Storify: The "Long" vs. the "Short Twentieth Century...
Links for the Week of December 4, 2016

The One Best Way We Does the Tell of the History of the Twentieth Century...

Preview of Untitled 2

I must take exception to something said earlier today by the very sharp Neville Morley:

Neville Morley: When It Changed: "Unless you do assume that one strand of historical development...

...changes in productivity, or technology, or ideology--is determinative of all the others, then there’s no particular reason to assume that everything will change according to the same chronological pattern...

I think he has gone wrong here. In the past--even in the first half of the nineteenth century--the assumption that there was one principal engine driving the belts and powering the orreries of history was just that: an assumption, and a simplifying and probably badly chosen assumption.

But for the past hundred and fifty years things have been different.

In the "long" twentieth century the pace of economic transformation has been so great as to force nearly every other aspect of history to respond according to the same chronological pattern.

Let me back up:

Every history tells a story of what happened: one damned thing after another. But what do we choose to do when we does the Tell?

For most centuries the core of history--the most interesting and important parts--is only tangentially related to economic factors. The core of their history is, instead, intellectual or religious or political or cultural. The history of the fifteenth century in Eurasia is primarily cultural. It is very hard, when we does the Tell, to fail to find ourselves focusing on the Renaissance in western Eurasia, and on the cultural flourishing of Ming Dynasty China in Eastern Eurasia. The history of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is primarily political. It is very hard, when we does the Tell, to fail to find ourselves focusing on the American and French Revolutions and their consequences.

Now there are always multiple important roughly century-length stories to do the Tell about at once. When we think of the history of a century around five hundred years ago, we are, most likely, on the explorer-borne plagues and the Spanish conquest in the Americas, on Martin Luther and Jean Calvin’s Protestant Reformation in western Eurasia, on the rise of the Shāhān-e Gūrkānī--the Moghul Empire--in south Asia, and maybe a couple more--quite likely the evening of feudal Japan and the peak and then ossification of the Ming Dynasty in China. Those are the axes of the history of the 1500s: overwhelmingly religion, expansion, conquest, and political decline.

If you are doing the Tell of a roughly century-long piece thousand years ago, you--most likely--focus on the rise of the Song Dynasty in China, on the waning of the golden age that was Abbasid Baghdad-centered Islamic civilization--and on, perhaps, the establishment of feudal “civilization” in western Europe. Those are the axes of the history of the 1000s: politics and culture.

Other stories of other centuries would most likely focus on other things. For the fourth century, focus on the Christianization of the Roman Empire. For the seventh century, focus on the rise of Islam. The rise, diffusion, fall, and transformation of cultures, religions, civilizations, empires, and perhaps dynasties are the axes of history--with perhaps some reference to what the cultures of material subsistence in the background were, and how they slowly changed over the longue durée.

But there is one constant in these shifting focuses: economic history is, before 1800, always and everywhere a longue durée and only a longue durée thing. It can be your focus in a history of a millennium. But it cannot be your focus in a history of a century. Why? Because there is little "history" in any century-long chunk. The structure and functioning of the economy at the end of every given century was pretty close to what it had been at the beginning. The economy was the background against which the action of a play takes place. It was not a dynamic foreground character. You required a very long exposure indeed for changes in humanity's economy—how people made, distributed, and consumed the material necessities and conveniences of their lives—to become visible.

And the people who appear in past histories are, to the extent that their focus and expertise is on other aspects of life, very much like us. Could we teach Themistokles or Augustus much about politics? Could we teach Homer much about writing poetry? Could we teach Gaius Julius Caesar or Temujin Chingis Khan much about generalship? Could we teach Sophokles much about drama? Could we teach Phryne much about presentation-of-self-as-celebrity? Could we teach Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti much about painting ceilings? Could we teach Praxiteles much about sculpture? Could we teach Johann Sebastian Bach much about music?

But we could teach everyone living in any previous century a hell of a lot about technology, about how to generate technological progress, and about economic organization.

Thus for the past two centuries things have been different. The "economic" has not just moved from the static background. It now dominates the foreground.

In the nineteenth century economic history pushes itself to the front--although the industrial revolution has to share the stage with the democratic revolution. The size of the world economy, as measured by the standard statistics (but note that there are grave conceptual problems with the standard statistics) doubled from 1800-1870: population up by 60%, average global productivity levels and living standards up by 20%. That was a huge deal, relative to which most other historical transformations not in large part driven by those economics fade into the background.

And in the twentieth century the pace of economic change has been so great as to shake the rest of history to its foundation. From 1870 to today the size of the world's economy is up by a factor of 100, according to standard statistics; the world's population is up by a factor of more than six; average living standards up by a factor of sixteen; and globally inequality has exploded by an equal amount: today's poorest are less than twice as rich as their predecessors in 1870; while the technological, physical, and human skill powers at the command of today's richest make them men like gods from a pre-industrial perspective.

Moreover, this has gone on for nearly a hundred and fifty years and continues. In one year these days we see economic and technological changes of the same relative magnitude as we saw in a century back in the days of the Roman and Han Empires.

Thus for perhaps the first time the making and using the necessities and conveniences of daily life—and how production, distribution, and consumption changed—has been the driving force behind a single century’s history. Even in the most long-established of professions, the pattern and rhythm of work life today is now very different from that of our ancestors--with the act of reading being perhaps the most stable of modes of interacting with our technology, and even there...

It is these changes in production and also in home life and consumption, and the reactions to them, that have been the motive forces of other pieces of history in the "long" twentieth century.