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Gary Indiana on Hobsbawm?s ‘On Empire’

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Posted on May 30, 2008
book cover

By Gary Indiana

(Page 2)

What Hobsbawm properly calls the imperialism of human rights presumes that barbaric regimes can’t be changed by internal forces, a concept left over from the Cold War effort against “totalitarianism” that should have been abandoned when the USSR collapsed—a collapse that was itself brought about by internal instability, rather than outside intervention. Moreover, there have been many examples of democratization generated by indigenous forces within previously authoritarian countries in Asia and South America.

Intervention has also been justified by a delusional belief that major cultural changes can be effected by force when conditions don’t already exist that make such changes acceptable and where local populations can readily adapt to them. Democratic values and human rights, Hobsbawm points out, aren’t comparable to technological imports of immediate usefulness; you can bring technologies to places that don’t have them, but democratic political values aren’t the same things as cell phones or factory robotics.

The U.S. came late to real imperialist ambition, though it was endemic in the American attitude from the country’s inception, beginning with the slaughter of the continent’s aboriginals. When Eric Hobsbawm was born in 1917, virtually all European states were “part of empires in the traditional monarchical or the nineteenth-century colonial sense” with the exceptions of Switzerland, the three Scandinavian countries and some Balkan countries recently detached from the Ottoman Empire; so were all of Africa, the Pacific islands and Asia, with the exceptions of Afghanistan and Thailand.

The Great War demolished the Habsburg empire and the remnants of the Ottoman empire; if not for the Bolshevik Revolution, the czarist empire would have dissolved as well. The Second World War finished off German imperialism and the colonial empires of Britain, Japan, France, Holland, Portugal, Spain and Belgium. It also ended the formal colonialism attempted by the United States in places like the Philippines.

The Cold War maintained a kind of world order in a condition that was neither clearly peace nor clearly war, through the existence of two superpowers armed with massive nuclear arsenals; since the end of the Soviet empire, we’ve been living in a curious void of No World Order. 

Globalization itself guarantees that there will be no new empires; in earlier eras of Western imperialism, “Westernization” offered the sole model for weak states to modernize and strengthen themselves, and the Western empires could rely on the good will of local elites in their colonies. The West remained the model, even in places that overturned imperial rule such as India and Egypt.

This is no longer the case. As Hobsbawm writes, “South Korea has little to learn from the United States, which imports its software experts from India and exports its office work to Sri Lanka, while Brazil produces not only coffee but executive jets.”

A further check on any resurgence of empire is that would-be subjects will no longer be obedient. Military power is not enough to control even national territories—examples abound, including Sri Lanka, Kashmir, Colombia, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. “We shall have to find another way of organizing the globalized world of the 21st century,” writes Hobsbawm, who has a knack for understatement.

Hobsbawm divides “the age of extremes” to the present into a period centered on Germany (1914-1945), the era of superpower stalemate (1945-1989), and the present era, absent any international power arrangement. 

In this period, violence that qualifies as warfare no longer belongs exclusively to governments. Contentious groups have no commonality besides their willingness to use violence. Tensions obscured in the earlier periods by world war have surfaced in lethal fashion, thanks partly to the unlimited availability of weapons and the abandonment of any rules governing warfare. 

While the world wars involved whole populations of warring countries, only 5 percent of casualties in WWI were civilians; in WWII the figure rose to 66 percent. In the “little wars” since then, civilian casualties account for 80-90 percent of the dead. Military actions aren’t carried out by conscripts, but micro-armies equipped with high-tech weaponry. Further, the severity of purely military operations has been minor compared with their effects on civilians—Hobsbawm cites the “modest” two-week war between India and Pakistan over Bangladeshi independence producing a refugee population of 10 million. In Africa, armed fighting occurring between only some few thousands created 7 million refugees.

In effect there is no legible difference between war and peace, at least by World War I standards, decided by the Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907—when combatants wore uniforms and war between sovereign states was formally declared at a beginning and a peace treaty was signed at the end of armed conflict.

