On Empire
America, War, and
Global Supremacy

Eric Hobsbawm
You remember what they said about Old Marxists? They were the bearded guys who lived in a shabby backroom with a shabby cat, two shabby fellow Marxists --- with whom they fought constantly --- and a broken-down Ditto machine. (For those of you from the computer age, Ditto machines were the cheapest and ugliest way to publish manifestos fifty years ago.)

Hobsbawn is an Old Marxist, perhaps the oldest for all we know, but unlike those scorned, hectored figures of my youth, he is famous, well-respected, much beloved, prosperous (we hope), and a great stylist. He may have honed his writing skills on the Ditto machines of the forties, but what he has to say, and how he chooses to say it, can make a grown man --- even an old codger like me --- weep:

    The number of battle-related deaths in Myanmar (Burma) was no more than five hundred, but the number of the "internally displaced" largely by the activities of the Myanmar Army, was about one million.

We don't do big wars any more. Only little mean ones. "The Iraq War confirms the point. Small wars --- now predominant --- produce vast catastrophes."

Hobsbawm has mostly been a measured writer, so when he manifests a fiery style, it can startle the reader. He not only sees the Iraq War as a disaster, he thinks those who created it quite mad. He suggests that they have forgotten that arms and power are never quite enough. His example is the Algerian War from fifty years ago: "The French learned that even with a million white settlers, an army of occupation of eight hundred thousand, and the military defeat of an insurgency by systematic massacre and torture were not enough to keep Algeria French." It is Hobsbwam's sudden dip into the personal that is so effective:

    Frankly, I can't make sense of what has happened in the United States since 9/11 that enabled a group of political crazies to realize long-held plans for an unaccompanied solo performance of world supremacy.

"I believe," he concludes, "it indicates a growing crises within American society, which finds expression in the most profound political and cultural division within that country since the Civil War."

Hobsbwam's historical literacy makes such fine connections possible: Algeria ... the American Civil War ... and AIDS (which he defines as the contemporary "Black Plague.") He posits that large nation-states can no longer rely on conscript armies to "fight and die for their country." Instead, they must use "other means." Which only an Old Marxist would be able to recall: "public cameras, phone-tapping, access to personal data." These alternatives have not, he offers, made "state power and law more effective in these states, though it has made the citizens less free."

His theme throughout is the foolishness of thinking that military power will win in the twenty-first century any more than it has in the past (he makes an exception of "the good war" ---- WWII). He cites a pertinent exception, Mexico. Woodrow Wilson made an ill-fated attempt to impose a "program of moral imperialism."

    Washington has decided, wisely, not to play armed Pentagon games with the only large country in its Caribbean backyard.

On Empire is but ninety-one pages long. Every bit of it, as they say in Mexico, vale la pena.

--- Clare Marx
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