Is America Fiddling at Its Own Funeral?

By Eric Hobsbawm
Pantheon, 97 pages, $19.95

What a difference a decade makes in the course (and discourse) of empire!

In the year 303, the emperor Diocletian issued the Edict Against the Christians, which ushered in the great persecution that still bears his name. Across the Roman Empire, it was martyrs, martyrs everywhere; churches were razed and imperial offices purged—it was the harshest crackdown in Roman history.

By 313, (Saint) Constantine was in charge. The Edict of Milan had granted official tolerance to the new religion. The Roman center of power was shifting irrevocably east to Byzantium, and Europe was well on its way to becoming the fragmented Christian realm out of which would eventually emerge the modern nation-state as we know it today.

Or maybe—and here we move from course to discourse—as we remembered it yesterday.


AT THE START of our own rather Diocletianean decade, there was no book trendier than Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire. Breathtaking in scope and verve (the authors posing as the millennial Marx and Engels—or at least a Y2K Deleuze and Guattari), Empire’s 450-odd pages notably failed to offer many specifics on colonial governance or colonial wars or, indeed colonies. Those matters, explained the authors, were the provenance of musty old imperialism—the larval industrial precursor to the information-age, hypercapitalist, post-everything empire that destiny demands we struggle against.

But who exactly are the bad guys in this novel social formation? (We take it it’s no longer the men with guns and ships and racial theories.) Suffice it to say that, circa 2000, Empire was about as tentacular and tendentious a concept as the Matrix: “Politics is given immediately,” wrote Messrs. Hardt and Negri. “Empire forms on this superficial horizon where our bodies and minds are embedded. It is purely positive.”


The joke, of course, is that, eight years and a few hundred thousand dead Iraqis later, even the bleakest late-90’s dystopias—remember those festive WTO protests?—have been rendered impossibly quaint. Now that waterboarding’s all the rage, fire-hosing don’t seem half-bad.

As the unimaginable decade draws down, I suspect the zeitgeist read might well become Eric Hobsbawm’s On Empire: America, War, and Global Hegemony, in scope and tenor the very antithesis of Hardt and Negri. There’s nothing at all breathtaking about Mr. Hobsbawm’s latest: 97 pages, four short essays, considerably more questions than answers. The subtitle may be the most definitive statement made in the entire book. Mr. Hobsbawm’s modesty sometimes charms and occasionally irritates—and it makes On Empire as close to essential reading as the times allow.


FANS OF THE author will find “modest” a surprising adjective, especially since “ambitious” more accurately describes his 60 years as a professional historian. Eric Hobsbawm is the sort of intellectual that only the British Commonwealth (née Empire) seems to produce in any appreciable numbers nowadays: erudite and accessible, an old-school scholar who writes for a popular audience. Ninety years young, he’s also a Marxist whose Marxism arrives un-prefixed by “cultural” or “feminist” or “post” anything. His career-defining project—a four-part history of the modern world: The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848; The Age of Capital: 1848-1875; The Age of Empire: 1875-1914; and The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991—indeed displays all the certainty inherent in that unvarnished “ism.”

The new book begins as a recapitulation and extension of Mr. Hobsbawm’s heroic project. In the collection’s first essay, “On the End of Empire,” he opens with a personal measure of extremes. Other than the Scandinavians and the Swiss, he writes, “when I was born, all Europeans lived in states which were part of empires in either the traditional monarchical or the nineteenth-century colonial sense of the word.” So, too, Africans and South and Southeast Asians. The Ottoman Empire had just dissolved, and the Chinese Empire was barely six years deceased. “In the course of my lifetime, all this has gone.”

Clearly, for Mr. Hobsbawm, empire is a specific (if historically pervasive) phenomenon, defined by the unambiguous physical, economic, and social stratification between metropole and periphery (colony). He pointedly scolds nostalgists who imagine this arrangement, for all its faults, as more orderly and tolerant than what came after; the idea of a Pax Romana or Pax Britannica promoting “globalization and world peace” is “claptrap.” The old empires may well have been peaceful within their borders, but a necessary condition of this internal stability was the existence of an international system of great-power rivalry. Every Rome needs its Carthage.

What happened to all this since Mr. Hobsbawm’s birth is recounted in a second essay appropriately titled “War and Peace in the Twentieth Century.” Succinctly put: “Clarity was replaced by confusion”—in two ways. First, “the line between interstate conflicts and conflicts within states—that is, between international and civil wars—became hazy,” as evidenced by the Americans in Vietnam and the Soviets in Afghanistan. Second, “the clear distinction between war and peace became obscure.” As I write this, China and the government on Taiwan are officially “at war”; the United States and the Iraqi insurgency are not.

Is America Fiddling at Its Own Funeral?