From Contemporary History to the History of the Present

Martin Conway
Celia Donert
Kiran Klaus Patel

Historians of contemporary Europe seem to have a difficulty with the present. The project of contemporary history, as it developed in Western Europe across the second half of the twentieth century, always faced backwards. In particular, it asserted the centrality of 1945, and more generally of the experience of the Third Reich and of the maelstrom of international, ideological and ethnic conflicts to which it gave rise, as the central moment of the twentieth century. There were many compelling reasons for this approach. It focused scholarly attention on the dynamics of Nazism, not as the culmination of a specifically German Sonderweg, but as the manifestation of the Europe-wide ascendancy of authoritarian regimes primarily of the Right in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. As such, its subject and methodology were European, mobilising historians across Europe’s newly porous national boundaries to advance a project of contemporary history in which the exploration of transnational phenomena such as the Holocaust, pro-Nazi collaboration, and the legacies of the fascist past was always accompanied by a wider sense of civic and scientific responsibility. This was a project of history writing which held rulers, but also societies, to account.1 The purpose of the historian – and the legitimation for the funding they received, and the teaching in which they engaged, within and outside academic institutions – was to use the errors of the recent past as instructive lessons for the societies of the present. Only by understanding fully the complex history of Europe’s collapse into crisis, so the logic implicitly went, could Europe confirm its recovery from the ruins of 1945.2

The achievements of that wave of historical writing – which stretched from the 1970s to the opening years of the twenty-first century – were transformative, and had a major influence on us, as on many others. But the definition of contemporary history that it advanced has now in many ways become part of the history that formed its subject. It was an explicitly post-1945 school of historical writing, that achieved its fullest expression in the emphatic title of Tony Judt’s magisterial synthesis, Postwar, published in 2005.3 Judt, and the broader school of history which his work embodied, yoked the subsequent history of Europe to its mid-century crisis, and thereby to a German-centred narrative of the descent of Europe from 1914 into continental warfare, political instability, and ultimately the horrors of Nazism. With the defeat of the Third Reich, so the second half of this story could begin: the partition of Germany served as the prelude to the consolidation of Soviet ascendancy in the east through the people’s democracies, while Western Europe discovered the triple benefits of parliamentary democracy, regional integration through the institutions of the EEC, and the incremental social reforms made possible by economic prosperity and pro-active governance. In this way, the formative role played by Germany in the first half of the century was mirrored after 1945 by the priority accorded to the USA. This was an Atlanticist understanding of contemporary history, in which the durable engagement of the USA with Europe after 1945 moulded Western Europe’s political and economic structures – for good or for ill – as well as influencing the way in which its history was studied and written.4

This dominant narrative of the two halves of the twentieth century appeared to find its vindication in the events of 1989 and their aftermath. The collapse of the state-socialist regimes, and the remarkably rapid integration of east-central Europe into the political and economic institutions, and military alliances of the West during the 1990s, endorsed the paradigm of Europe’s recovery from its mid-century nadir. Seventy-five years after the outbreak of war in 1914, Europe had recovered its unity; and, through the successful transplantation of regimes of liberal democracy, economic freedom and human rights across the continent, the demonstration of its new-found maturity. Everything in the new Europe was not perfect; but the sense that the historical narrative of what Hobsbawm promptly termed the ‘short twentieth century’ had reached its dénouement was unavoidable.5

But how then should we study what happened next? To treat the volatile and complex history of Europe during the post-1989 decades as little more than the coda of a symphony written for another age is clearly no longer viable. Many of the changes which have occurred in Europe since 1989 are the product of new dynamics, which serve retrospectively to complicate the ways of writing European history that came to the fore over the preceding decades. To trace the threads of continuity from the ruins of 1945 to the present day risks subordinating the history of twenty-first-century Europe to the mid-twentieth-century past, while at the same time confining the history of the 1930s and 1940s to a monument or museum devoid of real historical character.6 Yet, as Russia’s war in Ukraine in 2022 has well demonstrated, there is a need to understand the continuing legacies of that era in a way which does not subordinate all narratives to a preoccupation with 1945.

Liberating the History of the Present

There is therefore a need to liberate the history of the present. The concept of a Geschichte der Gegenwart, or an histoire du temps présent in its different linguistic and cultural variants has become visible in various ways in recent years;7 but, if this is to be more than a convenient slogan, then we need to articulate what such a concept might mean. One obvious starting-point is the radically changed geographical shape of Europe. Put rather crudely, Western Europe thought it had acquired an annexe in 1989, but instead discovered that it had become absorbed into entirely different histories. The primarily western-oriented narratives of contemporary history developed in the final decades of the twentieth century no longer seem adequate to describe the much more contested and expanded Europe of the twenty-first century. The complexity of the eastern borderlands of Europe demand research skills and archives different from those of the west, but also an awareness of the shadows of other histories: of the Romanov and Ottoman empires, of an eastern Jewish history, and of the complexities of long-standing ethnic conflicts in which – as in Ukraine – the Second World War was only one episode.8 Above all, it also requires western historians to recognise that not all history can be written from their perspective. In the immediate aftermath of 1989, there was something of a colonising narrative to the writing of contemporary history in east-central Europe, as former institutes were closed down, scholars associated with the previous regimes were moved aside, and a new generation of western or western-educated historians took their place.9 But over the subsequent decades this initial period of transformation has given way to a much more complex picture, in which the lively culture of contemporary history that developed in central and eastern Europe, often outside of official institutions, prior to 1989 has been supplemented – and also challenged – by the energetic efforts of new state authorities to develop narratives of the recent past, which deviate markedly from those of Western Europe.

