The late 19th and early 20th centuries were markedly different from the 13th and 14th centuries, although both dealt with the development of world systems. Eric Hobsbawm begins by describing two sectors of the world: “the developed and the lagging, the dominant and the dependent, the rich and the poor” (16). Their three main differences were economic, political, and cultural. However, whether they were developed or not, the majority of people still worked in agriculture, the political infrastructures were similar on a base level, and the cultures were not incredibly different. Hobsbawm merely means to point out that the world was changing, but it is not easy to classify how. Literacy was, in fact, the main separation between the two world sectors. Overall, the whole world was progressing, which was actually a relatively new idea. Nations traded in a world system, but instead of immediately competing, they tried to maximize the gain for everyone involved. This would not last long because of what could be considered the downswing of an economic cycle. After industrialization and the Depression, the nations turned into rivals, and protectionism became the main philosophy. Trusts, mass production, and a lack of laissez-faire took over the political and economic scene, which soon came to be ruled by imperialism. Despite many beliefs to the contrary, Hobsbawm holds that the main reason for colonial expansion was a search for markets in order to expel the excess of overproduction. “Developed” nations were measured by the quantity and quality of their colonial holdings. This enabled politicians to appeal to the national pride of their voters. Imperialism was mentioned in conjunction with glory and prestige in order to keep domestic disobedience and reforms on the back burner. A large part of imperialism was the feeling of power. Europeans, and all whites, who emigrated to colonial holdings were considered with respect, regardless of their profession or how they would have been treated at home. This sense of command was intoxicating but provided whites with a superiority complex. It did not help that the gap between the rich and the poor (generally synonymous with the “whites” and the “coloreds” at this time) was also vastly increasing. This time was categorized by nations attempting to expand their assets, defend their holdings, and carve out spheres of influence. The Monroe Doctrine, a prime example of defense, developed into a surprisingly strong mandate for the Europeans to stay out of the Americas. Of all of the countries, it was particularly important to Britain that she retain her trade routes since that was her main source of income. The overall impact of imperialism was the “westernization” of most of the world and confusion over which type of government would be preferable: an empire or a democracy.
Surprisingly, the political left, such as socialists and participants in the labor movement, advocated for the end of conquest and freedom for colonial holdings. Hobsbawm describes how “radicals revealed the horrors” occurring in colonies, such as Congo (72). This immediately reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which depicts the same type of scene. In fact, conditions for the exploited workers of Congo had not improved by the end of the novel much in the same way that anti-imperialist efforts did not accomplish much. However, I was still very shocked to learn that labor movements were concerned with issues other than domestic ones. I suppose they felt strongly about the matter because they did not want immigrants coming in and taking their jobs.
I thought it was extremely interesting that the “dependent” countries were specializing in the production of specific goods and that it was seen as a “cage.” In economics, I had learned that specializing was the key to the most efficient, and theoretically best, economy. I understand that it was more limiting than other countries’ production of multiple types of goods, but they still utilized their surroundings and made a good profit. I suppose I just do not understand why that had to restrict their industrialization. Perhaps there simply was not time while they were busy fulfilling the demands of other countries? I would have thought that it would have benefited the specializing countries to at least develop industrial tools that would allow them to better produce their singular product.