Distant strangers

I’ve just read James Vernon’s Distant strangers: how Britain became modern, one of a crop of history books I picked up before Christmas. It’s a short, stimulating essay, which argues that the defining feature of the condition of modernity is that we live in a society of strangers: normal life, for everyone, all the time, involves interacting with people we don’t know personally—whether in the cities where most of us now live, or across greater distances. Vernon argues that Britain was the first place to become modern in this sense, because of population growth (escaping the ‘Malthusian trap’), urbanization, and the development of increasingly rapid communications from the eighteenth century on: turnpike roads and canals, then railways.

James Vernon, Distant Strangers cover imageThe emergence of a society of strangers gave rise to new forms of political, associative, and economic life. The state developed new means of governing the population: expanded bureaucracies deployed new statistical tools, elaborating an increasingly abstract understanding of the ‘population’ (shades of Foucault here). People’s ways of associating with one another, in politics and other areas of life, were transformed, through nationwide unions, political parties, or sporting associations. As the franchise widened and electoral procedures became steadily more uniform, a new electoral subject—the individual voter casting his (then his or her) vote by secret ballot—emerged; older, more communal conceptions of democratic representation were increasingly recast as corrupt. The extension of economic transactions in increasing volume across increasing distances triggered the standardization of weights and measures, the steady consolidation of government-backed cash money, and early forms of anonymized credit rating. All of this abstracted commercial transactions and credit relations from their local and personal contexts, and it also required the development of new statistical tools (to measure trade volumes, commodity prices, and so on) which permitted the emergence of a newly abstract notion of the ‘economy’.

Vernon doesn’t claim that any of these things was completely new: they often had their roots much further back in time. But he does argue that in the nineteenth century, and especially in the period 1830–1880, there was a dramatic shift in scale: phenomena which had earlier been limited in scope were now the daily experience of most people, most of the time. This is only half of Vernon’s argument, however. He’s just as interested in showing how, in order to ‘stick’, these new ways of governing, associating with, or engaging in economic transactions with strangers had to find ways of re-embedding themselves in local and personal relations.

This dialectic was reproduced across all sorts of different contexts. In Britain itself and across the empire, the monarchy was ‘slowly denuded of its executive power’ but ‘increasingly invested with renewed symbolic currency’, a process marked (especially in India) by ‘the growth of ceremonial spectacles and charismatic forms of personal rule’ (p. 72). The expanding bureaucracy of the British imperial state also ‘took a monumental material form’ (p. 70), at Whitehall, New Delhi, and elsewhere. A ‘more formalized, impersonal, and extra-local civil society’ slowly appeared, but ‘local and personal forms of association and representation were reanimated in myriad ways by charismatic political leaders, the provincial press, and corporate understandings of the electoral system’ (p. 99). As businesses grew in size, especially through the factory system, owners became more distant from their workers—but ‘they invented different techniques to project their personal authority and reputations upon a supposedly impersonal and dehumanizing form of production’ (p. 125): supporting a factory band or sports team, providing housing or other amenities, like libraries or parks, or allowing a lucky few workers to visit their homes (an experience intended to ‘generate awe and wonder, not familiarity’).British railway network circa 1900

The book isn’t without its faults, of course. A small one is that for such a nicely-produced volume, the proof-reading is surprisingly shaky. More substantively, although Vernon argues that the empire Britain ruled in this period had an ‘important but not necessarily constitutive place’ (p. 16) in the transformation, the discussions of empire struck me as underpowered and sometimes misleading, not fully-formed enough to justify the assertions of the empire’s secondary importance. The society of strangers that’s convincingly described here is a society composed almost entirely of men: on a quick skim, the only women I spotted in the index were Queen Victoria (a couple of references) and Harriet Martineau (mentioned in passing on p. 119).* Was modernity, in the shape of the society of strangers, experienced differently by women—were their lives slower to spread their connections beyond the local and the personal, for example? Did the transformation of government, association, and economic life depend on corresponding transformations of gender relations? (Almost certainly yes.) It would be nice if the questions were asked, at least.