The essential starting point of the history of the present therefore has to be the recognition of this plurality and of the new challenges to Western narratives. The self-definition of Europe as a tightly-knit entity, defined notably by the borders to its east and south, formed part of the ways of thinking that emerged under the twin impacts of the Cold War and of decolonization in Europe after 1945. But, as the vain attempts by rulers to build ever higher border fences eloquently demonstrate, today’s Europe is deeply entwined with the histories of other regions: of North Africa, of the Middle East, and through processes of global migration with West Africa and Asia. As a consequence, the very concept of a European history – initially conceived as a riposte to the myopia of national narratives – risks becoming a monument to an outmoded Euro-centric narrative. The centripetal forces that pulled European states of the late twentieth century towards the centres of Brussels and Frankfurt have been replaced by a much more centrifugal continent. The political structures of European integration have lost momentum, the resurgence of the Russian state has pressed in on the history of eastern Europe, and the pervasive influence of an Asian-oriented global economy has removed the confidence that Europe has assumed control of its own history.

The history of the present in Europe must therefore convey this decentred reality; but, more than that, the prism through which historians study these plural histories need to be devolved and decolonised. The largely male and overwhelmingly white demographic of past generations of historians of contemporary Europe is inadequate; and there is a need to enrich the historiography by foregrounding the perspectives of those for whom Europe is not “their” history, and for whom the central elements of their identity are a challenge to European definitions. This requires, in short, a global approach; but one that goes beyond simply a more critical perspective on projects of European empire, or a recognition of the profound impact that other regions of the world have always had on Europe.10 Globalisation begins at home: in the investigation of the emergence of global lives within Europe, and the recruitment of a historical profession that is open to those histories.

Finally, then, the history of the present also demands new subject-matters. Histories of race and gender need to transcend the binary constructs – black and white, heterosexual and homosexual – that characterised the second half of the twentieth century to understand the much more fluid and multi-storied identities of many present-day Europeans. The narratives of nations, too, must be relativised through greater attention to the wider imperial entities – including that of pervasive market forces – that transcend borders, as well as the more localised communities of regions, cities, and neighbourhoods that over recent decades have eroded the formal sovereignty of the nation-state. This awareness of larger but also more specific histories requires, too, a recognition of the centrality that the environment – in all its varied dimensions, physical and human – has acquired in the history of the present. For much of the last century, the dominant template of European history was the conquest of the environment: the extraction of mineral resources, the taming of rivers through the construction of hydro-electric dams, and the splitting of atoms to produce bombs for warfare and electric power for peace. This technological narrative has, however, been transformed in the present by processes of climate change that prove the limits to human ability to control the environment, while demonstrating the ways in which the damage inflicted in the past now defines our present.

As environmental change well demonstrates, the histories of the latter twentieth century and of the present are not self-contained vessels. The continuities are substantial, and the frontier between the two will always be ill-defined. Where the history of the twentieth century ended, and that of the present begins depends in large part on where one is standing in Europe, as well as the nature of the question being addressed. While the events of 1989, and their immediate aftermath, provide an obvious moment of transition in terms of political structures, social and economic changes require a longer and more flexible chronology that stretches back into the 1960s and 1970s. This reflects the wider ways in which a series of economic and technological forces – often summarised a little inadequately as globalization – destabilised the political and social hierarchies of Europe during the final decades of the twentieth century.11 Some of these changes were abrupt, while others were more incremental or occurred in ways which rendered them invisible. In all cases, however, they contributed to a pervasive sense of insecurity at the end of the twentieth century. State institutions, and structures of transnational collaboration, were undermined by these changes; but, equally importantly, so too were the movements and languages of social and cultural contestation. This is well demonstrated by the evolving connections between gender and identities. In the decades following 1945, the achievement of women’s rights, and a generalised regime of gender equality, was the dominant narrative. But by the end of the century, this had been replaced by more complex histories. Concepts of equality came to seem more elusive, and the focus on the emancipation of women had been replaced by a more plural range of gendered identities that themselves are articulated within a wider discourse of intersecting rights.12

