Toward the New Middle Ages

Paul Raven @ 10-01-2011

If I were to say “the 21st Century could end up looking politically very similar to the 12th Century“, you’d probably think it a fairly grim prediction. But it’s actually more optimistic than it looks at first glance. Take it away, Parag Khanna [via MetaFilter]:

This was a truly multi-polar world. Both ends of Eurasia and the powers in between called their own shots, just as in our own time China, India and the Arab/Islamic community increasingly do as well. There is another reason why the metaphor is apt. In medieval times, the Crusades, and the Silk Road, linked Eurasia in the first global trading system […]

Now, globalisation is again doing much the same, diffusing power away from the west in particular, but also from states and towards cities, companies, religious groups, humanitarian non-governmental organisations and super-empowered individuals, from terrorists to philanthropists. This force of entropy will not be reversed for decades – if not for centuries. As was the case a millennium ago, diplomacy now takes place among anyone who is someone; its prerequisite is not sovereignty but authority.

Some see contrary trends in the light of the financial crisis. But given the power of the forces pushing a new medievalism, it is too simple to speak of a “return of the state” evident in the bail-out of Wall Street and the stimulus packages of governments. Far more revealing about the future is the crumbling of most of the post-colonial world from Africa to the Middle East to South Asia, where over-population, corrupt governance, ethnic grievances and collapsing infrastructure are pushing many states towards failure.

[…]

The only missing piece, of course, is America. The Middle Ages was pre-Atlantic. Yet today we have the legacy superpower of the US, located in the new world. If the European Union today plays the part of the Holy Roman Empire, then the US is the new Byzantium, facing both east and west while in a state of relative decline. The Byzantines lasted for many centuries beyond their material capability, through shrewd diplomacy and deception rather than by force.

This new world will mean huge challenges, for the west in particular. But if the US applies a genuinely Byzantine strategy, it has a good chance of stopping a slide into conflict. And remember that, despite its bleak reputation, the Middle Ages was actually an era of great invention and discovery – and one which eventually gave way to a great Renaissance too. As we witness today’s great power grievances mount and fear another world of war, we must remember the same is possible today.

Something to chew over, especially for those who still talk of the US in terms of global political leadership. You can choose to play for all or nothing, or you can play for a place at the table… and the same applies for everyone else.


Redrawing the globe with the city at its heart

Paul Raven @ 20-08-2010

Very sincere thanks to @polgrim for flagging up this excellent article at ForeignPolicy.com. It’s like a heaped plate of geopolitical and socioeconomic Zeitgeist, full of favourite Futurismic riffs like the decline of the nation-state, the weakening of the “first-world” West, the shift toward urban living and the possibilities – good and bad – of rethinking the way we approach these things.

Be sure to read the whole thing (it’ll probably take you maybe twenty minutes max, and it’s worth every second), but here’s a chunk that made my brain chime like a temple bell:

Accelerating this shift toward new regional centers of gravity are port cities and entrepôts such as Dubai, the Venices of the 21st century: “free zones” where products are efficiently re-exported without the hassles of government red tape. Dubai’s recent real-estate overreach notwithstanding, emerging city-states along the Persian Gulf are investing at breakneck speed in efficient downtown business districts, offering fast service and tax incentives to relocate. Look for them to use sovereign wealth funds to acquire the latest technology from the West, buy up tracts of agricultural land in Africa to grow their food, and protect their investments through private armies and intelligence services.

Alliances of these agile cities are already forming, reminiscent of that trading and military powerhouse of the late Middle Ages, the Hanseatic League along the Baltic Sea. Already, Hamburg and Dubai have forged a partnership to boost shipping links and life-sciences research, while Abu Dhabi and Singapore have developed into a new commercial axis. No one is waiting for permission from Washington to make deals. New pairings among global cities follow the markets: Witness the new Doha to Sao Paulo direct flight on Qatar Airways or the Buenos Aires to Johannesburg route on South African Airways. When traffic between New York and Dubai dried up due to the financial crisis, Emirates airlines rerouted its sleek Airbus A380 planes to Toronto, whose banking system survived the economic shake-up in better shape.

