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Ron Briley: Review of David W. Noble's "Debating the End of History" (Minnesota, 2012)

Ron Briley reviews books for the History News Network and is a history teacher and an assistant headmaster at Sandia Preparatory School, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

In Debating the End of History, distinguished scholar David W. Noble, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Minnesota, asks difficult but essential questions which must be addressed if we are to forge a sustainable future in the age of climate change. Noble challenges the conventional wisdom of perpetual economic growth upon which bourgeois culture is founded. He asks how it is possible to have continuous growth within a finite earth. In seeking an answer to this inquiry, Noble examines the evolution of his academic career within the historical and cultural context of a growing discourse on the feasibility of continuous economic growth.

Noble was born March 17, 1925, and he grew up on a New Jersey dairy farm. His family, however, lost their farm during the Great Depression. After military service during the Second World War, Noble took advantage of the GI Bill to obtain a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1952, he accepted a teaching position with the history department at the University of Minnesota, where he pursued a distinguished career as a scholar and teacher. During the course of his long career, Noble came to challenge the utopian assumptions of an ever expanding marketplace; finding fault with the fragmentation of intellectual life within the modern university that fosters an environment in which the sciences are separated from the humanities.

According to Noble, the concept of perpetual growth may be traced to the origins of the urban middle class within classical Greece and the embracing of Plato’s metaphor of two worlds. For more than two thousand years, the bourgeoisie have imagined escaping from a traditional world based upon instability and irrational actions into a modern world characterized by stability, rational thought, and a timeless nature. This exodus would free man from the restraints of a timeful nature and history to become “independent individuals in the timeless space of the marketplace” (1). And this journey from barbarism into civilization was conducted by males as women “participated in generations, holding past, present, and future together” (10). Remaining within the domestic sphere and responsible for children, women were unable to escape the past and realize the limitless future. In addition to the exclusion of women, Noble notes that the rise of Western civilization, and the expansion of the United States, was based upon the exploitation of Africans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Native Americans.

The goal of this expansive middle class culture was the discovery of universal laws and fixed principles as outlined by Isaac Newton. However, the middle class was seeking these universal ideas within the confines of particular nation states. The perception that the universal could be achieved within a particular state led to a competitive nationalism culminating in the destruction of the First and Second World Wars. After the Second World War, Noble argues that middle-class capitalists believed that utopia could be realized through an international marketplace freed from nationalist state regulations. The free market’s only challenge in the postwar world was from the Soviet Union and communism; an ideology which ironically also locates its faith in a utopian future of progress and prosperity. In the Cold War, capitalism and the free market triumphed over communism; leading many adherents of the marketplace to proclaim the end of history. Over a decade into the twenty-first century, such proclamations appear naïve as we struggle with issues of climate change and dwindling resources fueling political and social unrest.

Noble concludes that academics must accept considerable blame for the cultural and intellectual acceptance of the market ideology and myth. Lamenting the fragmentation of intellectual life into academic departments, Nobles observes that the humanities, separated from the sciences, have failed to adequately challenge the notion of infinite expansion within a world limited by finite resources. In his complex and well-documented argument regarding the academy, Noble addresses the disciplines of history, economics, literary/cultural studies, and ecology.

In examining American history, Nobles writes that the Founding Fathers perceived themselves as an “embattled minority.  They were a natural aristocracy surrounded by an unnatural majority” (25). American historians such as George Bancroft in the 1830s, however, began to celebrate the United States as a democratic nation in contrast to an aristocratic Europe. In proclaiming the unique American experience, historians such as Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles and Mary Beard, performed what Noble terms as magical thinking by ignoring the role race and power in American history. But after the Second World War, the historical profession embraced the universal values of capitalism in the Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union. Noble, however, finds a promising counter trend in the work of William Appleman Williams who suggests that if Americans do not accept limits, they will drive the nation into bankruptcy and resource wars. Noble is also encouraged by the growth of environmental history and the work of scholars such as Donald Worcester and Carolyn Merchant who understand the limits imposed by nature as well as that in an economy “based on sustainability rather than the permanent growth , it will be essential that men and women cooperate” (52).

Noble sees far less promise in the work of economists who remain wedded to the market and the concept of perpetual expansion. Attacking Keynesian thinking about the manipulation of the money supply and public works, economists such as Milton Freidman argue that government must not interfere with the functioning of the marketplace. Yet, Noble suggests that both the Keynesian and neoclassical economists fail to acknowledge that there are limits to growth. Noble also has little use for Walt Rostow and his The Stages of Economic Growth (1960) which perceived capitalistic expansion as essential to winning the Cold War; leading to Rostow becoming one of Lyndon Johnson’s key advisers in expanding the Vietnam War.

While despairing of the dismal science, Noble praises literary and cultural critics who have rejected the modern concept of two worlds for post-modernism.  Unfortunately, Noble argues that post-modern scholars such as Michel Foucault have convinced many scholars that it is impossible to alter the destructive aspects of capitalist expansion. Noting that the Greeks introduced the concept of literary tragedy in which a man was so prideful that he believed it was possible to transcend human limits; Noble asserts that the tragedy of our times belongs to societies who are endorsing policies of self-destruction. Noble, thus, concludes that contemporary cultural critics seeking to erase the artificial divide between science and the humanities should embrace the work of ecologists.

Rejecting the politics of President George W. Bush that the “American way of life is not negotiable,” Noble places his faith in the ecologists. Noble concludes, “Ecologists tell us that we can escape collective suicide only by rejecting the dream of perpetual growth. We can replace tragedy with a comedy of survival. We can choose humility and work with an economy whose aim is sustaining life” (87). Noble, however, has few illusions that such a paradigm shift will be easily achieved. He acknowledges the economic power of corporate interests who deny the science of global warming. Yet, he passionately believes that our very survival depends upon a shift from perpetual economic expansion to an ecology of sustainability in which we learn to live in harmony with the finite resources of planet earth.

Debating the End of History is an important book which deserves a wide readership. On the other hand, this survey of American intellectual life in the academy during the twentieth century will be inaccessible to many general readers. Noble does not expect that what may prove to be his final book will alter the popular conception of the marketplace. But he does hope that Debating the End of History will influence some of his academic colleagues to join with ecologists and participate in replacing the modern metaphor of two worlds with the new but traditional idea of one world. Modest enough to note the paradigm shift in his own thinking from bourgeois nationalism and American exceptionalism to global thinking, Noble concludes that the capitalist status quo is simply unacceptable and unsustainable.  Noble also provides a service to his readers both within and outside of the university with an astute survey of key books and scholars in the fields of history, economics, cultural studies, and ecology; breaking down some of the academic divisions which he deplores. Of special interest are the titles by scholars whose work diverges from the metaphor of two worlds to embrace more traditional concepts of limitations and sustainability. In his conclusion, Noble even holds out some hope for American popular culture with commentary on filmmaker James Cameron’s Avatar (2009); suggesting that the popular film text celebrates interdependency in which a traditional society struggles to “sustain a balance in their complex organic world” (177). With Debating the End of History, David Noble has once again made a valuable contribution to the nation’s intellectual life and perhaps to its very survival.