European history in a new key

In sum, this is European history in a new key – as Carl Schorske once famously commented of the Europe of the 1890s13 – and it demands a new history. As one contribution to this process, we have recently created with Cambridge University Press a new series entitled European Histories of the Present, that is intended to provide a space within current historiography for works that will explore the new agendas suggested by a history of the present.14 But the process of redefining that history will go much wider than a book series. Historians need to bridge the divide that has emerged, almost unconsciously, between the present and the practice of the study of the past. That will require a change in ways of thinking, but also more subtly in the social situation of the historian. Much of the project of contemporary history, as it developed in Western Europe across the second half of the twentieth century, distanced historians from the society which they inhabited. Operating in a well-resourced world of archives, research institutes, and conferences, their role was to study in an objective – dispassionate – manner the dark places from which European society had emerged, and thereby to provide implicitly an alibi for the imperfections of the post-1945 world. Little of this, however, remains relevant to a history of the present. The optimism that European societies, individually and collectively, have moved beyond the conflicts of the mid-twentieth century has been challenged by the resurgence of ethnic and political conflicts in the Balkans and most recently in Ukraine. Everywhere, too, economic conflicts, the consequences of global processes of migration, and the emergence of new populist politics on left and right, have heightened awareness of the inequalities of wealth, region and race which are inscribed in European societies of the twenty-first century.

Historians cannot remain aloof from these processes. The carefully crafted Olympian stance of the contemporary historian, located au dessus de la mêlée, has lost its relevance. In particular, the hierarchies of intellectual knowledge, institutional prestige, and of social status, that characterised the academic writing of contemporary history across the latter decades of the twentieth century need to be replaced by a more pluralist and simply open-minded engagement with the uncertainties and conflicts of the present. That also implies having a modesty about the perspective of the historian. Writing immediately after the disintegration of the state-socialist regimes in east-central Europe, Francis Fukuyama provided from North America a lucid and nuanced account of the crisis of state planning and political authoritarianism which had left the practice, and more especially the idea, of liberal democracy as the only valid form of government. The ideological and regime conflicts of the twentieth century had culminated in a situation where, he wrote, ‘we have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own, or a future that is not essentially democratic and capitalist.’15 Those are words that it is difficult to imagine being written in Europe today. It is not just the confidence of the final phrase which appears outmoded, but perhaps more especially Fukuyama’s deployment of the first-person plural. European History has lost its sense of a democratic terminus, and the history of the present is emphatically incomplete.

June 2022

  1. This was perhaps most clearly evident in France in the debates surrounding the legacies of the Vichy Regime: Henry Rousso, The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1945, Cambridge (Mass.) / London 1991. []
  2. See the reflective comments of Pieter Lagrou, De l’histoire du temps présent à l’histoire des autres. Comment une discipline critique devint complaisante, in: Vingtième Siècle 118 (2013), pp. 101-19; and Alexander Nützenadel / Wolfgang Schieder (eds.), Zeitgeschichte als Problem. Perspektiven der Forschung in Europa, Göttingen 2004. []
  3. Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, London 2005. See also the subsequent reflections in Tony Judt / Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London 2012. []
  4. This process was reinforced by the migration of a generation of historians and cultural commentators from Central Europe to the USA during and after the Second World War, and by the emergence in the 1950s of forums of trans-Atlantic intellectual debate, focused on the shadows of recent history, such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom. See, for example, Udi Greenberg, The Weimar Century: German Emigrés and the Ideological Foundations of the Cold War, Princeton (NJ) 2017; Pierre Grémion, Intelligence de l’anticommunisme: le Congrès pour la liberté de la culture à Paris (1950-1975), Paris 1995; Martin Conway, Democracy in Western Europe after 1945, in: Jussi Kurunmäki / Jeppe Nevers / Henk te Velde (eds.), Democracy in Modern Europe: A Conceptual History, New York 2018, 231-56; Stuart Jeffries, Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, London 2016. See also the special section in the Journal of Contemporary History 56/ 4 (2021), entitled George L. Mosse, Nationalism, and the Crisis of Liberal Democracies, ed. by Skye Doney, Laura Ciglioni and Donatello Aramini. []
  5. Eric Hobsbawm, Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991, London 1994; but also: Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century, London 1998. []
  6. This latter danger is well demonstrated by the House of European History, created by the European Parliament in Brussels ( Its narrative of the twentieth century is constrained by its focus on the trauma of the mid-century years. See Wolfram Kaiser, Victimizing Europeans: Narrating Shared History in the European Parliament’s House of European History, in: Politique Européenne 71 (2021), pp. 54-79. []
  7. See, for example, See also the US-based journal, History of the Present, published from 2011 to 2016, which reflects the rather different relationship between present and past in North American historical writing. []
  8. Mark Levene, Genocide in the Age of the Nation State: vol. I, The Meaning of Genocide, London 2005. []
  9. Michal Kopeček, In Search of National Memory: The Politics of History, Nostalgia and the Historiography of Communism in the Czech Republic and East Central Europe, in Michal Kopeček (ed.), Past in the Making. Historical Revisionism in Central Europe after 1989, New York / Budapest 2008; Pavel Kolář and Michal Kopeček, A Difficult Quest for New Paradigms: Czech Historiography after 1989, in: Sorin Antohi / Balázs Trencsényi / Péter Apor (eds.), Narratives Unbound: Historical Studies in Post-Communist Eastern Europe, New York / Budapest 2007. []
  10. See, for example, the fashion for “global” histories of European states that tend unconsciously to reinforce national paradigms: see, for example, Pierre Boucheron et al. (eds.), Histoire mondiale de la France, Paris 2017. []
  11. James Mark et al., 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe, Cambridge 2019; Anselm Doering-Manteuffel / Lutz Raphael, Nach dem Boom: Perspektiven auf die Zeitgeschichte seit 1970, Göttingen 2008. []
  12. But on the enduring conflicts over equality and cultural as well as sexual difference see Joan Scott, Parité! Sexual Equality and the Crisis of French Universalism, Chicago 2005. []
  13. Carl Schorske, Politics in a New Key: An Austrian Triptych, in:  Journal of Modern History 39 (1967), pp. 344-86. []
  14. We would of course be pleased to hear from authors interested in contributing to this new project. []
  15. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, London 2012, p. 46. []

