Thursday, January 27, 2005

Eric Hobsbawm: Delusions About Democracy

/ commodities / export / democracy /
The leading (probably) Marxist historian of our era, Eric Hobsbawm, refutes the simple-minded notions assosiated with the supposed spreading of democracy (to the Middle East or elsewhere). In the process he makes some pertinent points about democracy and international relations in general.
...Although great power action may have morally or politically desirable consequences, identifying with it is perilous because the logic and methods of state action are not those of universal rights. All established states put their own interests first. If they have the power, and the end is considered sufficiently vital, states justify the means of achieving it--particularly when they think God is on their side. Both good and evil empires have produced the barbarisation of our era, to which the "war against terror" has now contributed...

...While threatening the integrity of universal values, the campaign to spread democracy will not succeed. The 20th century demonstrated that states could not simply remake the world or abbreviate historical transformations. Nor can they easily effect social change by transferring institutions across borders. The conditions for effective democratic government are rare: an existing state enjoying legitimacy, consent and the ability to mediate conflicts between domestic groups. Without such consensus, there is no single sovereign people and therefore no legitimacy for arithmetical majorities. When this consensus is absent, democracy has been suspended (as is the case in Northern Ireland), the state has split (as in Czechoslovakia), or society has descended into permanent civil war (as in Sri Lanka). 'Spreading democracy' aggravated ethnic conflict and produced the disintegration of states in multinational and multicommunal regions after both 1918 and 1989...

...The effort to spread democracy is also dangerous in a more indirect way: it conveys to those who do not enjoy this form of government the illusion that it actually governs those who do. But does it? We now know something about how the actual decisions to go to war in Iraq were taken in at least two states of unquestionable democratic bona fides: the US and the UK. Other than creating complex problems of deceit and concealment, electoral democracy and representative assemblies had little to do with that process. Decisions were taken among small groups of people in private, not very different from the way they would have been taken in non-democratic countries...."


Eric Gordy said...

Thanks for the great quotation! If you are interested, I also put a small response to it at East Ethnia,
Eric (different surname, though)

Nikephoros_Phokas said...

pages 318-319
... "What is this fact anyhow?
"Why do people fear it?
"Is it possible that in his inmost self every man know this fact, but is afraid to admit it to himself and his neighbor?

"It boils down to this: As a result of thousands of years of social and educational distortion, masses of people have become biologically rigid and incapable of freedom. They are not capable of establishing peaceful co-existence.

"As cynical and hopeless as these two succint sentences may sound, they contain the answer to the three above questions. No on wants to acknowledge the truth they contain, or even listen to them. No democratic statesmen would know what to make of it. Every honest man knows it. All dictators have built their power on the social irresponsibleness of masses of people. They have made no bones about consciously exploiting this fact. For years on end, far more than half the civilized German people heard the assertion that the masses merely regurgitate what has been funneled into them. They reacted to this with slavish loyalty. They themselves brought about this ignominious situation. It is ridiculous to contend that the pyschopathic general[Hitler] was capable of of oppressing seventy million people all by himself." ...

page 345

... "Under the influence of politicians, masses of people tend to ascribe the responsibility of wars to those who wield power at any given time. In World War I it was the munitions industrialists; in World War II it was the psychopathic generals who were said to be guilty. This is passing the buck. The responsibility for wars falls solely upon the shoulders of these masses of people, for they have all the necessary means to avert war in their own hands. In part by their apathy, in part by their passivity, and in part actively, these same masses of people make possible the catastrophes under which they themselves suffer more than anyone else. To stress this guilt on the part of the masses of people, to hold them solely responsible, means to take them seriously. On the other hand, to commsierate the masses of people as victims, means to treat them as small, helpless children. The former is the attitude held by the genuine freedom-fighters; the latter is the attitude held by the power-thirsty politicians." ...

Reich, Wilhelm, "The Mass Psychology of Fascism". (Farrar, Straux & Giroux; New York; 1980).

