Interview with prof. Sven Beckert

Sven Beckert is Laird Bell Professor of American History at Harvard University. Professor Beckert’s research and teaching focus on the history of the United States in the nineteenth century, with a particular emphasis on the history of capitalism, including its economic, social, political and transnational dimensions. His publications have focused on the nineteenth-century American bourgeoisie, on labor, on democracy and, in recent years, on the global history of capitalism. He is the author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014), which won the 2015 Bancroft Prize, the 2015 Taft Award and was a finalist for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for History. The New York Times called it one of the ten best books of 2015.
          During my stay at Harvard earlier this year, I got an opportunity to talk with professor Beckert about global history and discuss with him the emergence of this approach and the challenges that it faces.

(Photo by Jessica Picard for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian)

ZP: The first question would be the following: how did you come to the idea of writing global history? You started as a “traditional” historian, your first book did not really use this approach, so how did this happen?
SB: It was certainly something that I came to later. All my work before I started writing “Empire of Cotton” was on national history, and not just that, it was very local history. I wrote my Master’s thesis on a small industrial city in New Jersey — Passaic — and then I wrote my dissertation on the history of New York City in the nineteenth century. There was nothing particularly global about either of these projects. I received my PhD in American history, and American history until very recently, or even to this day, was very much a story that was contained within the borders of the United States. People rarely looked outside of these borders, and in some ways I did not look outside of the borders of the United State either, although the questions I asked were informed by my reading of books on the history of other parts of the world. Moreover, since I was not born in the United States, I already knew a fair amount about histories of other parts of the world, especially European history. As a result, whenever I looked at American history, I also had some European cases in mind, and I compared what I saw in the United States with what I knew about Europe. Sometimes I also saw connections between the developments in Europe and the developments in the United States. Still, my writing was very much focused on the history of the modern United States.
          At the same time, when I was writing my dissertation, I also had some teachers who were already much more global in their perspectives, Eric Foner, for example, looked at Reconstruction in the United States in a comparative perspective. I took a lot of courses in American history, but I also studied with Charles Tilly, the major historical sociologist who looked mostly at Europe, but also did some global comparisons. I studied with Eric Hobsbawm, who was always very global in his thinking. And I was part of seminars — for example Charles Tilly’s State Formation and Collective Action seminar at the New School — that brought together faculty and PhD students who were experts on different regions of the world, and who, in the setting of this seminar, spoke to one another. Thus some of my training, unbeknownst to me, prepared me for doing global history later. I didn’t know then that there is something called global history, I had no plans on working on something like global history, but I learned certain things from people such as Eric Foner, Eric Hobsbawm or Charles Tilly that predisposed me to think more globally. And then there was, of course, also my own non-American background.
          When I was done with the book on New York City, I decided that I wanted to do something that would focus on the history of the United States, but would embed this history in a more global account. At that point I decided that one thing that we need to do when it comes to the American history is to put it into more of a global perspective, a move that many people advocated in the early 2000s. I wanted to link the history of the United States to that of other parts of the world. Since I do mostly economic and social history, I wanted to focus on economic change. For reasons that are still unclear to me, I came upon this idea: why not write about an important aspect of the global economic history of the United States by looking at the most important commodity that came out of the American economy in the nineteenth century, cotton. The first orientation of this project was to do a transnational history of the United States through cotton. I expected this to be a history, of course, about the United States, and also about the United Kingdom, Egypt and India. I had very little sense that it would turn out to be much more global than that. However, when I started my research it increasingly became clear to me that such a limited global vision is not going to work. You cannot tell the history of cotton as a history of the United States in global perspective, because the story of cotton is much too large, much too global and much too important to be contained within such a framework. It needed to become truly global. Thus it was through my research, in some ways, that I came to global history. It was at this point that I started thinking more about it, but it was not something I was trained in or something that I was entirely predisposed to do.

ZP: Could you tell me more about the influences you experienced? What kind of books were you reading, what kind of scholars were you in dialogue with?
SB: The person who was probably the most influential for me at this point was Eric Hobsbawm, who already in the 1960s had an amazingly global vision. Even though now his books read as a little too eurocentric for my taste, he was always very broad in his geographic coverage of modern history. But then there were others: certainly Fernand Braudel. Certainly Charles Tilly, as I mentioned, was very influential. Eric Foner’s work on setting post-Civil War Reconstruction in a broader framework made a big difference to me. But I think it is fair to say that none of them really participated in debates on global history (as much as they existed).
          I came to these debates in a different way, namely through a debate in the early 2000s, about transnationalizing American history, and the core participant in this debate was Thomas Bender. I was very drawn to this work as my book on cotton was supposed to speak to this literature. Through that literature, then, I also found people like Ken Pomeranz, or Jerry Bentley, who were truly global historians. And then, of course Chris Bayly. Another person who was very influential was Jürgen Osterhammel. In 2004 or so I was invited to the University of Konstanz where he taught and is teaching, and I spent a year with him, and that left a deep impression on me. But broadly, I think, I was coming to global history mostly through the logic of my own research. It just pushed me into ever more global directions, because I really tried to understand the story of cotton, and with it some important aspects of the history of capitalism. As I mentioned in the beginning, the book was initially meant to be on the United States, United Kingdom, Egypt and India, but eventually I ended up writing about all these places and also about Central Asia, Brazil, West Africa, China and many more — all of these places became important to my analysis and narrative. My interest in global history comes less through the debates within the discipline, but more through the imperatives of my own research.

