Nonprofits and Historical Research

Berggruen’s Nils Gilman on a Historian’s Orientation in the Nonprofit World

Editors’ Note: The following is an interview between HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey and the Berggruen Institute’s Vice President of Programs, Nils Gilman, which took place over email this week. An intellectual historian by training and author of Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (2004), Gilman discusses how his orientation as a historian has shaped his perspective as a nonprofit leader. 

HISTPHIL: Before delving into your work at the Berggruen Institute, why don’t we start with your orientation as a historian: How would you describe your main research interests as a historian?

GILMAN: In terms of my original disciplinary training, I’m an intellectual historian of the (Western) social sciences, in particular with a view to how social science has informed policymaking in transnational/global contexts. I’ve also always been especially interested in questions of political economy and political geography – interests that predate my training as an intellectual historian, and that have been the recurring focus of my intellectual history research. My first book was about the conceptual bases of U.S. foreign policy toward the global south during the Cold War. Since then I’ve written about topics as various as counterinsurgency, corporate management theory, cybersecurity, the globalization of illicit commerce, justifications for various inequality regimes, the role of race and biology in social policy, the changing function and structure of research universities, and about the conceptual and political challenges posed by climate change. In each case, I’m always interested in the historical precedents and contexts for what I am analyzing in the present.

It’s important to note that in the twenty years since I finished by PhD at Berkeley, I’ve never had a full-time academic appointment. I’ve moonlighted a few times teaching, but I’ve never made a living as an academic. Instead, I’ve worked in a whole variety of different jobs, ranging from enterprise software marketing, to consulting on national security matters, to senior academic administration, and now as Vice President for Programs at the Berggruen Institute.

Everywhere I’ve gone, my day-to-day work has become grist for my intellectual historical research. In other words, I always try to make sense of my own jobs historically: What sort of intellectual labor is it, exactly, that happens in the tech industry and how did that sort of labor emerge? What does it mean that the US government’s security apparatus partners with private sector actors to do long-range strategic planning? How are big research universities changing in an era of state defunding and globalization? These were all things I was doing professionally, but I’ve also always tried to use my training as an historian to be reflexive about what sort of work this is.

HISTPHIL: Do your research interests as a historian overlap with your work foci at Berggruen? If so, how? If not, why not?

GILMAN: Berggruen has four major research foci: The Future of Capitalism, Globalization and Geopolitics, The Future of Democracy, and the Transformation of the Human. At any given time, we have several projects going in each of these areas. As an operational nonprofit, our work proceeds by creating convenings, and by sponsoring fellows who work on these projects. None of our projects are historical per se: they are mainly focused on the philosophical and intellectual problems that arise out of contemporary policy challenges of various sorts. And yet, at the same time, I can’t help myself: as an historian I am curious about what it means for this sort of work to be taking place in an organization like ours. How does this produce different results than similarly motivated work at universities, or at traditional think tanks?

HISTPHIL: Relatedly, Berggruen’s “Future of Capitalism” program is led by two historians—you and Yakov Feygin. Do these staffing decisions suggest that you and your colleagues think that historical perspectives can inform today’s conversations on capitalism? If so, how?

GILMAN: I’ve always held the strong view that the best way to anticipate the future is by looking to the past, both to understand the direct impact of the past on the present, and to find analogies that can help us anticipate how current trends may unfold – or rupture.

Nowhere is this more true than in thinking about the future of market economies, which have at once shown themselves capable of endless reinvention, but where path dependencies are also enormous. My colleague Yakov Feygin, who leads the Berggruen Institute’s work on the Future of Capitalism, is by training an economic historian of the late Soviet Union. In other words, he’s studied closely how an economic system can undergo radical and unanticipated transformation in a short period of time. Unthinkable things can and do happen. He’s also worked on the complicated interplay between national economic performance and transnational finance – a topic poorly understood not only by historians, but by most international relations scholars, microeconomists, economic geographers, to say nothing of the public at large or political leaders, who for the most part don’t understand it at all. So Feygin and I are both interested in how our current global system of international finance and macroeconomic governance came into being (historically) and what sorts of options and constraints that create for governance innovation in the future.

HISTPHIL: Beyond any substantive overlap between your training as a historian and the actual initiatives you lead at Berggruen, does your orientation as a historian influence the ways that you and your colleagues measure the success, or rather, “impact,” of Berggruen programs?

GILMAN: Only in a very broad sense. Our mission is to develop foundational ideas about how to reshape political and social institutions in the face of the great transformations the world is presently undergoing. We work across cultures, disciplines and political boundaries, engaging great thinkers to develop and promote long-term answers to the biggest challenges of the 21st Century. to create and celebrate pathbreaking ideas about the big challenges facing the world.

Trying to sponsor and celebrate original thinking means two things: 1) taking a lot of intellectual risks and being willing to accept that most of those risks will not pay off; 2) taking the long view. It’s only in historical retrospect that we know which ideas in the present will turn out to have been most important; at the same time, no one can be certain which ideas in the present will seem important in 50 or 100 years.

HISTPHIL: In philanthropic and nonprofit circles–from Berggruen’s “Future of Capitalism” program and the Hewlett Foundation’s “Beyond Neoliberalism” initiative to the very purpose of the Institute for New Economic Thinking–there is quite a bit of talk these days about reforming “political economy” at the national (and potentially too, global) level. Informed by your identity as a historian and nonprofit leader, what do you think these groups are getting right about the means and ends for reforming political and economic life? What are they getting wrong?