The Long-Lasting “Provincialization” of Europe

An Interview with Dipesh Chakrabarty

Many contributors to EuropeDebate referred to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s seminal book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000). But how has Chakrabarty’s own perspective on Europe and European history evolved? Mattia Frapporti (Bologna) and Roberto Ventresca (Padua), have conducted an interview with Chakrabarty, exploring the intellectual legacy of his book and seeking to understand how he conceptualizes the far-reaching transformations that both Europe and the entire “globe” experienced over the last twenty years in the realm of transnational social, economic, political, and cultural relations.

Interview by Mattia Frapporti (University of Bologna) and Roberto Ventresca (University of Padua)1

Frapporti – Ventresca:

We would like to conduct this conversation by building up a sort of intellectual path where many crucial topics and categories included in your pivotal work, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (2000), will be intertwined. As said, the focus of our interview is on the process of European integration as it has been evolving since the early post-WWII period. In this respect, we aim at “provincializing” our own historiographic gaze, that is to adopt —or at least to deal with— a postcolonial perspective on a process (namely, European integration) which is now celebrating its seventieth anniversary.

Thus, as far as the main topics of our discussion are concerned, we would like to start from a very basic —though central— question: What does Europe mean in your opinion now?

At the very beginning of your book (pp. 3-4) you highlight that ‘The Europe I seek to provincialize or decenter is an imaginary figure that remains deeply embedded in clichéd and shorthand forms in some everyday habits of thought’. In the following pages, you get back to this point, stressing that Europe (as well as India) is treated as a ‘hyperreal term’ inasmuch it lies on ‘certain figures of imagination whose geographical referents remain somewhat indeterminate’ (p. 27).

In light of what happened over the last twenty years in the European as well as the global political and economic arena (just to mention 9/11 and its repercussions on transatlantic relations; the defeat of the European constitutional project in 2005; the outburst of the “Great Recession” and the post-2008 crisis of the Eurozone; the issue of migrant flows), do you think that the “imagination” of (and even the geographical reference to) the European political space has been radically redefined? Putting it differently when you speak about Europe, what are you now thinking about?


When I wrote Provincializing Europe (PE), “Europe” was a term that mediated many questions of “modernity” for me. It was a shorthand for certain ideas that arose among European intellectuals and in their institutions even as European nations expanded to create empires and dominated —and in the case of indigenous societies, destroyed— the lives of other people. Empire was a creative force in India. It created new possibilities for life. Most importantly, the British created a middle class in India. This was true of all regions of India but especially of Bengal where intellectuals from this middle class in turn developed a fascination with the ideas and institutions of Europe even as they protested the injustices (including racism) of the Empire. Certain visions of emancipation —from patriarchy, caste and class-based oppression, inequalities of other kinds, and democratic political structures and so on— came out of this inter-cultural dialogue. PE in many ways was an attempt to understand the nature of this dialogue that took place across differences of history and cultural pasts. This is why questions of translation and displacement remained very important in PE. But the Europe in question was a Europe that had been formed out of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and one with universal messages (the two most important being liberalism and Marxism). People knew that alongside this Europe, there was also the Europe that produced modern forms of racism, empires, new forms of violence and oppression, but they still felt inspired by those universal ideas and tried to make them their own through processes that I treated as translational. To provincialize was to see how the dialectic of the universal and the particular related to that which I, following Paul Veyne, called the singular.

