Global History’s Identity Crisis

Global history is unique because it offers a new perspective. The observations of global connections and a global world are processes that can be employed in all disciplines of history. The key contrast that global historians assert is discussing history from a global perspective rather than a particular one. It is in this distinction that it becomes apparent that identity is a crucial debate in global history. Global history reveals the flaws of particularism’s weakness in reconciling global causal factors. However, any incremental saturation of global historical narratives will stimulate reciprocal oppositional ones. As global histories unravel particularism they will create an identity crisis for those believers of it. Whether that particularism was imposed through state programs or isolated provincialism, the identity crisis will be triggered. This crisis will not be because they believe global histories have no merit, but precisely because they do that they will reify that merit through their intense reaction. In fact, this confrontation may incline oppositional forces to increase their global observations for their own ends. For example, a nationalist historian can write of the global exploitation of capitalism while retaining a nationalist perspective. If each respective historian observes the global, then what separates them? Obviously, it is perspective and perspective is identity.

In his work, “What is Global History?”, Sebastian Conrad demarcated the distinction. “Global history is both an object of study and particular way of looking at history: it is both a process and a perspective.”[1] These two components of global history offer different potentialities. One can use the global history process while not accepting the global perspective. However, one who uses the global history perspective must use the global history process. Who then is the true global historian? Conrad’s definitions may lend creditability to both but the overall drive of the work favors those of a global perspective over those of a particular one. In his book’s final paragraphs, he admonishes those clinging to national identities and stakes out his belief in the need to “rescue history from container thinking.”[2] He also quips, “the utopian promise of global history: to turn us into citizens of the world.”[3] Regardless of caveats, Conrad speaks to the prominence of the perspective aspect over that of the process. If the ultimate promise of global history is a transformation of identity, then it would not be inaccurate to logically conclude global history as a process is a secondary feature. This confirms the notion that the identity debate is existential for the future of global history as a discipline.

Conrad still conflates those of a non-global perspective in the category of global historians. He states, “to be a historian in the twenty-first century, then, in some fundamental sense means to be a global historian. Gone are the days when history departments could be content with a focus on one nation alone.”[4] It’s worth criticizing Conrad for trying to have his cake and eat it too. His definition stipulates a co-dependent relationship between process and perspective but he still envelopes historians using the global process. A twenty-first century historian opposed to an identity as a citizen of the world is both a global historian and not a global historian. They are because they observe global connections and contexts, and they are not because they reject global history’s promise. Such a promise will remedy the fractal and varied interpretations of history produced by writing from a particular place’s perspective, according to Conrad. Thus, a global perspective or identity is utilitarian. Particular perspectives warp history whereas global ones expose its entire reality.

The failure to accept a global perspective results in a failure to provide a sterile interpretation. In fact, if a single global identity saturates all historians there are, no longer interpretations, just a single global history. It’s, however, unclear if global process historians actually fail. They might find global connections a better explanation for whatever phenomena they are writing about from a particular perspective. Just because a global process historian rejects a global perspective does not mean they are bound to certain spatial containers. Their examination’s scope and scale are unbounded and flexible. Their challenge is to overcome sometimes arbitrary boundaries that distort and limit history. Histories that explore past these types of boundaries can indeed deconstruct identities but it would be wrong to suggest that all histories of this type do so.

For instance, Andy Bielenberg’s and Raymond Ryan’s “An Economic History of Ireland Since Independence” overly profiles the economic history of Ireland within the spatial container of Ireland. There is little discussion of global connections and their causal effects on the direction that certain economic trajectories. This is not to say Bielenberg’s and Ryan’s text is ineffective at providing valuable information but it is to say that their narrative leaves out context. They treat the infamous protectionist policies of 1920s-1950s Ireland as artifacts of internal Irish creation. They comment little on how exactly those ideas emerged and rather imply they arose intuitively from the background of Irish sentiments. They don’t even inquisitively assess the Irish implementation of protectionism but rather take for granted that whatever the Irish did was the ideal model of protectionism.

