February 17, 2010

What if...?

We are too impressed with the pattern revealed to us...
to remember that for the participants history is a
haphazard affair, apparently aimless, produced by
human beings whose concern is essentially with the
trivial and irrelevant. The historian is always conscious
of destiny. The participants rarely–or mistakenly.

–Ward Moore, Bring the Jubilee

There was a time, not too long ago, when historians became interested in what was known as “alternative history.” The idea was to pose a speculative, counterfactual scenario and ask, “What if...?” What if John Kennedy had not gone to Dallas in November of 1963, or had survived the attack? What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War, or Germany had been the victor in World War II? What if the USSR had emerged reenergized from the period of “Perestroika,” in a new and partially capitalist form? And so on.

Alternative history had a rather short life span within the history profession (to my knowledge), but it has always been a staple of science fiction. The British novelist Kingsley Amis tried his hand at it in The Alteration (1976), in which he conceived of a world where the Protestant Reformation failed to catch on, and Europe remained Catholic. In this world, as one might imagine, there were severe limits placed on freedom of expression, as well as on scientific research; but the up side was a society not beset by endless technological innovation, an ever-expanding economy, and a hectic pace of life. It was a civilization that moved at a human pace, one that did not confuse “progress” with a fourteen-hour work day and a surfeit of ultimately pointless electronic toys. Such a window onto the past enables us to view the present–the culture that did come to pass–with a much more objective eye. For it may be the case that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, and that the “parallel universe” that got discarded (or rather, that never came to pass) would have been a much better option for those involved, or for their descendants.

One of my favorites in the “alt. history” genre is Bring the Jubilee, by Ward Moore, written in 1955 and by now an underground cult classic. The action takes place in a United States–a northern United States–that lost the Civil War. Instead of being an industrial powerhouse, it became a kind of backwater, drab and impoverished, while it is the South that is vibrant and culturally alive. This is reality in a mirror, as it were; and it reminds me of the comment made to me some years ago by a German friend. “Many Europeans,” he told me, “don’t regard the Northern victory as necessarily a good thing. The preservation of the Union led to a dramatic economic expansion and eventually, to the American Empire, with its destructive ambition of dominating the world. A Southern victory would probably have prevented that.” Of course, the Fascist attempt to dominate the world was much more pernicious, but my friend’s point is nevertheless a valid one, as a host of nations, from Guatemala to Vietnam, can attest to. American history may, in other words, be a positive thing only from an American viewpoint. And in any case, what would have been the ambition of a victorious Confederacy? Probably not imperial, although in Bring the Jubilee the author has it invading Mexico and renaming Mexico City “Leesburg,” after Robert E. Lee(!).

The point is that we tend to take reality as a given. True, there is a certain historical momentum to events that cannot be overlooked. I don’t believe, for example, that the United States would have ultimately been deterred from its imperial trajectory had John Kennedy lived or the Supreme Court not stolen the election for George W. Bush in 2000. In both cases, things were too far gone for any serious changes to have occurred, it seems to me (though granted, Vietnam and Iraq may conceivably been spared the horror we put them through, which would have been no small thing). In a similar vein, the hopes many people (both within and outside of the United States) once placed in Barack Obama have proven to be illusory, as he reveals himself to be little more than Bush with a human face. But continuity is not always the rule; and in his essay “History and Imagination,” the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper makes a good case for alternative history, history “on the cusp”:

At any given moment in history there are real alternatives....
How can we “explain what happened and why” if we only
look at what happened and never consider the alternatives....
It is only if we place ourselves before the alternatives of the
past...only if we live for a moment, as the men of the time
lived, in its still fluid context and among its still unresolved
problems...that we can draw useful lessons from history.

It is not that we can arbitrarily choose a different future; history doesn’t work that way (and who would the “we” be, in any case?). But what alternative history can do is dispel the notion that there is only one right way to live, namely the way we are living now. Not that, for example, a Confederate victory in what some Southerners call “The War for Southern Independence” (or even, “The War of Northern Aggression”) would have necessarily given us a better world–slavery having been the obvious dark aspect of the Southern way of life–but that the destruction of a gracious, slow-moving, community-oriented society in favor of a frantic, commercial one is nothing to crow about. Awareness of this (i.e., beyond the geographical boundaries of the South) could be a departure point for political organizing; and at the very least, it opens the door to a different set of behaviors on the individual level, for what that might be worth.

I trust the reader understands that I am not making some declaration here of “The South Will Rise Again!” I’m just selecting one possible example among many, and one could just as easily discuss the Amish of Pennsylvania as a kind of living alternative history in this vein, or perhaps the Shakers, had they survived. As I said in previous essays, I suspect “choice” will be forced upon us, rather than be something we voluntarily undertake. But the value of alternative history is not merely, as Trevor-Roper says, to explain what happened, but more important, to explain what could have happened. For we are not living in the best of all possible worlds; this much is obvious. But how much more impoverished would our existence be, if we had no concrete images of worlds that might be significantly better?

