Colin Kidd

  • Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons by C.A. Bayly
    Blackwell, 568 pp, £65.00, January 2004, ISBN 0 631 18799 5

Globalisation presents formidable challenges for history, a discipline which is congenitally nationalist. The academic study of the past emerged during the 19th century in tandem with the rise of European nationalisms, and remains coloured by its origins. This sinister twinship wasn’t acknowledged, however, until in recent decades historians began to confront their subject’s provenance and the ways in which this early nationalist imprint had distorted its agenda and approaches. In reaction, some historians have displayed a willingness to transcend the limits of national history and to engage with the study of a variety of non-national entities such as border zones and marchlands, the multinational territorial acquisitions of great dynasties and the shared littoral worlds created by seas and oceans. Nevertheless, the primary focus of inquiry remains nation-states – not only their politics, but the societies, economies and ideas which sustain them. Conventional historical training provides inoculation against parochialism, but of a chronological rather than geographical sort: steeled against the temptations of teleology or hindsight, historians aspire to avoid the parochialism of the present by studying the past on its own terms. Otherwise, the bulk of the profession, oriented largely towards the West – Europe and North America – is only slightly less parochial than the society from which it is recruited.

Unsurprisingly, historians seemed much better equipped during earlier moments of rapid flux and uncertainty – 1914, 1939, 1989-91 – to participate in public debate than they are at present. Then, European (or Western) power politics and European ideologies, including nationalism, provided adequate frameworks of explanation. By contrast, on 11 September 2001 the generality of our Eurocentric, nation-fixated historians could not answer the big question: how did History get here? Nor did they have the training to engage with the debate over the future world order initiated by political scientists, most prominently Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. Unfortunately, both Fukuyama and Huntington grounded their prophecies on a schematic universal history of the sort liable to engender an allergic reaction in most historians. Whereas Fukuyama predicted that Communism’s demise signalled the end of meaningful, contested History – i.e. the global spread of liberal democracy and free markets – Huntington issued a stern corrective to arrogant Western assumptions (then, and still, widely held both by its champions and its detractors) about unilateral globalisation. In its place he offered a picture – now influential among the makers of foreign policy – of a multi-centred world of eight competing civilisations: Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Japanese, Orthodox and Western; more tentatively, Latin American and African; and, not least, aggressively Islamic. Though much more sophisticated than Fukuyama’s thesis, Huntington’s rested overconfidently on a sketchy history of the emergence of distinctive civilisations, which underplayed the significance of cross-cultural contacts and entanglements.

Now historians, however cautiously insular, can at last see how a nuanced, historical response to Fukuyama and Huntington might run. For, though it ends in 1914, Chris Bayly’s erudite and engrossing account of the global birthpangs of modernity is not only a landmark contribution to historical literature but, indirectly and without a hint of overt engagement, a pertinent addition to contemporary debates about globalisation and the world order. This is a book that historians, foreign policy elites and protagonists on both sides of the debate need to read, if only to dispel some fundamental myths.

Bayly demonstrates convincingly that neither globalisation nor its associated litany of problems – uneven development, monocultural blandness, environmental degradation, anti-Western resentment – is a product of the very recent past. His principal subject is the long-term ‘growth of uniformity between societies and the growth of complexity within them’, as well as the heightened sense of difference which emerges in ironic reaction to such convergences.

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