The famous French historian Fernand Braudel distinguished “macrohistory” from “microhistory.”1Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). The former is the history of significant political, economic, and social events, while the latter is the history of the proliferation of, and the slow changes in, people’s everyday lives.
Most of the time, the flows of macro- and microhistory run parallel to each other in a kind of low-key interaction. In the pre-press and pre-mass-media centuries, most people lived in relative ignorance of macrohistory, though they felt its pressure when they had to pay taxes, were drafted, and so forth. With the passage of time, its pressure increased. And with the emergence of mass media, macrohistory entered people’s living rooms. They have lived, ever since, less and less in the microhistory of their everyday lives and more and more in the turbulent flow of macrohistory.
Or more precisely, people have been living in a virtual macrohistory. The news has been coming from everywhere, overpowering everyone, but it has been tempered by distance, and its impact has been mitigated by people’s (false) consciousness of being protected by their governments, the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and the like. But at certain points in time (wars, civil wars, political and economic crises, Pearl Harbor, the murder of President Kennedy, 9/11) macrohistory breaks into people’s everyday lives and disrupts their everyday routines.
At these singular points in history, people suddenly wake up to the destructive (and creative) forces of macrohistory—and to the fact that they live in a world of uncertainty. And then, in a panicky or sober reaction, they try to control the forces of macrohistory. They try to rebuild the walls that may again protect the peace of the everyday and help them forget about the tribulations of macrohistory. They may do so in a rush, trying to sink as soon as possible back into a dangerous historical oblivion. Or they may respond to the challenge in a sober and responsible way.
Which way have we chosen since 9/11?
Are we better prepared now than we were before to live in a world in which macrohistory is ever-more present in our lives? Are we able to control the forces of macrohistory better than we have done so far? Have we learned to preserve our freedom and dignity in an age of growing uncertainty?
Elemér Hankiss is senior research fellow at the Institute of Political Science of the Hungarian Academy of Science. He has been a visiting professor at many institutions around the world, including Stanford University, Georgetown University, and the College of Europe (Bruges). His most recent book is The Toothpaste of Immortality: Self-Construction in the Consumer Age.