The Irish implementation of protectionism was derived from Sinn Fein founding father, Arthur Griffith. He was a significant influence in shaping not only the political but economic thought of his contemporaries. From 1904-1918 he would write and revise his seminal book, “The Resurrection of Hungary: A Parallel for Ireland.” It consisted of an explanation of how Hungary gained independence from Austria decades before Griffith’s time. He unambiguously situated Hungary in a network of nations interlinked by their shared oppression that enabled knowledge transfer to Ireland. The book would be best known for its advocation of Hungary’s dual monarchy approach as a template for Ireland to follow, but it contained many examples concerning economics too. Griffith noted Hungary’s push to gain control of its financial system. The Hungarian government’s control of capital flows and creation of a national bank to support industry were policies admired by him.

Griffith expanded his scope to include German economist, Friedrich List, as a major influence whose text he wanted “to see in the hands of every Irishman.”[5] List was one of the most important originators of the protectionist school of economic thought in the first half of the 19th century. List affirmed the need for a sovereign financial system immune from foreign interference that could lead a nation to economic dependence. Griffith also included American economist, Henry Carey, as a contributor to his theories. Carey was a colleague of List’s and was heralded with inspiring the United States to adopt protectionism. Among other positions, Carey railed against international finance as an insidious poison that would weaken a nation’s economy.

Hungary, List, and Carey were all specifically cited by Griffith as his foundations for creating proposals for Irish economic protectionism. Griffith was a prism that transmitted these ideas throughout the Irish revolutionary community. His untimely death in 1922 led to maladroit and incomplete half-measures by his successors. Bielenberg and Ryan make no mention of these facts. A central theme of their chosen topic is protectionism and they neglected to explain the global origins of it. These origins cannot be dismissed as just trivia as awareness of them enables a proper evaluation of the Irish case study. The successors to Griffith may have instituted tariffs and restrictions on foreign capital but they largely ignored positive actions. They ignored establishing a central bank, introducing an independent currency, and guiding private bank investment into industry. As Bielenberg and Ryan state, “it was only deemed necessary to establish the Central Bank in 1942.”[6] The abandoned policies were all essential to what comprised the components of orthodox protectionism. Bielenberg’s and Ryan’s interpretation is that protectionism failed Ireland, however, using the process of global history it becomes apparent that Ireland failed protectionism. The only way to determine this revelation is to engage in global process history. This doesn’t’ warp history but achieves Conrad’s utilitarian threshold for exposing the entire reality.

This example indicates that global history can be utilized without a particular identity being deconstructed. Nothing about the admittance that Irish economic policy was a product of global causal factors actually diminishes an Irish national identity. It seems hard to argue that Griffith, a founding father of the Irish nation, was writing from anything but an Irish nationalist perspective even if he enthusiastically embraced global influences. The analysis of Ireland’s later failed implementation of protectionism additionally doesn’t require a conclusion that throws out the Irish national imaginary. In fact, it can be strengthened by displaying how the nation can be rectified.

A better understanding of global history begets better protectionism that begets a better economy that begets better sovereignty that begets finally a firmer national identity. Conrad concedes this aspect of global history:

Global history as an approach lends itself to a variety of competing and contradicting purposes. Some groups employ world and global history explicitly as a means to highlight and aggrandize their nation…The link between global history and more circumscribed identities can be observed elsewhere, too. ‘World-history-as-context is not in and of itself inconsistent with claims to national or civilizational supremacy.[7]

The global history process can be used to bolster particular identities. It also leaves room for identities to be complex and dynamic rather than one-dimensional and static. An identity can be created by global causal factors while still being particular. A further survey of case studies will substantiate this argument.

In “Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean”, Peter James Hudson uses the process of global history. His pursuit of global connections that affected the development of Caribbean nations is at the same time constantly demarcating separateness between the imperialists and imperial subjects. He posits, “the increasing prominence of the City Bank [and by extension the public-private imperial empire of Wall Street and the United States government] in the affairs of the country signified the death of Cuban sovereignty”[8] Global perspective historians could contend that focusing on the sovereignty of a nation-state is misguided. Banks charted with powers such as “[undertaking] the management of a sovereign government”[9] can seem inconsequential in this point of view. Hudson and his hypothetical opponents might agree on the travesties committed against individuals residing in containers known as Haiti or Cuba but they would differ on central themes to emphasize. For Hudson, one of the cruxes of his analysis is that a nation-states’ loss of sovereignty is bad. For his opponents, institutions based around particular identities should be deconstructed. So what would it matter if an entity of governance or finance was controlled by people that existed outside the spatial container of the nation-state? For them, their actions would determine their guilt not their external relationship to people that saw themselves as Cubans and Haitians. Portraying this history through the perspective of Cubans, Haitians and other small nationalities is utilitarianly more accessible in remedying imperial narratives rather than erasing them.

