of transnational technological culture as opposed to the subconscious, unquestioned stream of history). But in Russia there is practically no civilisation, and history lies in deep, untouched layers over the villages, over the small towns that have reverted to near wilderness, over the large, uncivilised cities, in those places where they try not to let foreigners in, or where foreigners themselves don’t go.’5 In using ‘civilisation’ and ‘history’ as antithetical terms, Tolstaya is engaging in a dramatic departure from conventional Western language. By ‘history’ she means the experience and memory of the past unprocessed, in the nature of raw sewage: unmediated, uninterpreted, uncriticised and (incidentally if not centrally) unsanitised, present but not controlled, unimpeded in its capacity to drive humans to do unspeakable things. There are many areas of the settled earth (some of them in great Western cities, as the United States knows to its cost) where ‘history’ is like this. But when Tolstaya says that ‘history’ dies where there is ‘civilisation’, she departs deliberately and for good reason from Western discourse, since there we still believe that ‘civilised’ societies can write and debate their history, interpret it, argue over it, succeed or fail in coming to terms with it, even regard it as ‘the nightmare from which one struggles to awake’, and be the more ‘civilised’ for this ability to criticise it and reduce it to process. Even the loss of sovereign autonomy can stimulate the owl to take flight and map the territory of the past in greater detail and new perspectives: this happened in Edinburgh and Glasgow during the Scottish Enlightenment, and has been happening in both British and New Zealand historiography in response to Europeanisation.

To us it does not follow that history disappears when it is interpreted6: but Tolstaya may be reminding us that this state of affairs cannot be relied on to last. The privatising state may be ending its alliance with the clerical and intellectual élites who were its accredited interpreters and critics; it would rather its universities were vocational schools – if that – than centres of enquiry; and as we look through Europe into Eurasia, where the intelligentsias have been devastated by the life and death of the Party, we may be looking into a world where the post-modern which is indifferent to history lies side by side with the pre-modern which cannot rule history and is ruled by it. Along this fault-line between tectonic plates, we wish to say, unspeakable things will continue to happen, and the historian – that spokesperson for excluded modernity – may find something useful to do: but if there is no political domain in which historical understanding seeks an opportunity to act, is there anything that can be done?

Tolstaya’s very striking language reminds us of a sense in which the ‘death of history’, prematurely announced a little while ago, might theoretically happen. Francis Fukuyama was (perhaps) imagining that the growth of the state and the processes of revolution might cease to be effective makers of history, given the universal triumph of a global market which took no account of frontiers; that the politics culminating in state and revolution were the means by which human beings attempted to control their history; that ‘history’ was the name for that process when under human control; and that henceforth humans would not make their history by their own thought and action, but the forces of the market would make it for them. Tolstaya is envisaging a not wholly different state of affairs, in which ‘civilisation’ resolves and abolishes history and only barbarism retains it. Given these premises, the post-modern historian – when not living, as many still do, in a fantasy world in which linguistic criticism secures and continues the Leninist supremacy of the inquisitorial intelligentsia – will attempt to discover ‘history’ in the micro- or macro-experiences of humans in the global market and its culture. Those who maintain the modernist, or at any rate the pre-post-modernist, perspective will maintain that politics does not disappear with the Bismarckian or the Stalinist state, that humans continue to set up political structures to control their own history and contest for the power which comes from the attempt to control it, and that politics and history remain among the active forces which shape human lives and give them meanings. But the new world disorder coming after 1989 calls in question the premises of this debate, by calling in question the bipolarity of Tolstaya’s (to say nothing of Fukuyama’s) projection. The boundaries between ‘civilisation’ and its opposite, barbarism, between history assimilated and history uncontrolled, have been broken open, and there is a zone to which politics and history are once more relevant. Europe is again an empire concerned for the security of its limites, and we may cautiously recall Gibbon’s projection, in which the inhabitants of the civilised provinces have ‘sunk into the languid indifference of private life’ and history is being made for them by the encounters of soldiers and barbarians along the frontiers – the new barbarians being those populations who do not achieve the sophistication without which the global market has little for them and less need of them.

It is time to stop projecting and fantasising: but in late 1991 it seems apparent that ‘Europe’ – both with and without the North America whose addition turns it from ‘Europe’ into ‘Western civilisation’ – is once again an empire in the sense of a civilised and stabilised zone which must decide whether to extend or refuse its political power over violent and unstable cultures along its borders but not yet within its system: Serbs and Croats if one chances to be Austrian, Kurds and Iraqis if Turkey is admitted to be part of ‘Europe’. These are not decisions to be taken by the market, but decisions of the state; and they are revealing clearly enough that ‘Europe’ is still a composite of states, whose historically formed interests give them non-identical attitudes towards the problems of ‘Europe’ and its borderlands. Classically state-centred historiography returns to relevance, and even salience, once the crises of historic Russia and Yugoslavia present themselves before a Europe in which Germany has once again become united. There is still something for history to do – this is not put forward as a cheering prospect – whether written about the past or enacted in the present; the end is not yet. One may of course perform an act of faith, professing that these phenomena are all transitory and that sooner or later the global market will have exterminated politics and history all around the globe. When that happens, the end of history will have arrived: but to celebrate 1992 as if ‘Europe’ were a secure and self-regarding ‘homeland’, intent only on its post-modern and post-historical self, might be to look rather like the emperor Philip the Arab, celebrating the Secular Games at one of Gibbon’s great ironic moments.

