Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Farmers’ Alliances: Grass-Roots Perspectives on Trans-Imperial Politics

On Wednesday, March 23rd the Centre was delighted to welcome as guest lecturer Kristin Hoganson, Professor of History and Gender and Women's studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign and Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor at the Rothermore American Institute, Oxford. With her lecture, Farmers’ Alliances: Grass-Roots Perspectives on Trans-Imperial Politics’, Professor Hoganson gave us a very informative and thought-provoking taster of her forthcoming book on the local history of the US heartland, Once Upon a Place: The U.S. Heartland Between Security and Empire (Penguin Press, in progress).

Through the analysis of Midwestern farmers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Professor Hoganson reconsidered the concept of isolationism that, in light of today's Brexit debate, seemed especially relevant. One of the questions posed was whether it makes any sense at all to talk about isolationism and Professor Hoganson’s answer is clear from the very start: isolationism is a myth. In fact, we can never fully understand the history of a place without relating it to a wider context. While in today’s globalized world it might seem obvious to acknowledge wide-ranging interactions between people, communities and countries across the world, the study of the rural Midwest in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is still largely based on the false assumption of its insularity. Indeed, although an increasing number of historians have been analysing the US from a global history perspective, the Midwest continues to be narrated from a local perspective, perpetrating this, as Hoganson put it, 'isolationist legend'.

By focussing on the farmers’ alliances, and specifically those of the Champaign County, Illinois, Hoganson brought to light the need to adopt a more international perspective, recognising, in this particular case, the extent and range of collaborative experiences that transcended local and national borders. Farmers formed a web of connections to exchange information and knowledge to improve the quality of their livestock or agricultural produce, protect themselves against bad weather, and   exchange information and access new scientific agricultural discoveries. For example, the farmers' preference for the Italian bees over the domestic variation, because more prolific and better honey gatherers or the introduction of worms and soil bacteria from Europe, suggest an awareness of what was happening in other parts of the world and are evidence of information circulation and exchange across local and national borders.

A more global approach provides us with a better understanding of the farmers’ level of transnational relations but can also offer a better understanding of the trans-imperial dimension of their collaborative endeavours. Traditional writings on imperialism, by focusing on the outward movement from the centre to the periphery, for instance when looking at US exports, overlook the fact that the interaction between the centre and the periphery is in truth two-way exchange in which the centre is influenced as much as the periphery. In this case for example, Midwestern farmers looked at Britain as their main export market for corn and livestock. But the insistence on British markets risks to obscure the multidimensional and reciprocal relations that farmers entertained  internationally. Farmers looked at Britain not only because it was their main market, but also as a source of pure-bred stock. The introduction of the Berkshire hog is an interesting example as it reveals how this transnational collaboration underscored a narrative of empire. An animal of English origins, the Berkshire pig had been crossed, before reaching the United States, with Chinese or Siamese stock. Interestingly, once in the US, any acknowledgement of the Chinese or East Asian side of the breed was omitted. The 'improved' cross was marketed as a purely Anglo-Saxon breed, and became, to use Hoganson' s words, an ‘imperial animal’. This suggests how farming and agriculture were means to assert racial superiority and articulate a discourse that also confirmed American commitment to empire.

Professor Hoganson' s long standing interest in the history of the United States in a global context, illustrates how a transnational perspective can be applied to different aspects and experiences in American history. A  great example (I admit it- I am indulging my personal research interests here!) is another one of  Hoganson's publications, Consumers’ Imperium: The Global Production of American Domesticity, 1865-1920 (University of North Carolina, 2007), which analyses the centrality of consumption, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in US globalization narratives. Rather than examine US foreign relations by bringing the attention to diplomatic and military efforts or economic expansion, the focus of this study is the bourgeois American home at the turn of the century, which Professor Hoganson defines as the place where the local and global connected.  In stark contrast with writings of the time that portrayed the home as an isolated haven, the domestic space was in reality shaped by the international context through the middle and upper classes' purchase of foreign commodities. However, consumers' wish to engage with the wider world was not a demonstration of open-mindedness but of their privileged position in the marketplace and participation to the politics of empire, which often carried with it a narrative of racial superiority.

These case studies, the Midwestern farmers' alliances and consumers' roles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, demonstrate how topics borrowed from cultural and social history, such as migration histories, cultures of consumption, borderlands contacts, cultural exchange among communities, enrich traditional narratives of empire often limited to war and trade. This broader framework also brings to the fore the inadequacies of a provincial approach to local history that obscures the role of empire in shaping US history, urging us to rethink the boundaries of local history.  By discarding the notion of place as something delimited by rigid borders, Hoganson uncovers Midwestern connection to global history through a multi-directional web that went beyond the search for foreign markets, revealing that despite the fact that the word 'isolationism' still gains currency today, locality was and is nothing more than political fiction.

Bianca Scoti
PGR at The University of Glasgow