Waiting to See
I saw Vijay Prashad give a talk some weeks ago, and it was mighty good times; when that guy gives a talk, you stay talked to. He’s working on the follow-up to his book The Darker Nations, which I wrote about here, and though I still stand by what I wrote, I think I would have written much less harshly about him had I seen him talk first. This is a guy who writes for right now, and a few of the sloppy moves I got all prickly about make more sense when you get a sense for how invested (and involved) he is in right now. No ivory tower writing for the ages for him; he’s writing for today. So while The Darker Nations was a kind of history of the Third World, it was a lead-up to the thing he’s doing now, a project on the future of the Third World. Unsurprisingly, he’s having much slower going on that; the obvious problem being that the future hasn’t happened yet, but a canny historian like him will find a way, I’m sure.
The real highlight, however, was the Q&A afterwards; he’s really much more of a speaker and a dialogist, perhaps another reason why his book works better as an intervention and a provocation than an attempt to fix a historical narrative in place. And yet one of the best questions was the one I thought he handled most desultorily, a question I want to at least re-pose. The question was something along these lines: since abolition and decolonization happened at times of large scale structural change at the global level, what sorts of things should we be looking for as the seed-bed in which the Next Big Thing will develop?
Prashad didn’t really answer, and lord knows I don’t have an answer either. The questioner was leading him towards the recent economic meltdown, implicitly, and though Prashad didn’t take the bait, it still seems like an intriguing suggestion; if anything is likely to change the ways we do things in this here American hegemony, it’s going to be the US economy falling into the shitter with a mighty splash. Some people are more optimistic about the potential of this thing than others, but if it isn’t the apocalypse, it certainly is an opportunity of some kind. Maybe it’s both; as Prashad put it, this isn’t how I wanted the revolution to happen.
I was thinking about all this as I was reading a review of Walter LaFeber’s classic The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion 1860-1898, republished for its 35th anniversary back in 1998. As Dianne Kunz emphasizes, LaFeber wrote his book in 1963, a historic moment of great significance, and a time when structural changes in the world system seemed to be in evidence. And as she points out LaFeber’s work was also roughly contemporaneous with J. Gallagher and R. Robinson’s classic article, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” which “showed that rather than being a conspicuous success, the formal British Empire represented a policy failure. It was far cheaper and far more remunerative to cultivate an informal empire, where the metropolis garnered the economic spoils and the locals did the dirty work.” They showed, in other words, that the British Empire had sowed the seeds of its own dissolution within itself, a dissolution that the LaFeber argument essentially took as its starting point for theorizing a new hegemonic order, but in an American accent. And “Forty years later, Robinson, together with noted American historian William Roger Louis, published in 1994 “The Imperialism of Decolonization” in the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History,” an essay that “explains how the British government, unable to afford its own empire in the aftermath of World War II, turned to the United States. The imperatives of the Cold War and capitalism combined to nurture a surprisingly successful Anglo- American collaboration in the developing world.”
I like both of those essays and use that kind of thinking for my project, if not in a direct way. But it’s a productive problem, that the British empire ran aground not when the barbarians climbed the walls, but when it simply ran out of money and it’s hard not to ask the question of whether that’s what’s happening right now. And what rough beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? I haven’t a clue; like Billy Bragg, I’m waiting for the great leap forward but I expect to be waiting a while longer. But this closing paragraph in the review gave me pause, so let me end with that:
What gave the Populist Party its chance for serious political power during the 1890s was the devastating economic climate under which it began and flourished. There can be no real challenge to today’s prevailing political and economic orthodoxy as long as the current economic conditions continues. Unless history really has come to a full stop, our long-ranging economic boom will eventually turn sour. And when it does, the lessons of The New Empire will be mandatory reading.