There can be few consolations for being 90 years old, but a long-term perspective on history is one of them. In this collection of articles and lectures from the last decade Eric Hobsbawm rounds off his splendid (though sometimes flawed) histories of the 19th and 20th centuries with a look at the factors that will shape the 21st.
Hobsbawm presents the very real facts of globalisation, while also showing its limits. Despite public panics about immigration, only 3 percent of the world’s population live outside the country of their birth. Nation states survive to wield real power, and international institutions cannot control them. The number of wars is increasing.
Moreover globalisation can lead to a revival of nationalism. He illustrates this neatly by pointing to the deep conflict in football between clubs, where neither owners nor players have local links, and national teams which evoke enormous enthusiasm (and hooliganism).
At the same time there is a profound crisis of authority. People may wave the flag for national football teams, but they are increasingly unwilling to be conscripted to fight and die for their nations. Hobsbawm contrasts US imperialism with the empires of the past, notably the British; in historical terms US power is in decline, vulnerable and unpopular.
Hobsbawm is contemptuous of the “blather” about the idea of democracy, showing the decline in the effectiveness of parliamentary institutions. In particular national democracies are singularly unfitted to deal with global problems, notably climate change.
Terrorism is cut down to size as symptom rather than problem; its real military or economic impact is negligible. The “war against terror” is a much greater danger than the enemy it claims to oppose.
Hobsbawm still seems nostalgic for the days of the Cold War. While he makes no attempt to defend the political regime of the former USSR, he believes it had a stabilising effect. In fact such “stabilisation” generally involved the strangling of independent revolutionary movements.
The book contains many valuable insights, presented in a clear and concrete fashion; it deserves to be widely read. But in the end Hobsbawm is both too optimistic and too pessimistic. US imperialism may be declining, but it still has the unprecedented potential to take the world with it. Nuclear war and climate change have the potential to produce the biggest turn in the course of history since the fall of the Roman Empire.
As for what will come next, Hobsbawm simply answers, “We do not know.” As so often in his writings, the blind spot is the working class, who scarcely get a name-check. He ends with the hope that US imperialism can be “educated” to recognise its limits. Since he has previously noted the influence of “crazies” on US policy, this seems unlikely. Only the working class, victims of the system and producers of all we consume, have both the motivation and the power to change the world.
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