Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes starts by analysing world wars

“Hobsbawm said it was the short twentieth century. I don’t know. Seems to me like it’s not remotely over.” So tweeted the radical New York academic Corey Robin the other day. I read this with a flash of revelation because he was so exactly right.

Robin was referring to the book Age of Extremes—The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 by the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, published in 1994. Hobsbawm started out from what he called “the Age of Catastrophe” (1914-45), years dominated by the two world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust.

The world after 1945 was framed by the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. It started with what Hobsbawm calls “the Golden Age” of the great post-war economic boom. But this was followed by a “landslide” into fresh crises.

Nevertheless, Hobsbawm confidently asserted that “there can be no serious doubt that in the late 1980s and early 1990s an era in world history ended and a new one began”. He saw the “Short Twentieth Century” as an era ushered in by the Russian Revolution of October 1917 and ending with the collapse of the state that emerged from it.

For more mainstream authors writing around the same time, liberal capitalism could now resume business after the bloody and distracting interlude of the era after 1914. The economic globalisation that flourished between roughly 1980 and 2010 was inaugurating an era of peace and prosperity.

It doesn’t look like that now. Russia and Ukraine are waging bloody 20th century style industrialised warfare at a huge human cost. This conflict dramatises the return of the kind of geopolitical competition that marked the 20th century. The far right that was so deeply implicated in the Age of Catastrophe is very much back. And in Gaza we can watch in real time the genocidal war that Israel is waging against the Palestinians.

Like the present period, the early 20th century Age of Catastrophe followed a phase of economic globalisation. In an earlier book Hobsbawm painted a brilliant portrait of the mid-19th century Age of Capital. This was when international trade and finance and new technologies such as railways, telegraphy, and steamships bound the world together. An integrated global capitalist economy emerged under the management of Britain’s liberal empire.

The biggest gainers from this economic expansion were new industrial powers—above all, Germany and the US. By the end of the 19th century, against the background of growing economic and political instability, they were challenging British hegemony.

The result was the two world wars that dominated Hobsbawm’s Age of Catastrophe. Somewhat similarly, the more recent wave of globalisation took place under the leadership of another liberal empire. The US had replaced Britain as the hegemonic state after the Second World War.

The collapse of the Soviet Union left it without a serious challenger—for a while. But, once again, globalisation has been marked by the relative decline of the hegemonic power. The US suffered two great blows in the 2000s—defeat in Iraq and the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-9. Advanced capitalism entered a prolonged period of economic stagnation.

But, also once again, globalisation had a major beneficiary. China emerged as the centre of global manufacturing and trade by supplying the cheap goods that made neoliberalism bearable for working people and helped to keep inflation low. And under president Xi Jinping it is increasingly challenging US hegemony.

The protectionism being increasingly practised by the US and China doesn’t mean globalisation is over. International trade in goods peaked before the pandemic hit, but it continues to grow in services. Capitalist globalisation hasn’t brought the peace its promoters promised.

As in the early 20th century, it has redistributed power between states. It’s also widened the gulf between rich and poor, as it did during the “Gilded Age” before 1914. This is a recipe for war and revolution, just as it was in the “Short Twentieth Century”. 

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