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Antonio Gomez-Ramos

Globalization: the end of history and the beginning of the historical being

What does President Bush mean today when he says that he does the sort of things he does "in the name of History"? Or, what did Mr. Aznar mean, the president of the conservative Spanish government, when he justified his support for Bush's war in Iraq by stating that he was bringing Spain out of "the corner of History"? To appeal to history in order to justify political action has been a very usual practice ever since history as such emerged in the last third of the XXth century. Reinhardt Koselleck has taught us a great deal about this. In the beginning, it was the progressists who did it at most, but already in the XIXth century History was regarded everywhere in Europe as a sort of Goddess, sometimes, and always as the overall subject marking the pace of Humanity through the times. From the left to the right, from the Marxists to Hitler, everyone had History as the ultimate evidence for his or her political argument. In this paper, I don't want to address this ideological function of History. In many ways, such a function went down in history already -I mean, it belongs to the story we tell ourselves about the past. Somehow, that was precisely the point of Fukuyama's end of history, and not, as he probably thought and many did understand him, that no meaningful event shall ever happen again among humans. The point is rather that the ideological function of the notion of History was already over because the story History told -Lyottard and the postmodern thinkers would speak here about metanarratives- was making no theoretical sense to us anymore. My question here is about keeping using History in an ideological manner -as, e.g., Bush and Aznar do- and about the meaning of being historical now. Now, i.e., thirteen years after the so called end of history, and when globalization is openly the name of this era.

A good question to start with would be that about the place of globalization in world history. The notion of World history was forged by modernity, and modernity was understood -and it also sometimes understood itself that way- as the making of one only History for the whole of mankind, a universal History, as Odo Marquard put it, "die universal ist, weil sie alle Geschichten in eine wendet, in die eine einzige Fortschritts- und Vollendungsgeschichte der Menschheit." The price of such a "Vollendung" has been denounced by many critics of Modernity, again from the left to the right. It could be expressed as the loss of humanity self and the possibility of having any human experience at all. Odo Marquard argues that the only possible salvation is -or rather has been- the transformation of that universal history (Universalgeschichte) into a Multiversal History, where instead of one History of Mankind -which is the history of the expansion of the West and the destruction of any kind of culture, also the Western culture, in the name of progress and rationalization-we have many different stories and narratives used and told by everyone and so giving us our lives back: "Es darf nicht nur eine Geschichte, sondern viele Geschichten geben", for only that way can we "mehrere Leben und dadurch viele Geschichte haben." I am not going to follow Marquard, because I think that what he takes to be a solution is actually the cul-de-sac of Modernity. But I think that his diagnosis is accurate enough to approach a different notion of historicity.

Modernity had a price, and that price was justified on account of world history, which was supposed to keep a record on every loss and win. The losses were high, as everyone -first of all Marx- could acknowledge, but in the end the wins would be higher. That was the nice story of progress. To be sure, such losses could not be simply balanced; they would rather pile "for an ever-lasting rest in the dustbin of progress", as Joseph Conrad expressed it , and by the middle of the XXth century that pile would amount to a huge dimension, only visible to Benjamin's angel of history. Globalization would play an ambivalent role in this process.

On the one hand, globalization could be equated with world history itself. History became World-history because it became global; and whereas "world history" might be an ideological notion used by politicians and some philosophers of history, globalization remained always on the factual level. It was a fact that cultures and nations were getting increasingly interconnected. And, to be sure, it meant a loss for every culture as it was threatened and invaded by other cultures -you could say: as all of them were invaded by only one, the Western culture- but at the same time it meant a win as every culture was enriched by the contact with the Other. I don't want to compute here such losses and wins, and I have already said that there is no point in seeking for some kind of balance. A loss is always a loss and cannot be repaired. What I want to stress is that, in this interplay, globalization was the actual process of world history; and so a mean to universalization; but that process of universalization did incorporate necessarily many particularities which never got universalized and, in the end, rendered any kind of absolute universalization impossible. It is here where the new era starts for Marquard and many postmodern authors.

