I History, Theory, and Globalization

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The Struggle for Control in the Age of Imperialism vs the Belle Époque of Liberal Internationalism and the Modern ...

THE STRUGGLE FOR CONTROL IN THE AGE OF IMPERIALISM VS THE BELLE ÉPOQUE OF LIBERAL INTERNATIONALISM AND THE MODERN WORLD ECONOMY IN COMMUNICATIONS HISTORY

Dwayne Winseck

Just over a decade ago, Robert Pike and 1 published Communication and Empire (2007), in which we showed that modern communications media had developed within the context of the “belle époque of liberal internationalism”, circa 1860 to 1930, rather than as a reflex of national interests, as had long been asserted. Since this period was the closest predecessor to our own times, we believed that examining it offered insight into the 21st century version of globalization—and its precarity.

(O’Rourke&Williamson, 1999;Jones, 2005; Rosenberg, 2012: Topik&Wells, 2012)

This chapter picks up where we left oft by reprising and synthesizing our work since the publication of Communication and Empire in 2007, and that of others who have also added to the new lines of analysis that we tried to open up or, conversely, who have posed significant challenges to it. It identifies the core elements of global communication in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and shows that they were more global and organized as a system than previously thought. These elements included, for example, investment and ownership, corporate identity, international and national laws, the careers of experts and engineers, views of modernization, and imperial strategy. The onslaught ofWorld War I threw all of this into disarray, however. Finally, the chapter concludes by pointing to efforts after the war’s end to reconstruct the earlier “belle époque of liberal internationalism” that had seized the minds of a small group of“communications experts” in the US State Department and a few other countries, including Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. While the much-heralded plan for a World Communications Conference where such issues were to be dealt with never came to fruition, some of the desired results were achieved in a piecemeal fashion: i.e., the breaking up of monopoly concessions throughout the Atlantic region, new investment in submarine cable and emerging wireless technologies and greater competition, regulators less beholden to industry and corporate interests, and improved services at more affordable prices than previously available. Nonetheless, as this chapter concludes, despite these successes, they were not enough to keep the mounting nationalism and the economic collapse of the late 1920s and 1930s at bay—all of which put the final nail in the coffin of “the empire of capitalist modernity” and led to incessant struggles for control over resources that bequeathed to us the calamity of another World War.

Reflections on “Methodological Nationalism” and the Turn to Global Histories

Pike and I began our research for Communication and Empire right before the turn of the 21st century, just as the processes of globalization were in full gallop—and a decade after the Cold War had ended. It was also a decade after Daniel Headricks (1991) seminal book The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics, 1851—1945 was published. According to Headrick and Pascal Griset (2001) in a later article, during the era of the new imperialism and rising nationalism, circa 1880—1910, the field of submarine telegraphy was one of “great power rivalries” (p. 543). Other proponents of this “imperial thesis” of great power rivalries included Paul Kennedy (1971), Peter Hugill (1999), Jill Hills (2002), Joseph Tulchin (1971), and Daqing Yang (2011).These scholars fostered an approach that had held sway from the 1920s (Shreiner, 1924), with recent contributions stressing the extent to which communications media served primarily as “weapons of politics” and “tools of empire” (Headrick, 1991, 1981).

This literature focused on how geopolitics, imperialism, and a struggle for control for resources between Britain, France, Germany, and, later, the US and Japan had defined the historical development of international communication. The story was ultimately one where the hegemony of Pax Britannica over international communications was consolidated in the late 19th century but subsequently lost to the US after World War II—albeit with crucial moves in this direction taking place by the 1910s. Such claims have influenced a generation of scholars ever since, all of whom stress the importance of both submarine telegraphs and news agencies like Reuters for “Britain’s ascendency as a world power” (Miiller-Pohl, 2013, p. 104).

