Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Transnational political history

[For a complete list of my posts on transnational history, see here.]

A couple of months ago Eric Rauchway had a very interesting post, both at his own blog and at POTUS, on transnational history. Unfortunately, it appeared while I was in the thick of my Great Blog Silence, so I've only just had a chance in the last couple of days to read the post with care.

Rauchway's post cautions against the idea that transnational history somehow supplants the need for good political history. On the contrary, the more interested historians become in the historical processes that have made globalization possible, the more imperative it will become to focus on political history. "Political history," he says, "is all over the essential stuff of globalization." In the first part of his post, Rauchway shows that he means this literally: if we take the "stuff" of globalization to be the technologies that make long-distance travel and communication possible, then we can't take for granted how that "stuff" came to be. And very often the technological innovations that helped stitch the histories of distant nations together were enabled or inhibited by national politics. Using transatlantic cables as his primary example, Rauchway shows convincingly that "virtual reality depends on real reality. It runs over wires. Those wires get spooled, strung, sunk, and kept safe from cutting owing to political decisions."

Rauchway points to immigration policy as another example of why transnational historians cannot do without political history. As entranced as transnational historians may be with the border crossings and diasporic identities of migrant peoples, the movement of those people does not take place in a political vacuum. Immigration and the politics of immigration exist in an almost dialectical relationship: the "dislocation" of immigration sparks "discontent"; that discontent is voiced politically in struggles over immigration policy; that policy often reacts against the forces of globalization; and in the end, politics thus shapes the course of globalization. Historiographically, as much as politically, the fact of immigration shows that the nation-state is not dead yet, and that politics in a national context still deserve the attention even of the most transnational historians.

Although Rauchway uses some of my own definitions of transnational history as a springboard for his argument, I can't find much of anything in his post with which to disagree. As I remarked in my earlier post, transnational historians are often afflicted by the fact that there are more manifestoes for transnational history than there are actual examples of it, which sometimes means that transnational historians get stuck being asked to defend manifestoes that are, by their nature, often hyperbolic and excessively polemical. Some manifestoes for transnational history, for example, over-reach by making it sound as though the nation-state itself is unimportant or obsolescent to properly transnational historians. And Rauchway is absolutely right to react against that kind of claim. No transnational historian is worth his or her salt who does not concede that nation-states must be reckoned with by historians of the modern world, globalization notwithstanding. By the same token, I hold no brief for transnational historians who would argue that political history is bunkum.

It may even be misleading to speak of "transnational history" because that phrase seems to denote a field that stands in contradistinction to "political history" or "social history." It's better to think of transnational history as a posture or a methodological intervention that urges us to do political history and social history (and cultural history and intellectual history and so on) in a certain way. So a transnational historian would not disagree with Rauchway that politics is all over the stuff of globalization. But they would insist, conversely, that the forces of globalization (or, less anachronistically, the transnational circulation of people, goods, and ideas) are all over the stuff of politics.

Maybe it would be best here to move out of the realm of manifesto and into the realm of actual examples of transnational history. Take, for instance, Rauchway's point about immigration policy--that it shows why we can't understand "transnationalism without understanding the political processes that permit and promote it, that shape what kind of globalization we get and how long we get it for." Transnational historians of immigration would not disagree with that, I think, but they would want to add, in turn, that immigration policies and patterns of enforcement are not unaffected by transnationalism itself. For example, Madeline Hsu's book, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home, shows how Taishanese immigrants to California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used transnational kinship networks to effectively limit the "ability of nation-states to control migration." If I'm remembering the book correctly, Hsu shows how, by circulating coded guidebooks and magazines back to friends and family in China, immigrants found ways to circumvent the seemingly impermeable Chinese Exclusion Laws by instructing other would-be immigrants about how to answer successfully the questions of immigration officials.

Hsu is not saying that exclusion laws and the political processes that made them are irrelevant to the history of Chinese immigration; what she is saying is that the power of those laws and political processes was to some extent attenuated by transnational networks themselves. The lesson here is not that transnational historians can do without political history, but that political historians also cannot take for granted the effectiveness of laws and policies to control and regulate transnational forces like immigration.

Another good example of that same lesson can be found in the most recent issue of the Journal of American History, which features an article by Thomas A. Guglielmo on Mexican and Mexican American activists in Texas during World War II. (A personal or institutional subscription to the History Cooperative is required to view the article.) Guglielmo shows how some very "high" politics--including the Good Neighbor Policy of the United States that tried to create a united South American and North American front against European fascism--created opportunities on the ground in Texas for Mexicans and Mexican Americans to lobby for anti-discrimination laws and civil rights protections in the state legislature. But he also shows how those political struggles were shaped by transnational networks of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Some of the lobbying organizations that pressed for liberalized laws in Texas were based in Mexico. And the signal success of these activists occurred when Mexican groups, working with Mexican Americans, pressured Mexico to hold back migrant workers from Texas cotton fields if Austin refusedd to heed the demands of activists for civil rights.

Guglielmo's piece is another good example of how transnational political history might be done. At its best, such transnational history would be very sensitive to the power of nation-states and the importance of policy, but would also attune us to the ways that nation-states and national policies are themselves criss-crossed by transnational networks of people, goods, and ideas that often crucially affect the politics of nations.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Collective Improvisation:

Post a Comment

Back to Main Page

Site Meter