Sunday, July 02, 2000

Review of: On the Edge of the New Century by Eric Hobsbawm

On the Edge of the New Century by Eric Hobsbawm
In conversation with Antonio Polito

The New Press, New York
$21, Pages 176, April 2000

If Eric Hobsbawm's 'Age of Extremes' was an anguished, even if intellectually stimulating reflection on the 20th century from the vantage point of the early nineties, the present book is marked by a renewed exuberance. There are numerous questions that Hobsbawm is still vague on or treads hesitantly, but the change in mood is evident. The historian par excellence, now in his eighties, is back with perceptive insights and his characteristic ability to question accepted wisdom.

This is most evident in his treatment of the globalization phenomenon. While most people believe that it is not only unstoppable but is increasingly gaining ground, Hobsbawm questions both these views.

He observes: "Globalization is primarily based on the elimination of technical obstacles rather than economic ones. It is the abolition of distance and time. For example, it would have been impossible to consider the world as a single unit before it had been circumnavigated at the end of the fifteenth century… the turning point (for the enormous acceleration and global spread of good transport) was the appearance of modern air freight… Until the seventies, a company that wanted to produce motor cars in a country other than the country of origin would have to build an entire production process on the spot."

" Now it is possible to decentralize the production of engines and other components, and then have them brought together wherever the company wants. For practical purposes, production is no longer organized within the political confines of the state where the parent company resides… thus while the global division of labor was once confined to the exchange of products within the particular regions today it is possible to produce across the frontiers of states and continents. This is what the process is founded on."

"The abolition of trade barriers is, in my opinion, a secondary phenomenon. This is the real difference between the global economy before 1914 and today. Before the Great War, there was pan- global movement of capital goods and labor. But the emancipation of manufacturing and occasionally agricultural products from the territory in which they were produced was not yet possible".

The drive for globalization requires that ideally the world be seen not as a globe with national boundaries but as a map of the major corporations of the world.

And this, Hobsbawm avers, is not only an impossible but a very dangerous ideal. For one, it considers only the production aspect leaving out the distribution aspect altogether. Another, for the ideal to be realized necessitates standardization and homogenization. The point that Hobsbawm raises is that there are bound to be physical limitations and resistance to these attempts. That is the real Y2K problem that will determine the limitations to globalization however omnipotent it may seem today.

Some indications to these limits are borne out by developments in the European Union itself, where it has become "extremely difficult to determine a common foreign and defense policy and this proves that there aren't the necessary conditions for an effective and total political integration, whereas there are for social and economic matters. The enlargement of the European Union will make the situation even more difficult".

The only two important fields in which Europeans have come close is the recognition by governments that European jurisprudence takes precedence over their national laws. The other aspect that unites Europeans is protectionism in order to resist competition from the United States and mass immigration from the Third World.

Hobsbawm is equally emphatic regarding the failure of the free market. "When historians in fifty years time look back on our era, they will probably say that the last part of the short twentieth century ended with two things: the collapse of the Soviet Union and also the bankruptcy of free market fundamentalism that dominated government policies from the end of the Golden Age " (1970s). The global crisis of 1997- 98 may very well be taken as the turning point".

The other is of course the implementation of the purest free market policies in the former Soviet Union whose tragedy has still not been well understood.

"The scale of the human catastrophe that has struck Russia is something we simply don't understand in the West. It is the complete reversal of historical trends: the life expectancy of men has dropped by ten years over the last decade and a large part of the economy has been reduced to subsistence agriculture. I don't believe there has been anything comparable in the twentieth century… I believe it is (entirely due to the application of free market rules) if for no other reason than that free market rules, even if adapted, require a certain kind of society. If that kind of society does not exist, the result is a disaster".

That globalization is not unstoppable is controverted by historical experience- control of immigration (humans being a necessary, even if an "evil" part of the production process) is an example.

The author regards Pope John Paul to be the last great ideologue to criticize capitalism for what it is, though it is "eccentric" in relation to Western conformist thought and the dominant political and intellectual consensus". This, of course, implicitly underlines the ineffectiveness of the Left to articulate this criticism- indeed the Left itself has been divided as the European socialists who are in government in most of Western Europe have demonstrated. Tony Blair and his guru Anthony Giddens term it the "Third Way". Hobsbawm expresses his disagreement, rather brutally one feels, by terming Blair as the "Thatcher in trousers".

Neither does Francis Fukuyama escape his acerbic taunt- he is branded as the Dr. Plongloss of the 20th century (Dr. Plongloss is a character in Voltaire's Candide).

Hobsbawm feels that it is also incorrect to consider the liberal and left traditions as unrelated if not divergent. It was only with the Bolshevik revolution that the Left came to be identified with the specific form of Soviet socialism that ultimately failed to sustain itself and collapsed. On the other hand the liberals too did not exactly manage to change the nature of the state. The welfare state always operated within the capitalist framework.

Some of Hobsbawm's comments are personal in nature- for example he comments that he deliberately chose to study 19th century history so as to remain above the debates regarding contemporary issues.

"I… have to admit that while I hope I have never written or said anything about the Soviet Union that I should feel guilty about, I have tended to avoid dealing with it directly, because I knew that if I had, I would have had to have written things that would have been difficult for a communist to say without affecting my political activity and the feelings of my comrades".

Some of Hobsbawm’s comments are disconcerting, for example, when he notes that ethnic cleansing can actually solve problems. Others are subtler, for example his observation that modern nationalism is generally top down. "Human beings were not created for capitalism", Hobsbawm remarks tongue in cheek elsewhere in the book.

As a reversal of a centuries long process, the long historical wave which moved toward the construction and gradual strengthening of territorial states or nation- states comes to an end (the end itself starting around 1960s and deeply accelerating after 1989), Hobsbawm notes that it has become increasingly difficult to mobilize people on collective lines specially in the West. This underlines the crisis of class based action today and also the reason why Hobsbawm considers the most appropriate symbol for the 20th century not to be the working class or the peasantry but a mother with her children.

"The people who have most in common are mothers, wherever they live on the face of the earth and inspite of their different cultures, civilizations and languages. In some ways, a mother's experience reflects what has happened to a large part of humanity in the 20th century".

These intensely humanistic insights remind one of what Antonio Gramsci in another era termed as the optimism of the will overcoming the pessimism of the mind. From the "Age of Extremes" to the present book, Hobsbawm has displayed tremendous optimism of the will and fired a salvo that may not completely overcome the pessimism of the mind, but somewhat lights up the darkness that has characterized the last decade. Alas! There is none of his caliber and perseverance after him in sight.

June 15, 2000
Published: The Tribune 02 July 2000

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