Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente compiles a list of history-related news links from the past month. With the election cycle in full swing, the intersection of politics and history is particularly fruitful at the moment, as old phenomena re-emerge and what appears new in fact has a long pedigree.
How the 2016 election undermines Fukuyama’s “end of history” argument by Jedediah Purdy
Purdy outlines how support for the Trump campaign and the Sanders insurgency indicates a widespread dissatisfaction with the politics-as-usual, unchallenged democratic capitalism of the last 25 years. As the Eastern bloc crumbled in 1989, political scientist Francis Fukuyama claimed that democratic capitalism had triumphed and that all the world would move more and more toward this model of social and political organization. Purdy suggests that this argument is no longer such a closed question, given the level of discontent among populations in both Europe and the United States. What remains to be seen is whether any viable alternative will indeed arise to challenge democratic capitalism’s supremacy.
I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump by Jonna Ivin
Amid the slew of recent articles trying to understand the Drumpf (Trump) phenomenon–from authoritarian impulses to the deindustrialization wrought by free trade agreements–this one stands out for its application of historical argument. Ivin draws on the classic argument of historian Edmund S. Morgan in American Slavery, American Freedom (1975) in which Morgan shows how the colonial American planter elite used race as a wedge to divide poor whites and enslaved Africans and African Americans in order to maintain the social and, particularly, economic status quo. Ivin goes on to highlight attempts to unite poor people of all races in the 1960s, particularly on the part of Dr. King (assassinated), the Kennedys (both assassinated), and Lyndon Johnson (stymied by the war in Vietnam). An especially revealing (and shocking) example comes from Reagan advisor Lee Atwater who, believing himself to be off the record, referred to the effectiveness of the changing tactics of the wealthy ruling class: “Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.'”
Bernie Sanders and American Socialism by Tony Michels
Further to the anti-establishment insurgency in the 2016 primaries, this piece at Jacobin Magazine fleshes out the electoral portion of my earlier Erstwhile piece on Bernie Sanders’s relationship to the history of American socialism. Michels connects Sanders to the New Left in the 1960s and traces the history of Jewish radicalism in New York as well as the Socialist Party’s appeal to all kinds of Americans throughout the country, including those who brought socialist mayors to power in Berkeley, Butte, Flint, and Milwaukee in 1912.
‘Americanitis’: The Disease of Living Too Fast by Julie Beck
Changing gears from the election cycle, this article offers a fascinating look at the late-nineteenth-century disease known as ‘neurasthenia,’ which was believed to be a by-product of Modernity and the stressful, accelerating pace of urban life. Neurasthenia was a sort of catch-all diagnosis that could include diverse symptoms, such as “headaches, muscle pain, weight loss, irritability, anxiety, impotence, depression, ‘a lack of ambition,’ and both insomnia and lethargy.” Its elasticity allowed the term to be used to reinforce gender, racial, and religious assumptions–for example, many Protestant Americans believed Catholics’ deference to Church authority alleviated some of the stress of thinking for themselves and making decisions. Though both men and women could suffer from neurasthenia, the cure for men often involved going West to toughen up on the (mythologized) frontier, while women were usually confined to bedrest. As Beck notes, concerns about the stress and pace of modern life continue to our own day, as many of us often elide healthfulness and happiness. And though neurasthenia no longer has any clinical purchase, Beck hears its echoes in today’s self-help books, obsession with Westernized yoga, and fretting over the influence of the internet.
(On a related note, this piece by Mark Morford from five years ago suggests we not only take a break from the Taylorization of our work lives but fundamentally readjust how we, as individuals in an accelerating society, approach the world: Hurry up, get more done, and die)
Bonus: Confronting Amazon by Ralf Ruckus
Working in an Amazon order fulfillment warehouse offers a compelling, specific example of the accelerating pace of modern life and labor, as Beck’s article above notes. I previously wrote on the relation of Amazon’s labor practices and consumerist vision to Edward Bellamy’s utopia of the late nineteenth century (find the piece here). It seems the exploited labor that remains hidden in the world of online shopping has met its limit in Eastern Europe, as Polish workers challenge both Amazon’s workplace practices and long-established labor unions in the country. These workers have had some success in connecting with their counterparts in Amazon warehouses in Germany, but whether they can strengthen these tenuous connections and continue to challenge the multinational power of the online retail giant remains an open question.