World War II dispensed with both declarations and treaties. Today, peace and war are meaningless terms vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Israel, Lebanon and Syria, or Iraq since the end of the Gulf War, as the U.S. continued bombing Iraq right up until its invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

Muddying the war-peace distinction further is the use of war to describe “the war on drugs,” “the war on terror” and the conflation of policing actions with war. “Terror” is a tactic and not a tangible enemy. A war on terror can never come to any perceptible end, just as a “war on drugs” fails to even define what a drug is, much less how a war on drugs could ever be brought to a conclusion. (Many things that are called drugs are used in the daily practice of medicine, and every hamlet and town in the United States has something called a drugstore. Even if this “war” were qualified as a war against “illegal drugs” or “drug trafficking,” the absurdity of its ever reaching a conclusion should be obvious to any sentient being.)

“The role of international bodies must be rethought,”  Hobsbawm tells us. Yes, there are international authorities: the U.N., the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, the World Trade Organization. But none of them has any effective power except what it’s given by cooperating states. International law, of course, is enforceable only against the weaker states by the stronger ones, ergo “war crimes tribunals,” in the absence of any internationally binding agreements, may bring some kinds of war criminals to trial, while other kinds of war criminals conduct such tribunals.

To summarize, Hobsbawm does not see the century ahead in a particularly roseate hue, though he does think the 21st century may turn out less bloody than the 20th—without, however, cessation of armed violence all over the world. We’ll simply have smaller wars on smaller stages, producing disproportionately large amounts of suffering. There is also, needless to say, the chance of another world war when China achieves superpower-hood, sometime further along in the decades ahead, though this largely depends on what we do now about the mess we’re in. 

The same has to be said for the issues of global warming and the possibility of catastrophic pandemics: ecological depredation and the effect it has on human societies will depend largely on whether or not any functional global order is achieved in the years to come.

Hobsbawm states what can be known and what reasonably can be inferred from empirical facts, and leaves the business of prophecy to boutique historians like Francis Fukayama and Paul Johnson. Hobsbawm is the indispensable historian who never tries to outguess his own subject before it becomes his own subject.

Gary Indiana, a novelist and critic, is the author, most recently, of “Schwarzenegger Syndrome: Politics and Celebrity in the Age of Contempt.” His novels include “Resentment: A Comedy.” His new book on Andy Warhol and a volume of his selected essays will be published later this year by Basic Books.


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By Spinoza750, June 8, 2008 at 5:59 pm Link to this comment

I think their is little doubt that there is a “Fascist” mentality that is more pervasive in the USA than in other “Western” countries.  I suspect the reason why is because we “won” WWII in more than one way. We won as the chief economic and military power and did not go through a deNazification.  I mean by this, the Bush family, the Ford Family, Some of the DuPonts and many families of wealth were strong pro Nazi supporters before the war.  Father Coughlin’s movement and various factions of “America First” lasted through the war and some became prominent members of the Republican and Dixiecrat Parties. The CIA had a relatively large number of former Nazi’s in its ranks. Strange as it seems America was Nazified by WWII!!!  The following movie demonstrates this.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-446387292666223710&q=media+duration:long

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By Lewis Beyman, June 8, 2008 at 5:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you have not seen The Panama Deception you ought to. It explains American Foreign policy perfectly with the exception of the Carter Regime. There is no doubt as to the Fascist Nature of the American State.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-446387292666223710&q=media+duration:long

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By Crimes of the State Blog, June 4, 2008 at 5:32 pm Link to this comment

“...contingent on its surrender of Osama bin Laden”

This was a deliberate provocation by not providing any evidence of bin Laden’s guilt or involvement in 9/11.  The Bush regime knew that the Afghans would not turn over their guest without evidence of guilt.  None was provided.  There was no legitimate reason to invade without such proof.  Yet, they invaded anyway destroying international law in the process.

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By lethal77, June 2, 2008 at 8:19 pm Link to this comment

I enjoyed the review but i have to point out in the interest of truth we must stop dancing around the 9/11 issue.
It is clear that there is a great deal that still remains to be discovered about that day.
The sheer number of distingushed and educated people coming forward and questioning the official version is growing every day.
Please dont respond with the official story its an insult to most peoples intelligence.
PNAC is explicit is stating a new pearl harbour is needed to start this present era of american arrogance,defense spending is simply breathtaking and it would never have been allowed pre 9/11.
Missile bases are being installed all over the globe,and please dont tell me its to contain Iran and North Korea,ample proof is available to bury that lie.
9/11 is the key to understanding the present and it needs to be addressed.
America is an empire in decline and its more dangerous because it is in decline.
The world needs to demand a new investigation into 9/11 and the true criminals need to be brought to justice.

