Eric Hobsbawn on the Challenges of the 21st Century

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* Book: Eric j. Hobsbawn. Les enjeux du XXIe siecle. Entretiens avec Antonio Polito. Ed. Complexe, 2002.



Michel Bauwens, 2003:

The author, a famous Marxist historian, wrote an extensive history of the 20th cy, entitled "The short century", as he starts the period in 1914 and ends it in 1991, the year of the fall of the Soviet regime. This is an interview about the 21st cy. with an editor of the Italian "Republica" and it starts with a conversation about the new wars. EH notes that the Balkan crisis is a belated result of what happened when other Empires fell in WWI; but notes the different nature of this war as well. On the one hand, the extent of illegal trade and the breakdown of the nation-state re-instates private armies that can wreak havoc on populations. On the other hand, precision technology allows to focus on infrastructure, which spares lives in the present, but destroys a country's economic base, sometimes for decades As an example, Serbia experienced more damage from the NATO bombings than it did in WWII.

Follows a long discussion on world hegemony. EH sees a relative decline of US supremacy as its once absolute economic power becomes relative, and refers to history to say that world, and even regional, hegemonies are a rarity.

Concerning globalization, EH terms it a "long process" that started in the XVth cy. with the possibility of circumnavigating the globe, but the current phase began only after WWII when air freight made possible the world wide trade in fresh goods. Before 1914, in an earlier phase, only commerce and capital goods could move freely, but now, on top of that we have an ICT infrastructure which allows for global control of decentralized processes, and this is new. But a negative opint of the current ere are the (then inexisting) migration controls.

EH stresses that it is important to distinguish between the objective process of globalization, and the ideology which piggybacks on it, i.e. neoliberalism. EH then discusses the crisis of 1997-98, which was not only economic, but ideological, and compares the disasters in Russia, which was unprecedented in its pauperisation, once market principles reigned unfettered, and China, who approached the transition with more balance.

EH, talking about the evolution of the left, says that after having been the party of progress, vs the party of order, that this is now eroding, as some left movements such as the greens, want to stop or control technological progress,while at the same time a New Right has arisen that wants profound social change (Reagan and Thatcher).


Hobsbawn on the Nation-State

Michel Bauwens, 2003:

EH distinguishes two types:

1) the civilian 'multi-ethnic type', that came out of the French and American Revolutions

2) one based on pure ethnicity.

In his view, in normal times, people do not aspire to self-determination, and no creation has ever been achieved through democratic expression. Rather, they are the result of crisis and violence, when people are forced to chose a new allegiance. He also notes that the trend towards ever stronger states, which started in the XVth cy., stopped around 1960 and we now vast territories in Africa and Asia with no stte all, a situation similar to the one after the fall of the Roman Empire. Economic supremacy wil never be enough to govern the world, and though nation-states have weakened, there is no credible alternative on the horizon.

Regarding globalization, EH stresses thta the fundamental difference between the economic logic of capitalism, and its inherently globalizing tendency, vs. the process of political unification, which is never automatiC, but the fruit of a conscious decision. The contradiction between both is the key issue for the XXIth cy.