Counterfactual History: A Course Update

So I’m teaching the second iteration of my course on counterfactual history this semester.

I’m doing a really different kind of group research project in this version of the class. Basically the students are working in two-person teams to develop one stage of a counterfactual history, and they then hand the counterfactual to the next team who have to take it the next step. As this goes on, as with any counterfactual, it gets harder and harder and necessarily shades into fiction. The first team to handle a scenario has to make a decision about whether to backtrack and talk about the branching points or plausible circumstances that caused the counterfactual or whether to take it as a given and move forward from it.

Here’s the six scenarios I handed them:

1. The Internet does not come into existence between 1970-1990.
2. Mary Wollstonecraft does not die after the birth of her daughter but in fact lives into old age.
3. There is no “new imperialism” in the second half of the 19th Century, no rivalrous claims of colonial dominion by European nation-states over Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Oceania.
4. Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton never duel.
5. Native American societies have robust resistance to Old World diseases at the time of contact with Europeans in the 15th Century.
6. There is no Balfour Declaration nor a Sykes-Picot Agreement and shared Arab-Jewish councils are successfully formed under the Mandate government in the 1920s.

The students have already really surprised me with the theoretical and empirical savvy they’ve put into the first round. Here’s how things stand so far:

1. This is because Vincent Cerf decides he likes the cello more than computers; TCP/IP doesn’t develop and packet-switching experiments remain more boutique, obscure DARPA projects for a while, only becoming more known much later than they did. (Next team has to decide what the 1980s and 1990s would have been like without the Internet…)

2. Wollstonecraft has to retreat somewhat from public life anyway because of her Jacobite sympathies, but takes an interest in the early 19th Century in educational reform and the abolition of apprenticeship by indenture.

3. [This one was amazing] The students decided to depart a bit from the spirit of my prompt a bit and argue that “liberal imperialism” wins out more thoroughly at an earlier date in the UK and leads to the establishment of something more like a loose liberal/commercial “sphere of influence” in much of the non-Western world that is almost entirely maintained by England, largely eschewing direct administrative or territorial control. (For various reasons I don’t think this is necessarily plausible but I really appreciate that they tried to figure out how to make this more than just a by-fiat counterfactual. It also kind of punts the really, really hard job to the next team, which is part of the fun of the exercise.)

4. The Burr-Hamilton people decided that Burr and Hamilton were kind of washed-up and irrelevant anyway by the time of their duel, so they said, “Nothing really changes”. But they were very thorough about building their case for that, referencing a lot of the work we read in the first part of the class about determinism and contingency. The next team is apparently going to back up and change the first team’s scenario a lot by having Jefferson die in office and Burr become President, which is why there’s no duel in their version.

5. This group took disease resistance as a given (as I think they have to, given that this prompt is modeled on James Axtell’s counterfactual essay that considers how events from the 15th Century onward would have been different without any previous human inhabitants of the New World). They chose to focus on 16th Century contacts in North America and argued that the capacity of Native American societies in North America for military resistance to European settlement would have been dramatically enhanced. Several students noted the possible similarity between this counterfactual New World and the actual history of European contact with African societies from 1450-1650, which I thought was very perceptive. Now the next group has the hard job of either deciding to talk about the rest of the Americas in comparison, or moving the counterfactual forward by a step to the late 1600s/early 1700s.

6. The Balfour Declaration/Sykes-Picot group backed up to think about how that might have happened and argued specifically about a counterfactual England that for various reasons was markedly more hostile to Zionism before and during World War I, leading to a much more diffident approach to governing Mandate Palestine. The next group has a much more difficult job in talking about the 1920s and 1930s in this counterfactual.

An update!

1. The Internet group focused on the psychological impact of an absent Internet on the early adopters who felt most empowered or transformed by its existence. But I think it’s really hard to figure out what to say next, so I’ve decided to consolidate a little and take this one off the board.

2. The Wollstonecraft group decided that she would have been a supporter of Luddite unrest and also very drawn to the early Romantics, and even decided that she would have had an affair with Lord Byron, essentially being drawn into the same social and intellectual world as her daughter was, which I thought was a very amusing idea that can be worked further by later groups. We talked a bit today about what the counterfactual Frankenstein (or Shelley’s oeuvre generally) looks like in a world where Mary Shelley has her mom hanging around with her and her friends/husband, but that’s sort of the next group’s thing.

3. The imperialism group focused on Egypt, South Africa, India and China and how they would be different in a “spheres of influence” model, absent of formal administrative imperialism. Too many balls to juggle, maybe, but I liked their idea that company rule would have ended earlier in India and that there would have been no move to consolidate a Raj, leaving most principalities more intact and autonomous. The next group can work with that.

4. President Burr sounds pretty interesting. This team had him fixing to go to war with Spain over Florida, but left a lot of the thinking about Burr’s counterfactual personality and career to the next team.

5. This group has the Five Nations forming a much more assertive “secondary imperialism” to deal with European presence and a very limited British trading presence in the Hudson Valley (the Dutch having decided to avoid it after seeing other European outposts shut down by Native American aggression). They also had the French expelled by Five Nations action. I think this leaves the next group with some pretty workable ideas about what comes next.

