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.