by James Livingston
[Editor’s note: this guest post by James Livingston is a response to the conversation initiated by Ben Alpers’s post from yesterday, “An Unusable Past.” –LDB]
Ben, Tim, and Kurt are right, I have been unconsciously questioning the assumptions that drive our discipline, at least as it’s presently constituted in the universities of the USA.
My unkind “review” of Paul Murphy’s book was a symptom of my frustration with what I see as historians’ unwarranted complacence in view of epistemic revolutions all around. American historians tend to focus on the “good guys”—the exceptions to the rule of capital—and thus reduce the past to the heroic moments of “resistance.” This usable past becomes the exception to the exception, a miracle that can’t be reproduced. So it becomes an icon rather than a text, something to be worshipped rather than parsed. The Pops, the Communists, SDS, those were the days. Enter, stage left, Howard Zinn.
So anyway, here’s how I opened my address to the titans of finance who invited me to speak at their Economic Summit in January 2012:
“We’re here to take the long view. We want to know how we got here, to a place where economic crisis has been compounded by political impasse, on the one hand, and intellectual exhaustion, on the other—except from the fringes, where energy seems abundant and renewable, but ugly all the same. Once we know how we got here, we can see where we’re headed, and why we might want to choose another destination.
“In interesting times like these, though, when novel facts collide with previous truths, prudence based on custom could prove useless: the past can tell us where we’ve been, but not necessarily where we’re headed. I’m sure this dictum sounds odd coming from a history professor, especially one who reveres Lincoln, the so-called conservative who led the Second American Revolution. But we’ve now reached the limits of what our history can teach us.”
Alperovitz, Ludlow, me, yeah, we’re symptoms—probably not cures—of some dis-ease, some real concern that the Past cannot speak to us in the ways we have come to expect, which means in the ways produced by conventional approaches to History. Notice, my complaint about Murphy came after my address to the hedge fund managers.
Think of James Madison’s predicament. Am I invoking History? Do I contradict myself? Very well, then. He’s worried in 1786 about the survival rate of republics, so he engages in a deep study of them, and decides, on that studious basis, that the Past is no guide in the Present or to the Future. He learns that both ancient and modern republics “sacrificed the poor to the rich” because the rights of property always outweighed the rights of persons—these were the “two cardinal objects of Government”—and thus undermined popular government as such.
So Madison asks, What then is to be done? His singular, monumental answer was what we call the Constitution, which balanced those two “cardinal objects” until 2010, when the Federalist Society won its war of position and the Supreme Court decided that the rights of property must outweigh all others, or rather that the distinction between the rights of persons and the rights of property is moot. Madison’s unpublished answers are more interesting, particularly the long letter he wrote to Jefferson about his friend’s draft of a constitution for the state of Virginia.
“In the existing state of American population and American property,” he wrote, referring to the revolutionary coalition of the 1770s, “the two classes of rights were so little discriminated that a provision for the rights of persons was to include of itself those of property, and it was natural to infer from the tendency of republican laws that these different interests would be more and more identified.”
By the late 1780s, having done the research and seen the results of state-building at the local level, Madison understood that this identification of interests was impossible:
“Experience and investigation have however produced more correct ideas on this subject. It is now observed that the smaller part only can be interested in preserving the rights of property. It must be foreseen that America and Kentucky itself [shorthand for the Garden of Eden in late-18th century parlance] will by degrees arrive at this State of Society.”
What then? Limit the rights of that “smaller part”? Make sure the proles couldn’t ever touch the rights of property? Gradually sacrifice the poor to the rich, as every preceding republic had?
That was the Past, that was the lesson of History. Republics were finite organisms—insofar as they entered the corrupting medium of historical time and thus experienced a division between the “Class with and the Class without Property,” as Madison put it, they would decay, and they would finally expire, according to Aristotle, Polybius, Machiavelli, and Montesquieu. But he refused the received wisdom, the lesson of History. He proposed a radical break from the Past, in both theory and practice. The Constitution was the result.
That is what I guess I’ve been getting at. When Paul Murphy calls his book “The New Era,” he’s merely reproducing the slogans of the Twenties rather than asking whether and how the cultural-intellectual practices of the decade were, in fact, new.
The Past is no guide in the Present or to the Future, not if we just reproduce its obvious wisdom. Faulkner was a holy fool, in this regard as many others, because the Past is, in fact, behind us, and our task as human beings is to understand the relation between our fleeting remembrance and our abiding concerns. We want to measure the weight of the past but not let it drag us back into its gravitational field.
I think we’re at a turning point in American history—a place where we decide what the republic will look like for another century, or where we decide, willy-nilly, that it’s no longer a republic. I’m worried that we’re not equipped, as historians, to offer our fellow citizens any guidance as they make their decisions on this Future.
I want History to matter. I just don’t think it can as we write it these days.