Silas Webb, ‘The historian and the stock market’

Silas Webb

Silas Webb

The History Manifesto is an attempt by its authors to emphasize, perhaps, even, reimagine, the important function that historians might perform in the 21st century. It is at once a diagnosis of the field’s missteps, as the authors characterize them, and a prognosis that implores historians to reclaim their rightful place in international governance and to engage in big data analysis in order to mediate public debates surrounding matters of pressing concern.

In some ways, as others have noted, this slender volume is an important reminder of the potential for history as a discipline to contribute to global problems; a responsibility that Armitage and Guldi contend historians have abjured since the 1970s. But in fundamental ways, The History Manifesto is an attack on the historian’s craft and a cynical appropriation of real conversations about inequality in late-stage capitalism. The authors’ perspective on both of these fronts can be glimpsed in a single quotation: “Experts trying to explain the history and prospects of various insurance, real-estate, manufacturing, ecological, or political programmes to potential share-holders all need experts in asking questions that scale over time” (Armitage and Guldi, 104). By suggesting that historians, thanks to their training in long-term thinking, might be able to ply their wares to “potential share-holders”, the authors argue that historians might be most useful if they participate in the creation of profit; rather than that of knowledge.

Although such a perspective is not surprising from a text that laments the “retreat” to “micro-histories of race and class” (Armitage and Guldi, 29), it certainly is troubling from a text whose title is a nod to Marx and Engels. In his 2008 Introduction to The Communist Manifesto, David Harvey, after recounting the plight of the foreclosed-on and the windfall of corporate welfare during the financial crisis, notes that “Communism may be declared dead, but a violent, brutalizing, and perpetually revolutionising capitalism still flourishes” (Harvey, 5-7). And, although it is parlous to predict what the university-of-the-future will need in terms of “greater arbitration of the data that were collected over time” (Armitage and Guldi, 105), the university of today is being run as a corporation that is accountable to wealthy donors and seeks ever-increasing fees at the expense of the student and the scholar.

It is not time for historians to retreat into the embrace of share-holders and neoliberal governing apparatuses. Instead, historians must continue to explore the social costs of capitalism with a renewed vigor and invite our students and communities to engage in complex, rigorous historical thought. As a disciplinary mission, these foci will help to revitalize criticality at every level of political discourse and social action.

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