This essay has been written with a certain disrespect for the post-modernist intelligentsias, whose arrogance and provincialism at the moment expose them to their share of derision. But the post-modern phenomenon itself is entitled to respect: there really are senses in which the political community is losing its place at the centre of our allegiance (and allegiance itself any centre in consequence), and the non-political structures – or alternatively, those structures which enlarge the meaning of ‘political’ until it has no boundaries – surrounding our existence are acquiring histories, or non-histories, of their own. Therefore the current ‘new history’ or anti-history is entitled to its place. The thrust of this essay is towards suggesting that it is not entitled to more than a place, and will not be enabled to claim a monopoly or an allegiance. Politics, the state, and various kinds of war, will continue to command our attention; Tolstaya’s confrontation between ‘civilisation’ and ‘history’ will continue to generate a history in which both are involved; and even within, as well as outside, the global consumer culture generated by the all-conquering market, communities will continue to assert their politics in order to have a voice in determining their history. It is reasonable therefore to predict, and even to recommend, a continuing dialogue, or family quarrel, between the political and the post-political, the modern and the post-modern, the historical and the post-historical, history in older and in newer senses. It is perhaps in eastern, not western Eurasia that it will finally be seen whether ‘history’ has come to an ‘end’ or not.

‘Europeans’, in this prediction, would write their history in ways which both privileged and deprivileged the centrality of states, admitting that they cast long and sometimes dark shadows in a present which may transcend the past but cannot abolish it; the pretence that there can be invented some uncomplicatedly ‘European’ history which both includes and excludes the histories of all the nations would be given up. ‘British’ would write their history into that of ‘Europe’, rewrite the latter’s history as modified by their presence in it, and continue on occasion to write the former as seen in perspectives which are less continental than insular, archipelagic, oceanic and imperial. They would probably not be the only ‘European’ national society to do so. As for that culture with which this essay began – ‘New Zealand’, cut adrift from its ‘British’ history by the advent of ‘Europe’, and for some purposes to be renamed ‘Aotearoa’ – it may already have lost both political and economic control of its present and future: but if it survives at all, its historians will have learned (as they are learning) many new perspectives. They are learning rather rapidly to write their history as that of two cultures in stubborn interaction, and this reinforces rather than diminishes their sense of its autonomy; engrossed by the processes of settlement, they are already writing micro-histories of local experience and discourse, at their own distances from the history of politics and the state. If (again) they survive, their owls of Minerva will send out messages before as well as behind them on their flight, and they will address both Pacific history – which is that of small intense communities formed, separated and connected by voyagings over oceanic distances – and the history of ‘Europe’, ‘Britain’ and other northern land-mass cultures from which they are derived and which they need to see in their own way. They will inform ‘Britain’ that it has a planetary history it will not be able to forget, and ‘Europe’ that, as there is a Eurasian world into which it shades without fixed borders, so there is an oceanic (and likewise an American) world which it created and which enlarges it into ‘the West’. Barriers between empires went down in 1989, and the intercontingency of the world increased. What do they know of Europe who only Europe know?

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Vol. 14 No. 2 · 30 January 1992

The Pocock idea (LRB, 19 December 1991) of a New Zealander taking hold of a small globe and being unable to see further than Australia, Antarctica and water is the sort of conception that would normally be ventilated only by a wall-eyed geographer. New Zealanders, while inheriting the insular ego of the English and the Scots, have also their smug, avuncular universality, and ‘overseas’, in New Zealand, covers a view of the globe that reaches out at least to Europe, to Iran (a big customer), to China, to Japan, to the United States and beyond. Today the growth of satellite and air communication is rapidly reducing the apparent vastness of the Pacific waters.

Our island volcanoes send out some planetary sparks – which may light planetary fires. Just five examples: we sent the vote to women in 1893; we sent Rutherford to Cambridge to fire world physics; we sent Birchfield to Oxford to list the words for a planetary language; we sent the All Blacks to inspire a world sport; we sent Pocock to Johns Hopkins as the pope of historiography. There’s no end to it: at this very moment four hundred potential planetary sparks in my old school in Auckland are students of Japanese.

Lawrence Hogben
Soyans, France

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