©Morris Berman, 2010


Blogger dharmaguerilla said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

"What if" is the greatest question, a heluva lot more captivating than the Alphabet game kids play in the car on the way to Disneyland (or did before iPods, Nintendos and DVD players).

Cosmologists have a mind-numbing "Many Worlds" theory, which posits that the universe divides into alternate realities for every event that happened differently. Like herding Schroedinger's cat(s).

Aside From JFK, RFK, MLK not being assassinated, or Paul Wellstone's plane not going down, or the Democrats pursing a complete recount in FL in 2000, or the fourth plane hits the White House, each of us owes his or her existence to events as ephemeral as the flap of a butterfly's wings in the South Pacific. The sequence of events that led to our parents' meeting, and then to negotiating the obstacles to the act that resulted in that sperm reaching that egg, are often fickle and as random as the decaying particle that killed/did not kill the cat.

We mark events in our lives as so significant, imputing fate, destiny, and teleology, when outcomes turn on exquisitely small events. (Did you watch the Super Bowl? Did the best team win? Was it inevitable? There were close calls, one result, and sentimental pronouncements as the Saints finally went marching in. It's history now.)

The minute 9/11 happened, I knew that what had happened was not that what happened happened. It was that it would become a certain "what happened," and that it was possible to shape what really happened immediately. The possibility to create different histories of the actual event diminished exponentially with every passing moment, every dramatic phrase uttered, every editing decision being made on the fly (and let's not go to where the fighter jets actually did fly).
The fact that news is now instantaneous, as is the punditry that is a mere twelve seconds behind, means that the rough draft of history is ever more likely to determine actual history.

11:30 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

What if gun powder had never been invented?
Better catapults I suppose.

4:16 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Chris,

The interesting thing about technology is that reception is historically more important than innovation. Francis Bacon said that the rise of West was the result of the inventions of gunpowder, compass, and clock; but in the case of gunpowder, the Chinese had it, I think, in the 1st century A.D.--and didn't do anything violent with it. It's possible that social context is the truly crucial factor, not material invention. Besides, there's only so much you can do with catapults; it's a rather simple design.


4:21 PM  
Blogger miked said...

Mr. Berman,

on "If", guard against your anger with the contemporary slop of today. the south was a slave based economy supported by the bankers in new york and the need of the industrial textile capitalists of manchester and london. they needed the south to be slow and sleepy and the slave owners were not against such support.
Morris don't get soft, sartre defended Stalin, keep your balance.
mike dewar

10:28 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I'm puzzled as to what you thought you were reading. I specifically wrote that slavery was the "obvious dark aspect of the Southern way of life," and that I was not making any declaration of "The South Will Rise Again!" Could I have been any more explicit? My point is that these issues are more complex than meets the eye--as any good Civil War historian will tell you. Have you ever read Eugene Genovese's work on the subject? I suggest you start with "The Southern Tradition." Of course, there's a caveat: you have to actually read what he writes!

I tell ya, my mother told me I'd be better off as a plumber than a writer, and some days, I can't help thinking she was right!


12:04 AM  
Blogger mjabele said...

I've often gotten the impression that historical turning points in the past were more contingent on the abilities - or, in many cases, defects - of individuals than is the case today, when faceless, amorphous institutions - corporate and class-based it seems for the most part - seem to rule the day. Modern history, at least in the US, seems to move more in tune with the increasingly successful attempts of the already well-off to preserve and expand their wealth and political power, with really no space given any more to the charismatic individual to influence the course of events. If such an individual arises, he or she seems to either get crushed or co-opted - I suppose we'd view Obama as one of the latter, assuming he was ever a "charismatic reformer" in the first place. And if he indeed wasn't, I'd simply argue that the "system" co-opted him before he ever ran for office - another way of saying that the current system has already evolved highly sophisticated ways of ensuring its own survival, pre-selecting individuals in such a way as to wall off any eventual possibility of change or reform.

The implication being, I suppose, that the future course of history, as opposed to a more "fluid" past, might be an awful lot more "straightjacketed" than this wonderful suggestion of "alternative histories" would suggest.

And I used to be such an optimistic person...!

