Dr Aditya Mukherjee
While discussing the human and social sciences in the 21st century we need to first remind ourselves that historical periodisation does not necessarily follow 100 year sets. The 19th century for instance is often seen to continue till World War I and the 20th century is seen to end with the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991. As I shall argue presently, what this periodisation meant for that part of the world which we can loosely call the South did not necessarily match with what it meant for the developed world, again loosely characterised as the North or perhaps more appropriately the West. However, by and large, I use this periodisation to suggest that many of the new challenges of the 21st century emerged in the last decades of the 20th century itself.
When various disciplines of the human and social sciences, such as history, economics and political science evolved in the 19th and early 20th century much of the present developing world was under colonial rule and European ideological hegemony held sway in most of the world. The human and social sciences in this period remained largely Eurocentric. Although Europe's domination measured on a long term human civilisational scale represented a tiny blip covering at best two to three centuries, its intellectual/ideological hegemony or a Eurocentric world view has remained long after European political and economic domination waned by the end of the 'long nineteenth century' with World War I. Though the 20th century is described as the 'American Century' it needs to be noted that the USA, as Eric Hobsbawm puts it, "in spite of its many peculiarities, was the overseas extension of Europe, and bracketed itself with the old continent under the heading 'Western civilisation' ?. (and) the ensemble of the countries of nineteenth-century-industrialisation remained, collectively, by far the greatest ? economic and scientific-technological power on the globe."
Human society from the ancient period to the present thus continued to be often viewed, understood and interpreted in Eurocentric-Western ways. The 21st century will have to face this challenge and recover and forefront alternative voices. Notions of what constitutes modernity, development, progress, scientific achievement, secular, nation, justice, ethics, aesthetics, have to be widened to incorporate the much wider human experience. The point is not to minimise the great material and intellectual strides made by Europe and America in this period but to be able to locate that part in the Eurocentric or Western world view which was colonial, which dominated, ignored or erased the viewpoint of the erstwhile civilisations, which were subordinated in the process of building the European/Western civilisation of the modern and contemporary period.
I shall illustrate with one example, even at the cost of a diversion. It is notable that even a scholar of Eric Hobsbawm's eminence and sophistication, a Marxist and staunch anti-imperialist, interprets the 19th and 20th century in a way which suggests a Eurocentric-Western bias. For example, in his celebrated work "Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914-1991", which he wrote in 1995 (well into the 21st century by his own definition), he sees the 'Long Nineteenth Century' as "a period of almost unbroken, material, intellectual and moral progress, that is to say of improvements in the conditions of civilised life?" Similarly, he describes 'the Short Twentieth Century' as an "Age of Catastrophe from 1914 to the aftermath of Second World War? followed by twenty-five or thirty years of extraordinary economic growth? a sort of Golden Age, coming to an end in the 1970s. The last part of the century was a new era of decomposition, uncertainty and crisis - and indeed for large parts of the world - a catastrophe."
The picture appears considerably different when looked at from the perspective of India or China and indeed many other parts of the third world. Just by themselves the two countries are large enough and with sufficient proportion of the global population not to be ignored while making macro generalisations. China and India in the beginning of the 18th century were the two largest economies of the world contributing together about 47 per cent of the global GDP. Asia (excluding Japan) contributed to the global GDP more than two and a half times what the entire Western Europe did. India alone contributed more than eight times the GDP of the United Kingdom and was the world's largest exporter of textiles.
The Long Nineteenth Century instead of being a "a period of almost unbroken, material, intellectual and moral progress, that is to say of improvements in the conditions of civilised life..." was a period of catastrophe for India, China and much of Asia and Africa and Latin America. India and China were economically, politically and socially brought to their knees under colonialism. By 1913 their share of the global GDP was less than half of West Europe and by 1950, around the time they gained independence (India in 1947 and China in 1949); it was less than a third of West Europe. Egypt's valiant and greatly successful effort to modernise in the early decades of the 19th century under Mohammad Ali, anticipating the Japanese effort by about half a century, was also extinguished by colonialism from about the 1840s, a shock the country is still to recover from.
Similarly, the period from 1914 which Hobsbawm describes as an Age of Catastrophe was an age of opportunity for colonial countries in many parts of the world. It has been shown that the crisis faced by the metropolitan countries in this period with the two wars and the Great Depression led to the "loosening of the links" with the colonies, enabling the colonies to experience sharp spurts of economic growth and often political concessions. Again the last decades of the twentieth century which Hobsbawm sees as an era of 'decomposition,' of 'catastrophe' are precisely the decades when the global balance once again began to tilt towards the East and countries like India and China (and many other former colonial countries), having spent a few decades unshackling the colonial structuring their societies were subjected to, were now on a high growth path gradually scratching their way back to the global economic high table from which they had been so unceremoniously thrown out in the recent past.
Space on the intellectual or ideological high table however, did not follow automatically. It is not so easily achieved, and involves a process of ideological struggle reminiscent of the national liberation movements which led the countries of the South to freedom. Just as the Eurocentric world view far outlives European economic domination there is a major time lag between the East/South coming to its own economically and is regaining its intellectual/ideological self-confidence. Almost all the major existing 'schools' of thought in the various social sciences and humanities still emanate from the First World. There is a virtual absence of any 'school' emerging from the countries of the South several of which have had more than 5000 years of civilisation interrupted only by the colonial interregnum.
Next installment in tomorrow's (Wednesday) issue
The writer is Professor of Contemporary History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He can be reached at [email protected]