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By Michael Shaw, May 30, 2008 at 9:10 pm Link to this comment

The first time I posted it didn’t appear.

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By Michael Shaw, May 30, 2008 at 9:08 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Indiana presents us with a ration history from Hobsbawm. I would argue one point however, that 30 years of western containment had as much to do with the former Soviet collapse as did any internal strife they experienced. In fact dare I say, this and this alone was probably the greatest factor of internal turmoil. It also led to massive underfunding of necessary programs and infrastructures here at home by replacing those needs with the incredibly ridicules amounts in funding to our military industrial complex.

I appreciate greatly what Hobsbawm points out when he says other countries who experienced oppression eventually reverted on their own to more civil and democratic societies without outside intervention. Today this lends hope that even we have a chance to remove the shackles of corporatist totalitarianism right here in our own back yard. Perhaps our own salvation can be found in this: “Military power is not enough to control even national territories.” But how long will it take? One thing our own good Mr. Sheer pointed out in a Democracy Now interview might answer that question. All of the current presidential candidates actually support even more military spending then we have now, which currently dwarfs the combined total of the rest of the world. This doesn’t lend hope to an escape from totalitarianism but rather a move to further it.

Another point of interest in an overall interesting and superb article: “We shall have to find another way of organizing the globalized world of the 21st century,” As indicated, perhaps that way has already been found. It is called the mounting destruction of the environment by industrial pollution and other human activities(including warfare) whereby if the peoples of this world do not unite as they never have before, under the most sincere guidelines in mutual cooperation, life on this planet for both rich and poor, strong and weak, capitalist and socialist, despot and democrat will perish collectively, leaving Darwin’s theory of evolution to satisfy the overall equation. Outguessing or not, this more than anything else seems to be the most likely scenario unless we put down our differences and set aside the power lust and greed that seems so inherent to at least some if not many within the ranks of our particular species. We must rethink the entire equation before it stamps us all out! Bravo Mr. Indiana and Mr. Hobsbawm!

Report this

By Michael Shaw, May 30, 2008 at 9:02 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Indiana presents us with a ration history from Hobsbawm. I would argue one point however, that 30 years of western containment had as much to do with the former Soviet collapse as did any internal strife they experienced. In fact dare I say, this and this alone was probably the greatest factor of internal turmoil. It also led to massive underfunding of necessary programs and infrastructures here at home by replacing those needs with the incredibly ridicules amounts in funding to our military industrial complex.

I appreciate greatly what Hobsbawm points out when he says other countries who experienced oppression eventually reverted on their own to more civil and democratic societies without outside intervention. Today this lends hope that even we have a chance to remove the shackles of corporatist totalitarianism right here in our own back yard. Perhaps our own salvation can be found in this: “Military power is not enough to control even national territories.” But how long will it take? One thing our own good Mr. Sheer pointed out in a Democracy Now interview might answer that question. All of the current presidential candidates actually support even more military spending then we have now, which currently dwarfs the combined total of the rest of the world. This doesn’t lend hope to an escape from totalitarianism but rather a move to further it.

Another point of interest in an overall interesting and superb article: “We shall have to find another way of organizing the globalized world of the 21st century,” As indicated, perhaps that way has already been found. It is called the mounting destruction of the environment by industrial pollution and other human activities(including warfare) whereby if the peoples of this world do not unite as they never have before, under the most sincere guidelines in mutual cooperation, life on this planet for both rich and poor, strong and weak, capitalist and socialist, despot and democrat will perish collectively, leaving Darwin’s theory of evolution to satisfy the overall equation. Outguessing or not, this more than anything else seems to be the most likely scenario unless we put down our differences and set aside the power lust and greed that seem so inherent to at least some if not many within the ranks of our particular species. We must rethink the entire equation before it stamps us all out! Bravo Mr. Indiana and Mr. Hobsbawm!

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By bg1, May 30, 2008 at 8:37 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The publicly stated rationales for invading Iraq were false, and were to hide the real reason which was OIL.  The US wanted to replace Saddam Hussein with a regime that was friendlier to western oil interests, and more compatible with western control of the Mideast oil fields.

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