The confirmation that global interactions shaped particular identities is not sufficient to erase the fact that they remain valid and authentic. Mark Singleton’s “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” explores the transnational creation of what is today popular modern yoga. Singleton mediates the debate on the true origination of the exercises in yoga. Rather than solely the evolution of ancient spiritual practices endogenously attributed to India, significant evidence argues European exercise movements greatly influenced Indian nationalists at the turn of the 20th century. Singleton intends to establish that Indian founders of yoga were “not working within a historical vacuum and that [their] teaching represents an admixture of cultural adaptation, radical innovation, and fidelity to tradition.”[10] Singleton doesn’t see any problem with arguing that yoga is at once an Indian product and “influenced by various expressions of physical culture.”[11] He intercedes in a debate that on one side fears that if Yoga is not proven to be entirely an internal creation within the borders of the Indian nation-state then this annihilates an important aspect of what it means to be Indian. Singleton doesn’t see much truth to this claim. His conception of Indian identity isn’t changed just because the Indian imaginary is interrelated to global influences. Singleton’s use of global process history to examine what is commonly accepted as a particular artifact produced by a particular identity doesn’t deconstruct that identity. Singleton challenges Conrad’s tendency to believe that global history’s practice is deterministically linked to contesting national perspectives.

What does the global history perspective have to say about all the examples surveyed? In the case of Ireland, it may interpret its economic stagnation as due to imperial empires crowding it out rather than internal Irish half-measures of protectionism. It could interpret Caribbean decolonialists leveraging readily accessible national identities with strong bonds to nearby people to unseat imperialism as misguided and instead counter with other less accessible identities with loose bonds to global populations. It could suggest that the significance of yoga’s origin in either India or Europe on the Indian identity is wrong. Instead of Singleton’s attempt to substantiate Indian identity in the face of global connections, a global perspective would advise any conflict is irrelevant because Indian and European identities don’t exist and should be replaced by a new identity of Yogins. These all suggest that writing from a global perspective can offer less informative and different interpretations than from a particular one. Sometimes particular perspectives offer better answers to certain questions. Historians with the mission to define global history still feel the need to exclude them. Those that use particular perspectives may use global history as a process but they are still at odds with its objective. In his discussion of these, Conrad provides the vestments of global history to quite ironically the other of global history. The deduction of his work is that the inclusion of this other is nevertheless incidental because “global history is not only an approach.”[12]

If global history is not only an approach then it must be about an identity. This is just one side of the identity debate. Others that retain a non-global perspective would inversely posit that global history is and may only be an approach. As demonstrated, global history as a process can offer better utilitarian explanatory power, reinforcement to particular identities like the national, and more nuanced and dynamic identities that can on one hand be derived from global causal factors but also unique within the global landscape. Both sides of the debate can at least find common ground in the acknowledgment of the process being unquestionably useful in conducting investigations of history. Therefore those reactionaries against the globalizing identity initiative still employ such an approach. However, it is inconclusive if some of these reactionaries use global history as a temporary means to liberate their identities from the trend of globalization. If globalization is defeated, do these historians return to writing within containers and ignore global connections?

The tension between either accepting an identity as a global individual or a particular tribalist can create a backlash against the approach too. While some might appeal to the observation of the global, others may double down on exclusionary practices however irrational. The human condition’s need for identity and recognition might surpass its need to accept the logical edifying sway of global history. In a counterintuitive way, global historians are assisting in the creation of these irrational particularists because of their assertion of global identity. The particularists are stimulated to recreate their own particular histories to reify their identities in conflict. Francis Fukuyama discusses similar matters in his work, “The End of History and the Last Man.” For him, history is a terminal progression of enhancement of human organization until it reaches its final form: capitalist liberal democracy. The nature of capitalism and liberalism is universal and thus global.