6. The No-Balfour group chose to focus on their counterfactual Zionism, arguing for a much stronger split between those who were determined to settle Palestine, those who pursued emigration to Argentina, and for the Uganda idea to get a second look by the British and the ITO advocates and for an active settlement project to begin there after 1917. So they had a “three-pole diaspora” going into the late 1920s where all three options had strong advocacy and participation within Zionism. This seems really promising as a counterfactual concept for the next group.

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8 Responses to Counterfactual History: A Course Update

  1. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Golly Gee! What an idea! What a missed opportunity!

    What if your counterfactual was that the Framers had been men who naturally worked for the common good rather than the selfish interests of their small, elite group,

    and what if they (the Framers) had realized that any sovereign nation had an unlimited supply of money and therefore could and should reject metalism,

    and what if they had realized that the famous quote from the “Wealth of Nations” about the “invisible hand” was taken out of context and that the idea of capitalism actually exists in two forms: tyranno and democrato,

    and that the former was tantamount to “nature, red in tooth and claw” and the latter was a communal style of economics in which the unlimited supply of fiat money would be used for the common good and that was ready to take the world stage,

    and what if they realized that the six superior ideas of Athenian democracy were the perfect foundation for a real democracy in America so that they managed money for the common good,

    and they used random selection to choose representatives,

    and they severely limited administrative power in duration, uses, and amount,

    and they kept transformative power in the hands of the people,

    and they trained all young people to run the democracy,

    and they asked the 1% to fund important public works,

    and they taught their students that evolution by cogitation, not evolution by natural selection, is the process that all social entities should use to govern their actions,

    and that through all of these ideas our new nation would be one of government of the people, by the people, and for the people for only the second time in human history,

    and that this government would provide the money, rights, freedoms, laws, resources, and opportunities that the people need to build very long lives worth living?

    Or, if that counterfactual is too complicated what if you asked them to consider that the following facts have been ignored by the leaders and authorities who control the GREEB institutions: government, religion, education, economics, and business:

    Evolution by natural selection has ruled our species since the beginning. It is mindless, purposeless, relentless, merciless and amoral—it is a force of nature. It has produced two living varieties of Homo sapiens who instinctively follow their evolved natures. Democrati naturally work for the common good. Tyranni naturally work against it. As tyranni naturally, aggressively push forward to take power, democrati naturally, timidly step back to let them pass, tyranni naturally use their power to indulge their selfish urges, people (tyranni and democrati) suffer and die unnecessarily, a great commotion occurs, tyranni-outs seize power from tyranni-ins, and the cycle renews.

    But because nature has been so bountiful, because democrati greatly outnumber tyranni, and because humans are so resilient and so creative, this brutal process could not stop progress—very costly progress, often unnecessarily tragic and unevenly distributed, but progress nevertheless—of that there is no doubt.

    However, we are now dangerously near the end. Nature’s bounty is nearly exhausted. She can no longer heal our self-inflicted wounds, she cannot replenish what we take from her—she cannot forgive our greed.

    Without the assistance of nature, we humans are, finally, on our own. Our millennia of adolescence are over. It is time to grow up. We can no longer afford to indulge our urges—we cannot afford to just do what comes naturally, to act reflexively, to act without thinking, to play political games instead of doing the hard work of facing and solving the immense problems we have created for ourselves. If we continue to follow the instinctive natures given to us by evolution by natural selection we will go the way of countless other species—we will decline, even become extinct—and it will be sooner rather than later.

    What if you asked the students to consider the foregoing facts and project what we Americans should do in light of the looming disaster of global warming exacerbated by the burning of fossil fuels? Instead of playing games with history, why not apply its lessons to the future?

    This, in my opinion, and I’ve got a million of them, is the best path forward for the humanities. This will enable the humanities to finally have a voice that is comparable to that now enjoyed by the STEM institutions.

  2. Withywindle says:

    Rehashing Buckminster Fuller’s World Game probably isn’t the best use of class time. However, there is something to be said for the idea of exploring the choices to be made in a counterfactual situation–not just saying “This happens next,” but also, “What would different people want to happen at this time?” Perhaps having different students write up different memos/brief speeches/etc. arguing for what should be done in a particular counterfactual situation? This perhaps to emphasize the contingency of all history, counterfactual and otherwise.

  3. chris london says:

    The Native American one has vague resonance with the initial setup in

  4. chris london says:

    The Native American one has vague resonance with the initial setup in East of West:

  5. Trude Raizen says:

    Number 6 could be the backstory for the Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I always wanted to know more about the backstory.

    Also, I really want to take this class!

  6. In the provinces says:

    Mary Wollstonecraft’s sympathies were Jacobin, that is with the republican radicals of the French Revolution. She was not a Jacobite, a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    Quite right–that’s a typo on my part.

  8. LFC says:

    for the Uganda idea to get a second look by the British and the ITO advocates

    ITO meaning…? (drawing a blank)

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