'If Men Were Angels. . . ' : Reflections on the World of Eric Hobsbawm

'If Men Were Angels. . . ' : Reflections on the World of Eric Hobsbawm

Mini Teaser: Historians have recently begun to see the twentieth century as lasting from 1914 to 1989 (the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe) or to 1991 (the end of the Soviet Union), what Eric Hobsbawm in his new book calls "the short twentieth century.

by Author(s): James Kurth

Given the Gerschenkron theory, one might expect that the industrialization process in the United States, a later industrializer like France and Germany, would have required organization by investment and industrial banks. But Gerschenkron himself never discussed industrialization in the U.S. The likely reason is that the U.S. did not fit his model. In fact, in the United States all of his different modes of organizing industrialization manifested themselves, roughly following a pattern of family firms for the textile industry, investment banks for the railroads and the steel industry, industrial banks for the chemical and electrical industries, all of the above for the automobile industry, and the federal government for the aerospace and nuclear industries.

For the first three quarters of the twentieth century, the United States was the most successful example, even exemplar, of the industrial revolution. The explanations for the success of U.S. industrialization, of what Europeans in the nineteenth century already called "the American system of manufacturing" have long been discussed and debated among economic historians. They include such familiar American features as ample natural resources, a large and prosperous population, a skilled and industrious labor force, and an exceptional entrepreneurial spirit. However, it can be useful to focus on some of the contributions of the American Revolution.

The continental scale of the independent United States provided more ample resources and a larger national market than that available to any other industrializing country, other than that perpetual anomaly, Russia. The federal system of government was strong enough to enact protective tariffs for emerging American industry. However, the separation of powers and the protection of mediating institutions provided the best possible framework for the development of the entrepreneurial spirit and the corporate form of business. The skeptical conception of human nature and the related conception of the rule of law provided a sound legal foundation for the predictable enforcement of contracts.

In short, the American Revolution bequeathed to the United States a continental scale and a constitutional structure. The continental scale of the American economic system was a necessary condition for the distinctive success of U.S. industrialization. So also was the constitutional structure of the American political system. Because of the legacy of the American Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, there was an extraordinary strength to the American economy at the beginning of the twentieth century. This strength would continue through three quarters of the century, and it would enable the United States to convert what was the Age of Catastrophe for others into an American Century for itself and, in the third quarter of this century, a Golden Age for others as well.

The Idolatry Within

But the picture of the American economy in 1995, two decades after the end of the Golden Age, is very different. In the middle of what Hobsbawm calls the Landslide is the long slide of the American economy. The explanations for the slide of the American economy have also been long discussed and debated among economists. However, in keeping with our earlier emphasis, it might be useful to focus on the fate of some of the legacy of the American Revolution in this last quarter of the twentieth century.

The continental legacy of the American Revolution is largely obsolete. The American economy no longer operates on a continental scale, but within a global market. It also no longer operates as an industrial economy, but as a post-industrial one, as a service or information economy. Together, globalization and post-industrialization have combined to bring about the de-industrialization of the United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the reverse of the industrialization that occurred in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

De-industrialization, in turn, has brought in its train the creation of an urban underclass, once largely composed of young blacks, now also increasingly composed of young whites. This urban underclass, in turn, provides a critical mass, an incubating culture, for an array of social pathologies. Hobsbawm is lucid and accurate in describing this process of social disintegration, not only in the United States but also in Western Europe.

At first glance, the constitutional legacy of the American Revolution still seems to be in good health. The separation of powers is certainly in operation in 1995, with a Democratic President and a Republican Congress. The protection of those mediating institutions which are business corporations also seems to be operating well, despite the perennial complaints of business about over-regulation. But the original and full conception of mediating institutions emphasized churches, local communities, and families. These, as Hobsbawm records at length, are all far weaker today thin they were during most of the twentieth century (and most of recorded history). Many American conservatives believe that the threat to the mediating institutions comes from the federal government, or in the terms used in this article, from the logical extreme of the French political revolution, the enlightened despotism of the centralized state. There are indeed threats coming from this direction. However, the most pervasive and relentless threat to the church, die local community, and die family comes from the logical extreme of that other European revolution, the British industrial revolution, expressed in the form of a capitalism and a selfish individualism that are no longer restrained. Hobsbawm systematically describes this destructive dynamic.

The political conceptions of the French Revolution, when carried to their logical extreme as in the Soviet Union, end in tyranny, the idolatry of the state. However, the economic conceptions of the industrial revolution, when carried to their logical extreme as is now happening in the United States, end in anarchy, the idolatry of the self. Most of the great catastrophes of the twentieth century -- the First World War, the Second World War, the chain of Soviet catastrophes, a second chain of Maoist catastrophes, and many others -- were brought about by one kind of extreme, the idolatry of the state. It was the American calling in the twentieth century to oppose this idolatry, and America's overall and repeated success in doing so that made the twentieth century into the American Century.

Now, at the end of the twentieth century, there no longer seems to be a likelihood of catastrophe issuing from the idolatry of the state. Rather, there seems to be more of a likelihood of a slide into chaos issuing from the idolatry of the self. The twenty-first century will only be an American century if Americans can learn once again to oppose an idolatry, this time the one within themselves.

Essay Types: Book Review