And another:

Consider how aggressively Chinese cities have now begun to bypass Beijing as they send delegates en masse to conferences and fairs where they can attract foreign investment. By 2025, China is expected to have 15 supercities with an average population of 25 million (Europe will have none). Many will try to emulate Hong Kong, which though once again a Chinese city rather than a British protectorate, still largely defines itself through its differences with the mainland. What if all China’s supercities start acting that way? Or what if other areas of the country begin to demand the same privileges as Dalian, the northeastern tech center that has become among China’s most liberal enclaves? Will Beijing really run China then? Or will we return to a fuzzier modern version of the “Warring States” period of Chinese history, in which many poles of power competed in ever-shifting alliances?

Centralised governance is done; stick a fork in it. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold… but “mere anarchy” might not be the horror that Yeats expected it to be. We’re adaptable critters, us humans; we’d do well to remember that.


Defining society: the anthropologist’s dilemma

Paul Raven @ 10-08-2010

Keith Hart think’s he’s uncovered anthropolgy’s biggest challenge, and the issue that’s hampering its progress as a science: defining the word ‘society’ in a way that makes sense for the times we live in.

I believe that humanity is caught precariously in transition between two notions of where society is located, the nation-state and the world. The dominance of the former in the 20th century fed the ethnographic revolution in anthropology which, rather than following the needs of colonial empire as is commonly assumed, was in fact an attempt to make the national model of society universal by finding its principles everywhere, even in so-called primitive societies. These principles included cultural homogeneity, a bounded location and an ahistorical presumption of eternity. The centrality of the state to such a concept of nation was negated by the study of stateless societies in these terms.

Clearly world society is not yet a fact in the same sense as its principal predecessor. But the need to make a world society fit for all humanity to live in is urgent for many reasons that I don’t need to spell out. Retention of ethnography (which first emerged in Central Europe to serve a nation-building project) as our main professional model has made most of us apologists for a fragmented and static vision of the human predicament, reinforcing a rejection of world history that amounts to nothing less than, “Stop the world, I want to get off”. We no longer study exotic rural places in isolation from history, but, in abandoning that exclusive preoccupation, we have failed to bring the object, theory and method of anthropology up to date.

Note the similarities to concerns about the nation-state as dominant identifier coming from all sorts of other disciplines (as frequently documented on this ‘ere blog, among other places). Nationality is increasingly coming to be seen as the hollow sham it has always been. Think about it: the problem with identifying with a nation is that you’re identifying with nothing more than a word and a piece of multicoloured cloth. The ideological continuity that nationality implies is a complete fiction: if I’m “proud to be English”, am I proud of the same things Churchill would have held dear? Is it the citizens of England I identify with, or its values and laws, or even the physical ground itself, that territory which is no longer the map? None of these things are constants; they are different now to how they were a year ago, a decade ago, a century ago. No one chose where to be born… so why this fanaticism for a fluke of geography and childhood survival statistics? You don’t see people born on a Wednesday singing anthems about the wonderfulness and well-earned superiority of Wednesdays, do you?

“England” (or “America”, or “China”, or or or… ) is a hollow word, and the vacuum at its heart is easily filled by people with agendas that have nothing to do with bringing people together. You don’t bring people together by labelling them, by gathering them beneath a banner; that’s the definition of segregation. Nationality is at best meaningless, and at worst extremely dangerous. Nationality is apartheid.  It’s an idea that makes no logical sense in a networked world, where geography increasingly constrains only your individual access to physical resources. Until we get past the idea of ‘society’ being something to which we may belong, but to which some (most!) other humans do not, solutions to all our most pressing problems as a species will continue to elude us.

My two cents, there. 🙂


Neomedievalism

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2010

The Rocinha favela, Rio de JaneiroWhile I’m on the subject of Bruce Sterling, here’s a brief piece he flagged up at Foreign Policya bleak prediction that the world is reverting to a kind of technology-mediated econo-political feudalism. Call it Neomedievalism:

The state isn’t a universally representative phenomenon today, if it ever was. Already, billions of people live in imperial conglomerates such as the European Union, the Greater Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the emerging North American Union, where state capitalism has become the norm. But at least half the United Nations’ membership, about 100 countries, can hardly be considered responsible sovereigns. Billions live unsure of who their true rulers are, whether local feudal lords or distant corporate executives. In Egypt and India, democratic elections have devolved into auctions. Delivering security and providing welfare aren’t just campaign promises; they are the campaign. The fragmentation of societies from within is clear: From Bogotá to Bangalore, gated communities with private security are on the rise.