You cannot bring democracy(as if voting changes anything that matters) especially to a muslim nation such as Iraq marred by sectarian religious, ethnic and tribal divisions. Willhelm Reich was a leftist but also a freethinker, so uncommon in our times, the above work has been also translated into Greek, for those that care. It is funny to read leftist accounts of wars being solely a product of political personalities, and the various citizienry inherently loving each other. Twits like Chomsky take this one step further, citing mostly low quality magazine and newspaper articles, everything in the world that is bad is a product solely of American foreign policy and its implementors. Regional politicians, history, statesmen, societies, religions and dynamics have no impact, just American foreign policy.

Seesaw said...

Nikephoros_Phokas writes:
..."everything in the world that is bad is a product solely of American foreign policy and its implementors. Regional politicians, history, statesmen, societies, religions and dynamics have no impact, just American foreign policy."
No it is not product solely of American foreign policy and its implementors, but to great extent - USA is the only power in this world and it can dictate. But one can not BRING democracy - nowhere, it is long PROCESS, and for that American foreign policy has no time.

talos said...

"It is funny to read leftist accounts of wars being solely a product of political personalities, and the various citizienry inherently loving each other"Straw Man. Leftists do not attribute much to political personalities and the citizenry inherently "loving each other". Can you give me one such "leftist" example? I mean Hobsbawm's work (and that's who we're talking about) is most definitely a counterexample of what you describe.

Twits like Chomsky take this one step further, citing mostly low quality magazine and newspaper articles, everything in the world that is bad is a product solely of American foreign policy and its implementors. Regional politicians, history, statesmen, societies, religions and dynamics have no impact, just American foreign policy."Low quality magazine and newspaper articles"? What the NY Times and such? If you're trying to find out what's happenning in the world what's your alternative source to journalism? Philosophy? Spiritualism? Divination?

"everything in the world that is bad is a product solely of American foreign policy and its implementors"?

Have you read the man's political writings? This is a long standing "misunderstanding" of those who have read him only in misquotation or out of context. His point is that he is, as an intellectual, morally responsible for the effects of things done in his name and which he has some control and inflence over (as an American citizen). He points out that were he to join the chorus and focus mainly on the atrocities of the "official enemies" of the US, he would stoop to the same level as the Russian intellectual who under the USSR made a career of writing about the US transgressions.

About the effect of local dynamics etc. - again a specious argument, backed by very little that can be attributed directly to Chomsky.

Anonymous said...

And another piece of the response tree unfolds itself.

The blogosphere seems to be producing... entities... that are increasingly indistinguishable from sim programs. The best of those may be just a few years away from passing a Turing test; quite a lot of blog commentors (and Usenet posters) are already well on their way to failing one.

Doug M.

Nikephoros_Phokas said...

I used to be a leftist so I know how they and you think. In the book "Chomsky on MisEducation" there is a Chapter called "the Craft of Historical Engineering". The footnote section to this Chapter begins on page 124 and ends on page 134, almost all the citations as I said were to newspaper articles. Newspaper reporters are like a class of low brow tourists, who not only visits other locations in their own country but many times other countries. Unlike other tourists just seeking nice beaches, these tourists are sent to write articles often about subjects they know little about besides they have to produce material for their editor before a deadline.

If Chomsky really wanted to know about American foreign policy which he does not, he would do real research on released US government archives and foreign policy documents, work that is largely unpublished instead of using his friends to give him references to newspaper articles and using these to pretend to divine American foreign policy.

As for Marxists, what does it say when someone identifies as a Marxist. People should just think for themselves, if they agree with something written agree with it, but when you become a Marxist you do more than agree with certain things Marx said, you become a dogmatist upholding the observations of a man dead over 120 years.

If you want to see how you cannot bring democracy to a muslim country read some of those Iraqi bloggers well spoken in English comment how now that Saddam's police state is gone true Islam is taking over.

talos said...

