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…

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