When I look at Europe today, I see groups and intellectuals fighting for some of those ideals that now also feel somewhat irretrievably lost. This, incidentally, is true not only of Europe but of India as well. The Indian intellectual struggles I highlighted in PE now seem like minority and non-dominant traditions, certainly on the defensive. There is no question that the European political space —and, of course, the space of the EU— is undergoing upheavals marked by the resurgence of populism, authoritarianism, financial crises, and xenophobia. But these are global issues. The global world is post-imperial (if one uses the word “empire” in a formal sense) and is marked today by certain crises of planetary proportions. Certainly, many of the hopes and aspirations that had to do with 1989 have been blighted. But this is the big difference with the analytical frame that I deployed in PE. The whole question of modernity that Habermas once described as an incomplete project and that was at the core of PE now lives a much more precarious life than it did in the 1990s when I was working on PE. 1989 still seemed close. But the world that was created by various democratic upsurges between the 1960s and the 1980s has slowly morphed into a world marked by unbridled expansion of what Sandro Mezzadra and his colleagues call “extractive capital”, of technology that is threatening the future of labour and replacing labour by work (on this distinction, see below), demographic changes, and environmental crises of planetary proportions. Today’s problems in Europe and elsewhere are not unrelated to these factors. In my current work, I try to develop analytical distinctions between the global and the planetary and argue that we have even moved on from the world-historical phase we used to describe by the word “globalization”; we live on the cusp of the global and the planetary. Known democratic forms of management invented over the last couple of centuries are failing to function, and authoritarian and impatient forms of struggle —social media often reflect and aid this impatient and un-nuanced nature of contemporary information flows— are capturing people’s imagination both on the right and the left, blurring the traditional left-right distinctions.

Frapporti – Ventresca:

Your reference to the planetary dimension of today’s crises (economic, financial, environmental, and so on) give us the opportunity to reflect on one of the most blatant contradictions that characterize current debates on the seemingly re-emergence of the “state” as the pivotal actor of global —or, to stick with the same theme, international—politics. As you said, the ‘democratic forms of management’ that emerged over the last two centuries fall short of dealing with the global challenges of today’s capitalism, basically because the historical conditions within which these “forms” took shape are no longer present. However, the idea that the state, often depicted as a sort of a-historical subject, might defend people from looming “external” menaces — from migrants to cosmopolitan élites of greedy bankers and technocrats — is still acquiring a mobilizing effect “both on the right and the left”, as you outlined.

In some (actually circumscribed) European leftist circles, even Karl Polanyi’s theory of ‘double movement’ (1944) is now largely seen as a theoretical justification for the need to bring back previous forms of “containment” of capitalist deregulation, such as the national welfare state or the restoration of full national sovereignty over monetary issues. However, these positions largely underplay the intrinsic transnational dimension of current capitalist flows and fail in explaining how the state could concretely bridle them. On the contrary, the focus on the global trajectories of capital flows and the role of assets such as logistics, extractions and finance (i.e. the works of Sandro Mezzadra, Brett Neilson, Anna Tsing and Deborah Cowen) is certainly much more persuasive, although a clear thematization of the current role of the state —which of course has not completely disappeared— is still somehow necessary.

In this respect, how do you conceptualize the role of the state in today’s global scenario? How can the system of national and supranational institutions — like the EU — deal with the challenges embodied by the dialectic between the “global” and “planetary” dimensions of contemporary world?


