Robin Hood In A Time Of Austerity
Myth is a story that can be retold by anyone, with infinite variation, and still be recognizable as itself. The outline of surviving myth is re-recognized in the lives of each generation. It’s an instrument by which people simplify, rationalise and retell social complexities. It’s a means to haul the abstract, the global and the relative into the realm of the concrete, the local and the absolute. It’s a way to lay claim to faith in certain values. If those who attempt to interpret the world do so only through the prism of professional thinkers, and ignore the persistence of myth in everyday thought and speech, the interpretations will be deficient.
This is the importance of the Robin Hood myth. It’s the first and often the only political-economic fable we learn. It’s not a children’s story, although it is childlike. It contains the three essential ingredients of grown-up narrative – love, death and money – without being a love story, a tragedy or a comedy. It doesn’t tell of the founding of a people. It’s not a fairy story or a religious myth; it has no monsters, gods or wizards in it, only human beings. It’s not a parable. In place of a moral, it has a plan of action. What does Robin Hood do? We all know. He takes from the rich to give to the poor.
A change has come over Robin Hood. On the surface, he’s the same: the notion of taking from the rich to give to the poor is as popular as ever. But in the deeper version of his legend, the behavior-shaping myth, he’s become hard to recognize. The storytelling that makes up popular political discourse is crowded with tales of robbery, but the story has been cloven. I can no longer be sure that my Robin Hood is your Robin Hood, or that my rich and poor is your rich and poor, or who is taking and who is giving.
The old Robin Hood, embodiment of the generous outlaw of Sherwood Forest, still occasionally bubbles up, as when the actor-director Sean Penn called Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, head of the world’s biggest supplier of banned narcotics, ‘a Robin Hood-like figure who provided much needed services in the Sinaloa mountains’. This is Robin Hood the ‘noble robber’, in Eric Hobsbawm’s characterisation. In the final edition of his much reworked book Bandits, Hobsbawm bids farewell to the type. ‘In a fully capitalist society,’ he writes,
the conditions in which social banditry on the old model can persist or revive are exceptional. They will remain exceptional, even when there is far more scope for brigandage than for centuries, in a millennium that begins with the weakening or even the disintegration of modern state power, and the general availability of portable, but highly lethal, means of destruction to unofficial groups of armed men. In fact, to no one’s surprise, in most ‘developed countries’ – even in their most traditionalist rural areas – Robin Hood is by now extinct.
Sinaloa state in Mexico, from where El Chapo carried on his business until his recent recapture by the combined forces of the entertainment world and the Mexican marines, is still fertile ground for belief in the existence of the noble robber in a way present-day Nottinghamshire, or Missouri, or Victoria, once homes to the mythical Robin Hood and the real Jesse James and Ned Kelly, no longer are.
Still, if we move out from Hobsbawm’s focus on the social bandit as actual individual, and consider the entire Robin Hood myth, the ideal remains familiar in our outlaw-free world. The myth requires a great mass of heavily taxed poor people who work terribly hard for little reward. The profits of their labour, and the taxes they pay, go to support a small number of lazy, arrogant rich people who live in big houses, wallow in luxury, and have no need to work. Any attempt to resist, let alone change, this unjust system is crushed by the weight of a vast private-public bureaucracy, encompassing the police, the courts, the prison system, the civil service, large property-owners and banks, all embodied in the ruthless figure of a bureaucrat-aristocrat, personification of the careerist-capitalist elite, the sheriff of Nottingham.
See full article on Robin Hood In A Time Of Austerity here by James Meek, London Review Of Books
Bandits – Description
Bandits by Eric Hobsbawm
First published in 1969, this now-classic book inspired a whole new field of historical study and brought its author popular acclaim. Bandits transcend the label of criminals; they are robbers and outlaws elevated to the status of avengers and champions of social justice. Some, like Robin Hood, Rob Roy, and Jesse James, are famous throughout the world, the stuff of story and myth. Others, like Balkan haiduks, Indian dacoits, and Brazilian congaceiros, are known only to their own countrymen.
In his celebrated study of these fascinating figures, Eric Hobsbawm, “one of the few genuinely great historians of our century” (The New Republic), spans four hundred years and four continents, setting these historical figures against the ballads, legends, and films they have inspired. The result is “a dazzling historical squib, fizzling with ideas and strange stories” (The Guardian).
For this new edition Hobsbawm has substantially extended and revised his original text. It appears at a time when the disintegration of state power is once again introducing fertile conditions for banditry to flourish in many parts of the world.
Bandits – Review
“A wise as well as exciting book; a very valuable addition to the history of mentalities and to that of popular protest… This is human history at its very best.” — The Times Literary Supplement [London]
“A dazzling historical squib, fizzing with ideas and strange stories.” — The Guardian
“In an age of narrow specialists, Eric Hobsbawm remains the supreme generalist… For sheer intelligence he has no superior in the historical profession.” — Sir Keith Thomas
From Library Journal
It seems that almost every country has bandits – some famous, some not – laced into its folk history. Hobsbawm’s 1969 volume delves into the history of bandits and separates the myths from the facts: Were these men social avengers or just plain criminals? The text is supplemented by numerous pictures of Pancho Villa and other noted desperados from several countries. This is one of the few volumes that covers this subject seriously in great detail.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From The New Yorker
An utterly fascinating book.
Bandits by Eric Hobsbawm