Anthony Bogues and Raffaele Laudani, with the contribution of Isabella Consolati

1. The global age has brought to surface the crisis of (Western) modern conceptual lexicon, no longer capable of  “seizing”  the complexity of the  contemporary processes. This crisis is not a temporary one. Indeed, we can correctly talk in this case of a “shock of the global” perturbing the epistemological horizon of the history of political concepts.

2. The term “global” is used here with an epochal meaning. It expresses a historical condition in which new political logics, not entirely in line with those dominating Western modernity, are asserting themselves. However, to acknowledge the epochal dimension of the ongoing transformations and to assume them as a fact does not mean transforming conceptual history into a history of the global present as opposed to the modern one (characterized, for instance, by the centrality of the Nation-State), if only because we are aware of the constitutively global dimension of capitalist modernity.  On  the contrary, a global history of political concepts assumes this constitutive global dimension of the  “Modern” – and all its inner contradictions and tensions – as the core of its project, and as a tool for the displacement and disorientation of political modernity current  self-narration.

3. The terms “displacement” and “disorientation” express the intention to redefine the “topo-logical” horizon of modern conceptual lexicon. A history of political concepts aspiring to be global shouldn't be either confused with or reduced to a mere broadening up of the geographical scale of its field of interest, as if the term “global” were synonymous with “worldwide” or a new way of reproducing the old idea of a universal history. On the contrary, the paradigmatic rupture a global history of political concepts should produce entails the radical necessity to redefine the spatial framework in which modern political concepts were conceived and acquired their meaning.

4. From this perspective, it is essential for the history of political thought to “emancipate” itself from the Eurocentric trap in which it is still entangled. The State has been described as the transcendental of modern politics, representing the conceptual pattern which allows for its very thinkability. This is true also for all other fundamental modern political concepts, which acquired their canonical meaning only in relation to the concept of State. However, this conceptual supremacy of the State mostly depends on the universal diffusion of an epistemology of politics originated and molded on European history and, more precisely, on the Westphalian organization of the European space in territorial sovereign States. Therefore, it is not surprising that, still today, in Western academy the history of modern political thought is an essentially European history (in fact, with very few exceptions, all its “classic” authors are European thinkers) and that, as an academic branch of knowledge, it is characterized (far beyond the boundaries of the “Western” world) by a kind of methodological nationalism, organizing and selecting its scholarly community according to area specialisms (e.g., French, English, or German political thought etc.) or, which is the same, linguistic specialisms (e.g., French-, English-, or Spanish-speaking areas etc.), where the methodological nationalism takes an imperial feature.

5. The effects of this eurocentrism are visible in the two “schools” in the history of political thought: the intellectual history of the Cambridge School and the German Begriffsgeschichte. The first one, while insisting on the intentions of the users and on the contexts in which discourses are used, does not address the problem of the mutual and often conflicting relations between the different contexts of use (center-periphery; colonies-motherland; city-countryside). This is true also when it becomes "global", analyzing the way in which discourses "travel" around the world. The result is in most cases the juxtaposition of geographically distant contexts of use, without reflecting on the way in which these different uses are related to each other, or how linguistic-political similar words and concepts acquire similar or distinctive meanings.  As opposed to this, the Begriffsgeschichte takes the relationship between different layers of meaning contained in a concept as its central object. For this purpose, however, it identifies a threshold to modernity, understood as an overall transformation of the meanings of political concepts, entirely molded on the European, and more often than not  Franco-German, context. Correspondingly, its fundamental concepts are all referred to the constitutional experience of the modern State. Breaking with these "traditional" patterns, a global history of political concepts shall not limit itself neither to a multiplication of contexts of analysis, or to a new demarcation of the "true" time and space of modernity as a coherent project. The epistemological turn that it brings about implies a more radical shift in the spatial, temporal and theoretical coordinates of the history of political thought as a whole.

6. A new version of conceptual history assuming the global as a constitutive element  would  aim at both “provincializing” and “globalizing” modern political concepts. The first term, borrowed in its broadest sense from postcolonial studies, has to be understood as the awareness of European particularism, to be used as a critical tool in order to show the inconsistencies, tensions, and contradictions of the modern political project. The second term, following oceanic and global studies, suggests that fundamental modern political concepts have to be reread and redefined within a wider spatial framework than the classic Euro- and State-centric one. In both cases, the colonial dimension of modernity, traditionally neglected by conceptual history – insofar as it is considered the mere location for the implementation of State policies – becomes a privileged space for the analysis of modern political logics and their conceptual outcomes. More generally, “margins” (non-State political spaces as colonial settlements, logistical crossroads, maritime spaces, trading companies, etc.), “remains” (neglected or minor traditions of thought and movements), and “surpluses” (political and cultural phenomena escaping from and not conforming to the prevailing conceptual narratives) are restored in their autonomous capacity of theoretical and conceptual production, thus assuming a new centrality.

