November 19, 2008

Guest post - On The Age of Empire

I was invited to write a guest post here and so have decided to write about Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire – which I see as a good popular history book that reawoke my interest in the period. It’s the 3rd of his series of modern history books (the others being The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital and The Age of Extremes).

The key point of the era he is writing about (1875-1914) is that it saw the territorial conquest of much of Africa and Asia that had hitherto remained independent by European colonial powers. In Africa, only Liberia and Ethiopia remained independent. This age of Empire saw not only territorial conquest but the spread of the capitalism. Underdeveloped parts of the world were partly integrated into what was becoming a global economy.

Being a Marxist, Hobsbawm goes into detail on the topic of economic change and economic development. This period marks the continuation of what can be seen as the ‘first phase’ of globalisation. Perhaps it is the second phase that we are living through now.

He sees the post-1875 period as a move away from the Cobden-Bright ideas of free trade into one of competing national economies. These national economies may be capitalist but they do not subscribe to the orthodoxies of free trade of what he dubs The Age of Capital (1848-75). Germany and the USA economically develop rapidly within tariff walls. This enables them to protect their domestic industries from British exports. The increasing division into national economies makes it more essential for European powers to obtain colonies to acquire cheap raw materials and markets for their goods.

Now, the Marxist interpretation of this period can be challenged, since it is not clear that that many colonies were actually profitable for their rulers. However, the perception at the time was that they could be. And, what’s more, the fear that a rival country would take the territory often spurred conquest. At this stage, rivalry between European nations tended to stick to the diplomatic and economic arena. It would only turn into military conflict later on.

The growth of social-democratic and workers’ movements is also of great interest to Hobsbawm. While not able to attain power given the nature of the German political system, the SPD still manages to emerge as the foremost party in the land. Its very strength implied that – by its rapid industrialisation – the German state had also created its main political opponents (the industrial proletariat).

The other interesting thing about much of the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s is that it is a period of deflation. Deflation is not something that really occurs much nowadays, but it was common then. This deflation partly spurs the move to a more protectionist world economy after the 1870s. But it also means that employers try to reduce workers’ nominal wages. This results in the growth of trade unionism and goes hand-in-hand with a growing political polarisation in advanced economies.

The end of the period also sees revolutions attempted in Turkey, Persia and Russia. These can be seen as the forerunner of later, modernising attempts in those societies.

In that way, the Age of Empire sets the stage for much of what happens in the 20th century – with nationalism and revolution continuing at a more intense level after 1914.


Crushed said...

On the whole I would agree with Hobsbawm's analysis- but then I guess thatv wouldn't surprise you.

It was the division of the globe into demarcated spheres of interest that ultimately led to WW1- the fact that Germany looked up asnd realised it hadn't done very well out of the scramble to gain territory to expand its economy into, whilst the Entente powers all had room to grow.

Georg said...

Bonjour Graccy,

As nearly always, a very interesting post. A pleasure to read.

When a communist/marxist talks about history, I always feel a terrible urge to disagree.

Spread of capitalism during 1875-1914: it existed already at the time of the Roman Empire. And the medieval state cities in Northern Italy plus the Fugger, the Welser, the Hanseatic Union were capitalistic, too. Modern bookkeeping was invented in the 14th Century.

Global economy: existed for thousands of years. Silk Road. And let's remember that America was discovered for purely economic reasons, namely to find a cheap way to purchase pepper. The only difference I can see: these people did not have railways.

The last point - the German social-democratic party: they were not opponent to the imperial regime but a kind of opposition. There was general conscription in the German states before 1870 and 1914 and the people welcomed the war enthusiastically. The workers, the proletariat,everybody, they welcomed 1870/71 and especially WW 1 as a means to do something for their country (and come home with booty three months later).


goodbanker said...

Nice post, Vino - being easily distracted, I've struggled to get into Hobsbawm - so it's nice to get your commentary.

On Crushed's point (that it was the colonial scramble, and Germany's late arrival to it, that "ultimately led to WW1") - are you suggesting WW1 would not have happened if there hadn't been the colonial backdrop? I would agree with you that this was a factor; but if one does a thought experiment, and asks oneself whether WW1 would have happened if there had been no colonies to scramble for, then I suggest the answer is still "yes". Specifically, Bismarck had set the standard with easy victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870-1), allowing him to unite Germany and expand it territorially into Schleswig-Holstein, Austria-Hungary and Alsace-Lorraine (as well as claim sufficiently punitive reparations from France, to force the latter off the gold standard and onto silver instead). Is it credible to think that they would have stopped there in perpetuity, had it not been for the colonial disadvantage of coming late to the scramble party? I just doubt it - but of course, can't prove the counterfactual.

Georg - just spotted your post: on spread of capitalism and globalisation, I assume the issue is that the scale with which these things happened in the last quarter of the C19th was out of all proportion with what had previously happened?