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Gary Indiana on Hobsbawm?s ‘On Empire’
Posted on May 30, 2008
By Gary Indiana
American global enterprise was mixed with politics from the start, or at least from the moment that President Wilson addressed a convention of salesmen in Detroit in 1916, telling them that America’s “democracy of business” had to take the lead in “the struggle for the peaceful conquest of the world.”
America’s struggle for conquest of the world has been anything but peaceful. Any worthwhile account of the 1919 Versailles Conference—a Babel of unlimited revanchist score-settling into which Woodrow Wilson barged, trumpeting his 14 Points like a circus clown, comic relief between lethal knife-throwing acts—recognizes Wilson’s ludicrous salesmanship there as a subtle accelerant of the inevitable Second World War.
Eric Hobsbawm’s “On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy” serves as a (mostly) post-9/11 epilogue to Hobsbawm’s magisterial “The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, which spans the “Short 20th Century” from the outbreak of World War I through the collapse of the Soviet Union. (Ivan Berend of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences minted the “Short 20th Century” as a concept; Hobsbawm has given it wide currency.) One of Hobsbawm’s many virtues as a historian is his continuity of focus: Though one of “On Empire’s” four sections was written before the event that supposedly changed the entire world, Hobsbawm’s perspective encompasses the long view, in which 9/11 can be viewed as a tripwire for an undoubtedly short-lived program of hegemonic American dominance in the world, in the same sense that the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand precipitated World War I—it would’ve happened anyway, but simply needed a sensational event to set it into motion. (It is a relief not to encounter, for once, the obligatory longueur of valedictory mourning about 9/11, and the by now implicit assumption that the 9/11 attacks were uniquely tragic because they occurred in America rather than in some unimportant country Americans have never heard of.)
Hobsbawm’s short book telegraphs so much insight that its brevity is deceptive—his preface is a shapely essay in itself, and establishes some important premises woven throughout the sections that follow.
The first of these is that free-market globalization has spread, and heightened, social and economic disparities, both within sovereign states and internationally, even if it has, to a limited extent, reduced extreme poverty in many distressed areas.
Hobsbawm observes that “the impact of globalization is felt most by those who benefit from it least,” and cites the baleful effects of outsourcing labor on wage and salary earners in the developed countries. It has compromised living standards in advanced countries by forcing their labor forces in all income categories to compete with those of countries where equally qualified but drastically less compensated workers can be used.
While globalization has so far occurred on a fairly small scale, its impact has been massive, including that of immigration into developed countries: This has become a significant problem despite its statistically unimpressive numbers. Hobsbawm cites figures from the KOF Index of Economic Globalization: In the ranking of countries affected economically by immigration in the past eight or so years, the United States is in 39th place, Germany 40th, China 55th, Brazil 60th, South Korea 62nd, Japan 67th and India 105th—figures on “social globalization” are higher in all these countries except Brazil. In the developed world, however, only Britain figures in the top 10 for both social and economic globalization.
“On Empire” covers the period 2000-2006, which has been dominated by the United States’ assertion of global hegemony following the 9/11 attacks, its repudiation of previously accepted international agreements, and its assertion of the right to launch wars of aggression and other military attacks whenever it wishes. The Iraq war reflects the unreality of this imperial-minded overreach.
While a case has frequently been made for military interventions by great powers on behalf of human rights, Hobsbawm avers that militarily strong states like the U.S. may indeed intervene in ways that coincide with the wishes of human rights advocates, and certainly recognize the propaganda value in doing so, but whatever human rights advances happen to occur as a result are always incidental—intervention is, io ipso, an assertion of the right to intervene.
The case for intervention rests on flawed assumptions—for instance, that intolerable conditions like massacre or ethnic cleansing demand it, that no other methods exist to deal with such calamities and that the benefits far exceed the costs. This may sometimes be true, as in two instances Hobsbawm identifies: Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia to end the Khmer Rouge regime in 1978 and Tanzania’s removal of Idi Amin from power in Uganda in 1979. (Tellingly, both the United States and China supported Pol Pot throughout the Vietnamese intervention.) Quite as often, intervention may only make matters worse.
The ill-named U.S. “coalition” invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001 were not at all humanitarian in nature, but were sold to the public on a number of pretexts, including humanitarian ones, primarily as the only method of removing—Hobsbawm’s term of choice—“unsavory regimes.” Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were readily ousted from power, but neither war has resulted in victory or the purported goal of “establishing democratic values.” In Iraq, certainly, the population lives in worse conditions than existed before the U.S. invasion. (The U.S. armed Saddam Hussein throughout the Iraq-Iran war and even provided him with the chemical weapons he used against the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq. With regard to the Taliban, the U.S. didn’t mind negotiating with it before 9/11, after the Taliban’s criminal destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and murderous imposition of sharia law on its population, or even for some weeks afterward—contingent on its surrender of Osama bin Laden—on behalf of American oil and gas companies that wished to run a pipeline from the Central Asian republics to the sea across Afghanistan.)
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