7. For instance, the centrality of colonial dimension and of unconventional political spaces allows a double process of provincialization and globalization of the European pattern that has shaped modern theory of sovereignty. On the one hand, it helps enlarging its spatial borders, by seeing in the Atlantic world the broader political context within which modern theory of sovereignty (Hobbes, Locke) – and the constellation of concepts that in the XVIII century became the universal measure of politics – saw its genesis and assumed its more canonical meaning. At the same time, however, it recognizes in this same Atlantic framework the result of a spatial reduction of the complexity of the modern world to the challenges and problems peculiar to the Euro- American experience of modernity.

8. Even though, under many respects, a global history of the modern concept of sovereignty can be then rewritten as the history of the rise, transformation and decline of the Atlantic political space and of its epistemological consequences, a global history of political concepts should not limit itself to substitute a new particular spatiality (the Atlantic) to another (Europe), nor on the contrary it has to conceive the global as a smooth, undifferentiated and uniform space. Quite on the contrary, its force should lie in the capacity to grasp the multiplicity of spatial scales in which political concepts always operate (local, national, continental, hemispherical) and their mutual interactions. In other terms, it needs to focus its attention on the "spatial assemblages" within which political concepts are conceptualized and acquire their meaning, and their transformation through time.

9. This attention on the spatial assemblages thus also presupposes a critique of the dominant conception of history and temporality proper to modernity, i.e. the idea of History as an overall and linear process, which includes within its universalistic framework different histories by placing them in a hierarchical order. Postcolonial studies have showed the "epistemic violence" of this theoretical attitude: all social and political forms not corresponding to the State model are addressed as “backward” or as vanishing remnants of previous epochs. Europe (and by extension the Western World) has represented the only actual present, in relation to which other histories ought to disappear in the necessary process of political and economic modernization. This idea of History has shaped the categories by means of which the history of political thought approached the extra-European spaces, by seeing them only as subordinated, epistemologically as well as politically, to European (Western) modernity. The multiplicity of the histories have been systematically silenced by a conception of modernization as a one directional process, with European modernity as its measure, a narrative effective from the first colonial encounters to the period of decolonization and beyond. From this postcolonial critique a global history of political concepts assume the need to study the hybridization of modern political concepts in relation to the specific histories they encounter. This does not mean then embracing the conclusions of the decolonial perspective, which starts from colonial violence to assert colonies as autonomous "Others" in respect to Western modernity. The point is rather to ascertain that there is not a singular modernity which, starting from Europe and from the epochal threshold of the French Revolution, affirmed itself progressively all over the world. Within Europe itself there are multiple and conflictual transitions to modernity, so that its history needs to be conceived of as a multilinear one. Starting from the deconstruction of a supposed unique process of transition, a global history of political concepts should then trace in each concept multiple layers of meanings which escape the alternative between tradition and modernity. In this way the formal universality of modern political concepts, strictly connected with their progressive narrative and with the State as the privilege agent of progress, can be challenged, by focusing on the conflicts over the meaning, the extent and the borders of this very universality. While the modern strategy is to neutralize these conflicts, by segregating other conceptual options outside the realm of history or by burying them in a vanishing past, a global history of political concepts should rather bring to the fore the multiplicity of different conflicting meanings, neither reducible to a progressive narrative nor to a chronological sequence.

10. Such an approach to the history of political concepts is genealogical, both in the sense of a fundamental interest in alternative traditions of thought and "archives" and in the sense of a focus on the "modern" origins of political logics typical of the global age (i.e. the existing relation between modern concept of sovereignty and current debates on global governance). Methodologically, this means: a) the experimentation of what could be labeled as "history of political concepts from below", i.e. the use within the history of political concepts of tools typical of the history from below, whose sources (literature, music, orality, militant production) only rarely coincide with the "political treatise" of the classics; b) a critical outlook on the relations and tensions between the "ideology" of modern political concepts – the peculiar conception of modernity embedded in them– and their "technology" – the modality through which they have been materially and intellectually implemented, particularly in colonial or unconventional political spaces, opening a fruitful dialogue with legal, constitutional and administrative history.

11. One goal of this new global history of political concepts would be then the foregrounding of new archives of thought and knowledge practices. The perspective here outlined naturally implies also the inquiry into the concrete meaning that modern political concepts (sovereignty, empire, modernity, freedom, citizenship, etc.) have acquired in “non Western” political contexts. Of course, this doesn’t mean their juxtaposition into a cartography of contexts of use. Quite on the contrary, it implies an analysis of the conflicts, adaptations, interactions, semantical shifts and reciprocal influences that the use of a concept in different contexts determined. But, more ambitiously, this global perspective to political concepts aim at broadening up modern conceptual lexicon, in the direction of a new global lexicon of fundamental political concepts. Such a project can be carried on only with the intellectual courage of giving up the purism of one's own discipline or "school", building up a network of scholars in which individual expertise is made fruitful in a truly collective project.

12. Thus conceived, a global history of political concepts is part of a critical theory of society and of a richer and more layered critical history of human thought. The historical critique operates as an analytical tool for bringing to light the aporias of capitalistic modernity and its current transformations.


Towards a Global History of Political Concepts

Other reasearch activitiies at The Academy of Global Humanities and Critical Theory


The Summer School in Global Humanities and Critical Theory (Bologna, June 26-July 7)