12:47 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear mj,

Well, an interesting point. We have seen some major discontinuities, or system-breaks, I guess you cd call them, in the last 20 years: rather sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, economic crash of 2008. And yet, continuity seems to prevail, at least in the short run. Russia remains quite authoritarian, and the US is still pursuing a path of neoliberal economics. The same might be said of the French Revolution, for example--Bourbon restoration after Napoleon--but for the most part, we recognize that contemporary France is a far cry from the ancien regime. Real change, in short, does occur, but it is a complex process that takes much longer than one might expect. I certainly don't expect the United States to become a different country during my lifetime, except in an increasingly decaying and negative sense. And predictions are that China's economy will be equal to ours by 2027, and double it by 2050, so that might suggest some significant changes on the horizon in terms of the geopolitical order. I'm guessing, in general, that if you or I could get resurrected in, say, 2150, we would be returning to a world that would be recognizable to us in some ways, but vastly different in others. We no longer live in the Middle Ages, for example, but the "waning" of that era took something like 300 years. (And then, as the historian Marc Bloch might have said, it's possible that we lost as much as we gained. Plague etc. notwithstanding, the civilization of the Middle Ages had much to recommend it, and the notion that we are on a linear path to "progress" is by and large a delusion. There is no way of claiming for sure that we are a happier society; in some ways, we are a lot more miserable. Who is to say, subjectively, that a contemporary Manhattan businessman is happier than a twelfth-century peasant in the south of France?)

I think one function of alternative history is to bring up the issue of missed opportunities, when things could have gone in different directions. It can't be 100% deterministic, after all. And then, missed opportunities can suggest political organizing in a different direction in the present--keeping in mind that immediate change is not very likely. For me, for example, the sixties did not simply end in co-optation, as many have argued. A different sensibility arose for many people, one that still lingers in a commitment to the public good, as opposed to just making money and buying things. That tradition then gets handed down, perhaps to make a difference at a much later point. As Barbara Ehrenreich says at the end of her most recent book, perhaps the crucial point is to have fun trying. We aren't gods, after all.

Thanks for writing.


9:01 AM  
Blogger Nicholas Burns said...

Alternate histories can be very useful ‘thought experiments.’

Some would say that’s the core purpose of the Science Fiction genre. I once read that all SF can be boiled down to “What If …” and “If This Continues…”

Dr. Berman, I recall on your visit to Winnipeg that you mentioned “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller. “The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K Dick –where the Axis won WW2-- might also have entered the conversation. Two very dark visions of North America.

I think it’s important to continue to recognize that alternative visions of history, and visions of the future, are being presented now –in reality, not Science Fiction. Paths away from the burgeoning environmental, political, and cultural collapse are out there.

First nations people continue to directly offer their wisdom to those who would listen.


Dr. Berman, I know you think “Wandering God” was your least successful book, but the ideas it contained, the alternatives it suggested to the current malaise do resonate with people.

In his Massey Lectures, Wade Davis, makes suggestions that lead me to believe he’s read “Wandering God.” Or perhaps he came to the same conclusions on his own.


I would cite John Ralston Saul’s book “A Fair Country” as a visionary rewriting of history.


A few small voices may not be enough to counter the staggering momentum of mainstream society’s race to the bottom. But, eventually, some sort of alternatives will have to be accepted and embraced. It seems to me that the crucial questions now are: where is that ‘tipping point?’ How do we make it come sooner? Or is that tipping point on the other side of the envisioned collapse into Dark Ages America?

11:58 AM  
Blogger mjabele said...

I suppose I should restrict my previous comment a bit, i.e., to Western societies in particular. My concern has to do more with the "apparatus of control" that powerful interests within those societies now have available to them which their predecessors centuries ago did not - mass electronic media to influence and direct public opinion and dull the ability to think independently, vast piles of wealth to co-opt the political process, and increasingly sophisticated military technology to resort to if, in the final analysis, control seems to be eluding them.

It may well be that the first of those three will be the most significant in terms of enabling them to hang on to power, as it seems to me you've pointed out in some of your own books (which, by the way, I've found simultaneously illuminating and disheartening to read - congratulations).

Perhaps some sort of cultural/political implosion WILL eventually occur, when the condition of those in the "bottom" 90% of American society deteriorates to the point of becoming truly physically and/or psychically unendurable, with the result that the thickening haze of consumerist propaganda and mindless electronic chattertainment currently enveloping us abruptly dissipates as a frigid blast of actual material discomfort moves in - we all wake up one morning in our hovels and smell the cold morning air, to put it another way. But I'm doubtful the powers that be are quite so unintelligent as to let that sort of thing happen - they'll always allow for a basic level of material comfort for the masses, and continue to peddle soporific entertainments and mind-numbing medications through the increasingly varied electronic and pharmaceutical channels available to them, quite possibly heading off any such scenario indefinitely.

I guess what I'm saying is that the present "apparatus of control" strikes me as a lot more technologically sophisticated and hence likely to perpetuate itself successfully than previous models. Perhaps you can convince me I'm wrong?