However, new lines of thinking have also gained traction in the interim (Fari, 2015; Müller, 2016; Barton, 2014; Bonea, 2016; Mann, 2017; Müller & Tworek, 2015; Rosenberg, 2012;Topik & Wells, 2012).The critique of“methodological nationalism” that underpins the “struggle for control model” has also taken hold more broadly across academic disciplines amidst efforts to write history in a more global register (Beck, 2005; Conrad, 2015).There is also a strong move toward writing transnational histories of communications media, technology, politics, and culture as well (Badenoch & Fickers, 2010; Fickers, 2009). In sum, there is lively ferment in the field and it is a stimulating time to be doing communications history.

In Communication and Empire, Pike and 1 dubbed the conventional approach to writing communications history the “struggle for control” model of communication, and contrasted it to an analysis that showed the global communications system—consisting of underseas cables interlinked with national and urban telegraph networks, news agencies, and the commercial press—to be far more global, in terms of ownership, cartels, corporate identity, expertise, policy, and imperial strategy, than often assumed. Our work also drew from David Harvey’s (2003) idea that “territorial imperialism” cannot be understood properly independently of “capitalist imperialism”, a process whereby markets, technology, law, competition, cartels, and ideas about modernization all combine in an elusive gambit to create a universal space of economic development. Such a view also seemed to mesh well with contemporaries’ accounts of the times (Feis, 1934; Reinsch, 1911; Conant, 1898; Hobson, 1902).

We began our research at the end of the 1990s with the expectation that we would fill in some missing gaps in the existing literature. However, as we neared the end of our research it became clear that we needed to shift gears rather abruptly.

Times had changed, and as products of the historical milieu in which we wrote, so too had the way we were thinking about things. By the late 1990s, two decades of regulatory liberalization had unleashed economic globalization and a technocratic view of the world, while the geopolitical context of the Cold War slipped further into the past. The “revolution” in communications—pervasive computing, the melding of telecommunications and computing, and the rise of the internet—was also in full swing. In other words, politics, economics, and communications were all intertwined in the current mode of globalization, so perhaps that was the case in the past too?

New archival material had also become available that had not been incorporated into the scholarly literature. In particular, two Record Groups at the US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), RG43 and RG59, had been declassified and made available at this time (US National Archives and Record Administration). They offered fundamentally new insights into the US’s conflicted stance on international communication policy and prospects for a Universal Electrical Communication Union after World War I and into the 1920s. In addition, after spending much time at the British National Archives at Kew Gardens, and those of Cable and Wireless,1 we also realized that we had to look elsewhere.

Scholars had used the Cable and Wireless Archives a lot, and no wonder. The archivists there were generous, knowledgeable, and kind. Its original location in London was convenient and an attractive place to conduct research. The company’s source material informed a generation of research on the firm’s complex history and organizational structure, its approaches to new technologies such as wireless, and its connections to the British government and national security interests.The firm’s official corporate history had also been widely used by many as a starting point for their own research (Barty-King, 1979; Headrick, 1991). Researchers’ interest seemed to dwindle when the Cable and Wireless Archives were moved to the company’s new headquarters in Porthcurno in the south of the UK, but staff continued to be amazingly helpful and any researcher worth their salt still went there to do research. We benefited greatly from all of this.

At the same time, however, it also struck us—again, rather late in the game—that there was another important resource that had not been used much until that point by researchers, including us: Guildhall Library. The Library specializes in business and corporate history, specifically materials from the London Stock Exchange (LSE) such as the prospectuses and annual reports of companies quoted on the LSE between 1824 and 1964 (Guildhall Library, n.d.). Since London was the center of world finance during this period, many submarine cable, telegraph, and wireless companies were listed there (Feis, 1934; Miiller-Pohl, 2013; Miiller-Pohl &Tworek, 2015). However,just because firms were listed on the LSE did not mean they were quintessential!}’ British. Indeed, as we discovered, many of these companies featured a combination of investments from a variety of international sources, as we will see, and thus exemplified the multinational nature of business at the time. In short, discovering Guildhall Library was a boon. It took on a decisive importance in our work and has since become a valuable resource for subsequent researchers, who have used it extensively to write histories of Marconi and the communications industry more generally (Raboy, 2017; Elmer, 2016; Miiller-Pohl, 2013).

 
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