The fight over the past: the politics of official history

One of the peculiar traits of modern nation-states is that they try to collapse together a variety of things into one, politically-effective bundle:
1. The population is reframed as the ‘body politic,’ which Hobbes portrayed as a literal metaphor in 1651.
2. The spatial territory is considered an integral part of the ‘nation.’ Symbolically, the edges (the national borders) become at least as important as the center (the capital). Therefore, the shape of the country is often used as a political ideogram. In many countries, that ‘national shape’ is posted behind news-correspondents on television.
3. Religion, language, and units of measure are standardized. A very particular Florentine dialect of Italian became the official language of the new nation-state of Italy after unification in 1859. It is worth noting that Italy as a nation-state is 60 years younger than the United States (almost all governments in the world today are younger than the U.S). But official Italian history projects the existence of ‘Italy’ backwards through time, by conflating a geographic region with a specific political entity.
4. In order to promote a shared identity as ‘a people,’ most nation-states expend a significant portion of their annual budgets on standardized education. This benefits the population by increasing literacy, but it also benefits the legitimacy of the regime through indoctrination. Mostly the indoctrination is not overt propaganda, like the singing of national anthems. Instead, it is usually portrayed much more neutrally as history.

The American history of the San Francisco Bay Area is that the city began in 1776, with the establishment of the Spanish Mision de San Francisco. However, Native Americans have lived by this bay for thousands of years, in populations large enough to create artificial hills out of the shellfish they consumed. The largest of these hills was in west Berkeley, near the current intersection of University Avenue and 3rd Street. The lime-rich hill was mined to make Portland cement; so far as I know it remains a major part of the structure of Berkeley, in the form of sidewalks. Now that is a different way of understanding the metropolitan history of the Bay Area.

I like to explain history by misquoting Yoda: “Always in motion, the past is.”

This blog-post was provoked by a very different recent event. The Ukraine government just passed “de-Communization” laws which lifted the ban on portraying Stepan Bandera, and made the symbols of both Soviet Communism and Nazi Fascism illegal. The Ukraine was a vital part of the USSR, but this official shift in position is intended to put political distance between the current government and the Putin government in Russia, which is increasingly embracing its association with the Soviet past. What really struck me was a quote in the Guardian article about this new policy:

“The Communist totalitarian regime set out deliberately to destroy national identity,” said Volodymyr Vyatrovych, the 37-year-old historian and head of Ukraine’s National Memory institute, who introduced the laws in parliament. “Many people’s ideas here are still formed by Communist propaganda, and many events from the past are viewed exclusively through the prism of Communist propaganda.”

Vyatrovych is the head of an organization with an extremely un-subtle name: the National Memory Institute! And he is actively changing the way that the past will be presented, understood, and remembered in the Ukraine! Nation-states do this sort of thing all the time. For example, every spring in the U.S., there is a fight about which textbooks will be adopted by state Boards of Education. Revisions to the history-content of the education curriculum in Japan is a source of major international tension with China, South Korea, and the Philippines, since Imperial Japan inflicted massacres, torture, mass rape, and enslavement across East Asia. So what is mentioned–and maybe more importantly, what is omitted–is a serious act of national politics.

In my previous post I argued that the collective assumptions, practices, and expectations of a population constitute the actual government of the population. This is Foucault’s argument; and he also points out that this alternative model of regimes includes what we normally recognize as the overt politics of political leaders. Leaders continuously work to promote the legitimacy of themselves, their policies, and their legacies. When they are successful, their policies and their preferred interpretation of their legacies becomes the taken-for-granted “truth”–or maybe more accurately, a set of somewhat boring, but generally accepted truisms. This is the history of the country as understood by its population.

In the 1920s, Antonio Gramsci identified the political significance of getting particular decisions and policies to be taken-for-granted: a condition he called hegemony. Hegemony can be understood as rule-by-consent, but unfortunately the term consent implies a level of intentionality which often does not exist; it might be better called rule-by-assent. What I mean by ‘assent’ versus ‘consent’ is that a vast array of policies, positions, and decisions become embedded as unquestioned, uncontested governing assumptions. When a regime achieves hegemonic dominance in some political position, Gramsci argues that the regime does not have to spend resources to promote that particular position because the overwhelming majority of the population accepts the position as something so natural, so inevitable, that it is no longer understood as a position at all.

One example is the widespread assumption that property-ownership means that one person (or corporation) owns direct and complete claim to all the rights associated with a piece of land. However, this total dominion over land–known as “fee-simple ownership”–is actually only a modern phenomenon. In most parts of the world over most of human history, the rights-claims to any one piece of turf used to be layered and often very complex. One group of people (maybe even a whole village) used to have the right to graze animals on a piece of land; others had the right to travel across that land, and still others might have the right to grow crops on that land. Land-“lords” did not have exclusive rights to property until the Enclosure Movement, when they asserted those rights (in Britain) by dispossessing the peasants, and evicting the peasants from sites where they had previously had the right to inhabit for centuries. Karl Polanyi, E.P. Thompson, and David Harvey all trace this crucial shift, and the role of the Enclosure movement in creating the assumption that land is a commodity, rather than a crucial, pre-economic resource (like oxygen) that we need in order to survive. As Polanyi argues, not only did we need to change our attitudes about real-estate, but these new attitudes had to become utterly taken-for-granted as “natural” in order for capitalist political economies to function as they do now.

So the way we understand history–how we got to our present time–is a crucial piece of constructed mythology that we depend upon for the day-to-day operation of modern life as we know it. This is why a successful challenge to a taken-for-granted position is considered revolutionary, because it changes not just our minds but, through changes in practice, our lived reality.