Modern people have to wrestle with the idea of being modern. Maybe there's nothing very new in that. It is a continuing delusion that our own times present uniquely daunting challenges or opportunities. In this age, the idea of globalisation captures a good deal of what we think is happening now, and about which we wonder: is this new?
This collection of essays by nine Cambridge historians is predicated on the notion that their trade has been remiss in not addressing globalisation. They dive into bits of history and pre-history and try to see how much the trading systems, empires and religious ambitions of the past are precursors of the modern.
The first service of the editor, Antony Hopkins, is to clarify the questions. As the age of the sailing ship and messenger developed into that of the satellite and internet, what changed? Was it qualitative – a step-change in what it means to be human – or merely a case of more of the same? Do the technologies that banish geography define and change the world, or does the variety of competing tendencies that flow along along them matter more? And which of these matter most? Trade, ideologies, ideas, knowledge, faiths, diseases, plants, new objects of desire?
Clarification comes through, and mostly it is rather reassuring. Useful ways of thinking start to emerge. First, we start to think of some human tendencies as "universalist". Religion is an obvious one, and the Enlightenment another. Capitalism might be a candidate, and so might scientific empiricism.
Professor Hopkins larkily suggests that the anti-globalisers are globalisers. Their protests "are highly significant popular expressions of a civic conscience that has universal aspirations". His remark reminds one that he and his contributors have fairly conventional prejudices about the world. However, it's a blessing that they are not burdensomely PC and postmodern.
The essays help one think about the "universal", not least because they show that it doesn't necessarily lead to the "global". For instance, a religion with a small following might have unfulfilled universalist ambitions, while a trading system might reach around the world, but have no universalist claim.
The good news is that universalist ideas and practices have been much more multifarious than might be supposed. Historically, mighty "universal" forces have overlain one another. Islam, Christianity and the Enlightenment, for instance, have not always been mutually exclusive – and often aren't now.
Some of the influences with biggest reach have not been dogmas or systems at all. So the worldwide Chinese diaspora has been an important phenomenon, affecting China and the places the expatriates have ended up, but it has not been remarked as a globalising influence. What's more, much of Asia (Malaysia, for instance) is usefully seen as a region in which diasporas – and the intermingling they bring – have happened with rather less fuss and more benefit than might be supposed.
Does the "universal" extinguish the local? The answer is more nuanced than one might think. One essay harrowingly details the extinction of local Balinese rule by the Dutch in 1908, only to reveal that, for reasons of convenience and maybe atonement, the Dutch then insisted the Balinese recreate a folkloric "South Seas paradise" myth, which was phoney where it wasn't anachronistic. Anyway, the re-invention turned out to be a brilliant investment in what become the underpinning of the tourist industry. Thus empire hid behind a fantasy of local identity, which became the theme for a globalised and globalising post-imperial business.
Anti-globalisers will find plenty of evidence here to support their contention that improved communications have often been deployed to project oppressive power. But that is an old story. What's fresh is much more cheering: evidence that global tendencies come in many forms, and that they have sometimes co-existed with the local, the historical and with each other. If we repeat history, we won't always be doing so badly. And knowing the kind of history this book helps pioneer will help us avoid repeating the worst bits.