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Who we are and what we've become explained in 19C history
on June 28, 2017
This concluding volume is Hobsbawm's brilliant trilogy meets the standard of the earlier volumes: the seismic changes of the 19C - setting the basic parameters for almost all that has followed in the 20C and even the 21C - are explained and evoked. It is a supreme masterpiece of historical exposition that will fascinate even those who have read many histories on the period. Once again, I found myself underlining passages like an undergraduate and re-reading this more than once. This is not a narrative history but a cooly precise analytical one.
The period begins with one of the greatest depressions that mankind had yet known. It marked the end of the liberal-bourgeois ascendancy, which was replacing the traditional aristocratic one with the democratic revolutions that followed the French (and to a lesser degree, the American) Revolution. As the regimes of Western Europe were growing ever more inclusive and even statesmen as powerful as Bismarck realized there was no turning back, this opened the political scene to an astonishing array of new ideas and possibilities. From the business-dominated conservatism and complacency of the previous 30 years, socialism, colonialism, the welfare state and a plethora of other notions emerged and were taken seriously by leaders who wanted to gain or maintain their power. Not only did this create new socio-political arrangements, but in the effort to "control the masses", it also spawned a new kind of political cynicism. If there is a marxist bias to this, it is here.
A big part of this was the ascendency of the notion of nationalism. With the old certainties - religion, permanent rural "stations" in life as opposed to proletariat work in cities, fealty to traditional elites - the emerging "masses" required means of control. Loyatly to the "nation", defined by lauguage, ethnicity, history and place, become a kind of new God. It required consolidation, even the creation of a language (often by wiping out regional dialects) and schools that proffered ideology as well as a ladder for advancement into bureaucracy and other new jobs. It was a new kind of allegiance, which became very powerful in the coming decades, easily eclipsing the supra-national ideologies such as communism that were emerging yet still poorly organized.
As the economic depression lifted, optimism returned with great, ultimately naive, force: many of the elite and even the common people thought that progress would be endless, an attitude that in many quarters survives to this day. However, in contrast to the liberal regime of openness and laissez faire, the handful of developed nations adopted a more mercantilist policy, combining protectionism and an industrial policy. Part and parcel of this was the colonial carve-up of the world by the industrial powers. This created a subordinate relationship, whereby the colonies represented protected markets for industrial goods and provided raw materials to enable their production in the empire's imperial seat. There was a rhetorical "civilizing mission" to all of it, but it only affected extremely limited elites.
A major theme of the book is the lead up to WWI. While mentioning the bourgeois ennui with the long period of peace (the Belle Epoque), Hobsbawm settles on the attitude of Great Britain as a principal cause. The continent had had a number of alliances, a kind of balance of forces that ensured an equilibrium of relatively minor wars that never became too destructive. However, as the German Navy began to encroach on British prerogative, the basis of its far flung Empire, they began to compete directly for mastery of the seas. So, Britain uncharacteristically allied itself with France and Russia, upsetting the old balance. Add to that a technological arms race, and a major conflict became inevitable, though its form was hard to predict and certainly would have taken a less horrific course.
There are many other interesting details, such as the evolution of science, which because less rigidly deterministic - relying on statistics rather than direct causation - and also more abstract, i.e. less commonsensical, less intuitive, more theoretical, particularly with new branches of mathematics and the new physics. In the arts, there was also a decline of realism, emphasizing the subjective and individual perceptions. In the meantime, the electorate continued to expand to the poor and even to the suffragettes. This is all covered too quickly, but it would represent a book in itself for a less superficial treatment.
This is a really great trilogy. Though there is a volume that follows, I suspect it is a commercial add-on as the concepts in this are perfectly rounded out. The reader really can learn an enormous amount about how we have come to this place of capitalism and dislocation. I kept my enthusiasm for it until the end. Recommended with enthusiasm.