Hobsbawm on the Future, or More Accurately, Lack Thereof, of Empires

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If by some bizarre happenstance you do not know who Eric Hobsbawm is, it is never too late to find out.

The Guardian’s website reported on a recent lecture he made on the declining role of empires. It’s a testament to the stature of the 89 year old Marxist historian that he was invited to speak at Barclays’ Wealth Pavilion.

His message: empires are on the way out, largely because the imperialists haven’t done a very good job of managing them. Too often they fail to recognize that they need to secure local cooperation and cannot over the long haul rule by force.

While we need a new form of international organization, there isn’t a viable one in the offing yet.

From the Guardian:

Looking like an elderly and defiant Woody Allen, Hobsbawm defied the bar stool placed in deference to his 89 years and delivered a magisterial lecture on the declines of empires during his lifetime, which began in the same year as the Russian Revolution.

He had seen the end of the British, Dutch, Belgian and Spanish empires. He had seen the rise and fall of the German and Soviet attempts at empire-building and soon, he predicted, the end of American attempts at imperial domination.

The American empire was visibly weakening in front of our eyes. It was by far the most dangerous military force in the world, but in all other respects it was fading. China would win in terms of manufacturing; it had lost international good will; its economy would falter. Countries such as South Korea needed no American lessons in modernising any more.

Simon Schama had introduced him in tones of genuine admiration, bordering on awe. He had been spellbound by his writing as a younger historian, by his staggering breadth and humanity.

It would have been interesting to hear Schama on the advantages of contemporary historians living to a very great age. Reviled by some colleagues for his refusal to repudiate communism after the Soviet invasion of Hungary – or, indeed, since – Hobsbawm came under further pressure to recant his life’s work after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

But here he was, nearly 20 years later, looking sharp as a pin and able to say, in effect: “Not so fast!”

This was the world today: lacking the relative stability of the cold war, with numerous new nation states apparently incapable of governing themselves and in danger of disintegration. We were living in a period of deeply unstable global disorder. No return to the old systems was possible and it was extremely unclear what would replace empires.

There followed a passage where he ranged around numerous empires – Roman, Alexandrian, Hapsburg, Spanish and more – concluding that empires had no hope of even brief survival without local cooperation and some form of local power. No modern state could ever again hope to rely on the obedience of subjects or to impose rule through a handful of rulers, even armed ones: for one thing, counter-insurgent access to weapons was too easy.

The age of empires and foreign interventions was over. We would have to find alternative ways of ordering the world. “But so far,” he ended, ” we haven’t found it and I can’t tell you how it is going to be found. I shall be dead when people try to do so.”

Schama didn’t quite let him off with what he called “a counsel of despair.” He pointed to interventions in, for instance, Sierre Leone. Well, said Hobsbawm, he wasn’t saying interventions could never work: but it helped if they were locally-inspired. Western attempts to impose “democracy” or a “superior” value system were doomed. And you were always faced with the problems of getting out of places in which you had no strategic interest. The United Nations wasn’t the answer: it could not act without the agreement of the major powers, and when the powers didn’t agree it didn’t act.

The discussion moved onto religion. Schama said that the collusion between the American right and fundamentalist Christianity was “not much more frightening than Islamic fundamentalism, but not much less frightening either.” Hobsbawm said he thought the Persian revolution of 1978/9 was probably comparable with the French revolution in terms of lasting significance.

Globalisation produced a world which was too big to be understood. The bigger the units you were dealing with the more you needed something closer to local communities to bring people together. Nor did he believe the “market state” had much future. Even Bush and Thatcher had failed to reduce the size of the state: they had failed because people actually wanted governments to do something about redistribution. Look at the popularity of Putin after the “total disaster” of the imposition of three years of free market economics post 1991.

Schama and Hobsbawm fell to talking about the web as another force of globalisation. Hobsbawm mused on how effectively it amplified the voice of what he called (with a straightforward disregard for PC niceties) “a community of nutters,” including religious zealots.

Schama: “So we’re utterly buggered?’

Hobsbawm. “That’s absolutely true.”

Cue the nearest Hay offers to a standing ovation. But still no answer to the Barclays question: does wealth bring you happiness?

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