Review : The Age of Capital

Phew. What do you get if you take mountains of data from a period of 25 years, thulp it, and collect all the resultant connections ? Something close to The Age of Capital.

If anything, this book is better than the Age of Revolutions, and that was in itself really good. Eric Hobsbawm combines a historian’s store of information with the analysis of a sociologist, psychologist, philosopher, art critic, and god knows what else. Though his distaste for the dominant culture of this period (and our own, at present) is hardly veiled, and at times quite venomous, but that does not colour his analysis to any significant extent. He probably also is somewhat partial to this period since this was the time Marx’s Capital was published and Marx achieved long-deserved prominence. Hobsbawm, being a Marxist historian, writing about who Marx essentially called the enemies of the proletariat, shows great tolerance and scholarly impartiality in most places, though his dislike is quite obvious at some other places.

But even Marx thought that the rise of a mature capitalist society was a pre-requisite for the proletarian revolution, (though this was not to be the case in Russia) and looked to the future with hope. Hobsbawm, with the benefit of hindsight, holds onto no such illusions. He documents this period with great depth of insight, deepened no doubt by the knowledge of its past and future.

He clearly states the extent of the success that the bourgeois achieved in this period, which is to be considered the apogee of the bourgeois as a class. There was a great social revolution at around 1848 in which almost all of Europe fell under the reign of the masses, albeit for a very small time, the longest reign probably lasting a whole nine months. After this brief effervescence in the flow of time, which the Socialists hoped signaled the end of the bourgeois society, came the actual launch of capitalism to its highest, anarchic glory. Hobsbawm describes in detail the factors which lead to the rise of capitalism: The discovery of new lands, colonisation, abolition of slavery and serfdom, liberalisation of economies, exploitation of transportation and communication technologies, mass production of engineers, especially in the USA and Germany, Protestant Ethic, among many others.

He also describes with great sympathy the destruction of the social fabric of the extant society, especially in the countryside, along with the consequent migration of rural folk to the centres of industry and cities, providing the backbone of any capitalist society, its labour force. The middle class was increasingly a voice that could not afford to be ignored, and they cried for changes in policy insofar it benefited them. This was also among the calmest periods in Modern European history, quite like the eye of the storm, unlike the destruction of the revolutions which preceded it and the wholesale carnage of the `world’ wars which was to succeed it. This is attributed to the stupendous amount of prosperity that an immensely productive capitalism gave not only to its favorite sons, but also to the cream of the workers, especially the skilled ones. When the belly is full, politics is not high on the list. Unless, of course, you are from the Devegowda family.

The developments described here are strikingly similar to what one sees on the roads on Bangalore nowadays, with the exception of a commitment to social justice by a small number of its residents and new mantras like corporate social responsibility, which at best helps people genuinely in need and at worst is nothing more than a blatant hypocrisy. (In fact, one look at the statistics of India after liberalisation shows that the people at the lowest strata are actually earning lesser than what they were before!) The Age of Capital was one where the legends of business like Rockefeller, Carnegie, the Rothschilds were the true gods. It was the age for, and by the bourgeois, who tended to create the world in their own image. It was an age when science was political, with biology and anthropology proving beyond doubt that the Western European middle class society was the most evolved form of Man, the other classes and regions of the world merely less evolved. (not backward, as to assert this would be to say that all humans are not equal, violating a cherished middle class notion) India has taken to this path with great gusto, without having the common sense to learn from the lessons of the past as to how to make this productive engine work for the `greatest happiness of the greatest number’, to quote from the popular doctrine of the time. It will be interesting to read post-liberalisation India’s history, when it gets written.


6 thoughts on “Review : The Age of Capital”

  1. In fact, one look at the statistics of India after liberalisation shows that the people at the lowest strata are actually earning lesser than what they were before!

