Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Return of Neo-Medievalism?

A piece by Parag Khanna in Foreign Policy magazine (which came to my attention by way of Bruce Sterling, through Paul Raven of Futurismic) makes the case for a "neo-Medieval" vision of the "future that looks like nothing more than a new Middle Ages, that centuries-long period of amorphous conflict from the fifth to the 15th century when city-states mattered as much as countries," with all the disorder such a state of affairs may entail.

Khanna points to the long list of dysfunctional states; the weight of corporations, the absorption of states by international institutions like the European Union-as well as the concentrations of wealth in major cities that may be independent actors for all practical purposes; and the privatization of security implicit in gated communities "from Bogota to Bangalore."

This is quite a lot to think about, of course. Khanna, however, offers little that is new. There was a lot of this sort of talk back in the 1990s, for instance, and not just in post-cyberpunk science fiction novels like Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, or Ken MacLeod's The Star Fraction (and of course, a good bit of Sterling's own writing). Robert Kaplan penned a couple of pieces about the key trends, his well-known "The Coming Anarchy" and his worthwhile but less often cited "Was Democracy Just a Moment?", while Martin Van Creveld penned a book titled The Rise and Decline of the State. And of course, two decades earlier, Hedley Bull raised the point (and used that terminology) in his classic study of international relations, The Anarchical Society (1977).

Still, reading the piece, I wonder: might this sort of talk be making a comeback, along with the declinist rhetoric which also happened to be popular in the early '90s (a fairly fresh example of which Paul Krugman has just given us in the New York Times), shades of the decline of Rome in stark contrast with the "New Rome" triumphalism of the neocons earlier in this decade (not unquestioned, some seeing the seeds of Roman-style decline in Roman-style imperium, but still a predominant note then in a way that it is not today)?

Writing in the Summer 2009 Parameters, P. Michael Phillips, in the article "Deconstructing Our Dark Age Future," argued for a connection, with the worries about a new dark age coming from a link-up of anxiety about American decline with an exaggerated view of the influence of non-state actors.

Phillips struck me as overly sanguine in his assessment, but at the same time, it is easy to exaggerate the sense of rupture (and Bull's discussion, ultimately dismissive of the idea, made plenty of good points about this).

For a start, state dysfunctionality and private violence do not really translate to neo-Medievalism unless power and to some extent, authority and legitimacy, clearly devolve from the state unto actors below its level-a relatively rare and aberrant occurrence today, even if not unknown. Additionally, while private military corporations are justly grabbing headlines, it may be quite a stretch to picture them playing lead combat roles in conventional military operations (though admittedly this may not matter much if such operations are regarded as a thing of the past, with "real" warfare the "low-intensity" stuff where the PMCs can be big players), or exercising primary control over really large tracts of territory. At the same time the "Greater Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere" and the North American Union of which Khanna writes would seem a long way away from approaching the European Union, an institution which I think will prove more robust than its critics expect, but which also has real limitations. Meanwhile, state capitalism made a big comeback as the resource politics game heated up (natural resources, because of their "placeness," lend themselves to territorial control, and have certainly given statism in nations like Russia more room for maneuver), while those giant corporations came hat in hand to-who else?-the state for trillions of dollars in bail-out money amid the duress of the 2008 crisis.

In short, we're not quite living out Snow Crash. But it's also a mistake to overlook many of the trends (economic privatization, regional economic inequalities, state vulnerability, etc.) involved, which could translate to exactly that if the going gets tough enough-and are already far from trivial.

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