12:35 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

I tell you, I am impressed by the flexibility of the system, in particular its ability to co-opt serious critiques. Jackson Lears has written about this in great detail for the Progressive Era ("No Place of Grace"), for example; much the same thing happened during the sixties. But given a really major system break, it might be a different ball game; I dunno.

I recall once reading a line from the Italian psychoanalyst, Roberto Assagioli, to the effect that human beings really don't solve their problems, they just eventually forget about them. He was talking about individuals, of course, but I'm wondering if historically, things change by simply getting left behind (I'm just thinking aloud here). Maybe one day, this commercial-technological kaka that we are drowning in will just be a vague memory. What a thought.

2:48 PM  
Blogger dharmaguerilla said...

mjable adds some intriguing points, including the system's ability to adjust the comfort level for optimimum profit, which is a point just above where people would rebel or just stop. This is a perception, or a construct of one, that I have held for many years.

I also view the system as being transpersonal at this point, not a cabal of super-rich, craftily tweaking the dials of a system they control, as much as frantically spinning them , hoping they are keeping the thing on the road, if not actually finding the sweet spot.

That's the collective mind, zeitgeist, ethos/eidos model, with a few people trying to engineer it. In the SF riff, it would be like HAL in 2001: a Space Oddysey except it is an artificial, computer-enhanced, then computer-generated mind.

But it's not just computer and communications technology that has created this electronic mind of its own. MB, you spend much time in DAA chronicling the development of money in the last century, at it becomes clear to anyone halfway paying attention to economic analyses like yours (you may see it as derivitative, but take credit for your cogent conclusions about its implications) that it's not computers that have taken over, but money itself.

The growth economy model we are hooked on is more like Audrey, the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, (speaking of SF classics) that has enslaved everyone including its owners. Most conspiracy theories involve cabals (Knights Templar, Freemasons, Rothschilds, Rockefellers, Trilateral Commission, CFR, Bilderburg Group, etc)controlling the game. I am contending that it's -another classic metaphor- the Sorcerer's Apprentice. A few very clever people started messing with some subtle magic, and lousy, un-spiritual alchemists that they were, produced a nasty, suplhurous compound that is not leading to transmuting or transcending.

Money is now literally a mind of its own, that can't be turned off, and is not likley to burn itself out until after it burns our civilization down first.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


You cd be rt, but check out the work of John Perkins, Nomi Prins, and Paul Craig Roberts on the existence of a gangster elite. Matt Taibbi's article in Rolling Stone on Goldman Sachs (2 July 2009) is pretty gd, too.


9:18 AM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

>>>>>>>“Many Europeans,” he told me, “don’t regard the Northern victory as necessarily a good thing. The preservation of the Union led to a dramatic economic expansion and eventually, to the American Empire, with its destructive ambition of dominating the world. A Southern victory would probably have prevented that.”

Well, it would have had some drawbacks.

Such as, for instance, the continuation of slavery.

Also, due to the evil USA not being around to use its imperialist powers for so-called "good" wars, your European friends probably would be in a concentration camp of some sort, whether Fascist or Communist or Imperialist one.

2:47 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Continuation of slavery is hardly an open and shut case among Civ War historians, and the debate has been going on for some time. You cd be rt, if Fogel and Engerman were ("Time on the Cross"), but then there is a lot of rebuttal of their work. If slavery was not economically viable, it probably wd have just petered out on its own. Frankly, I don't know the answer; I just read the debates.
As for America's so-called good wars, there haven't been any, to my mind, since WW2. (Of course, I realize you are coming from a very different place, and I doubt I could convince you otherwise. But the lit. on my side is pretty vast, if you want to check it out. H.W. Brands' book, "The Devil We Knew," might be a good place to start.) And on that score, that of WW2, you might be right, tho who can say? History is hardly linear in the way it works. You can't just subtract WW2 from the picture, with the US as it was in 1941, and say: "See? Without America, it wd have been awful." This is a very mechanical use of history, and rather dubious. But of course, in the case of alt. history, there is simply no way of knowing for sure--which is my pt. Its power lies in suggestive guesswork, nothing more.

Relax, amigo; I'm not worth all this energy!

10:29 AM  
Blogger Rochelle Cashdan said...

Or to give another example, what if the civil rights movement had failed?

One detail, though: I don't like seeing the South reduced to only a gracious, communal society when the sharecropper class was real too.

10:48 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Rochelle,

Thanks for writing. How r.u. doing these days?

As for the South, well, there was certainly a lot more wrong with it than just sharecropping! Besides slavery, check out Wyatt-Brown's bk on Southern Honor; I'd find it hard to live in that sort of society, really. I was just developing the ideas of Gene Genovese and a few other historians, that the pic is very complex, and that there is an upside to that way of life that we lost, much to our disadvantage. Also that the Northern view of the South is partly right and partly, very distorted.


11:20 PM  

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