GILMAN: I don’t want to disparage the work of anyone. There’s a tremendous amount of activity – way too much for anyone to keep up with, to be honest – and so it would be foolish to say that everyone is missing some big story. What I would say is this, however: just as historians have only very recently begun to escape from the “methodological nationalism” which long defined most historiographical traditions, so are most discussions about political economy still primarily taking place in national contexts, implicitly assuming that national-level policy-making is the right place to address the challenges to our contemporary political economy. This is true even with resolutely transnational and brilliant works like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century (2013): the policy recommendations are almost all directed to national-level policy-makers.

But in a globalized economy and financial system, it’s not clear that the national level is where the relevant questions are playing out and therefore policy decisions need to be made. Consider the deindustrialization and financialization of the US economy over the last half century, the explosion of prices in areas like health care and housing and education, and the growth in inequality and precarity. Most of the policy debates about how to address these things focus on national policy-making. But all these phenomena are intelligible only if we understand how the global political economy has changed since the end of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s. First, the emergence of the dollar as a global reserve currency centered on offshore finance made the US running trade deficits inevitable; this in turn made it cheaper to import manufactured goods than to produce them at home; which then put huge relative inflationary pressure on “non-tradeable goods and services” (e.g. health care, housing, education). In other words, none of these deep challenges to how our national economy is structured can be addressed without a dramatic rethinking of the global financial system. Outside a few narrow banking and finance circles, hardly anyone understands these dynamics. The result is that the policy conversations focus on enacting changes using existing national policy levers, which are poorly matched to the real challenges our facing our political economy.

HISTPHIL: Lastly, and again speaking both as a historian and nonprofit leader, what would you say is (and/or should be) the various roles of scholars in societies today?

GILMAN: I don’t want to end this conversation on a down note, but obviously we face a severe crisis of scholarly reproduction today. I see a grim future ahead for universities: severe defunding and even more pressure to move away from research and scholarship and toward teaching of a largely vocational sort. Even as the flexibilization of the teaching workforce accelerates, the tenured faculty as a group remain complacent.

In some ways, their view of what’s coming reminds me of how climate change deniers behave with respect to global warming: in both cases they figure (a) that the people screaming doom are alarmists who are exaggerating the threat; (b) that even if, yes, bad things may happen in the future, it won’t affect them personally, because they’re in a protected group who are insulated from the worst, and (c) that the changes that the “alarmists” are proposing to prevent the worst would require an outrageous revision of their current privileges and lifestyle – which they’re not prepared to countenance. In short: magical thinking to avoid having to make hard decisions or give up privileges. I say this with no joy: if the academy doesn’t reform itself, it will sooner or later implode, Soviet-style.

What makes this particularly tragic is that we need scholars more than ever, given the challenges facing the world today. Or at least creative thinkers who can come up with original ideas on how to address those global challenges – challenges to the legitimacy of our existing institutions, to the basic fairness of our systems, to ecological sustainability, to spiritual well-being. I don’t think the people who will come up with the relevant ideas need to be in the academy. Indeed, I think the academy imposes constraints and incentives that make it hard for academics to actually address these real-world challenges (in a nutshell: all the incentives are to write for a small circle of fellow academics). But academic training is indispensable for creating the intellectual rigor we need to come up with viable approaches to address the grand challenges of the present.

The jobs crisis in academia is terrible for the individuals who fail to get the full-time tenured positions they had hoped for, and it raises vexing questions about the long-term reproduction of various fields, particularly in the humanities. But in the near term there is one silver lining: the huge glut of highly trained but academically un(der)employed scholars are in many cases taking their training and using it to assess and write about the present – but not just for fellow academics (as academics do) but for public audiences. We needn’t fully embrace Russell Jacoby’s thesis in The Last Intellectuals: American Culture In The Age Of Academe (1987) about the value of free-floating intellectuals in order to recognize that scholars unable to find regular academic employment have often been among the most intellectually innovative thinkers – consider Marx, Nietzsche, or many of the New York intellectuals: their great intellectual achievements came on the heels of often bitterly disappointing failures to secure permanent academic employment. I believe the lack of tenure track jobs partly explains the explosion of high-quality content in “little magazines” that we see today: people who would have been happy to take academic jobs are finding new ways to express their intellectual energies by writing for places like the London, Boston or Los Angeles Reviews of Books, N+1, Jacobin, Aeon, and so on. Indeed, the Berggruen Institute is launching a magazine this Spring that aims to provide another such venue for such innovative and serious thinking for a highbrow public audience.

This ferment of extra-academic intellectual activity doesn’t address the long-term crisis of intellectual reproduction. But it does mean that the next few decades are likely to be extremely intellectually exciting.

Nils Gilman is the Vice President of Programs at the Berggruen Institute, in which capacity he leads the Institute’s research program, directs its resident fellowship program, and is also Deputy Editor of The WorldPost. He has previously worked as Associate Chancellor at the University of California Berkeley, as Research Director and scenario planning consultant at the Monitor Group and Global Business Network, and at various enterprise software companies. He is the author of Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (2004) and Deviant Globalization: Black Market Economy in the 21st Century (2011) as well as numerous articles on intellectual history and political economy. He holds a B.A. M.A. and Ph.D. in History from U.C. Berkeley.

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