History of the Present

In my post on Economic Citizenship and Canada's First Nations, I referred to the idea of a "history of the present." What does this mean?

This is a phrase that postmodern accounting researchers have borrowed from Michel Foucault, the influential French social theorist. Foucault was interested in history, but not for its own sake. The point of studying history, for Foucault, was to understand today. He wanted to figure out how we got into our present situation. What made it possible that the things we take for granted can be taken for granted? How did we arrive at this set of social practices and this set of beliefs about the way the world should be?

Foucault's focus was not on "great people," the standard sort of history that tells our story in terms of kings and presidents and popes. Instead, he looked at social technologies and administrative practices, like prisons. He examined changes over time in the way we classify behaviours, such as mental illness and sexuality.

This approach to history allows us to recognize, for instance, how it was that Europeans came to dominate Canada and marginalize (if that's not too soft a word) the First Nations. It didn't happen just because of Generals like Wolfe and Montcalm. It didn't happen just because of Prime Ministers like Macdonald and Mackenzie King. It happened because of mundane administrative practices like surveying and accounting. It happened because of the cow, for heaven's sake: the Indians chase buffalo all over the Prairies, so give them cows for free and they will stay put to look after the cows, leaving all the rest of the land "unused." Brilliant. Banal. Mundane.

Writing a history of the present involves letting go of assumptions about progress in history. Foucault's methods do not assume that things develop smoothly. Instead, he argues, things change in unpredictable and unintended ways. They are not the result of a rational plan.

Because of this, the historian should look for inflection points, moments when things took a turn, for better or worse. For example, the history of Canada's pension system was greatly affected by two major events. One was World War I, which required the imposition of income tax to fund the war effort. This, along with the return of veterans after the war, created all manner of changes in employers-employee relations, and in how government was funded and how it acted in society.

The other event was the election of a minority government under Lester Pearson in the 1960s. This created a different political climate, as the governing Liberal party was required to cooperate with the NDP. The results included universal healthcare and the Canada Pension Plan.

Looking at these inflection points helps show how we got here. It sheds light on particular decisions that were made at particular times. It shows, most importantly, that things could be different today if we had made different decisions.

I find this empowering, because it suggests that we could make different decisions today. Change is possible. I also find this sobering, because it suggests that important institutions we now take for granted, like education and healthcare, could be undone if we don't pay attention.

Photo behind the title is of the museum at the Giant's Causeway, on the coast of Northern Ireland, taken in 2013. The architecture seems to imply an inevitable, unstoppable march of modernity.

Image of Île d'Orléans is from Google Maps. They got it from government satellites so I figure I can use it here.

Photo of Pont des Arts, Paris, was taken in 2012. A history of romance written in padlocks.