Hobsbawm's prophecies and the effects of the 20th century

Recent developments in organized violence have triggered a wave of unprecedented anger

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

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In a surreal, movie-like scene, Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was shot dead at an art gallery last month by a young man who did not choose to dress like Ayman al-Zawahiri or Abu Hafs al-Mauritani. The killer opted for a formal outfit instead, carrying out the crime and then began to deliver a speech. He was later identified as police personnel. This incident exposes the international tragedy we're currently living as the institution may seem threatened and the theoretical establishment of the state and the authority and their influence will not be like it was five centuries ago. The biggest challenge which countries confront today is represented in the extent of their capabilities to fortify power and search for modern pillars that help them coexist with challenges which no one has thought of before as terrorism has gone beyond operating in caves and tunnels and fortifying itself in mountains and infiltrated institutions while eroding the authority's body. This strengthens the hypothesis of major dwindling or perhaps breaking and collapse.

Recent developments in organized violence have triggered a wave of unprecedented anger. The past century was concluded with talks about ends, completion prophecies, proud statements about technology, civilization and globalization and the end of geography, man and borders. However, the beginning of the new century was loud and it was dramatic as represented by the September 11 twin attacks.

Historian Eric Hobsbawm refuses to be exclusively categorized within the Marxist ghetto. In his dairies Interesting Times, he said it was not possible to separate between the fields of politics and history. He then voiced gratitude that his Marxist characteristic allowed his books to gain popularity in Hungary and Slovenia.

In chapter 8 of his book, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914–1991, he wrote about the Cold War and mentioned a historical point that may help us understand the challenges we confront. He says that what was precisely different about the Cold War is that it brought about transformations in the international arena - transformations which completely cancelled or blacked out all rivalries and disputes that shaped international policy before World War II. He then notes that these transformations will influence the third millennium more than the Korean War or the Berlin and Cuba crises did.

Defiance of authority

We recall what Hobsbawm said for major reasons. He's a historian or like he describes himself "an observer." He's provided results and foreseen outcomes for the 21st century. He did not rule out a comprehensive nuclear war among humans. In an important interview - which was perhaps a bit late - by the New Left Review in October 2012, he said: "I see five main changes: the shift of the economic center of the world from the North Atlantic to South and East Asia, the worldwide crisis of capitalism, the clamorous failure of the US attempt at a solo world hegemony after 2001, the emergence of the new bloc of developing countries as a political entity and the erosion and systematic weakening of the authority of states: of national states within their territories, and in large parts of the world, of any kind of effective state authority. It might have been predictable, but it has accelerated to an extent that I would not have expected."

The fallout from a defiance of authority is the revival of violence. The assassination of the Russian envoy in Turkey is an example.

Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

The fallout from a defiance of authority is the revival of violence. The assassination of the Russian envoy in Turkey is an example. Terrorism revives in the world due to its power and dominance and it proves the extent of retreat of states' structure and lack of means to renew their efficient institutions in the world. Terrorism benefits from what can be described as "the status quo" and from violent organizations that are always forming and renewing and that have the ability to move in society and melt and become part of different institutions. This makes it inevitable for those concerned to look into other means to address this without limiting themselves to the security aspect and while also including legal, political and municipal aspects.

In his book Leviathan, printed in 1651, philosopher Thomas Hobbes, attributes the violence eroding the state's body to "First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation." The state, with all its content of symbolic or charismatic authorities or influential efficient institutions, may retrieve what it loses due to political and security problems. Perhaps the state's most prominent enemy is the spread of violence and emergence of popular disturbance. The latter threat can be confronted via political and security work. The spread of violence, however, is an efficient culture that has its demonic capabilities to infiltrate, work slowly, and through organized tactics, establish intelligence networks and recruit followers in all sectors. This makes it the most prominent undisputed enemy. And just like civil wars in Europe contributed to changing the classic concept of the state and the pattern of the authority's work since Hobsbawm to Max Weber, the challenge now is related to another wave that goes beyond the state post the civil war and that is about establishing patterns for institutional work in a manner that suits the challenges regarding the spread of violence. The clearest proof to that is what happened in France, Germany, Britain, Spain, America and Belgium.

We saw how terrorism exited mountains and found its way into art galleries while wearing completely different outfits. English Poet Siegfried Sassoon perfectly described the scene in his verse:
"Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud."

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.

Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Alarabiya.net, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts. He tweets @shoqiran.

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