Reading Notes

On Empire by Eric Hobsbawm (2008)

A short collection of four essays on sometimes overlapping topics, which I mostly enjoyed, especially the second and fourth. Notes on each follow.


1. The End of Empires

The memories of old empires feed into the narrative of nation states who were formerly the centers of empires, whereas the national identities of completely new nation states base themselves in struggle or liberation. Contemporary citizens have a different relationship to an empire’s subjects, which changes how a modern state can function, and limits the ability of empire to return in the 21st Century.

2. War and Peace in the Twentieth Century

An exploration of how war has changed between the three periods in the 20th century: the era of world wars, the era of confrontation between the USA and the Soviet Union, and the era since the end of the “classic international power system.” What are the differences  between wars which happen between states and those which are internal?

“The contrast between the First World War and the Second is dramatic: only 5 percent of those who died in World War I were civilians; in World War II the figure increased to 66 percent. It is generally supposed that 80 to 90 percent of those affected by war today are civilians.

A clear delineation between the start and finish of a war rarely now exists, and the term war is often applied to matters of policing, which “confuses the actions of the two types of armed force.”

The dissolution of the great powers system of international relations has removed a major restraint on interstate warfare and the armed intervention of states in the affairs of other states. The UN is not sufficiently empowered to control this and to prosecute crimes of war, while the USA is not nor ever will be powerful enough to control the globe by unilateral force.

3. War, Peace, and Hegemony at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century

The pace of urbanization in the developing world is so rapid as to bring the largest change in the last 10,000 years of human history: the vast majority of humans will no longer be predominantly concerned with making food.

Globalization is subverting what had been the basic unit of human organization through the twentieth century, the nation state, by transferring some of the nation’s powers to private companies.

A rise in the willingness and prevalence of states surveilling their citizens has made citizens feel less loyal to the state while not increasing state power and law. This lack of loyalty of citizens to power removes the ability of states to behave like the old empires towards their own citizens or to the citizens of occupied places.

The foreign policy of America after 9/11 has destroyed the political and ideological foundation of the country’s former influence in the world. Rather than being foreign policy directives at producing outward influence, it was directed at reinforcing a political express of american superiority and manifest destiny to a voter base in middle America, resentful of and uncomprehending of the prosperous globalized “other America” on the coasts.

4. Why America’s Hegemony Differs from Britain’s Empire

Interest in a revival of systems of empire stem from four developments:

i. The changes in economics, technology, and culture, brought by globalization have brought an explosive rise in global inequality under free market capitalism, and national politics have not adapted to address this issue.

ii. The collapse of the international balance of power since the end of World War II, and especially after the collapse of the USSR. How does an international system based on relationships between superpowers function when only one remains?

iii. The crisis of the ability of nation states to control what is happening in their territory; separatism and civil war are so constant as to be a feature of contemporary nation-states.

iv. The return of mass human catastrophe including mass expulsion and genocide of peoples, along with a general fear of conflict, terrorism, and disease. The nations of the world have proven inadequate at addressing these global catastrophes, especially those which have been so endemic to the Africa from the 1990s onward.

The international bodies designed to deal with these forces are not powerful enough to act without the support of strong nation-states, who are unwilling to participate in those matters which oppose their own interest, but are otherwise of internet top the whole world, or even to their own citizenry.

A persistent myth is that: “the best case for empire is always the case for order.” The peace enjoyed by empires was usually either through luck, or through constant warfare on its frontiers, outside of the view of its subjects.

“Winning big wars proved as fatal to empires as losing them.”

“International peace is not what they created but what gave them a chance to survive.”

Both the British and American empires derived their power from dominating the industrial world economy, possessing global military supremacy (naval for the British, air for the Americans). They exercised huge cultural impact on the world, which further increased their prestige. Note that cultural dominance is not powerful by itself, see the case of Italy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Their expansionist spirits derived differently: Britain had fixed and constraining borders, so much of its colonial energy came from the mass of emigration by its people; America, on the other hand, derived its expansionism from the legacy of the frontier and its familiarity with seeing itself as superior to the Native American population it displaced and genocided.

Because America is younger and founded on colonial revolution-notably against the British-it is missing the pride of heritage as well as the neighbouring geographical enemy which an older nation can define itself again-in the British case, against the French. Therefore, America has had to define itself ideologically, which changes the way it perceives enemies.

The British economy was global and it relied upon its colonies for industrial and trade development. America derived its influence based on its sheer size and originality in exporting technology and business organization. Now that the rest of the world is using those exports to catch up, the unusually low trade dependency of America’s economy threatens to leave it behind in global competition.

Because the British empire’s economic position relied more on trade than imperial power, it adjusted relatively easily to the loss of its colonies and political power in the 20th century. America’s reliance on military and political power for advancing its economy and global position may mean it copes more poorly with its loss of status as superpower when that eventually comes.