New imperial order

Print edition : February 29, 2008

The book is relevant to the contemporary debate on the effects of globalisation, the dilemma of democracy and the menace of terrorism.

Imperial history is replete with revelations of the evil capabilities of the human race as is evident from the genocide of the natives in Africa and America, the holocaust accompanied with unimaginable fascist brutalities, the two Wars, and now rampant terrorist killings. Hannah Arendt points out in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism: We can no longer afford to take that which is good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to disca rd the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dream of our tradition. Eric Hobsbawm supports this view in his recent book, which warns that we are living in uncertain times, a dangerous, unbalanced and explosive world where the stability of the Cold War is missing and any ambition of a unipolar dominance is bound to fail in the face of pluralism that is the sine qua non of the present times.

As a historian, Hobsbawm has always endeavoured to write peoples history and the reason for this is his continued interest in left politics and socialism. He says in an interview: The world, politics, history, is about ordinary people. Not special people. Not people who have any special situation, who expect to be special. It is about the kind of people, and I have tried to write a lot about this from the start, who nobody knows other than their neighbours in the old days. People are nothing very special, unless you fall in love with them. The point is this. In the sense you might say it is anti-elitist history. What Ive been trying a lot in my history writings, not necessarily only in the big books but also in the other stuff, is to write about people, their role in history.

He is, therefore, keenly involved in portraying a dark world of oppression that has resulted in a conflict with Western hegemony. This crisis in late capital society is stubbornly located in the structures of technological dominance, military violence and ideological legitimation. European violence is evident in its political and economic adventures, in the very savagery that lies under the veneer of civilisation as is clear in the art of Picasso or Gauguin, who reflect the darker side of the European man.

The wars waged by the West are an example of this deep-seated aggressive behaviour in the Western psyche wherein lies the supremacist attitude of setting goals for the world. If not Pax Britannica, then it is Pax Americana. However, Hobsbawm is of the view that the American economy is declining fast: The growth of the world economy has resumed, but not so much in the West. It has resumed in China and in Asia. We see the relative decline of the American economy; not so much as a holding company of people who own things, but as an economy it is declining.

Hobsbawm urges the modern-day world to take cognisance of the seriousness of the exceedingly disturbing problems confronting the human race. On the issue of racism, he is in favour of an open society that does not submit to petty tribal politics. The wider processes of society, according to him, not only contain the leadership of the ruling class, but address issues such as the problems of the working class, womens movement, peace organisations, ethnic and national issues, environmental imbalances, religious bigotry, fight against fascism and terrorism, all of which join hands in building a major progressive and radical counter-hegemony.

These movements in the hands of various non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have fundamentally resulted in raising the consciousness of the marginalised, a development that becomes a self-conscious anti-imperialist Western strategy directed against the hierarchical cultural and racial assumptions of Western thought. Simultaneous action in various parts of the world is now possible. How effective this is going to be remains to be seen.

As recent history indicates, conflict continues across transnational boundaries, with minorities as well as the developing world struggling to move out of a subaltern status, sending out a clear message that cultural and political hegemony will not be stomached for long. Though we gradually move from a state-centric prominence towards a new, multifaceted international politics, contestation is basic in this decidedly complex world of interstate systems and the ongoing clash between localism and governance agenda generated by the forces of globalisation, the mighty structures of capitalism as Arundhati Roy puts it emphatically. In the same vein Auden would say: I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn/ Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return. If you rob people off their land and their self-determination and if you almost annihilate Iraq and Afghanistan, the logical reaction would be of deeply intense resistance from the oppressed.

Historians look before and after with a sense of longing or trepidation. The present state of the world, endangered by belligerent nationalism, clannish revulsion, and religious and ethnic zeal, is of immeasurable unease to all. The fundamental experience of one and all at the moment is slip-ups and kick in the teeth. What has happened has often been quite alarming and unforeseen. Whatever our response, the awareness that we were wrong about the Enlightenment dreams of peace and progress in the world must needle us to reconsider history as well as the rise of tyrannical, ideological or religious dictatorships. This disposition, incensed by the confrontational course of racial and religious discord, continues into the present century.

Following the overwhelming events of two world wars and the rise of authoritarian ideological dictatorships in the early part of the century, 20th century and new millennium thought has been characterised by distrust, over both the prospect of mankind and the potentially appalling effect of natural science. If socialism and conservatism have disintegrated, and politics in the advanced capitalist world is a plot to dupe the general public, it is explicable why many historians have written with a sense of reminiscence and pessimism.

Though a political analyst needs emotional distancing to write about a period, Hobsbawm writes of his times that coincide with the larger part of the 20th century and the present. This is political writing, grand in ambition, eloquently rich and erudite, though formidable. It is a portrait of a society where once the Nazi and the communist experiments assured the restructuring of the world but, instead, the holocaust and numerous cases of widespread aggression taught us to look with scepticism at the foundations of human knowledge. It was Auschwitz and the Hiroshima bombing that determined Hobsbawms politics and his ardent concern in social reform with a conviction of standing up against state violence. He was the impetus behind the New Labour, which failed miserably in the hands of Tony Blair, the leader Hobsbawm termed as Thatcher in trousers.