These particularities in the universalization might be the reason why, on the other hand, globalization is no more the world history, but rather the outcome of it and, maybe, the very evidence of its impossibility. In a global world with many different stories from many different origins you cannot conceive something like a unified human History. Each story has its own time, which cannot be absorbed by the supposedly great Time of progress and civilization. On this account, globalization means giving up the idea of History and learning to live with many different stories. Optimists tend to believe that you can live very well on it: the narrative of each story gives you an identity –your own particular identity- which allow you to install yourself very comfortably in the world. Pessimists –i.e. globalization critics- wouldn’t deny this, but they cannot help feeling that each one’s story is continuously menaced by the stories of the others. The latter becomes especially serious if you consider that this is not just a literary competition of narratives, but a struggle for power. Those other's stories can be stories of the immigrants coming to the first world, as the European philistine usually fears; but the Other’s story can be the old great World History again, nowadays represented by the G-8 or, if you want, by the statements by Bush and Aznar I quoted at the outset.

Ambivalences are not necessarily wrong; very often they are just how things are. Modernity is probably ambivalent in itself -as Zygmunt Bauman has suggested-, and in order to be modern you ought not eliminate ambivalence, but rather accept it. But my thesis here is that there is something wrong in this ambivalence of globalization regarding history, and the problem lies in the way we use the notion of history. If you consider the ambivalence as I have just sketched it out, it is only a matter of "your great History against my stories", and your History -be it the great heroic History of the winners, as the president of any empire would imagine, be it the History or reason and progress, as any left policy always needs it- might be, at its best, just another story to be told. And there is no way out of this. The only thing which is not relative is the catastrophes piling out and the pain suffered by the losers. Benjamin might hope for a redemption of it, but it has never been clear how -and what kind of redemption.

My suggestion is that there has been something wrong with the use of the notion of history. History is not just something told. That is how ancient Greeks and Romans viewed it. History is not something made. That is what modern philosophers of history, especially the Marxists, thought. History is no construction. The distinction by Hannah Arendt between making and acting is at play here. History is not made, history is acted. If you think of a construction, of something durable, you have to think of plans, of an end and a goal, of ball-rooms, corners and dustbins. But if you think of action... then, as Arendt has pointed out, there is frailty, there is contingency, transience and plurality.

Men and women are historic beings because they are finite, because they cannot escape contingency, because they have a past and a memory. If history has to do with action, and not with making, then they do not act for history -or even before History, as though it were a big theater. That is what the so-called "great men" think they do. But men and women do not act for History; they are historic because they act, that is, because their actions are contingent, irreversible, frail and transient. Action, of course, is not history yet, and it might be even ahistorical in itself. However, only as long as it can be recorded through memory is it no isolated action, but it can be perceived by the agent in its connection with other past actions. Actually, what you have is not a great curse of History, but a web of actions every agent must identify herself according to her memory of the past, her reasons for acting, her desires and expectations. How she defines such a web is what was called historical consciousness. To be sure, the political agent is usually no historian; and the web of actions he imagines in order to justify her own actions might be very unreal. It must be so, and that is probably the reason why the outcome of an action is always surprising and unexpected, and also the reason why the meaning of action always exceeds the intentions of the actor. But even if the actor is no historian, there is always -for better or worse- a sort of historian inside her. Arendt would talk of the spectator who sits in every actor . It is the spectator who makes the assessment of the situation, who perceives the connections with past actions and, the end, who judges.

"Judgement" is the key notion here. Kant thought of it as the intellectual ability to relate the particular and the universal, but also as the necessary condition to achieve a cosmopolite society which was to him the secret purpose of nature. Through judgement it becomes possible to see every contingent event in a general meaning as to render it in history. And, as judgement needs the plurality of the others, it allows to see the difference in the many stories and to take into account its meaning, its clashes and its consequences. Somehow, every judgement has a historical character -"histor", as Arendt reminds us, had in Homer's Iliad the meaning of "judge"- because it selects from the past what must be represented and evaluates it. At the time when the notion of world history emerged, Schiller wrote -and Hegel repeated- that "die Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht-. That is because history and judgement do have a lot in common. Only they cannot be so absolute; that is what the experience of the end of History -and globalization, if you want- teaches us. You don't have World History, but many wordily stories. And you don't judge at the doomsday, but every day among many different events and different and conflicting stories about events. This having to judge from the particular position against many different times and positions is, precisely, the meaning of being historic -and historical, but that is another, not unrelated story. The end of history means the real beginning of being historic.