How Global Can One Get?

It can seem that the word “global”, as much as the word “digital”, is an omnipresent buzzword in the worlds of advertising, business and politics, so much so that it is impossible not to feel indifferent to its usage. However, if there is anything that may incline one to stop and ask: “what exactly is going on here?” it is surely the development of “crypto currencies”: the “bit-coins” of this world that seem to get heavy advertising on my favourite TV channel that is called You Tube.

If you are looking for an answer to the question of what is a “crypto currency” then you are definitely reading the wrong author, for I have not a clue. When I see one of those advertisements, they seem as incredible to me to the “get rich quick and join the golden circle” junk mails that used to come through people’s letterboxes in the past. And what does it all “mean”?

These “crypto currencies” do not seem to have anything to do with the standard currency units, national or otherwise, we are all familiar with. Is there to be one global currency in the future that will have an exchange rate value that is not affected by any individual country’s economic performance or the perform of stock exchanges? Again, I have not a clue. But I am mystified.

Rather, I am a little curious. This is not because I have a talent or ambition for making money: experience seems to have taught me that quite the reverse is true. Rather, it is “the historian in me” talking, for I have increasingly been led to ask the question: how many national developments in countries have been affected primarily by the means in which the usages of currency are regulated legally? Where exactly did legality end and illegality begin? This seems an obvious question that might immediately suggest as an equally obvious answer the image of counterfeiters, bootleggers, smugglers and other misadventures worthy of some good and some not-so-good gangster or pirate movies. Some others may think of recent cases of “white collar crime”. But what exactly are “unregulated” foreign investments? The thing is: I’m not 100% sure. This perhaps points to the necessity of my educating myself further in the ways of economic history or perhaps indicates that there are areas of legal history that have never really been written to everyone’s satisfaction.

Here is a historical curiosity of an Irish case study. From the mid-to-late Victorian days of the Land League onwards through to the days of Michael Collins, perhaps the greatest sin of Irish nationalist politicians in the British government’s eyes was that they collected money abroad, but were evidently attempting to use that money for political purposes within Ireland itself. The British government frankly declared this to be a crime. It was precisely upon that charge that everyone from Parnell to the publican to the peasant got painted with a sedition brush during the 1880s, just as the British government had “zero tolerance” for attempts to collect funds internationally by the provisional revolutionary government set up in Ireland in 1919. What was typified as “fighting words”, or actions, in Ireland during those two or three “post-famine” Irish generations was as much as anything to do with this attempt to regulate the use of money, by force if necessary, and reputed efforts by at least “some” Irish nationalists (generally the underground revolutionary types) to wrestle free from this particular exercise of the golden rule.

I think half the reason why the British government of those days could sometimes evidently be “driven around the twist” by witnessing in Ireland what they typified, not at all with the slightest sense of humour or irony, as some kind of “leprechaun economics” was that this seemingly suspect use of money went on simultaneously with the operations of charities, or relief funds, that were evidently genuine (in the sense that some bankers and other venerable institutions, like churches, were involved in its management) but these also collected funds internationally: potentially, American, Canadian and Australian dollars, Argentinean pesos as well as other currencies could end up pouring into this particular pot sitting at the end of a rainbow. However, the British imperial treasury would have gladly seen this tin pot kicked over and sink to the bottom of the Irish Sea if it would serve to guarantee that no outside interference could possibly take place ever again in what it considered to be its own internal affairs. It feared, even when it did not categorically state, that this was “what was going on”.

