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If you can’t beat them, inflate them

The ‘new face of terrorism’ is more hype than real for historian Eric Hobsbawm, writes Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Nov 27, 2007 16:20 IST
Amit Baruah
Amit Baruah
Hindustan Times

Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism
Eric Hobsbawm
Little Brown
Rs 695, pp 184

It’s not a popular argument in the post-9/11 world. Big picture historian Eric Hobsbawm believes that the 9/11 carnage in New York was horrifying. But he also believes that it left the international power of the US and its internal power structures completely unaffected.

In this new collection of essays, Hobsbawm, who has lived through much of the 20th century, argues that the actual danger of the new international terrorist networks to the regimes of stable States — not only in the developed world, but also in Asia — remains negligible.

According to him, fear was the product of government and media uniting to give terrorists maximum publicity. Previously, governments tried hard to deny groups like the ETA, the Red Brigades and the IRA the “oxygen of publicity”. But all that changed after September 2001.<b1>

“None of this diminishes the scale of the genuine global crisis of which the transformations of political violence are expressions. They seem to reflect the profound social dislocations brought about at all levels of society by the most rapid and dramatic transformation in human life and society ever witnessed in single lifetimes,” he writes.

The global crises had been exacerbated by the failures of decolonisation in parts of the world and the end of a stable, or indeed any, international system since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Hobsbawm points out that the membership of the United Nations has risen by 33 — or over 20 per cent — since 1988.

Instability is a feature of the modern world and Russia, the successor to part of the Soviet Union, came perilously close to becoming a failed State. He also claims that men and women may be prepared to die — and more likely to kill — for money or for something smaller or larger.

But in the cradle of the nation-State, they will no longer die and kill for the nation-State. The rise of the thekedari system, as amply reflected by the private security force, Blackwaters, operating in Iraq, or the Gurkhas standing guard on the streets of Kabul, bear out the argument being advanced here by Hobsbawm.

He argues that “brief periods” of ‘empire’ may rest essentially on military power. But this alone cannot guarantee durable foreign rule. “Let us remember that the number of British civilians engaged in governing the four hundred million people of the Indian empire was never more than ten thousand.”

If empire has to last, then it has to rely on cooperation with local interests and the legitimacy of effective power while pursuing, as we in India know, the rather simple policy of divide and rule. “The present situation in Iraq illustrates the difficulties even the most powerful occupier will face when these are absent,” he notes.

The one-time jazz critic for the New Statesman believes that today, the full-armed power of governments has proved incapable of maintaining armed control of their territory for decades — in Sri Lanka, in Kashmir, in Colombia, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank or, for that matter, in parts of Belfast.

Among the many nuggets of information that point to the dramatic transformations in the world is that we have ceased to be a rural species. In 1900, 16 per cent of the world’s population lived in towns. The figure rose to just under 26 per cent in 1950. Today, it was just under half (48 per cent). “Today, only ten of the world’s largest fifty cities and only two of the eighteen world cities whose population stands at ten million are in Europe and North America. The fastest growing cities over one million are, with a single exception (Porto in Portugal), in Asia (20), Africa (six) and Latin America (five).”

The book is studded with such insights. Hobsbawm writes simply and is equally accessible to the student and the practitioner of history, as well as to the lay reader. A book worth having and looking at again and again.

First Published: Nov 27, 2007 16:07 IST