Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
The publication of the Pearson/IPPR report ‘An Avalanche is Coming’ made me think of this section from William Sewell’s wonderful The Logics of History and the ways in which we, as historians, need to think critically about recent changes within Higher Education as well as oppose them. If our task is to think historical, then we might take seriously Sewell’s suggestion that we apply those analytic practices to the social, economic, cultural and politics circumstances in which our own intellectual production takes shape.
I worry that the emergence of the current form of purely cultural history is extremely inopportune, coming as it does in a period of fundamental transformation of capitalism on a world scale—of decreasing ability of states to control their own destinies, of growing income disparities in the US and in many other areas of the world, of ubiquitous declines in state welfare provision, and of sharp mobilizations of labour and the left—all pushed forward powerfully by the ascendant discourses of economic neo-liberalism. Somehow, at the very time when particularly powerful changes in social and economic structures are manifested every more insistently in our daily lives, we cultural historians have ceased to only to grapple with such structures but even to admit their ontological reality… I shall attempt to sharpen the problem facing historians by suggesting that history’s cultural turn was itself causally intertwined with these very socioeconomic transformations over the past three decades. If we historians hope to participate in what I see as the great political and intellectual battle of the coming years—attempting to reclaim effective political and social agency from the juggernaut of world capitalism and the hegemony of so-called ‘free market’ economics—I think we need to understand our own epistemological and political entanglements in world capitalism’s recent social history.
William Sewell, The Logics of History (Chicago, 2005), p. 53.