It would be no exaggeration to say that many Irish politicians and newspaper editors ended up in jail during the 1880s and, again, in the post-1916 era simply by virtue of a perceived “guilt by association” with the collection of funds with which the British government did not approve. These same men, having not a fig leaf of protection, often protested that they had been found guilty until proved innocent rather than the other way around. There may be ten thousand Irish history books that have written about these periods but hardly a couple that have made the pounds, shillings and pence (to say nothing of the dollars, dimes or nickels) of the situation their rationale. Instead, the Anglo-Irish quarrel is written about in moralistic terms (and there always seems to be a moral in how Irish history is written, in Britain and elsewhere). It seems clear that, in Ireland itself, the exact judgement of the law upon just “whose pockets were being robbed on a daily basis” was far from defined satisfactorily to everyone’s satisfaction during this period and that that was “half-the-reason” why Irish nationalists even existed in the first place. But, to this day, many British and Irish historians tend to view this situation rather differently. The relative economic clouts of these closely linked economies may have determined and still do determine in which particular direction the axe of historians’ legal judgment have fallen, particularly within the academies, but upon what precise legal or economic basis these judgments are based are often far from clear. Historians in Britain have, of late, evidently begun re-examining and re-interpreting these questions to their own satisfaction. Historians in Ireland probably do not even know where to begin, if they were to write a legal history treatise on the matter, but perhaps it is about time that someone did.

I am sadly unprepared, at this particular moment in time, to address this question myself, but I am inclined, in a blogger’s fashion, to ponder for the moment the question in the most general terms. Since that day when Thomas D’Arcy McGee (1823-1868) made the sad mistake of thinking he could write poetry, many Irish writers have eulogised about “the Irish beyond the seas” in a little more than romantic terms, which pointed to contemporary Irishmen thinking “globally” in a rather different fashion to the classic British imperial administrator of the day. Just how “global”, however, could the Irish of those days or, indeed, the people of any days, including the grinning bit-coin salesmen whose unsolicited advertisements pop up on You Tube videos, truly be? Is “the global” all in the mind, in the currency or in the law?

I am one of those individuals who identify with the old saying that “music is the only universal language” and if language is itself a type of music then wordless music is only universal expression of people’s humanity. I say a global Amen to that. I don’t expect many people to begin identifying “the global” in this fashion, nor is there any reason why they “should”. In general, in “Irish studies”, the notion of the global is often associated with a question of culture; that is, a mental association. In British history, the notion of the global has traditionally been shaped by imperial questions of currencies, associated laws and balances of power. Somewhere in between may be the question of the moral; the type of perspective that some might associate in recent times with amnesty movements, eulogising about basic human rights, or in far-gone-times with theologians pondering, for much the same reason, about whether or not a war can ever be just, in the “god-help-us-all” hope of somehow guaranteeing the once-and-for-all existence of some place of sanctuary in society through defining some notion of a moral law.

It seems that in today’s discourse the “global” is most often associated primarily with an idea of political liberalism that appeals to people only because it is completely undefined. Those who speak disparagingly of “globalisation” may also not know exactly what they mean. The Internet’s use of satellite technology has become an origin of a discourse that was originally rooted in economics. But, somewhere “along the way”, I think it is reasonable to expect that the question of currencies and associated laws is going to become a far more vital or divisive issue that the present moment seems to admit. Or maybe that thought is only a reflection of a perhaps typical historian’s cautious mentality, as if to ask the question “just how global can one get?” is to invite the thought (in the light of what has gone before) “be careful what you ask for!”

At the same time, there is ample reason to judge that the writing of history in itself may benefit if historians start to conceive of “the global” in new ways. For instance, there are an increasing number of environmental historians and other such endeavours that point to the existence of a healthy-minded, totally open-ended approach to historical studies. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not the legal and economic historians of the future are going to start thinking afresh and, in turn, start to affect how political history is written, not necessarily through the production of any over-reaching (or over-ambitious) theses (there have been plenty of those in the past) but through some more fundamental conceptual rethink. Within the would-be new discipline of “digital history” people have speculated that the usage of digital technology as a basis for scholarship may lead to a “sunset for ideology” and, in turn, a “sunrise for new methodologies”. That is certainly a “sunny” idea. However, if it reflects any broader trend, with potentially “global” connotations in terms of its ramifications, it may simply be a reflection of a commonly held belief that “the world” is well and truly sick of ideology. Maybe in the event that such an intellectual rejection of ideology eventually occurs “worldwide” it will be discovered that the very notion of the global was, in itself, an illusion beyond the sphere that is the environment. Or else, is it a case that “if” or “when” the future of business is carried out largely through satellite technology, the past may become an even greater enigma to people than ever before? Perhaps it is so…

Who Rules The Waves?