Still, I like the overall argument of the book, which is ambitious and modest at the same time. It’s ambitious because it’s a new interpretation of nineteenth-century British history, which tries to bring ‘modernity’ back to life as an analytical category (and persuade historians of other parts of the world to think about it in the same conceptual frame) while driving a final nail into the coffin of modernization theory. But it’s modest both in its assessment of Britain’s importance—no claim that the country ‘made the modern world’, or that there’s any part of this transformation that someone can take the credit for—and in the way Vernon presents his argument: confident, but not overweening. Vernon is careful to stick to the question of how Britain became modern, not why: he’s not looking for simple causal explanations, nor standards by which other parts of the world can be judged, smugly, to have failed.

For someone who’s a historian, but not of Britain, reading a book like this is useful for several reasons. It teaches me something about a country whose history I don’t study professionally (which happens, also, to be my home). It also digests and synthesizes a very large body of literature, about British history and about thematically relevant bits of other histories. There are plenty of good books and articles in the bibliography which I’ll never read, simply because I’ll never have time to range that far from my own field of research while also having time to eat, sleep, maintain a personal life, etc.—but at least this way I get to draw some indirect benefit from them. And in a few cases it may prompt me to seek out a book (Adam Tooze’s Statistics and the German state, 1900–1945, say), read something I’ve had on the shelf for years but still not got round to (Manu Goswami’s Producing India), or re-read one of the rare things I actually knew quite well already (Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of experts) in a new light.

It’s also good to think with. Like French, German, or US history, but unlike the history of the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular, British history is a very well-developed field of study. My background is as a Middle East historian, and my own sense it that it’s hard to write this kind of provocative interpretive synthesis when the literature you have to draw on is sparse, and patchy in quality (not to mention marked by extreme politicization). But that makes it all the more useful to see what’s going on in other fields, if we’re to find new and better ways of writing Middle East history—and writing the Middle East into history more broadly. Reading Distant strangers immediately gave me a new frame of reference for some of my own past work. A few years ago I wrote a short piece comparing two documents produced by Muslims protesting against a planned legal reform in Syria during the French mandate. Despite close parallels in what they found objectionable in the reform, the documents were very different: one a handwritten petition signed by 200+ notables in the city of Homs, the other typewritten on letterheaded paper of the Damascus Association of Ulama (Muslim scholars) and signed and stamped by one man, Kamil al-Qassab, as the association’s president. Looking back at those documents having read Distant strangers, it strikes me that al-Qassab is a good example of someone who, at ease with abstract and impersonal forms of authority, was also finding ways of re-embedding that authority—for himself—in local and personal life.

Hafiz al-Asad statue JadaliyyaSo thinking with the book also means thinking comparatively. As Vernon says in his conclusion, ‘Although the comparative treatment in this book is insufficient, it seeks to invite others to test its arguments elsewhere’ (p. 132). I’m sure plenty of people will accept the invitation. One obvious question that springs to mind—and I wonder how Vernon would answer it—is whether we can see an example of his dialectic of modernity in the rise of mass parties of the radical right and left and their tendency to coalesce around a personality cult: the ‘massification’ of party politics as the response to governing a society of strangers, the personality cult as its re-embedding. The immediate examples that spring to mind are European: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini are only the most obvious. But in the neck of the woods where my research started out there are plenty more: Hafiz al-Asad and Saddam Hussein with their respective branches of the Baath party in Syria and Iraq, or a host of other Arab ‘presidents for life’ (and, perhaps, monarchs too). Lisa Wedeen’s account of how Asad crept into ordinary Syrians’ jokes and dreams as well as homes and shops certainly suggests that the bureaucratic power of the one-party state became all too personal. This isn’t a part of Britain’s historical experience, but it may be an example of how modernity ‘manifested and was experienced in its own peculiar ways’ (p. 133) in other places.

*Check the index of my own book and it’s just as bad, or worse. Are there any women in it apart from the Kanafani sisters, Atiyya and Fawziyya, who took their brother to court to get a better share of their parents’ inheritance? I don’t think so, and I can only blame the narrowness of my historical training for this up to a point (see About page). Must do better.

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