Fukuyama contends that further integration into a global spatial container and of a global identity “is indubitably correct on a theoretical level.”[13] However, in reality, he proclaims that it’s tragically impossible because “we live for the particular shared historical traditions, religious values, and other aspects of shared memory that constitutes the common life…group identities are being continually asserted, reasserted, and sometimes invented out of whole cloth.”[14] His claim is that a global container and identity are final culminations of the progression of history, although, he emphatically clarifies that this progression is unidirectional. Thus, Fukuyama’s real challenge to the present day, is not the end of history, but whether history can remain ended. The degeneration of history is caused by the need for a particular identity or thymos. He defines thymos as the “the propensity to invest the self with a certain value, and to demand recognition for that value, is what in today’s popular language we would call ‘self-esteem.’ The propensity to feel self-esteem arises out of the part of the soul called thymos.”[15] Conrad affirms this point by highlighting that “a multiplicity of centrisms has begun to proliferate and clamor for recognition.”[16] Both authors agree that the desire for recognition, however irrational, will disrupt pristine theories of global structures and identities. Fukuyama explains this degenerative impulse:

The question of the end of history then amounts to a question of the future of thymos: whether liberal democracy adequately satisfies the desire for recognition…can desire and thymos be so neatly satisfied by the same sorts of social and political institutions? Is it not possible that what satisfies desire is dissatisfying to thymos, and vice versa…Human beings will rebel at this thought. That is, they will rebel at the idea of being undifferentiated members of a universal and homogenous state, each the same as the other no matter where on the globe one goes. They will want to be citizens rather than bourgeois, finding the life of masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption – in the end, boring. They will want to have ideals by which to live and die, even if the largest ideals have been substantively realized here on earth, and they will want to risk their lives even if the international state system has succeeded in abolishing the possibility of war. This is the ‘contradiction’ that liberal democracy has not yet solved.[17]

He outlines thymos as being one part of the soul. The others are desire and reason. While thymos-induced identities can be derived from reason, he provides space for the efficacy of ones not based on reason.

This sovereign irrationalism allows for the retention of faulty national identities or even the construction of new ones. Authoritarian movements embrace national and civilizational identities with disdain for any effort to invalidate the unstable foundations they maybe built upon. These forces disorder the progress of international human rights and stability. However, while the national or civilizational might be some of the most accessible identities for many particularists, it may indeed be disintegrated by global narratives as they too suffer from the same homogenizing dilemma. Nationalization and civilization were pre-requisite steps in modernity’s legacy to deconstruct smaller particularisms which globalization inherited. In the face of an inability to dismiss the fact that some national and civilizational containers and identities are the international construction of artificial imperial and economic forces, those that still require recognition might create new constructs for their identities however disruptive to values of global citizens. The 2010s demonstrated that outdated national and civilizational identities are being mutated into new forms of post-modern racial far-right identities.[18] These identities are new, as in they depart from previous definitions of racial identities, but they still employ traditional building blocks like the importance of the connection between racial features and spatial territory. Alternatively, there are other identities that even throw away traditional building blocks like physical space altogether in favor of digital space.

This represents a totally new classification of identity. Finn Brunton’s “Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency” profiles people that are striving to alter what we consider to be an identity. Computer programmers that embrace the anarchist hacker archetype don’t see spatiality the same as most global or particular historians. Their fixation on the digital space has created a new foundation for the genesis of their identity. In the 1990s, networked technology projects:

‘opened up…a certain design space. That space suggested that computers…could be driven by social goals’…That design space and its social goals opened a terrain that would fill with further experiments: people seeking all-sides anonymity, or seeking money with new kinds of properties, or seeking permanently digital e-cash without banks – or nations – at all…‘as soon as there is money flowing through the networks which is tied only to pseudonyms and not to physical people, then you’ll see a lot more virtual-only identities.’[19][20][21]

These primordial activities gave rise to cyberspace. It was a place but it was intangible. It was flat, open, and infinite. They didn’t see themselves as global citizens just because the internet was global. They had their own others that existed external to their space. They actualized their identity and declaration of independence in a full-throated refutation of traditional spatial structures, identities, and governments. John Perry Barlow, the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, published:

‘Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind…You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. You are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace.’[22][23]

Cyberspace might be paradoxically infinite within its borders. Those technological activists recognized that are indeed frontiers of cyberspace that exist in another dimension. They were not global citizens and didn’t share a perspective with those they sought to exclude. Barlow wrote these words at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He was irritated by the global citizen gathering of Davos Men[24] and was explicitly rejecting their worldview.

