Revisionary Future History
5 October 2011
In a previous post (100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 1) I mentioned the influence that science fiction had obviously had over the participants at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, and how it had been suggested more than once that science fiction can be understood as a thought experiment with the future. Certainly science fiction had its influence upon me as well, and while I don’t read science fiction any more (although I do view a lot of science fiction films), all the science fiction novels I read once upon a time exercise a continuing influence over my thought.
During my years of reading science fiction I especially enjoyed the works of Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson, and more especially in the oeuvre of each I enjoyed those vast panoramic views of the future worked out across multiple novels that were sometimes called future histories. No doubt there are authors writing today who are creating their own future histories, and I am simply unaware of it.
There is perhaps something a little tendentious if not pretentious about calling a series of novels a “future history,” though there is also a sense in which it is apt, and is to the future what Balzac’s Comédie humaine was to Balzac’s present. Friedrich Engels said that, “I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together.” Similarly, an imaginative science fiction writer might present to us a concrete vision of the future that surpasses all the efforts of the futurists.
In so far as science fiction is future history, it is always revisionary history, since each author always brings his or her vision of the future to the task of creating an imagined world. More and more, history simpliciter is becoming revisionary history as the equally imagined world of the past is disputed by historians who bring a particular vision to the explication and analysis of the past.
This similarity between the imagined worlds of the distant past and the distant future was a theme of one of the presentations at the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, “The Inertia of Past Futures” by Dr. Kathryn Denning, Associate Professor, Dept. of Anthropology, York University. Dr. Denning also emphasized the abstract character of thought as it is progressively further removed from the concrete realities of the present, so that the distant past and the distant future both share in this abstract quality.
We should welcome the vigorous emergence of revisionary history as a development of contemporary thought that helps to keep us honest. In so far as we uncritically accept the narratives bequeathed to us from the past, we usually accept at the same time the morals these narratives were formulated to support. This was another theme of Dr. Denning’s presentation: that we get “boxed in” by the inertia of past futures. Revisionary history gives us a different vision of the past, and therefore also a different moral.
Not only Dr. Denning, but also Alexander Wong of Yoyodyne General Systems who spoke on the third day of the 100 Year Starship Study symposium, made an explicitly revisionary treatment of history a central theme of their talks. Dr. Denning began her presentation by asking the audience if they thought that Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe, and then went on to point out that Magellan himself was killed halfway through the voyage. Alexander Wong took the Wright brothers as his theme for revisionary history, and pointed out how, once granted a patent, the Wrights used their patent to sue aircraft manufacturers in the US into non-existence, to the point that when the First World War was underway there was no US domestic aircraft industry, with the unintended consequence being that the aircraft that are remembered from the First World War were all European aircraft.
Both Dr. Denning and Alexander Wong more or less explicitly drew the moral that these figures, commonly represented as the great “winners” of history were also in a sense among history’s great losers. Dr. Denning went on to assert that the commonly received principle that the victor writes the history is not only bad for the victims, but is also bad for the victors. So whether or not we’re talking about armed conflict, it would seem that romanticized history written from the perspective of history’s “winners” is as bad for these winners as it is for the excluded and marginalized losers.
In her presentation, Dr. Denning repeatedly told her audience that the historical theses she was presenting were in no sense exceptional or marginal, but that they represented mainstream views in contemporary academic historiography. While it is more than a little mildly ironic that the authority of a given set of historical theses should be defended on the basis of their mainstream character by an historian who very clearly represents the tradition of “history from the bottom up” which seeks to recover the voices of the excluded and marginalized figures of history, I was even more surprised by the conclusion of her presentation.
Dr. Denning finished her presentation by making the remarkable claim that it was the capital extracted from the New World and sent back to Europe that funded the industrial revolution and made possible all that followed. This is remarkable because it represents the same abstract approach to history that Dr. Denning criticized in other areas of historical thought, but here it has been transplanted into the history of economics, asserted without justification, and set up as a strawman to prove the indebtedness of European industrial development to wealth looted from the peoples of the New World.
There is no question that European colonialists in the New World looted a massive amount of wealth from the New World and shipped it back to Europe. The Spanish were particularly systematic about this, collecting their booty on an annual basis and shipping it back to Spain on a fleet of treasure ships once a year. A few times these treasure fleets were captured and looted in turn by English privateers, but the vast majority of it made it to Spain, and Portugal also extracted a good deal of wealth from the New World and shipped it back to the Old World.
Just as the theses that Dr. Denning defended were unexceptionally mainstream, so in economic historiography it is unexceptionally mainstream to recognize that the massive importation of gold into Spain more or less ruined the Spanish economy through runaway inflation. Until David Hume and Adam Smith there was no theoretical framework available to analyze or understand macro-economic forces, but people certainly at the time knew that something was wrong, though they didn’t know exactly what to do about it. One finds in the writings of contemporaneous economists a struggle to understand what was happening to the Spanish economy.
It has also been argued — though this is less mainstream and more controversial — that the wealth shipped back to Portugal led to a steady diminution of domestic industry that led to the long twilight of the Portuguese economy and made it, as I have written elsewhere, the Bolivia of Western Europe, subject to extreme poverty and repeated political coups.
As I wrote above, English privateers did capture some of the Spanish treasure coming from the New World, but this was the exception rather than the rule. The early English colonies in the New World were not notable for their success or their wealth extraction, but for their repeated financial failures. Certainly the English did what they could to extract wealth from the New World, but they weren’t very successful at it. And after King Philip’s War they were essentially pushed back to a thin strip of land along the coast and lost nearly a century’s worth of progress of expansion into the interior of the continent.
All of this contrasts sharply with the record of the Iberian powers in the New World, with their encomiendas of thousands of native slaves working in plantation conditions and the extraction of enormous gold reserves from the civilizations of South America. Both the Spanish and the English colonial regimes were brutal, but the English mostly lost money from their brutalities, while the Spanish mostly profited. And in one of the notable ironies of history, the Spanish were ruined by their profit while the English were preserved from the “resource curse” of the New World through failed commercial ventures.
The industrial revolution that began in Europe and which therefore initiated industrial-technological civilization in Europe, began not in a Spain awash with gold from the New World, but in England, which had become so frustrated with having to spend money on the defense of its New World colonies that it tried to tax the colonials to pay for said defense. Spain and Portugal remained European backwaters of industrial development well into the twentieth century, isolated from the rest of Europe not only by the Pyrenees, but also by the stranglehold that the Catholic Church maintained over education in the Iberian Peninsula — perpetuated into the second half of the twentieth century by Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
The lessons of colonialism both from the traditional narrative celebrating colonization of the New World and from the now-dominant narrative of revisionary history that expresses horror over the colonization of the New World are both of them part of our moral legacy. It does not help to understand matters by adopting an abstract historical method in respect to one while criticizing the same in respect to the other.
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