ZP: This is definitely a very particular research setting: you were not limited in time, you could go on, and on, and on. How did you find the optimal point to stop when you were writing “Empire of Cotton”?
SB: In a way, an answer to this question was relatively easy, because I was looking at something material, at cotton. Either there is cotton or there is no cotton. So it was clear that Iceland would not be part of the book. In a way, the commodity itself, the object of study, dictated what parts of the world would be included, and also what time periods were significant to the story that I wanted to tell. In a way, it was easy. In my mind, generally speaking, global history should not be writing the history of everything that happened all around the globe at a particular moment in time. That’s just not very interesting. What is more interesting is to have a certain question, or a set of questions, a specific historical problem, and then you study this problem and allow it to take you wherever it makes analytical sense. You travel with the problem or with the object of study to the places around the globe that matter for that particular history. Some global histories, thus, would only look at a few places places, and certainly not at everything. For a very long time most historians would encounter a certain problem, and they would explain this problem, and they would follow this problem to the boundaries of the modern nation states, and somehow everything that was beyond the boundary was ignored, as it was seen as not very important for the problem under review. What we do with global history is to look at each and every problem broadly, follow the problem wherever it takes us, including beyond the national boundaries. For me, global history is therefore best conceived as a way of seeing, a way of looking at history, rather than a history with a well-defined geographic scope.

ZP: Could we return to national histories now? For some subjects, it is just a very convenient setting. Something like prison systems or social security systems, for example, were created by the nation states. So how can we study objects like this, that are not connected to trade or transnational circulations? Can we study them in a global perspective?
SB: Yes, I think, we can. Think about the example you just mentioned, social security systems. In some ways, they are quintessentially national projects, a project of a particular nation state, and they are implemented within the boundaries of that state. In a way, they solidify these boundaries, they solidify the difference between the inside and the outside. So you could say, okay, this is a quintessentially national problem that cannot be studied in global perspective. And of course we should not forget that states, and nation states in particular, matter hugely to modern history, so I’m not saying we should overcome looking at the state. Just the opposite. No, I think that the state is probably the most powerful structuring force in the history of the modern world. The state needs to be central to our histories. But then, if you look at social security systems, for example, they are also linked in many ways to other parts of the world. For one, you can study them in comparative perspective. Why is the social security system in the United States different from that of the United Kingdom, or France, or Russia, or elsewhere? And these systems also emerge from a conversation among people who confront similar problems and similar issues in different parts of the world, and they observe one another and they learn from one another. There is a beautiful study by Dan Rogers, at Princeton, “Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age”, which is about how the American welfare state is informed by debates within Europe, how Americans learn from the European example, and vice versa. This also happens in other directions. This shows that even developments that seem to happen exclusively within the boundaries of the modern nation state can be, and should be, studied from a global perspective. And I think you understand them much better once you start doing so. But keep in mind: nation states matter greatly and historical processes unfolding within particular nation states must be studied.

ZP: What are other benefits of global history as an approach?
SB: I think there are two ways in which global history helps us understand certain problems and explain certain things that a purely national history can’t. First, it automatically generates a comparative perspective, and that is the only way to understand certain problems, because you don’t really know what is special and unique in a particular case without knowing other cases as well. If you just know one country, I don’t think you can know that country particularly well. Looking at other cases is a way to understand what the developments happening in one specific place were really about. Second, I think most social processes, even most political processes, unfold across national borders. Since they unfold this way, they cannot really be understood within the containers of the histories of nation states alone. So, if you look, for example, at one important social process, industrialization: that’s a story that has been told as a quintessential national history, and as a result has often been very much misunderstood. For example, what was all too completely ignored was the contribution of the non-European world to the process of European industrialization. It wrote the history of slavery out of the history of North Atlantic industrialization. If you write a history of the rubber industry in the United Kingdom or in Germany, and you don’t look beyond the borders of the nation state, you are never concerned with the question where this rubber came from, and as a result you can completely misread the history of this industry. This is more generally the case. By limiting yourself to national history, you can significantly misunderstand many historical processes.