In approaching your question, I find it helpful to distinguish between “the state” and actual governments. The category of “the state” projects a normative entity, hardly what governments are, except in some very exceptional moments in their lives. In The Jewish Question (1843), Marx made a distinction, following Hegel, between “the state” and the “the actual life of people” that is never without prejudice and feelings of self/other differences. The modern state, even in some authoritarian forms, professes to stand above the actual lives of people and claims a capacity to create a “universality” of interests (in Marx’s nineteenth-century terms, man’s species-being) that hovers above the egoistic sphere of the civil society. In reality, actual governments try to perform this “universal” idea of the state but their success at this depends on the extent to which forces from “the actual life of people” — with all their armory of power and inequalities — have already invaded and occupied the sphere of the state and converted “the state” into so many specific departments of governments molded by historical particularities. Take, for instance, the Trumpian government in the US or the Modi government in India. The constitution and its various provisions, in both cases, act as scripts for the state but the state machinery has been taken over —in either case— by certain sections of the populace and certain fragments of the capitalist classes in pursuit of wars that belong to the domain of the actual lives of people. These political elements convert the machinery of the government — its various executive, judicial, and legislative organs — into instruments for conducting wars that have historically erupted in society. In India, for instance, the machinery of the government, both at the central/federal and provincial levels, is actively involved in promoting sentiments of Hindu majoritarianism directed at religious minorities and at so-called “illegal Muslim immigrants” from the neighboring country of Bangladesh. Trump, too, uses the federal government machinery to pursue his anti-immigrant policies. One could also find similar instances in Europe and other places (the other country I know reasonably well, Australia, also displays versions of this phenomenon). Here all kinds of justifications are used including those of security (hence Islamophobia), but you know what is going on in reality. Both the leaders mentioned got elected as partisan generals in racist, ethnic, or religious battles that have erupted in society for understandable historical reasons. Once they get elected, however, the state, ideally, requires them to stand above these partisan issues and to translate their electoral promises into policies compatible with the ideal practices of the state. But instead, they see the machinery of the government — its various agencies and institutions — as something to capture in order to foment and further the divisive social battles (against immigrants, against the poor, against those perceived as deviant) they see themselves as part of. Many of these battles may be understood, without defending them, as social or popular responses to certain changes in global capitalism and the planetary environment that have increasingly been with us since the 1980s and have increasingly challenged social management. I know that even some middle-of-the road economists are raising voices for social regulation of technology and of certain kinds of market institutions that are seen as threatening society (the Amazon distribution system is a good example of this, seen as convenient to the consumer but utterly destructive of the local, neighborhood shop or the Uber model for taxis). My colleague, Raghuram Rajan, a celebrated economist in our Business School, has written a book called The Third Pillar (2019) that argues for some reigning in of capitalism in order to sustain society as an institution distinct from the government and the marketplace. Yet you only have to look at the unrelenting momentum of digitalization of life and the workplace and the consequent fragmentation and redundancy of labour to know that much of this talk in its current form (I will elaborate on this in a moment) is expressive of a nostalgia for some imagined time of the past. Global capital has created a global consuming class that, in spite of all its internal unevenness and its diaspora of dependents, enjoys a life that is made possible by the combination of the digital revolution and globalization. You only have to see how embedded our own lives are in these circuits to know that there are no clear answers here, while it is also clear that the technosphere that supports our planetary existence is creating planetary problems that only involve us more, and not less, in moving towards the illusion of being able to manage the planet (I am thinking of developments in geoengineering).

If my argument that the state has been reduced to mere governments in most places and that governments so conceived have become weapons to be used by the powerful in battles in the actual life of people, then social regulation can only be advanced by movements that participate in people’s lives – in other words, by not wanting to start with normative ideas of the state. At the same time, as we have already discussed, we have to recognize that older forms of mobilization, general strikes, etc. may not be enough. And the most difficult question that I think about is the illusion of “rational” reorganization of society that the left has harbored for a long time. I cannot tell you how many times John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York’s The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2010), a Marxist-ecological analysis of the currently planetary environmental crises, reverts to this theme as integral to solving humanity’s problems: some kind of permanent and sustained rational regulation of society and economy. I fully understand where the desire for this comes from, but I do not see what historical evidence allows us to imagine a humanity capable of doing this beyond moments of universal crises and that too only in a fragmentary manner.

Frapporti – Ventresca:

Now we would like to shift our attention to the issue of (Western) European integration as a political, economic and social process. As far as we’ve noticed, you don’t mention the topic of European integration in Provincializing Europe. The process of integration — actually, first cooperation and then integration — of Western Europe is often perceived as a mere technical or even technocratic way of linking European markets within a broader context of economic, administrative and juridical rules — which is in many respects blatantly true! Actually, it is somehow relevant to recall that Western Europe (of course, on the wake of the US push!) experienced after 1945 a process of progressive integration when its old Empires (i.e. Britain, France) were definitely losing their grip on global territories. For sure, European integration has very little to do with the rhetorical claims of the so called “fathers of Europe” (Jean Monnet, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide De Gasperi, and so on), while the goals of economic, monetary, and infrastructural integration stand out as the main reasons of this historical move. Starting from these general remarks, how would you place the history of European integration within your broader narrative of “provincializing Europe”, here interpreted as both a book and a far-reaching intellectual challenge? Does European integration gain its own historiographic specificity according to your post-colonial perspectives on the history of the so called “Old continent”? Looking at some relatively recent works on the emergence of the global neoliberal turn and its relationship with the making of European integration (e.g. the studies of Garavini and Slobodian), how and to what extent do you think that the processes of post-WWII decolonization, European integration, and capitalist transformations are interrelated? Do you think that the features of European integration, as they evolved from the early post-WWII period to date, could tell us something specific on the global trends of today’s capitalism?


