When Ernest Met Leon

This is the fourth post in our forum on Buzan and Lawson’s The Global Transformation, from our own Jamie. The opening post, responses from Julian Go and Jeppe Mulich, and the authors’ rejoinder are all live.


Imagine that you are a collier in one of the mining districts of central Scotland in 1799. You spend your days hewing minerals from the earth, as your predecessor of one century before almost certainly did. You eat a similar, limited, diet and probably return from darkened pit to tallow-lit cottage on the same route and to the same few possessions as that of one hundred years previously. Perhaps most important, as vast proportions -possibly a majority – of the rest of humanity had been and remained at the time of your birth, you are not a legally or politically autonomous individual. You are a serf of sorts: your labour if not your entire body bound to the will of another. Should you attempt to flee this master, and were not returned to him within a year and a day, any person found to be harbouring you would be liable to pay one hundred pounds compensation for your person .

Compare now the grandson or great-grandson (for by this point, and unlike the case of 1799, daughters would not be working down the pit) of this collier in 1899. It is quite possible you or your forbears would have emigrated, as one-sixth of your European contemporaries did, to lands such as Canada and Australia cleansed of their aboriginal inhabitants to enable you to flourish. Where once you were the property of a mine-lord, you are now the citizen-subject of the world’s most powerful Empress: a ‘psychological wage’ available to you should you choose to take it. Your work remains back-breaking, but aided by machinery. Most of all, you are paid for it. This wage relationship creates not just a free individual but a potentially conscious collectivity. That collectivity, in which you may recognise yourself not just as miner, Briton or Scot but as a member of something called ‘the working class’, has its own flags, buildings, trade unions and – an entity unknown to your forbear of 1799 – political parties.

Has there ever been a century in which so much changed for so many? The wager of Barry Buzan and George Lawson in their magisterial book The Global Transformation is that – with the possible hazy exception of the early holocene transition to settled agriculture – there has not. In doing so, they are revising revisionism, with great consequences not just for historical sociology but for the discipline of IR.

The view of the ‘long nineteenth century’ from the French Revolution to the Russian as a ‘great divide’ in human history has fallen into disfavour, smacking as it can of the triumphal sense of European, male, bourgeois self that characterised the century in question. The institutions and social practices heralded as novel can usually be traced back to other times and places, and the picture of shocking change within a lifetime transformed into something less immediately perceptible. To the extent that there is a popular historical consciousness, in the UK at any rate, it thrives on finding the familiar in history: the ways in which the Edwardians, or Victorians, or Tudors or Plantanagets were ‘like us’. Buzan and Lawson’s reminder of the recent nature, and the strangeness, of the past is a lapidary one.

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Tea-plantation workers in Tsarist-era Georgia.

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Among the Atavists

If there is one especially lazy characterization among the many about Scotland’s independence referendum, it is the description of the Yes movement as motivated by ‘atavistic ethnic tribalism’ or the like. Toss a pebble at the UK commentariat and you will come across it soon enough: from the Guardian to the Financial Times, the argument is the same. Britain is the outward-looking future, an independent Scotland a reversion to the barbaric past.

Taken literally, the idea of reverting to a period before Scot and Englishman jointly exported the apparatus of colonial power and racial supremacy they forged in Ireland to the rest of the world does not seem at all regressive. One can scarcely imagine an Indian or Ghanaian, for example, objecting to the move on these grounds. In the same breath as condemning the Yes campaign’s alleged ethnic tribalism, Unionist commentators give as their prime reason for retaining the UK its 300 years of success. Of what, in large part, does that success consist? Why, expanding into other territories and enforcing a hierarchy by which the indigenous inhabitants were plundered of their resources and denied self-government on the grounds of their alleged genetic or cultural inferiority. A textbook case of ethnic nationalism, you might say. One might think that someone celebrating centuries of such behaviour would baulk at condemning the ‘tribalism’ of others.

There is no insincerity in such condemnations. We can have no doubt that when Sir Jeremy Greenstock says of the referendum:

in this ­complex, unpredictable and sometimes threatening environment, the instinct to return to the tribe is understandable. Yet it is creating momentum for global chaos.

he believes it. So profound a substratum is British nationalism that men such as these, its prime beneficiaries, cannot see that their tribe – easily identified by its common modes of dress, speech and rituals of adolescent sequestration – dominate all the institutions of the British state and therefore articulate their interests as universal. Were a Kenyan of Gikuyu heritage, or a Syrian of the Alawite faith to do the same, we can imagine what would be made of her.

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