The Industrial Revolution is thought to be the catalyst for the state and market’s dominant status in society (Harari, 2015, pg. 355-358). For a majority of human history, these institutions held little power in comparison to one’s family. In addition their immediate family, a person also had the support of their extended family and even their neighbors. This tightly woven network allowed for a powerful kinship among its members. However, a lack of government intervention also meant that the family could dictate many, if not all, aspects of an individual’s life, such as who they married or what punishments they deserved. The Industrial Revolution turned all of this on its head. As Harari explains, the rise of industry “gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with a new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen, and social workers.” (pg. 358) With these new developments, the importance of the community soon yielded to individualism (pg. 359-360). Anything a person needed was now given to them by the state and market as opposed to their family. While this provided more individual freedom, it also destroyed familial bonds in the process, and as a result, the emotional support those bonds provided. Whether the sacrifice was worth it is heavily contested, but regardless of where one stands on the issue, individualism is here to stay (at least for the time being).
Before we can begin to understand the historian’s role when concerning the future, we need to understand the role of history in the modern age. The layman’s answer is that we learn history to avoid making the same mistakes again (heck, I’ve said this myself). Learning from our mistakes is certainly part of the equation, but in Prof. Reidy’s own words, it’s also something you can find in a fortune cookie. I think that the greatest problem with this answer is that it’s oversimplified, as it implies that history’s only function is to steer us onto the right path. In a similar vein to scientific progress, we are trying to progress towards some sort of ideal social order. But to repeat a question I asked a few weeks back: What is ideal? The concept, of course, varies from person-to-person. As an extreme example, you have to remember that keeping slaves was once considered a normal, if not ideal, aspect of human society. The widely held belief that it’s wrong to use our fellow humans as tools is a fairly new concept (at least in the United States). What I’m trying to get at is that history speaks volumes more about humanity than it does black-and-white morality. In this light, a well-rounded historian is not simply an expert on the past, but also an anthropologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, and so on. Perhaps our disgust towards slavery does make us less “depraved” than our ancestors, but consider for a moment that we modern folk can’t seem to agree on the ethics of things such as abortion or open border policies. From the perspective of future generations, which side of these issues will they consider to be sordid? Which side will be “ahead of their time”? Should we expect any of our ideals to match theirs? Questions such as these are what I think historians should be aware of moving forward. Like our much beloved technological fix, human desires spur unintended consequences. As such, we shouldn’t expect historians to act as prophets so much as a wealth of educated guesses. When concerning the future, all we really can do is speculate. But then where does that leave us? My best answer is that historians can help guide us towards our current ideal, however ill-defined that ideal may be. This ideal will invariably shift overtime, humans being the fickle creatures we are, but it should be the job of the historian to adjust themselves accordingly, come what may. Philosophy really does complicate things, doesn’t it? Ugh, it hurts my head, I think I’m going to go lay down.
On a different note, I hope you all had a restful Thanksgiving!
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2015.