As Hobsbawm argued in the late 1990s in his book The Age of Extremes, more than being circular, political history seems to be going downhill all the way. Each age wades deeper into its own blood, with the 20th century being the most degraded, as is evident from our age of genocide. This is in spite of the highest number of people receiving education in an age which had the positive features of emancipation, decolonisation and firm entrenchment of the womens liberation movement.

So, what has science or reason or the Age of Enlightenment given humankind if not a rising curve of barbarism? The issue of growing terrorism, poverty and exploitation in the Third World concerns Hobsbawm in his recent book Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism making him wonder how the Western powers can possibly feel triumphant and secure over their progress. While the Eastern political systems have ceased to exist, the stability of the non-communist states, in both developed and developing countries, can also no longer be taken for granted. And, if on the economic front there is not much support, culture, too, with its high modernism keeps the masses out of its very exclusive engagements and aestheticism. Western civilisation slides conspicuously into instability and decline.

Shoppers in an almost empty supermaket in Harare in August 2007. The official inflation rate in September was 8,000 per cent. The issue of growing terrorism, poverty and exploitation in the Third World makes Hobsbawm wonder how the Western powers can possibly feel triumphant and secure over their progress.-DESMOND KWANDE/AFP

Shoppers in an

Referring to the fallout of 9/11, Hobsbawm does not give any legitimacy to the United States foreign policy and its war on terrorism. Why should America go on scaring the world and itself? Hobsbawms answer to the question is simple: Except it does help to pass laws which otherwise wouldnt get passed. And the laws are mostly attacks on civil liberties, on the rule of law, and other things. That is the danger. Otherwise terrorism is not a political term at all and the war against terrorism is a meaningless phrase because a war against terrorism doesnt operate like a war against another country. It cant.

Though Islamist movements, he argues, are getting stronger day by day, the reaction of the White House has achieved nothing but escalating havoc around the world. And of course within the U.S., too, especially with the end of the habeas corpus and with the crippling of liberal traditions so salient to the nation. This is why its terribly important to maintain the independence of the judiciary. One of the weaknesses of the U.S. is that the Supreme Court has been less active in defending these traditional liberties than in some other countries.

More than anything else he holds Blair guilty of contributing to the decline of New Labour and of playing a role in the war on terrorism: Where Blair went wrong was Iraq, he says. At some stage a guy who began as a brilliantly intuitive election-winning politician discovered that he had a calling to save the world by armed intervention, and he had it even before he got on to the Americans.

Second worst is the complete forgetting that government is for ordinary people. The idea that the only thing that counts are the people who have managed to seize the opportunity in a free market and become rich and famous and celebrated, and to build the values of your society on that this I think has been Blairs fault; perhaps unconsciously hes been biased in that way.

Standing at a point of historic crisis, Hobsbawm blames the forces generated by the techno-scientific economy that are capable of destroying the environment, the material foundation of human life. He elaborates on this: The structures of human societies themselves, including some of the social foundations of the capitalist economy, are on the point of being destroyed by the erosion of what we have inherited from the past. Our world risks both explosion and implosion. It must change.

The contemporary narrative indeed heaps one abysmal disaster upon another, paucity flourishes amidst incredibly advantaged circumstances, and the world edges towards hostilities, scenes of bloodshed and natural disasters. Hobsbawm is of the view that war in the 21st century is not likely to be as murderous as it was in the 20th century, but armed violence creating disproportionate suffering will remain omnipresent and endemic occasionally epidemic in a large part of the world.

Within this context of late imperial culture, this engaging book by Hobsbawm becomes significant in throwing light on history as well as suggesting lessons for the future. He warns, We are in a period of considerable trouble and crisis, rather as we were between the wars.

And the only solution that he sees for the world is precisely how this globalisation can be detached from a completely free capitalism, which is bound to end in enormous difficulties.

The book becomes relevant to the contemporary debate on the effects of globalisation, the dilemma of democracy and the menace of terrorism which has a deep impact on our civilisation in general and on each one of us who are faced daily by the fear of terrorist attacks and public disorder. Global warming looms large before humanity and Western nations have to resolve to act. Though countries such as China do accept the gravity of the situation, they are not prepared to do anything that would adversely affect the growth of their economy. The market forces of the neoliberal world economy, according to Hobsbawm, are the real culprits, aided as they are by the wealthy nations of the world.

The continued and severe economic crises, the sale of millions of dollars worth of weapons to Pakistan, Iraq or Afghanistan, large-scale unemployment, the surfacing of fascism in Europe and intense estrangement with the new political structures effectively flatten the sanguinity of a New World Order and indicate only one certainty: that imperialism is here to stay.

The latest chapter of imperialism has assisted the tempo of class struggle, as economic and political instability spark off working class resistance all over Western Europe. In a book titled Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued that the world is ruled by a new imperial order, different from earlier ones, based not on explicit military domination. Controlled by the worlds wealthy nation-states, by transnational conglomerates and by international institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund, this empire, which is synonymous with globalisation, is manipulative, inequitable and despotic, not only for the South but also for the marginalised in the West. However, Hobsbawm visualises the gradual demise of the empire and the world order descending into such disruption that we do not know where we are headed.

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