Reflections and Interests : Uses of History

Reading history is one of my favourite pastimes. In fact, more correctly, reading history is my key professional development activity, if I take the view that writing this blog and talking about ideas are the most important things I do, and treat my day job as what really is - an instrument to pay my bills! Though my reading list may seem haphazard to some who only read on purpose, those lists - as I am becoming conscious of them recently - are around the big questions I labour with at the time, and most of these big questions, for me, have a historical nature.

For example, consider the question that dominates my conversations, and readings, at this very moment. It is - how does a society fall under the spell of an autocrat? I know why this question troubles me. In India, my origin country, democracy is taken for granted - various television talk shows proclaim that democracy in India is irreversible because it is so chaotic - and various democratic institutions, both at the Union and the state levels, are slowly but surely, becoming more autocratic. In Britain, where I live, and where I consider democracy more deeply-rooted, I see a culture of hatred and blame - consider David Cameron's Swarm warning - mainly directed at the hapless refugees fleeing from chaos and poverty in Syria, Iraq and Libya (countries which, not incidentally, Britain and its allies helped destabilize), but then also to immigrants of all kinds and colour. Whether or not this endangers British democracy, this pushes me to explore how much we can take democracy for granted - and how afraid we should be about a relapse of authoritarianism.

Now, at this point, a clarification is due. There may be a tendency to draw historical parallels with Nazi Germany or Italy of Mussolini with today's India, and admittedly, I have done it occasionally. But studying history tells one that history does not repeat itself. Each new event have the knowledge of the earlier event within it - just recall how we responded to the Great Recession of 2008 - and therefore, each time, history takes a different path. However, it may also be apparent, with the hindsight afforded by history, that there are some general principles of historical development - and thinking about these general principles, or Forces of History, is perhaps the greatest benefit of studying history. 

So, going back to the previous example, there is no straight path from Mr Cameron's unprincipled and rather cowardly politicking to the emergence of a vile dictator, and studying history for making predictions is a futile enterprise. However, there are some principles at work here.  This presumption of blame, the identification of the other, for many like Hannah Arendt was the first step to the totalitarian abyss, and history affords an insight why this could be so. There may be lots of different factors at play at different times, including the emergence of forceful personalities and ideas, who may influence history as much as getting influenced by it, but those general principles seem to hold through time.

In science, plurality of anecdotes is not evidence, as Carl Sagan used to say. History is not a science - its findings are not repeatable or verifiable outside its own immediate context - and our knowledge of history is almost always anecdotal, and never total. So, while my statement that the developments in India and Britain are making me study history of totalitarianism may look like I am trying to predict what happens next, I am aware that history is not a study of causation.  Rather, I am seeking to understand what is happening around me, which by itself is an worthy goal. Studying the past to understand the present, I would claim, allows one not to predict, but to actively participate in constructing the future.

This is why the current disengagement with history - ranging from lack of attention to it in the schools to lack of funding for history departments and research in Higher Education - may have disastrous effect on societies, because it may end up making people mere onlookers to the future. A historically informed approach to the future allows people neither to be fatalistic - like in India, democracy is fate - or disinterested - as in Britain, it is a political game - but engaged and watchful.

One last thought. These statements may also appear pretentious to some, particularly to those who may treat history as thought concerning big subjects, and a tool for policy-makers than ordinary citizenry. This is, in fact, one precise principle that I am picking up from my efforts to study autocracy. That we may relegate history as big subject, not concerning common life and mere a policy tool, may be one of the tendencies that undermine democracy, as it follows that our votes should only be about our personal gains rather than our common goals, our desires instead of our responsibilities, and about the privileges that we seek rather than the sacrifices we are willing to make. From this angle, historical knowledge is the context of social imagination, and in ever-renewed social imagination, remain the future of democracy.




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