Dec 10, 2013
Gary Indiana on Hobsbawm?s ‘On Empire’
Posted on May 30, 2008
By Gary Indiana
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.
Previous item: Gore Going to the Opera
Next item: Nicholas von Hoffman on ‘The Big Squeeze’
New and Improved Comments