Newsletter #41: We Need Emancipatory Counterfactuals, with Thulani Davis

By Mack Penner

The Dig’s interview with Thulani Davis, author of The Emancipation Circuit, concludes with a foray into an historical counterfactual. Asked what a political-economic revolution in the nineteenth-century South would have looked like — and how Reconstruction might have secured Black economic and political power — with solidarity from poor whites and the repression of counterrevolutionary white-supremacist violence, Davis sketches an historical path not taken: an emergent Black middle class, alongside an emergent white middle class, rising on the strength of economic power consolidated by “forty acres and a mule,” but also, perhaps, reparations and back pay from the Civil War’s end.

The history of Reconstruction stands out for the way that it invites reasoning about what could have been, but it is far from the only historical era that we might consider in counterfactual ways. Yet serious counterfactual analysis is hard to come by. Among professional historians, the counterfactual is often treated as a kind of transgression. Counterfactual reasoning is considered a frivolity that should not preoccupy anyone with an ambition of thinking or writing in a “properly” historical way. This convention is widely taught and adhered to, with the result being that of the many eras that call out for counterfactual conjecture, few have gotten such attention.

Does this matter? I think so. It isn’t just an issue for nitpicking scholars — the counterfactual debate hinges mainly on political questions. Resisting the counterfactual is often about wanting to seem maximally scientific or objective, and those who freely engage in counterfactual speculation are usually perfectly glad to allow their speculation to do political work. As a result, there is plenty of history from the Right that engages self-serving counterfactuals. I was unsurprised, for example, to learn that Niall Ferguson, one of the best-known right-wing historians in the world and a noted apologist for imperialism, has edited a collection of counterfactual histories for which he also wrote a ninety-page introduction defending the exercise. The Right tends to see the political value of the counterfactual pretty clearly.

The Reconstruction example, among many others, suggests the value of the counterfactual for the Left. Thinking about alternative historical trajectories is such a valuable tool for imagining future trajectories and for seeing what might make those trajectories possible. The counterfactual register is also intuitive. Save for the professional historians I’ve been talking about, it appeals to average people in an obvious way. In any case, the Right will continue along their merry counterfactual way. If the speculations of the Right tend to boil down to reactionary nostalgia, the Left can strive instead for a radical historical solidarity that turns the past into a place from which we can imagine and move towards the future.

Further Reading and Listening I have picked up on just a sliver of Davis’s sprawling interview with The Dig. If you are looking for further reading that bridges this sliver and the broader content of the interview, you can do no better than reading two recent pieces in the New York Review of Books: this interview with the renowned historian Eric Foner, and Foner’s essay “The Complicity of the Textbooks.”

Among those engaged in counterfactual reasoning from the Left is the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, who was interviewed on The Dig about a year ago.