John Agnew: The Eurozone Crisis and the Marshall Plan Metaphor

Roundup: Talking About History

John Agnew is a Distinguished Professor of Geography at UCLA and co-editor of The Marshall Plan Today: Model and Metaphor.

Metaphors can be hard to avoid. Much thinking involves comparing something new and unfamiliar to something old and familiar that we believe we understand. Some philosophers have tried to think without metaphors, purporting to engage in "pure" description, but that has turned out to be rather fruitless. We are pretty much captive to our metaphors. What we can do, however, is bring them to the surface of our consciousness in order to assess their relative appropriateness in any specific case.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in stories about contemporary international events. As we search to understand them we have recourse to prior historical events, historical figures, literary analogies, and organizational models that provide both meaning and possible responses to what would otherwise seem like disparate and inexplicable happenings. Some metaphors, such as ‘Munich’ as a metonym for the appeasement of dictators or ‘Vietnam’ for military interventions without exit strategies, have become clichés that arguably offer little intellectual purchase in many of the situations to which they are now applied. But in communicating with other leaders and with publics, politicians need to use familiar terms to justify their action or inaction. ‘History’ then serves as a reservoir of ‘lessons’ imparted by well-known metaphors. That history has moved on becomes secondary to the need to express the unfamiliar in familiar language.

One metaphor that always seems to come back to life whenever there is a political-economic crisis somewhere around the world is that of the Marshall Plan: the programme sponsored by the United States government in 1947 to help rebuild a Europe devastated by war. The invocation of the Marshall Plan usually implies the presence of a cataclysmic shock that cannot readily be blamed on any particular party; it also evokes the need for a powerful state to give incentives to make others respond collectively to that shock. But these features are rarely spelled out. The metaphoric reference may take on a mystical aura. In the early 1990s there were calls for a Marshall Plan for the former Soviet sphere of influence in the face of economic decline and political disintegration. More recently, the threats from global climate change, the challenge of political change in the Middle East, and the problem of rebuilding war-torn countries in Africa have all led to its application. In none of these cases has it been entirely clear what exactly should be done that might be akin to what happened in Europe between 1947 and 1952.

Three elements to the successful deployment of the metaphor point to its use as a model for action rather than a simple rhetorical device...

Read entire article at openDemocracy (UK)

comments powered by Disqus