Let me pick up on this question of post-war Europe to which you refer by mentioning the very illuminating texts of Slobodian and Garavini. Here I speak as someone who is an outsider to the post-war project of reconstruction of Europe and yet dwells within a long history of Europeanization of the world. Remember I began my book Provincializing Europe by saying that the geopolitical space that refers to itself as Europe was provincialized by history itself, that the Europe I was seeking to provincialize was a hyper-real Europe conjointly produced by European ideas about Europe in the hay days of European empires and anti-colonial visions of modernization and nationalism often working together. So when I look at the world as it was in the decades between c.1950-1980, I see processes, an emerging structure and a set of institutions that fundamentally owed themselves to and were shaped by the expansion of Europe and the subsequent decline of European empires: all the settler-colonial nations of the world including the US, the two great wars of the twentieth century, and as well as nineteenth and twentieth-century circuits of migration; but these also at the same time included the processes of decolonization, the Cold War, and eventually the rise of the Asian economies, mainly of China and India, and the decline and ruin of the Soviet bloc. It is an open question as to when the process of Europeanization of the world ended. Carl Schmitt dated it from the beginning of the Monroe doctrine of 1823, i.e. the rise of a separate sphere of influence for the US. But I think the process continued for well over another hundred years until the end of the process of decolonization, that is to say, into the 1960s. You only have to look at the early years of decolonization or even indigenous peoples’ movements in the 1960s to see how much European ideas about freedom and emancipation influenced these movements via the writings of thinkers such as Frantz Fanon. So, basically, you get a multi-themed second half of the twentieth century, and some of the themes don’t even necessarily intersect in observers’ minds. Firstly, there is the Cold War – much of the science of climate change that we talk about today comes out of Cold-War related interests and competition in the atmosphere and space; there is decolonization and an upswell of democratic urges reflected in struggles for civil liberties and indigenous peoples’ rights; then there is the Sino-Soviet split and the rise of Maoism, the Chinese cultural revolution without which student radicalism in India, or even the rise of Subaltern Studies cannot be understood; the enormous and global significance of the Vietnam War and the Israel-Palestine conflict; the third-world-ism around oil and the rise of resurgent and extreme Islam. True, there is American technology and Hollywood mesmerizing the world in this period but there are also currents of anti-colonial and anti-imperial thinking that are legatees of Enlightenment and nineteenth-century Europe (Marxism and liberalism of various hues being prominent examples here). We are on the verge of globalization by the end of the 1980s. The Chinese have begun their “four modernization” programs, while India would begin to liberalize her economy from the early 1990s.

I said these themes did not always present themselves simultaneously to observers and actors in the second half of the twentieth century. My biggest examples are global warming and global/postcolonial thinking. It was in 1988 when the NASA scientist James Hansen spoke to the US government about the dangers of global warming. In the same year or next, Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall, and Isaac Julien came together to curate the first important global and postcolonial conference on Fanon. But the two strands of thinking were unaware of each other. Those celebrating or criticizing globalization did not even know that it was connected to the parallel story of global warming. The connection was not made until the next century.

Where is post-war Europe in all this? Europe looks like an entity struggling to find its place in a post-imperial world. It could not deny its connection to the peoples it had colonized – and this touches on issues of immigration, claims of special economic ties (that are not quite realized except in the field of education), development of forms of racism in the European mainland that can be recognized as post-imperial (Le Pen, for instance), all this made complicated by the rise of the US and the presence of a large part of Eastern Europe in the Soviet bloc. Garavini shows how the rise of the welfare state and post-war prosperity in Europe made even the European working classes or their leaders somewhat inward directed in their focus. Slobodian documents the persistence of racism among many Vienna liberals of the mid-20th century. At the same time, Europe is at the forefront of the radical student movements of the 1960s and it was a certain European uptake of both Latin American and Chinese radical ideas of the 1960s and 1970s that greatly influenced us in India in that period.

I could perhaps use the Robert Redfield’s ideas of “great” and “little” traditions to express my thoughts here. There are the great traditions of European thought of which all modern humans are inheritors, and there are the little traditions of European thought that delineate concerns that are specifically European. Sometimes, within Europe, you find people using elements of the Great Tradition to contest and fight the “little” imaginations of Europe especially when it comes to issues of race and immigration. But, clearly, once the empires go, European intellectuals are no longer in a position to speak in the name of all humans while the lives and histories of all humans have been inevitably touched by the way European powers shaped and brought into being “the globe” that connects us all. This is why the conversation with the Great Traditions of Europe never ends.

Frapporti – Ventresca:

Our last question deals with the issues of labour, subalternity, and subjectivity in today’s Europe. As you aptly noticed in Provincializing Europe —and as the history of the past three or four decades have largely demonstrated—, the modern relationship between (waged) labour and citizenship as one of the main pivots of ‘modern’ subjectivity (at least in Western capitalist countries, and namely in Western Europe) has faded away. The transformations occurred in the material shape of both labour andcitizenship which led to the displacement of these categories as the modern pillars through which people could conceive themselves as ‘subjects’ endowed with rights —bourgeois rights, at least. If this is not something new, nevertheless a question arises: according to a post-colonial perspective on today’s Europe and the broader transformations of global capitalism, which are the new sources of political and social subjectivity? Which are the engines of the present-day construction of political subjectivity within our current capitalist system? And, if we take into account the category of “subaltern”, what still makes subaltern today’s subalterns? Could you spell out which are, in your opinion, the main sources of both “subjectivity” and “subordination” that characterize our lives as Europeans (no matter how large Europe can be considered) within global capitalism?