N_P: No, I'm afraid "used to be a leftist" does not guarantee at all understanding how "leftists think". The howler on Chomsky is so ridiculous I shouldn't even be replying to it but anyway it's simply mistaken. And this is a claim that even his harshest critics haven't had the gall to dream up. See for example the bibliography of the book "year 501", hardly a collection of news-stories. As for the article you mention, on-line here, your allegations are mind-boggling as in the article he was referring the role that the US press had in mis-shaping and mis-informing public opinion, giving concrete examples of the NYT and the Bostone Globe in action, and referencing the articles he was mentioning. Frankly, if this is the level of reading comprehension I'll have to deal with, I don't think conversation will be possible.

As for "Marxists", Hobsbawm is hardly your "dogmatic" Marxist. Read his "on history" to understand the sense in which he is a Marxist. From the book I quote:

"about the Marxist approach to history with which I am associated. Though it is imprecise, I do not disclaim the label. Without Marx I would not have developed any special interest in history, which, as taught in the first half of the 1930s in a conservative German Gymnasium and by an admirable Liberal master in a London grammar school, was not an inspiring subject. I would almost certainly not have come to earn my living as a professional academic historian. Marx, and the fields of activity of young Marxist radicals, gave me my subjects of research and inspired the way I wrote about them. Even if I thought large parts of Marx’s approach to history needed junking, I would still continue to pay my respects,profound though not uncritical, to what the Japanese call a sensei, an intellectual master to whom one owes a debt that cannot be repaid."

Anonymous said...

As for "Marxists", Hobsbawm is hardly your "dogmatic" Marxist.Big ol' definitional question there... what is a 'dogmatic' Marxist? Is it about goals? Means? Tone and tenor of argument? Can you be a Trot? What if you've developed a Djilas-like critique of the New Class in Communism-as-it-has-been practiced? Will you be locked out of the clubhouse then? Or allowed in on probation, as long as you go to at least three anti-globalization events per semester?

I have to say, fond as I am of Hobsbawm, he looks pretty dogmatic to me.

"Profound though not uncritical," uh huh. As Orwell pointed out 60 years ago in _Politics and the English Language_, in English the double negative is very often a marker for deception, delusion, or just sloppy thinking, especially when the topic is politics, philosophy, or history.

I don't see Hobsbawm as 'not uncritical' of Marx. That's a triple negative, so I'll parse it out: Hobsbawm is not critical of Marx. And when he is, it's inoculatory criticism -- "I'll admit the Big Boy was wrong about this trivial point, which will show how fair-minded I am, so that my argument about how right he was on this Really Key Issue will have extra force."

Again, I do like Hobsbawm. But when the discussion gets close to home, he starts to get all shifty and mendacious. He's still genteel and pleasant, but you can't trust him any more either on facts or (especially) argument. It's really unnerving and a little depressing.

Compare and contrast: Paul Johnson, on the right. (Asshat Catholic authoritarian, if you're not familiar. Anglo-Catholic, which these days is almost always a bad sign). Like Hobsbawm, he's one of those writers who gets better the further you go from here and now. Johnson's _Birth of the Modern_ is a fun read; shallow and often sloppy, but broad, breezy, and informative. It's well worth reading, especially if you're just looking for a good fast survey. But as he gets closer to the present, he becomes increasingly strident and obnoxious, and all his arguments flatten into fact-free assertions.

Tentative generalization: when cornered, a left-intellectual will weasel, while a right-intellectual will scream. Yes, yes, needs more work, but there's something there.

"I used to be a leftist" -- There's an old country song that goes something like, 'he used to drop acid, now he loves Jesus, but he's still got that look in his eye'.

And, again, the sim thing. Me, I'd have more fun arguing with a mechanical fruit picker.

I still need to read the Kosovo thing, yes.

Doug M.

Nikephoros_Phokas said...

If the left had anything to with freedom it would look more at societies and the constituent individuals; less at leaders with their foreign policies. The Reich quote leapt over the quick brown fox.

To deny Chomsky always uses newspaper articles for his tea readings of American foreign policy is out of bounds.