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Collective Action and the Poverty of History

History may testify for the possibility of a kinder, more humane and fairer world; but it is always people who will have to materialise it.

By Wajid Abbas

History may not repeat itself; but it is possible that more often, it can repeat the objective conditions appropriate for collective action. There are no iron laws of history; however, the way a society responds to a given condition can shape the architecture of the social formation. What complicates the sensible landscape of history is the multiple stories that it reflects to create opportunities for what Nietzsche calls ‘uses and abuses of history.’ Collective action for change, for its seriousness, must be historically informed to not only understand the past but also to assume the responsibility for creating tomorrow’s history. In the thesis VI of On the Concept of History, Walter Benjamin writes:

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognise ‘how it really was.’ It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.

The ‘iron cage’ (increasing rationalisation in social life) of society as Max Weber thought modernity has brought about, can come under a severe threat during or after a pandemic outbreak like COVID-19, if the response to it is well thought and historically informed. It can endanger the imposed fate while transcending all our concepts of space, time and social differentiation. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken the lid off of unpleasant and harsh realities of our everyday life from global to the local level. We live in an unequal world where according to Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2019, the richest 1% owns almost half of the world’s wealth.

Will inequalities reduce by the call for collective action? Or will they increase as job loss and economic recession can be a reality at a significant scale? There are a lot of social scientists turning the pages of history books to find a strong possibility; however, history has often contented itself with inadequate causal factors for a fairer world. Therefore, it necessitates an outward push for an Aristotelian notion of Dynảmea on (what can become possible). 

People in an uncertain condition are willing to sacrifice even dearest possessions, so sometimes the uncertainty and mass anxiety can take a wrong turn. They can fall prey to the charisma of some ideal oratory which in the pretext of promises like utopia or unprecedented riches and a glorious past, can subjugate them to the harshest conditions possible. For instance, Adolf Hitler came to power in the midst of deep economic crises. Nevertheless, a joint commitment is likely when the effects of the pandemic outbreak are shared beyond borders.

Geoffrey Parker is a renowned British historian who in the book Global Crisis published in 2013, addresses the question of why long-oppressed people during the 17th century almost all across the world caused a socio-economic change. It was the time when subversion became widespread because of the impact of extreme weather on people, right across Europe and Asia. Thirty years war along with plague and famine resulted in devastation and population loss. However, it brought decline to feudalism in continental Europe. Likewise, in the series of civil wars and revolutions in Britain and France, we can find a common underpinning, i.e. the significant role played by severe climatic conditions. His extended observation concluded that the natural catastrophes and political crises came together in “fatal synergy” despite geographical and cultural distances and provided a threshold for the change. 

The Miseries and Misfortunes of War, 1633, from thirty-years war.
Plate 17: La revanche des paysans (The peasants fight back)
The Miseries and Misfortunes of War, 1633, from thirty-years war.
Plate 17: La revanche des paysans (The peasants fight back)

In the present century, the dissatisfaction with capitalism is growing as can be seen by the extreme wealth and social inequalities, unemployment and ecological crisis. Capitalism’s expansion of consumption and production is rooted in a path of destructive development. The profit-maximising capitalism has more negative externalities from an ecological and social point of views. Its exploitation ranges from appropriating labour to expropriating nature as a free gift.  It has been undermining public welfare from its inception and added significantly to the vulnerabilities of people all over the world.

The ‘globalisation project’ ensured the rapid diffusion of capitalism around the world, and the governments institutionalised it. Nevertheless, the spread of COVID-19 can also be attributed to capitalism as Mike Davis, an American Historian, shows in a recent article published in Jacobin Magazine, how global capitalism facilitates the spread of Coronavirus. He lays stress on people’s movement to break the power of Big Pharma and for-profit healthcare, considering capitalist globalisation biologically unsustainable. Such a condition of the world, and possibly more intense to come, necessitates the social ownership and the democratisation of economic power from global to the local level. Those who still think in terms of domestic affairs of a country may be stuck in categories that no longer reflect present reality.

History may testify for the possibility of a kinder, more humane and fairer world; but it is always people who will have to materialise it. 

About the Author

Wajid Abbas is a poet and writer from Kashmir. He is currently pursuing M.A Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

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