I make a distinction, conceptually, between the categories labour and work. Let me explain the difference with a quick and superficial gesture at philology. The word “labour,” in most European languages that I know anything about, references toil, actual physical, unpleasant toil by humans or animals (and exclusively to human toil when humans replace animals). The word “work,” on the other hand, refers to the Greek word for energy (if I am not mistaken) and is thus quite compatible with seventeenth century physics’s definition of work as “expenditure of energy.” The source of energy does not have to be human or animal. Work can be done by anything —a waterfall can perform work, a river can do work, a machine can work, artificial intelligence can do work for us, and so on. At the beginning of the history of capitalism —or what we loosely call capitalism, it is always a loose word, not tightly defined— human labour or toil was critical to its organization and success. Marx’s theories of surplus value could not be thought without positing the category of “living labour.” But it seems to me that in the late twentieth century, capitalists discovered labour in the sense of direct human toil to be a constraint on the expansion of capital. Labour is increasingly less critical to the production process than ensuring that the necessary work gets done, irrespective of whose energy is being spent and in what form. Another way to say this would be to say that the domain of nonhuman (AI, machines) work has vastly expanded while that of labour —in the production of profits— has shrunk. Thus, you have this paradox of what Indian economists often call “jobless growth,” – an overall increase in GDP and “wealth” but not of employment. This is the kind of capitalism that the Pope denounced as un-Christian in his 2015 encyclical on climate change (but who listens?). Think of the history of coal mining. Once, miners were critical to the industry. Today, a lot of the extracting work is done by computerized machinery while prospecting itself would involve work by satellites and other high-tech instruments.

These developments have fundamentally changed the nature and significance of “work” for humans and have created the category of the precariat, underlining the insecure and fragmented place of human-labour in capitalism today. If this is right, then we are way beyond the days of old, labour-centered subjectivity. Many economists talk these days of “guaranteed universal basic income” for everybody to ensure a living for humans in an age when “work” comes to dominate and supplant “labour” in very large measures. But, surely, a society where a majority of human beings do not “labour” in the traditional, industrial or bureaucratic sense will call for a reordering of subjectivity. More on that in a minute.

In my thinking, the labour/work distinction is related to another distinction I have been engaged in developing: that between the globe and the planet. The globe is what human labour, capital, and the work of technology created over a few hundred years. But as the domain of “work” expands and supplants labour, that is to say, as we work the earth harder in all our endeavor to extract more and more from the biosphere — requiring all natural processes to seed up: fish to reproduce faster, land to grow more food — we encounter the “planet,” a geobiological entity whose processes often take place on scales of time that are simply humongous in human terms. Climate Change, the Anthropocene, the rising seas, the increased frequency of cyclones and wildfires —these are the results of that encounter between the globe and the planet. An intensification of the global reveals the planetary to us. And frankly, whatever the champions of geoengineering might say and actually do, the planet is not engineerable, it seems to me. There is a real and planet-wide environmental crisis unfolding before our very eyes. What it will do for our economic, political, and social institutions is still too early to tell, but there is no doubt that global capitalism, its extractive relations to the biosphere, and the nation-state based global governance that the UN represents, are all faced with unprecedented challenges. I also feel that it is highly likely that humans, going forward, will not be able to avoid what scientists call “dangerous” climate change. We are thus looking at an earth many parts of which may become increasingly inhospitable for both human and many nonhuman forms of life. Humans, animals, plants will therefore want to move, both within and across nations. The official number of refugees in the world today is somewhere around 65 million. Sea level rise could make that figure soar to a few hundred million. Which means that problems of so-called illegal immigration will only increase and become acute. The ideas of national citizenship and inviolable national borders will not serve us very well, unless we want to see the world slide into some kind of barbarism, with the privileged exercising extreme selfishness in fighting to defend their narrow interests (they possibly can, to a certain extent, against other humans —but against fires, sea-levels, bacteria and viruses? What will they do?). The alternative is to think of humans differently. I think we have to rethink citizenship and sovereignty as Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson once suggested and develop what may be called a planetary consciousness that actually involves learning to think from the position of being a migrant or a minority (this is a variation on Mezzadra and Neilson’s “border-as-method”). We have to think of humans as constituting a diaspora of a biological species, the Homo sapiens. And we also have to remember our place in biodiversity, that while we may be the most dominant species, we are a minority form of life. The coming politics of subjectivity will entail these tasks of learning to think from diasporic and minority positions (though without — as in the Jewish conceptions of the diaspora — having a particular place to which to return).

  1. This interview was first published as Mattia Frapporti / Roberto Ventresca, The long-lasting “provincialization” of Europe, in: Soft Power. Revista euro-americana de teoría e historia de la política y del derecho 7.2 (2020), pp. 47-66 (interview on pp. 47-59, followed by reflections from the interviewers). We thank the interviewers, Dipesh Chakrabarty and the editorial board of Soft Power for the permission to publish the interview. []
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search