What is right?

What is Right-Wing History?


At a recent meeting of the Institute of Economic Affairs, I was challenged: what, exactly, is a right-wing historian? Here are some thoughts.

For me, right-wing history begins with monetarist history. In the 1980s I was swept away by monetarism and read lots of Hayek and Milton Friedman. I read Milton Friedman’s Monetary History of the United States 1867 – 1960 and was swept away by his demonstration of the link between the changes in the money supply and the life in the country, particularly his reanalysis of the Great Depression of the 1930s. Much of what he said seemed to apply to the Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD when inflation broke down Roman society. Other episodes in world history can also be illuminated by understanding money and inflation.   The French Revolution, or rather the Terror that followed it, can be explained by the inflation that preceded it, and the success of Napoleon can at least be partly explained by his success as a sound money man. Similarly the Spanish Empire was gravely weakened by the influx of treasure from the New World and the subsequent inflation.

But even more important than the disasters caused by the inflation of money is the difference caused by the very existence of money. One of the big differences between societies throughout the world is the difference between those societies that use money, and those who do not use money, where money has not yet been invented.

It is generally assumed that before money was invented, exchange was done by barter. The reality is very different: barter is in fact fairly rare, and before money, the main distribution of goods was done through ‘gift exchange’: a tribute society existed where the peasants paid tribute to their superiors in what can perhaps be called a ’feudal’ system and the superiors distributed goods back down in the form of ‘gifts’. There are many variants as to how the system actually worked, but it was far less efficient than the market economy, and the advent of money and markets gave a tremendous boost to efficiency.

Much of this book is based on the distinction between money and non-money societies. Non-market economies can in fact be very efficient. The ancient Egyptians built the pyramids and formed a society so strong that it lasted for over 3,000 years. Recently I have been analysing the Chinese who had money, but not a market economy. They developed a very controlled society, which proved extremely resilient and which lasted for over 2,000 years. It is possible to have money but not a market economy: though I suspect that it is not possible to have a market economy without proper money.

The workings of non-money societies have been studied intensively by anthropologists who point out that the very structure of primitive societies is different: their structure in kin-based with many elaborate variations. I begin my book with a visit to the Trobriand Islands in the Western Pacific where the workings of a kin-based society were analysed before they were broken up by the advent of western economics. I believe that one of the big lessons to be learnt from the study of history is to study the change over from a primitive society to a market economy. Some societies make the transition easily, but for many others it is a prolonged traumatic affair as the old system is challenged and broken up and the new systems seem too complex to be adapted easily. We need to study how the change- over took place in the past if we are to sympathise with the traumas and problems being faced by societies undergoing these changes today.

Other differences

Money and its influence only forms part of what I call right-wing history. There is also a profound difference between right and left in how we approach change. I think it is fair to say that the right-wing historian is far more open to the concept of change in history. We tend to see history in terms of booms and slumps, of societies springing up and flourishing and then inevitably declining. There is I must admit, the danger of putting an anthropomorphic image behind our view of history: we see societies in terms of birth, growth, maturity, old age and death. But I believe that the analogy can be a useful one.

There are also enormous arguments over the concept of a ‘dark age’. A ‘dark age’ need not be an age about which nothing is known. It is dark because the population has shrunk, the land is abandoned and the quality of life collapses. However it is often a time when the major changes take place; when all is going well and life is successful, there is a great incentive to keep to the winning streak. It is when decline and fall sets in and the old traditions have failed that people are ready to look around for a new life, a new way of doing things.

A similar problem underlies the popularity of ‘landscape archaeology’. How far are we formed by the landscape around us, and how far are we masters of our own fate? Obviously, landscape is important, but its importance is often exaggerated by the left. The left love landscape archaeology and often begin their books with descriptions of geography and geology, and build vast tomes around the concept of the Mediterranean and la longue durée . The result tends to ignore the changes that do take place in the same landscape.

Abrupt changes are another anathema, and there is a crucial split over the treatment of invasions. In the early 20th century the concept of invasion was over-used and all changes tended to be attributed to invasions. In the second half of the 20th century, the balance swung in the opposite direction, and invasions became an anathema. It was pointed out that even invasions such as the Norman conquest probably involved no more than 10% or less of the population, and that many facets of life remained unchanged. Pottery for instance continues right through without a break, and even motte-and-bailey castles, the usual archaeological evidence for the Norman Conquest, show few signs of existing in Normandy before the Conquest. It is a subject on which DNA promises – perhaps even threatens to have an immense influence.

The very structure of society is also in dispute. For the right, changes are brought about by a comparatively small number of ‘movers and shakers’: if we are to understand what was happening, we need to study castles and palaces and the great houses. To the left-wing archaeologist however, vernacular archaeology is all the rage and we need to study the houses where the majority of the people lived. The right would answer in reply that vernacular architecture changes only slowly, and that when it does change – and one looks here at the great rebuilding of Tudor England – it is following changes that have already taken place with the houses of the movers and the shakers.

There is a difference too in the very abstract nouns used by right and left: the favourite abstract noun of the left is ‘power’. They see changes in society being imposed by the powerful few at the top. The right-wing historian prefers to replace ‘power’ with ‘choice’, and to emphasise the different choices offered by changing situations, so that society as a whole chooses its new way of life. The difference is subtle but powerful.

I hope to explore some of these differences in these pages. There is however one big difference I have not mentioned, and that is pragmatism. The great banner of the left in the past half-century has been ‘theoretical’ archaeology. You cannot be an archaeologist in universities today unless you proclaim yourself to be a good theoretical archaeologist. The right-wing archaeologist however is a pragmatist. He prefers to look at the evidence, to establish the ‘facts’, to admit that the evidence is often contradictory, but to try to establish a coherent story based the evidence. He believes that one must try and build up theories based on the evidence, rather than vice versa. I am proud to be a right-wing archaeologist.



 15th February 2015