". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hobsbawm's "On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy"

A galley of a slender volume (97 pages, w/ bibliography) that will come out from Pantheon in March. Vaquero says:

[ ... a collection of essays written in the first years of the 21st century considering contemporary global political issues in light of history. Fernand Braudel may have championed the idea of la longue durée, but Hobsbawm is the longue durée, having been born in 1917 (making him a contemporary of Bebo Valdés and Cachao). I wish I could write as concisely and clearly. If I were in charge of having to pick a short, simply written book that an entire freshman college class ought to be able to comprehend and discuss, this would be it. I’ll go so far as to key in a few hundred words: ]

[ . . one general trend can probably be observed across most of the globe. It is the change in the position of the independent territorial state itself, which in the course of the twentieth century became the basic political and institutional unit under which human beings lived. In its original home in the North Atlantic region, it was based on several innovations made since the French Revolution. It had the monopoly of the means of power and coercion: arms, armed men, prisons. It exercised increasing control by a central authority and its agents of what takes place on the territory of the state, based on a growing capacity to gather information. The scope of its activity and its impact on the daily life of its citizens grew, and so did success in mobilizing its inhabitants on the grounds of their loyalty to state and nation. This phase of state development reached its peak forty years or so ago.

Think, on the one hand, of the “welfare state” of Western Europe in the 1970s, in which “public consumption” – i.e., the share of the gross domestic product (GDP) used for public purposes and not private consumption or investment – amounted to between roughly 20 percent and 30 percent. Think, on the other hand, of the readiness of citizens not only to let public authorities tax them to raise such enormous sums, but actually to be conscripted to fight and die “for their country” in millions during the great wars of the last century. For more than two centuries, until the 1970s, this rise of the modern state had been continuous, and proceeded irrespective of ideology and political organization – liberal, social democratic, communist, or fascist.

This is no longer so. The trend is reversing. We have a rapidly globalizing world economy based on transnational private firms, doing their best to live outside the range of state law and state taxes, which severely limits the ability of even big governments to control their national economies. Indeed, thanks to the prevailing theology of the free market, states are actually abandoning many of their most traditional direct activities – postal services, police, prisons, even important parts of their armed forces – to profit-making private contractors. It has been estimated that 100,000 or more such armed “private contractors” are at present active in Iraq. Thanks to this development and the flooding of the globe with small, but highly effective, weaponry during the Cold War, armed force is no longer monopolized by states and their agents. Even strong and stable states like Britain, Spain, and India have learned to live for long periods at a time with effectively indestructible, if not actually state-threatening, bodies of armed dissidents. We have seen, for various reasons, the rapid disintegration of numerous member-states of the UN, most but not all of them products of the disintegration of twentieth-century empires, in which the nominal governments are unable to administer or exercise actual control over much of the states’ territory, population, or even their own institutions. Actual separatist movements are found even in old states like Spain and Britain. Almost equally striking is the decline in the acceptance of state legitimacy, of the voluntary acceptance of obligation to ruling authorities and their laws by those who live on their territories, whether as citizens or as subjects. Without the readiness of vast populations, for most of the time, to accept as legitimate any effectively established state power – even that of a comparative handful of foreigners – the era of nineteenth- and twentieth-century imperialism would have been impossible. Foreign powers were at a loss only in the rare zones where this was absent, such as Afghanistan and Kurdistan. But, as Iraq demonstrates, the natural obedience of people in the face of power, even in the face of overwhelming military superiority, has gone, and with it the return of empires. But it is not only the obedience of subjects but of citizens that is rapidly eroding. I very much doubt whether any state today – not the United States, Russia, or China – could engage in major wars with conscript armies ready to fight and die “for their country” to the bitter end. ]

Fox again: This is the book you need to read that tells in plain language how we arrived in this terrible condition of the planet's deterioration, the implosion of progress and civil liberties, the consolidation of shrinking resources and ever more wealth into the hands of a very small elite, supported and exacerbated by the ever increasing global spread of war made by private individuals and armies -- mostly upon civilians, not nation-states upon professional, national armies.


Frank Partisan said...

The nation state is not a permanent form. In Feudal states there was fiefdoms. With the rise of capitalism, the nation state was more efficient kingdoms etc.

As capitalism evolves to an imperialist stage, the search for markets is international. In addition capitalists fight each other for markets.

The nation state will exist in some form, until classes don't exist.

Foxessa said...

Classes, I think, in some form, will always exist. They existed long before the nation-state as we've known it.

It always seems that the fewer individuals have access to resources, as resources themselves grow more scarce, the more class divisions appear.

Maybe it begins actually with sexism -- the excuse, for instance in some of the poorest states of Africa currently, that meat is bad for women, so women never get any, and with constant pregnancy and breast feeding, are always terribly mal-nourished and die much earlier than men.

Love, C.