Plum in the middle of the FT’s comment section, Simon Schama has his chance to reach a verdict on the world at the end of 2009.  If any of your younger relatives ever need to ask what is meant by ‘overwrought, melodramatic prose’, go to this column:

Long ago, we were told by the French historians of the Annales School that spectacular events were but spume on the crest of history’s waves; that what really shaped the shoreline was the invisible pull of deep tides and currents far beneath the surface. Long-term influences are what change the world. It does not take analytical genius to see historical forces of this kind engaged in their relentless impoverishment over the past 10 years.

What relentless impoverishment, you ask?  The great historian answers:

Give me a sceptic and I will take him to Shanghai or São Paulo on a day of ripe smog and see how sceptical he remains while coughing his guts into a mask and peering at brown sunlight as if through a dome of begrimed glass.

So environmental, then – the problem is waste management and resources in the Third World – something that used to alarm and depress me as an Isle of Wight fourth former in 1985, learning endlessly about the favelas. (ironically, Brazil is meant to be a beacon of hope).  But no, it is more than that:

pandemics have returned: in which, like some as yet unwritten scripture, the animal kingdom – avian, porcine, bovine – is a bellwether of human perishability. All of which seems to put the nail in the coffin of a collective optimism born 200 years ago, when the Enlightenment envisioned a world illuminated by reason, banishing the afflictions of ignorance, poverty, war and disease.

Here you start to wonder: where is the historian? You would have thought that the Depression, World Wars, Cold War and possibility of nuclear annihilation might have popped that particular bubble of optimism sometime before 2009.  And is Schama really sure that Lagos rubbish heaps and swine flu are the final blow for optimistic progress? He surely knows all about previous famines and pandemics. Does he know how few people have died of swine flu? As is often the case with miserabilism, it rests of temporarily forgetting proportion – particularly historical – and opting for colourful language.  On the subject of which, here is his argument for Marx, Ford and capitalists in general being wrong:

none of those prophets could have anticipated that the main obstacle to their respective programmes for social felicity in the third millennium AD would be a war to restore a theocratic caliphate and extend Sharia over the face of the earth. Nor that the most formidable weapon of this campaign would be the ecstatic embrace of mass death,

Huh?  Now I am winging it, but if I were Marx and were told that in 150 years an enemy of capitalism so weak and desperate should emerge that the only weapon it possesses is the suicide bomb, I would conclude that capitalism has won.  As the Japanese showed, the suicide bomb, while being terrible and inhumane, is the spasm of weakness of a defeated enemy.  It is not a solid step on the road to a Caliphate, for which you need to keep your soldiers alive. 19th century imperialists would not have blinked at such behaviour, because their standards were so brutal – you shoot at us, we raze your village – that the casualties would have seemed trivial.  The difficulties we have in wars right now are as much a reflection of the higher standards modern armies have, than any terminal weakness. But for Professor Schama it is somehow the final nail in the coffin of capitalistic optimism, despite the method having claimed a tiny number of Western lives.*

Further cliches abound.  As well as ‘theocracy on the march’ (it seems in retreat in Iran, by the way), we have the Oligarchic Chinese, who might actually protect us from ‘theocratic delirium and capitalist fecklessness’.  Never mind that it is by finally indulging in such fecklessness that the Chinese have been able to grow at all to the semi-developed state they are in.  China: 200m people on half-European standards of living, attached to another billion or so still in deep impoverishment.  And the West is terrified, because they run an export surplus.

There then follows some naked pretension about the Web: “the most paradoxical polarity to have opened up in the past 10 years may not be between anarchy and authority so much as between solipsism and community; between the iPod with its headphoned sovereignty of Me Alone and its apparent opposite: hunger for networking”.

I loved Citizens, and have always wanted to set aside time to I had read the Embarassment of Riches. Schama is clearly a brilliant historian.  But this article is a strange hotch-potch of ideas, that use little of this skill.  I agree to some extent with the environmental concerns, but for the rest, it is so weak that it could be a spoof.

(I had hoped to effortlessly swing over to Hamish McRae’s optimism about economic growth, the Economist’s excellent demolition of that classic of the miserabilist canon, the ‘we don’t make things any more’ fallacy, and Brad De Long’s concern that the public does not get what it has gained from the bailouts.  But I lack the finesse, this late in the year).