There is an awesome power to the sea. To the senses, hearing its music in the dark or else simply watching its vast and seemingly uncontrollable energy can leave a lasting, or humbling, impression: as one old song lyric goes, “nobody rules the waves”. This was a common theme to medieval Celtic or Norse-Gaelic legends (including a tale of King Canute). It was perhaps a predominant mentality among the Irish who, despite being islanders, were not a great seafaring people. I recall an English historian telling me that the only time the Irish ever appeared in Anglo-Saxon literature was in Asser’s story of how some Irish monks ended up in the court of King Alfred by accident, having (as a sort of religious exercise of ‘trusting in God’) deliberately set sail in a boat with no oars. This was, perhaps, taking the mentality of “nobody rules the waves” a little too far.

Anyone who has heard the popular Last Night of the Proms music festival in England will know that there is a song that claims there is someone, other than God, who can rule the waves. Yes, you’ve guessed: it is “Britannia”. But who is she? That thought often brings to mind an early childhood experience of discovering a coin buried in tarmac in an Irish public square: it was an old English penny, dated 1899. The juxtaposition of seeing that date and the mysterious figure on the front of the coin seemed to my childish mind as equally as supernatural as having made contact with the year Minus One. Seeing one of these coins again recently, however, I was struck by the fact that the figure of “Britannia”, with her trident, shield, bearing and head-dress, was evidently very deliberately and directly modelled upon the statue of “Athena” that is supposed to have stood in the Parthenon in Ancient Greece. Therefore, to pose the question of: who is this mysterious figure that can miraculously ‘rule the waves’ would also seem to point to the necessity of asking the additional question of: who is “Athena”?

Many children today might soon be led to ask this same question due to the omnipresence of cartoon owls in kid’s entertainments (particularly for girls) and, famously for owls, one of the claims to fame of Athena (later reinvented by the Romans as Minerva) is that she had an owl mascot, reputedly to denote wisdom. More significantly, however, Athena was a multifaceted goddess who was equally a goddess of war. In the light of the fact that she was invented as a protector of Athens once it became an imperial centre, I think it is fair to say that her war-like traits may be considered the most significant.

I am certainly no classical scholar – in fact, I know relatively little of classical civilisation at all – but whenever people speak of the modern world’s debt to classical civilisation, two contrasting perspectives immediately spring to my mind: the artistic (as represented by the amazing achievement of creating life-like human sculptures) and, perhaps most significantly, the political. Here, I cannot help but thinking that an irony to classical civilisation is that it seemingly gave birth in quick succession to two loaded political concepts that have remained with us: republics and empires. What began as a republic, as in Athenian democracy, very quickly turned into a militaristic empire and, with that, not only a glorification of power but also a self-centred conception of ‘civilisation’ (as a supposed bulwark against barbarism). If one doubts how strong an influence these ideas, even subconsciously, can exercise on the popular imagination to this day one need only reflect on the great popularity of Star Wars entertainments of the eternal conflict between the Jedi (republicans) and Sith (imperialists) being played out simultaneously in ‘a galaxy, far, far away’ and in your very own living room. The ‘gods’, it would seem, are still very much with us today in playing out tales, if not deeds, of heroism. Outside the pages of science fiction, however, throughout history these conflicts have not generally been ones of ‘star (or sky) wars’ but rather of ‘sea wars’. And here, perhaps, we might come to the central significance of the invention of Athena: classical Greece turned from a republic to an empire (that, in turn, considered itself as “the” centre of civilisation) as soon as it became a maritime power, both military and commercial. Pondering the sea no longer invited the creation of mere adventure stories of fantasy voyages, be it tales of a golden fleece or the later voyages of Sinbad and Celtic (including Irish) seafarers who discovered fantastic islands. Instead, the sea had become the key to imperial power.

