Eric Hobsbawm: Pessimistic view of the world's future in Globalization, Democracy and Terrorism

Historians in the News

It has been Eric Hobsbawm's fate to live to see the institutions whose rise he analysed as a historian of the modern world decline or disappear. Empires are gone, except for one, and that one is floundering. Nation states control less and less, while often pretending they control more and more. Democracy puffs itself up, but politicians wonder privately how long its eroded routines will continue to command allegiance. Mass parties and ideological movements survive largely as shells. Even the rebels who challenge established states are in confusion, pursuing unrealistic objectives while discarding rules that once limited political violence, an ominous combination. "We do not," Hobsbawm says in this collection of recent essays and lectures, "know where we are going."

When a scholar as eminent as Hobsbawm professes perplexity as well as pessimism about the future the rest of us will be naturally inclined to share his anxieties. His worries are those of a man who, in spite of his reputation as a radical, has had a lifelong attachment to order. At different times he has had different views of what constitutes that order. But the essence, it may be ventured, is that order rests on understanding. Human beings need to comprehend change, to grasp the ways in which it can be managed, to cope with history rather than to be crushed by it. Our situation now, he argues, is that there is even less of such a rational understanding, particularly in Washington, than there was in the past.

Since change is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, he says, that is truly dangerous. During the cold war era, for all its dismal aspects, there was more recognition of constraints and limits, and history, in any case, was going more slowly. People woke up each morning to a world in which certain things, both good and bad, were fixed. Not so now. The demise of the Soviet Union has, he suggests, set off a pathological political process in the United States. He confesses that he does not know why America has abandoned "a real hegemony" based on consent and soft power for the illusory pursuit of world domination. At one point he suggests that recent American foreign policy has been the result of a kind of mad negotiation between its relatively sophisticated coastal parts and a central region with no understanding of the world. At another he offers the rather standard thought that American over-reaction to the threat from terrorists amounts to "inventing enemies that legitimise the expansion and use of its global power"....

comments powered by Disqus