*What of other lives?  Well, even in Iraq it  has not managed to push the country’s mortality rate above . . . Britain’s.  See Wiki figures. No matter what grabs the headlines, access to sanitation, and age structure, are a bigger factor for Death than the violence of the misguided young, which is in long-term decline. Oh, and alcoholism.  I could understand Russian miserabilism . ..

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10 thoughts on “Simon Schama’s unconvincing miserabilism

  1. Citizens is indeed an excellent book.

    So what’s gone wrong here?

    Hypothesis: The Queen said 2009 was a year best forgotten. That’s pretty much the wider media narrative. Schama doesn’t really do proper history anymore, he’s busy being a celebrity (see: Tristram Hunt for further case studies). Hence, Schama does what brings the bucks in. And there’s money in miserabilism at the moment.

  2. There is ALWAYS money in miserabilism. Every decade you can get some crusty character showing how we have been going downhill since Maggie left power/Britain left gold/they stopped conscription/they allowed divorce/they let women vote/we lost the colonies/etc. And yet things get better. Apart from the environment – which the same crusties are often in stern denial about!

  3. I was with you until your last point about Iraq.

    Firstly, the primary goal of terrorism is not deaths but to cause terror. (And to be honest, this is working somewhat. Notice how even a failed attack like the one in America the other day result in more calls for more Cheneyism and more of what Jack Balkin calls the “National Surveillance State”.)

    Secondly, why compare Britain to Iraq, and not places like Afghanistan?

    Thirdly, why use death rate? Life expectancy is surely just as useful?

    Fourthly, why use absolute figures at all? Surely what matters is the change in the country from how things were before terrorism, to how it is/was with terrorism?

    Finally, comparing the impact of terrorism on a country by looking at the death rate (or life expectancy) of two countries seems too simple. It’s a complex sociological phenomena. To see whether terrorism is having an effect on life and death (though see my first point) will need a much more in depth investigation before any conclusions can be drawn.

    1. Alex

      I will admit I was being simplistic. But I thought the Iraq-UK stat interesting, because at one point there seemed to be hundreds of people dying in such attacks in Iraq every week – yet the effect is dwarfed by their having reasonable other factors. And I agree that it is the psychological effect that matters, but this is where containing our reaction is important. Remember Edwina Currie and the eggs. You can terrify yourself about things that are phantoms. I know, as a parent, who does not let his kids walk to school, even though stranger attack is infinitessimally unlikely.

      I also agree that QALY (quality adjusted life expectancy) is what counts. But here again I think Schama is being plain wrong; the thinkers of of 200 years ago that he thinks would be disappointed by 2009, would instead be amazed at the steps forward that universal health care etc have bestowed on modern life.

      I also want to point out that Schama seemed to be implying that this -the suicide bomb – was a deadly threat on the road to the Caliphate. How exactly? How can this be turned into a viable military strategy? You could never establish a state this way: all the normal aparatus of statehood could be destroyed by US power easily. All they are setting up is the potential for a fugitive, guerilla existence.

      1. Schema’s piece is a pot-boiler. Doen’t his concluding paragraph show that he realised its eminent forgetability?

        You can terrify yourself with phantoms; and declaring war on phantoms or on fleas (“Axis of evil”, drugs, terrorism) is a sure way to do yourself considerable damage. As a kid – aged 7 to 11 – I was proud and interested in my journeys to school on my own.

        Schama on the thinkers of 200 years ago is sloppy – he is well aware of the physiocrats of the time deploring and depreciating the modern idea that the the manufacture of things could displace the fundamental economic importance of agriculture

  4. “Thirdly, why use death rate? Life expectancy is surely just as useful?”

    Any old life expenctancy? Irrespective of quality of life? Is life at any price necessarily worth living?

  5. Alex,

    Surely the primary goal of most terrorists is the achievement of their political aims?

    The terror, and the death, are merely means to an end. At least, for most terrorists.

    I suppose there might be some “intrinsic-terror” terrorists, who just get off on making people terrified. But I don’t think there’s many of them about, and it certainly doesn’t cover Al Qaida, the Real IRA or the rest of the usual suspects.

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