Returning to the figure on the English penny coin, it is not too difficult to see the root of the deliberate parallels between the figures of Athena and Britannia. As soon as England became a republic, under Oliver Cromwell, very quickly thereafter it became embroiled in naval and commercial battles with the Dutch (amongst others) so that, not long after the restoration of the monarchy and the settlement of questions of succession by the time of Queen Anne (1714), the idea was born: England was now an empire and, with the Act of Union with Scotland (1707), it could very well be described as a British empire to boot. The song “Rule Britannia!” was created in 1740 by authors that looked both to classical civilisation and to tales of King Alfred’s defeat of sea-invading Vikings in inventing a British patriotic mythology. This is how the figure of Britannia was born. Not only due she ‘rule the waves’ but she was also a protecting goddess of war to ensure that ‘Britons shall never be slaves’ (thereby drawing directly upon classical civilisation’s dichotomy of citizens and slaves). In other words, London was the new Athens, or even Rome. Military or naval power meant being master of the seas and, thereby, master of one’s own destiny with unique gods (of war) of one’s own to symbolise this power. In turn, this led to an impulse to not only come up with a fresh definition of civilisation but also to attempt to apply that definition of civilisation to the rest of the world as well. Can such trends be equated with a Greco-Roman impulse acquiring seniority over Judean-Christian impulses in a society or are these impulses more closely associated than many might assume? To those sensitive to the use of language, it might appear that this particular question laid at the heart of many a historical thesis written prior to the twentieth century; that is, before someone, somewhere, decided that the Alpha and Omega of history was Karl Marx (1818-1883).

It is an easy impulse today, as it no doubt was in any age, to dismiss patriotic mythologies of this kind as essentially ridiculous and meaningless fantasies, designed to turn schoolboys into soldiers (or sailors). To do so, however, may be quite naïve in underestimating just how strongly ideas of civilisation and mastery of the seas go hand-in-hand, well into the modern age and, perhaps, to this very day. Adam Zamoyski’s Holy Madness treated the personification of national valour through either the creation of mythological personages to symbolise a nation, or cults of actual rulers, as a phenomenon that dated primarily from 1770-1870 and as something quite laughable to modern eyes. But how then does one explain the growing popularity thereafter of figures like Marianne, to symbolise the French Republic, or Columbia (who, in the wake of the French gift to the USA of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, came to bear a torch, still to be seen in the movie logo of Columbia Pictures), to symbolise the American Republic? Are not these figures variations on Britannia and Athena; imperial figures in a republican guise?

During the First World War, the vague and utopian idea was born that ‘the freedom of the seas’, as opposed to unilateral mastery of the seas, could be a key to universal peace. America, as a supposed unspoiled beacon of the ‘new world’, presented itself (mostly in the idealistic personality of Woodrow Wilson) as carrying a torch for this idea. However, the American entry into the war during 1917 coincided with the republication of a text that, in its first edition (in 1897), coincided with what many American historians have described as the birth of American imperialism. And what was the title of this text? Yes, you’ve guessed it: it was The Interest of America In Sea Power: Present and Future. It seems yet another republic was turning into a mercantile empire and the same old dynamic of worldly power was coming into play, with eternal regularity: mastery of the seas.