This diffuse, fractured world will be run more by cities and city-states than countries. Once, Venice and Bruges formed an axis that spurred commercial expansion across Eurasia. Today, just 40 city-regions account for two thirds of the world economy and 90 percent of its innovation. The mighty Hanseatic League, a constellation of well-armed North and Baltic Sea trading hubs in the late Middle Ages, will be reborn as cities such as Hamburg and Dubai form commercial alliances and operate “free zones” across Africa like the ones Dubai Ports World is building. Add in sovereign wealth funds and private military contractors, and you have the agile geopolitical units of a neomedieval world. Even during this global financial crisis, multinational corporations heavily populate the list of the world’s largest economic entities; the commercial diplomacy of emerging-market firms such as China’s Haier and Mexico’s Cemex has already turned North-South relations inside out faster than the nonaligned movement ever did.

There are positive sides to a world where every man can be a nation unto himself. Postmodern Medicis such as Bill Gates, Anil Ambani, George Soros, and Richard Branson take it upon themselves to cure pandemics, run corporate cities, undermine authoritarian regimes, and sponsor climate-saving research. But the Middle Ages were fundamentally a time of fear, uncertainty, plagues, and violence. So, too, their successor. AIDS and SARS, terrorism and piracy, cyclones and rising sea levels — it is no longer clear how to invest in the future, or what future to invest in. Figuring out how to respond to this new world will take decades at least. The next Renaissance is still a long way off.

Well, colour me vindicated – this sounds a lot like the world I’m trying to describe when I batter on about the death of geography, the decline of the nation-state and the rise of the corporate entity as political liege… albeit a more succinct (and distinctly more qualified) version thereof. [image by fabbio]

Coming as it does from a publication whose focus is international diplomacy, the screed above takes a bleak view of this imminent new world order – if you can see your profession withering on the vine, it’s bound to make you a bit glum. But I’m not so sure the neomedieval world is going to be a worse place for everyone… or even the majority. To be honest, the majority of people will notice no major changes in their lives at all – the proper nouns in the newsfeed headlines will change, and the adverbs will become more inflammatory (if that’s possible), but it’ll be business as usual in the global favela.

For those of us sat comfortably in our current states of privilege, however, a lot of things will change… or at least they’ll seem to, because we have the luxury of time and curiosity to watch it happening. The first thing we’ll lose is certainty…

… those of us who still have any certainty left, that is. 😉


What will publishing look like a decade from now?

Paul Raven @ 06-01-2010

Via a whole bunch of sources comes this piece by former publisher Richard Nash at Galleycat – an eight-point bullet list of the changes he expects to see in the publishing industry over the next ten years. [image by adactio]

There’s nothing in there that you’ll not have heard from various prophets of hegemonic disruption, but to have a former publisher repeating it on a site which is very much a core industry organ (at least in the online sphere) suggests a certain degree of grudging acceptance of the changes coming down the pike. Here’s a couple of my favourites:

6. In 2020 we will look back on the last days of publishing and realize that it was not a surfeit of capitalism that killed it, but rather an addiction to a mishmash of Industrial Revolution practices that killed it, including a Fordist any color so long as it is black attitude to packaging the product, a Sloanist hierarchical management approach to decision making, and a GM-esque continual rearranging of divisions like deck chairs on the Titanic based on internal management preferences rather than consumer preferences.

7. In 2020 some people will still look back on recent decades as a Golden Age, just as some now look back on the 1950’s as a Golden Age, notwithstanding that the Age was golden largely for white men in tweed jackets who got to edit and review one another and congratulate one another for permitting a few women and the occasional Black man into the club.

I believe the appropriate phrase is “zing”.


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