ZP: Well, then another question follows: what do we lose when we do global history? There has been a significant critique coming from cultural historians, or from people doing microhistorical research, who would say that global history can be superficial. I’m simplifying the argument right now, but you see what I mean.
SB: Yes. I think there are dangers. One is that you write a little bit about everything, but you don’t really write anything substantial on anything, because you’re just skimming the surface. This would be worst-case global history. I think that kind of superficial analysis is probably done when it comes to teaching global history in high schools, but among historians by and large that is not such a huge problem. I think a more significant problem is that once you start looking at global connections, you privilege the global connections over all other types of connections. And thus you privilege certain kinds of people. Of course, some people have global connections and other people usually don’t have them. For example, merchants are almost always globally connected. Peasants, on the other hand, are almost never globally connected. So, in some ways, while writing global history, one can lose the insights of the social history of the 1970s and 1980s and focus again on privileged social groups, namely those who have those kinds of global connections that global historians like. That can be a huge problem. Therefore, global history must be very attentive to local situations and very local distributions of social power, to local regional and national connections, it must be attentive to social conflicts in particular locations, and then link them to the larger world. In this way peasants, for example, come in quite centrally. In my book on cotton peasants play an overwhelmingly important role, even though almost none of them are connected globally. But they are still very important for the creation of global connections that make the empire of cotton. So I think one should always want to be a specialist in the history of a particular region of the world, because you cannot be an expert on everything. It is important to retain true expertise on a particular region of the world, not least because that also will help you understand other parts of the world. And there are more problems: linguistic barriers, for example. There are only so many languages that anybody can speak, and read, and research in. There is a danger that some things get lost through this global perspective, but on the other hand, what is to gain, I think, is greater than what might be lost. In the instance of the work I did on cotton: there are thousands of books that illuminate local histories of cotton plantations, of cotton factories, of cotton merchants and other such things, and certainly you can contribute more to that, you can write another book about another cotton factory, or you can write another book about cotton industrialization in some part of the world, and that would certainly be important. You couldn’t do global history without also doing this very local history, but, on the other hand, by taking a more global viewpoint you can understand each and every one of these local histories in new ways, and perhaps sometimes also in better ways. That’s another argument that really speaks for global history. I don’t think everybody should do global history or needs to do global history, that we should all become global historians. I don’t think so at all! We should continue doing local, regional and national histories. That’s the great thing about history: we take very different points of view, different approaches, and we still talk to one another, unlike other disciplines! Just think of the economists, who have marginalized some perspectives within their discipline. History is different, and that is a very good thing. But keep in mind that we have been doing history that was mostly national in scope for about a hundred and fifty years. And now is a good moment for some people to do something else, namely embrace a more global perspective.

ZP: These national histories were embedded within particular institutional forms, they were connected very neatly with the birth of nation states, but what would be the institutional setting for global history? What kind of innovations within academia, in a very material way, would it need to entail?
SB: That’s a really excellent question. Of course, national history has emerged because it played a fundamental role in the constitution of nation states, and it played a very large role in identity formation for particular groups of people. National history helped constitute nation states and in turn was a project of these nation states. Moreover, national history enjoyed a national audience and it also created a stream of funding, because nation states always wanted to have a proper national history, and therefore they were willing to pay for historians to sit in libraries and do research and write books. To be a proper nation you need a flag, an anthem—and a national history. With global history, this is much less clear, and that is truly a concern. Who is our audience? Who is sufficiently interested in our work to provide the resources to do it? There is no clear answer to these questions as of now. On the other hand, my own experience publishing “Empire of Cotton” tells me that there is a very large group of people out there who are interested in global perspectives. Living in an increasingly interconnected world makes people curious about history that in some ways reflects their own experiences. And perhaps there are people who understand themselves more as citizens of the world than primarily only citizens of a particular country. They are the audience for global history, and global history has done an excellent job in connecting to large audiences. The problem you raised seems like a big one, but perhaps it is smaller than we think it is. When it comes to the organization of research, of course, as you know, the entire discipline of history is almost everywhere organized alone national lines: from the journals we read to the courses we teach, to the professorships we hold. That, I think, needs some rethinking, and what is especially important is to embed these conversations on global history in truly global structures that bring historians from all parts of the world together and allow them to converse with one another, to test their arguments, and to participate in this project that is, after all, about writing the history of humanity as a whole. The global history network that we participate in and that links historians in New Delhi, Sao Paulo, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Dakar and Cambridge to one another is very much an effort to speak to this concern, to not just write a global history from the global North, but to make it a global history that is produced in all parts of the world, a global history that in itself is a result of a global conversation.

ZP: Thank you very much!

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