And so, the question of ‘who rules the waves’ would seem not to be a simplistic, childish fantasy or a funny idea for a song. Today there may be hundreds of people lying on a beach somewhere, listening to or watching in awe the majestic power of the sea as a reassuring sign of a natural order that is greater and more powerful than any personal concerns of individuals. However, as soon as the idea of ‘mastery of the sea’ is born, it would seem that alternative instincts are very quickly born: ‘mastery of the sea’ raises the prospect of invading ships and, in turn, nations being locked into a repeating cycle of mercantile wars, be it offensive or (as soon as an empire is born) defensive, and the citizens, or subjects, of such imperial powers are quite likely to be swept up in the resulting enthusiasms. They may also become blind to any alternative viewpoints, for empires frequently lead to an attempt to achieve a monopoly in attempts to define knowledge of the world at large. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768) coincided with emergence of the British Empire and during the last century, reflecting Anglo-American economic ties, each issue has been dedicated not only to the reigning British monarch (as they have always been) but also to the concurrent American president in office. To some, the chief attraction of Wikipedia lies its role in rescuing encyclopaedia creation from this tradition of imperial mastery: this may mean that the sum of knowledge and, in particular, the history of the world will no longer be written according to the old imperial dynamic of “writing others’ history for them” or else “conquering a people through first conquering their children’s hearts and minds”. Instead, people can write their own history. No matter what one may think of this debate about Wikipedia, however, soldiers of the pen and soldiers of the sword march side by side more often than one might think.

Can a civil servant perform his or her duties well without truly believing that it is for the greater good? And, then, what of imperial civil servants: are they not most likely to become prisoners of a tunnel vision that can no more be abandoned, or denied, than their very existence? These are, perhaps, impossible or comparatively useless questions to ask beyond the somewhat nebulous history of mentalities. A fascinating example that comes to mind in this regard, however, was a British liberal peer’s reaction to the publication of a book by an Irish author entitled Modern Ireland (1868) that not only challenged the right of British authors to “write Irish history for us” but also claimed virtues for Irishmen that were supposedly alien to the British. One such virtue claimed was that of republican virtue. It was this very claim, however, that evoked the most intense reaction from the British peer, who wrote that “Irishmen talk about republicanism but they have not the slightest fitness for a republic nor any true republican feeling”. In making this claim, this member of the British House of Lords was evidently claiming for Englishmen those very same republican virtues that were supposedly beyond the reach of the fickle or feckless Irish, as if at the very heart of the British Empire itself were indisputably those same republican virtues that constituted the history of civil society, past, present and future. What, if anything, does this perspective indicate? Well, at the time, some Irish members of parliament at Westminster pondered privately whether or not the construction of an Oliver Cromwell monument near the Royal Arch within the grounds of the British imperial parliament was a testament to the existence of ghosts of the English civil war in the British political psyche or, indeed, Anglo-Irish tensions. However, if the British liberal peer’s reaction to the publication of Modern Ireland (1868) can be cited as a more representative illustration of mentalities, there was probably a very different underlying mentality at work. Republics may become empires but at the heart of these empires may still exist a republican core, like a partly forgotten original impulse that nevertheless still resides in the mind.

The American republican preoccupation with their state’s founding fathers may reflect a legacy of the original American debate on republican virtue which, remarkably, not only pondered on the significance of the divide between urban and rural society but also instinctively identified virtue as something that was most likely to thrive naturally within a rural, as well as relatively static, society. This was an alternative take on republican virtue to both the classical and early modern concepts, the latter essentially beginning with the Italian city-states (commercial and maritime powers). At various times, some Americans have retrospectively associated various historic figures like Abraham Lincoln with a lost ‘rustic’ innocence of the American republic that could never perhaps truly re-emerge. If so, however, how did this ‘lost innocence’ occur? Perhaps the answer is not “blowing in the wind” but rather “skimming the surface of the seas”. As soon as nations resolve that it is possible to ‘rule the waves’ (and not just the land), humans’ territorial impulses can become as boundless as the ocean. In turn, the question of “natural” virtue recedes and the question of civic virtue becomes internationalised with an externalised focus that becomes its own raison d’etre. In turn, history becomes a tale not of peoples but of concepts of civilisation. How far the liberal arts can serve to either reinforce or challenge this dynamic is a question that cannot really be answered. The impulse to ask this question, however, would seem to define the historian’s craft; a perhaps obvious point that can easily be forgotten. This may indicate that any instinctive repulsion to the idea of ‘ruling the waves’ could well be combined with a focused historical enquiry: how, or why, did so many “in history” believe that they could? This idea may not make for a good song. However, it could be said to be at the heart of many a good historical thesis.