Sunday, January 23, 2011

Good News For The New Medievalism!

The barons are back! We now have a private CIA and a private wiretapping service, supported by folks with big money! The wiretapping service is known to be supported by Baron Rupert Murdoch, but we don't yet know the names of the spy service supporters who are leading us into the bright new medievalism.

Parag Khanna is only one of the people joyfully pronouncing the return of the thirteenth century, although sometimes he confuses it with the twelfth. This is no small confusion and may account for why he thinks it's a good idea.

The more I think about it, the more this joyful welcoming of "The New Medievalism" seems to share some millenarian characteristics with some of the other highly optimistic politics we're seeing. In the case of The New Medievalism, every tribe and sect will have its own nation, and they will all live in peace, because they all will be true nation-states, the ethnic and national completely in tune.

Simply stating it like that shows how unlikely a positive outcome is. And the two examples I started with are one other aspect of the splitting of power. Khanna includes various sorts of organizations as players in his highly multipolar vision of the world; individuals with much money can amass much political power now, just as the barons of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries owned their serfs and their lands. Today, technology has its appeal as well.

As I noted before, states were consolidating in the thirteenth century, the opposite movement to what the neo-medievalists celebrate. The reasons for this were the competition for power, but an element of that was that local fighting between barons and the plundering of freebooters hindered larger competitions. One tribe or prince fighting another makes it easier for outsiders to gain power, and the more tribes and princes there are, the more fighting there will be, except, perhaps, in that millenarian world of The New Man.

In today's world, as well, individuals can amass wealth and power for their own purposes, which will run crosswise to those of states, tribes, and princes, bringing yet more disorder, which will be exploited by lesser thugs.

The movement toward smaller political units is not a historical inevitability, as the neo-medievalists would like to believe, but rather a result of human decisions made and can be reversed by the same means. Political decisions have handed vast sums of money to barons who have much money already, enabling them to build their empires. Restrictive laws on ownership of media have been eliminated, allowing consolidation by media barons. We can reverse those actions, too.

It is true that many boundaries in Africa and Asia were drawn by colonial powers for their own reasons, in many cases in conflict with the interests of the people living there. Perhaps there needs to be some fragmentation before a new consolidation can take place, we can hope more peacefully than in Europe in the thirteenth century.

But those who look forward to a world of ever-smaller states and ever-increasing numbers of barons need to look hard at the dreadful thirteenth century.


Fred Zimmerman said...

Isn't the standard account that nation-states weren't even invented until the Treaty of Westphalia 1648?

Cheryl Rofer said...

Fred, the short answer to your question is "yes." But there's a lot more that could, and probably should, be said about that.

What I'm trying to focus on in response to the neo-medievalists, besides getting their history right, is that Europe was a patchwork of overlapping authorities in the thirteenth century. The Treaty of Westphalia was the final separation of the religious overlap.

In the thirteenth century, there were baronies, duchies, principalities, and, over some of them, the Holy Roman Empire. The King of France, who had more authority over north France than the southern parts, tried to pull all that together by attacking south France. There was rivalry between France and England over which part belonged to whom. The consolidation into states was just beginning.

France still contains a number of different languages. Germany and Italy weren't fully unified until the nineteenth century. We use the term "nation-state" rather loosely to represent the states we've become accustomed to in Europe, but if we want ethnic identity combined with polity, as that term implies, then most of the European states are combinations. Would it be a good idea to reverse those consolidations that began in the thirteenth century?

Still a lot more that might be said...