These forces pose a threat to global institutions and theories. On one side of the global history debate are those upholding a universal global identity and a deconstructive determinism of particular identities. On the other are factions of commendable decolonialists and irrational tribalists. If compromise is not found on the battlefront of identity, it’s possible for the reactionary thought to overwhelm more positive versions of particularism. German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, is cited by Fukuyama and was the inspiration for the second half of his title “the Last Man.” Nietzsche’s last man derived from modernity’s hyper-Apollonianism. An expert on ancient Greek culture, Nietzsche created a dialectic between Apollonian and Dionysian aspects where the former signified ordered rationalism and the later chaotic irrationalism.

Euripides, the ancient Greek tragic writer, was criticized by Nietzsche for leaning too far towards rationalism. A synthesis of Euripides and Nietzsche might reveal they actually have more in common. Euripides’ “The Bacchae” tells the story of Thebes myopically focused on the Apollonian drive to a degree that they tried to completely extricate the Dionysian from its society. These actions would precipitate Dionysus’ plot to show how every effort to rid the world of chaos would bring about even more of it. The rational Apollonians would become so diabolically enchanted by Dionysus that their king’s own mother would literally tear him to shreds in a fit of frenzy. The lesson of the tragedy is that neither Apollonian nor Dionysian drives are sufficient by themselves. A human society is best organized by balancing both. The ebb and flow of these tendencies indicates only temporary escape of one until its eternal return. If the global history debate on identity is not balanced by allowances for those of particular perspectives, Conrad’s and other similar historians’ impulse to better rationally order their history may just usher in a Dionysian tidal wave of global catabolism.


[1] Sebastian Conrad, What is Global History? (Princeton 2016), p. 11. [2] Conrad, p. 233 [3] Conrad, p. 205 [4] Conrad, p. 205 [5]Arthur Griffith, The resurrection of Hungary: a parallel for Ireland. With appendices on Pitt's policy and Sinn Fein. 3. ed (Dublin 1918), p. 142 [6] Andy Bielenberg and Raymond Ryan, An Economic History of Ireland Since Independence (Oxfordshire 2013), p. 9 [7] Conrad, p. 207 [8] Peter James Hudson, Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean (Chicago 2017), p. 139 [9] Hudson, p. 73 [10] Mark Singleton, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (New York 2010), p. 206 [11] Singleton, p. 207 [12] Conrad, p. 233 [13] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and The Last Man (Stanford 1992), p. 340 [14] Fukuyama, p. 340 [15] Fukuyama, loc. 183 [16] Conrad, p. 173 [17] Fukuyama, pp. 289, 314 [18] They are post-modern because far-right intellectual thought often acknowledges the criticisms against their concepts. These new racialists' backgrounds are often indistinguishable from the global bourgeois and thus don’t misunderstand why their worldview is erroneous. They exploit post-modern theories on the nature of truth as related to power to irrationally adopt a racial identity of their choice rather than of traditional biological or territorial inheritance. [19] Finn Brunton, Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency (Princeton 2019), pp. 60, 66 [20] Jean-Francois Blanchette, Burdens of Proof: Cryptographic Culture and Evidence Law in the Age of Electronic Documents (Cambridge 2012), p. 60 [21] Eric Hughes, Nuts & Acorns, Cypherpunks list archive (1992) [22] Brunton, pp. 89-90 [23] John Perry Barlow, A Cyberspace Independence Declaration (1996) [24] Fukuyama also characterized those of global identity with this moniker.


Barlow, John Perry. A Cyberspace Independence Declaration. 1996.

Bielenberg, Andy and Raymond Ryan. An Economic History of Ireland Since Independence. Oxfordshire, 2013.

Blanchette, Jean-Francois. Burdens of Proof: Cryptographic Culture and Evidence Law in the Age of Electronic Documents. Cambridge, 2012.

Brunton, Finn. Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency. Princeton, 2019.

Conrad, Sebastian. What is Global History?. Princeton, 2016.

Euripides, The Bacchae. 450 B.C.

Fukuyama, Francis. The End of History and The Last Man. Stanford, 1992.

Griffith, Arthur. The resurrection of Hungary: a parallel for Ireland. With appendices on Pitt's policy and Sinn Fein. 3. Ed. Dublin, 1918.

Hudson, Peter James. Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean Chicago, 2017.

Hughes, Eric. Nuts & Acorns. 1992.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. 1872.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols. 1889.

Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York, 2010.

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