    Whenever i read such statements previously i used to be very disappointed. Nostalgia of such an article used to be there with me for a long time. Can we make our society something better than this? Can we have a society which respects and follows what is correct? Can we have real justice? Am I cynical about the things that are happening around me?lot many such questions used to run thru my mind. But now I have started maintaning a state of mind which will not take any side. No decision on what is right and what is wrong. Because the experience of life has provoked so many counter questions. I believe something will stick over a long time if and only if it is essentially correct in all aspects(Many have said so and even you had written something similar to this in one of your article). Then what are the things that are essentially correct? Essentially man is an animal and most of the animal nature and the rules of a wild(probably wide would be more apt which means to say all sorts of people) forest would prevail as long we exist.Then our so called educated guys may say are we not civilized? What sort of people coined the term civilization?
    What made them to think of something like that? Didn’t the philosophies told till date, dreams built, rules set consider this essential limitation of human being? Each time a generation had questions like this, we had many saying this is not correct,that is absolutely wrong,etc. But who will say what is exactly correct? Or something being exactly correct is just like some hypothetical idea that we studied in our schools?In figuring out that exact thing some have spent their life, some are still spending,some just beleived what they are doing is correct, some believed what someone else is doing is wrong,some overlooking what all is happening let their greed rule and some without bothering what is happening just lead their life quietly(Of course unless and untill former kind of people influencing their life).Some where in one of your article you had said about “Live and Let Live”. Going back to human limitation we discussed previously can we say this is possible? Some might say thru structured education we can achieve this. But then even today we keep seeing a nandigram.Even knowing what is correct we always tend be on the side where we are safe and where we will called normal.Coz we are essentially an animal. So am I saying something close to “Survival of the fittest” once again mentioned in one of your previous article. No,coz somewhere I feel it shouldn’t be (might be bcoz I am not a Lion in this jungle). Something more next time. I know this not complete, too hapazard. But after long long time I just wrote somtehing today and I will wait till I complete this( Don’t be surprised at ‘I will wait’ since that is essentially correct!!!!)

  2. A comment of this size!! wonder what will happen if you start blogging ;)
    like you observe, other than the fact that 2+2=4, nothing else seems to be certain. The only refuge seems to be science, whatever its limitations, it is good at what it does.
    Once things move into the realm of philosophy, haziness sets in, else it would be called science :D

    To call Man an animal would be slightly incorrect, since animals maintain a balance with their ecosystem, whereas we do not. Man is slightly more(or less!) than an animal, and that seems to be the problem.

    If this is ‘something’, let’s see what ‘everything’ is :)

  3. Of course the only refuge is science and will be science.As you were mentioning in your assignment work on Technology and Society, influence of science and technology on our lives is too vast. Is it not the statement “In fact, one look at the statistics of India after liberalisation shows that the people at the lowest strata are actually earning lesser than what they were before!” (on the basis of which I started writing previously) is a result of this influence of science and technology. Hence being science students and leaving in a scientifically developed era, we do have to study this influence accordingly.If we don’t want to have the situation quoted above, while building dreams on the basis of science, while setting rules we do have to consider the so called philosophical science.So where to draw a line on the influence of science on our lives? Where exactly?

  4. One must remember that science, to the greatest extent is value neutral, and how it is used is the issue.
    To say that science and technology is causing people to earn lesser is mind-boggling, I don’t know how anyone can defend that statement. More likely, the _attitude_ of people using science and tech matters. nuclear materials can be used in radiation therapy as well as blasting a few million people to kingdom come.

    S&T has influenced our lives to a very great extent, since it more often than not provides the edge in a competitive environment. Competition usually gives rise to asymmetric power relations between people, and it is becoming clear that power is in the hands of the one with money, who is also inevitably the leader in S&T. We are essentially expressing old cultural relations of power through newer media like S&T. Upper castes become Engineers, lower castes become factory workers (though this is changing, it is still quite the case)
    The West assume that they have to show ‘underdeveloped’ countries how to live, since we are incapable of living a decent life ourselves, being ‘uncivilized’ to them.

    I think it would be incorrect to put the blame on the media through which our stubborn cultural biases are expressed, rather than the culture itself. Maybe cooperation would be a better culture than competition, but this is only a conjecture.

  5. I didn’t mean science and technology is causing people to earn lesser. Probably I didn’t frame my opinions properly.Any S&T I believe has a very small importance unless it finds itself a reasonable market. So,this creation of market for a technology would definitely influence the inhabitants of a society(probably this was what you meant when you said “One must remember that science, to the greatest extent is value neutral, and how it is used is the issue”).This is where the question “So where to draw a line on the influence of science on our lives?” gains its importance.
    If you think I am dragging this too much let us drop this discussion. I have been going thru your blog for a while, found it interesting. So just started brushing up my own thoughts. Anyways keep going.Good work.

  6. Well, it is a matter of personal choice, i guess. You can have geeks buying the latest gadgets as they get released and have those who reject most technology and live comfortably. Not something that can be decided at a macro level. It is not easy to know the destructive effects that one’s actions have on others, so where the line is to be drawn is a very unknowable (i.e, philosophical ;) question.

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