Blogs > Cliopatria > Is neo-medieval the new medieval?

Mar 4, 2011

Is neo-medieval the new medieval?

It is now some considerable time since Ralph mentioned an article in the Financial Times by Parag Khanna entitled, "Future shock? Welcome to the new Middle Ages". As you might guess from the title, this is one of those articles where someone attempts to enlighten the masses about the current state of politics by analogising it with the Middle Ages, and I, along with the other possible 'reviewers' Ralph suggested, have something of a track record in going to war with these, because they are generally done so badly. It therefore behoves me to acknowledge when it's done well. This article, if it errs, errs in the generalisations it makes about the modern-day situation, not the medieval one, and while we might refine its perspectives a bit it's a rare example of the analogy done right and making some interesting suggestions about the future on its basis.

This said, it is a little difficult to say very much about it because the copyright terms for access to the Financial Times website are fairly stiff. I am allowed, having registered to actually get at the article, to use a 30-word quote or 30-word summary or the headline plus 140 characters of leading echo. Any text one does copy and paste out of their website also comes with a paragraph of legalese requesting you to stick by these terms automatically loaded into one's paste buffer. This is impressive levels of protection. If I had the thing in print, I would be able to claim fair use and just quote willy-nilly but, as I said in comments when Ralph mentioned it, the law on internet use in the UK is dangerously untested, so I'm going to do my best to stick with it. Instead, I will quote another article of his which is not under such restrictions ("The Future Is in Davos, and It's Medieval", Globe and Mail, reproduced on the website of the New America Foundation where Khanna is a Senior Research Fellow), where he makes the same basic point before spinning on to something else. There, he says this:

"We have entered a new Middle Ages: an era that most resembles the international dynamics of nearly 1,000 years ago, a period of history when the East rivalled the West, cities mattered more than nations, powerful dynasties and trading companies were engines of growth and innovation, private mercenaries fought in all wars, religious crusades shaped intercultural relations and new trade routes over land and sea forged the world's first (nearly) global economy."

You can tell he's a serious contender just because of that vital parenthesis, you see. In the FT article Khanna substantiates all this by mentioning, briefly but judiciously, the new global rôle of the Eastern powers India and China as compared to the Chola and Song empires there in the eleventh centuries, and the generally multi-polar nature of the medieval world viewed at full-scale (which as he rightly observes is rarely done); he mentions the growing links between these poles, particularly via the Silk Road; the immense power of change wielded by mercantile capital; corruption and ethnic grievances lying behind state failure; the development of structures of governance in which superstate apparatuses have no option but to enlist local warlords as part of their project (and I bet you can guess where he means); and the increasing provision of social services by private cooperative or commercial concerns.

As he observes, no analogy is perfect; particularly with the last point we are now approaching that situation, where we are, from the position of having had something like a public system of social care, and even Rome got no closer to that than bath-houses and free running water (though that is arguably more than some western powers can manage). Moreover, though Khanna fixes on the twelfth century as the point where his parallel works best, because of the sort of collapse of state credibility that medievalist Thomas Bisson has talked about in his latest book, as said above his global political picture is more to do with the year 1000 and actually quite a lot of his examples come from the fourteenth century, especially those where commerce and mercantilism play a big part. This latter is important because it inverts the causation; he seems to link the rise of corporate power and private social provision with public collapse here, but of course, both now and in the Middle Ages, it arose not in power vacuums but where power structures existed that could protect it, could guarantee currency with which it could operate, and which were themselves interested in promoting trade and trade links for their own reasons. Here, then, his parallel actually works even better than I think he allows, and leaves me wondering whether we should be surprised if a twenty-first century florin emerges once the denarius dollar finally becomes too debased to be much use as a stable value exchange tool. If it does, however, it won't be coming from Florence, I think that's pretty clear.

The most interesting part of this analogy for me, because it shows both its playfulness and its power, is where Khanna speculates on how to fit the USA into his picture. Obviously it is the big difference: there was no New World known in the times and places that he wishes to use as a mirror. But there was the remnant of the Ancient one in the form of Byzantium, the Roman Empire. This is why it was worth quoting the other article instead of the main one, because I want to quote that here. He says:

... the US is the new Byzantium, facing... east and west... in a state of... decline. The Byzantines lasted... beyond their material capability, through... diplomacy and deception rather than by force.

... and that's my 30 words' allowance! But his recommendation is presumably clear; the USA needs to work out to play a Byzantine game on the new world stage, at which rate it might be able to help ensure that rather than a new feudal anarchy we actually head, as a world, for a new Renaissance (and it should be noted here that this plan is apparently something that Khanna has a book just out about, whose blurb describes him as an"adventurer-scholar", indeed).

It seems to me that there is at least one deep problem with this analogy, and it lies in the nature of the state. Though there is argument about this in the field, not least because no medieval polity fitted a Weberian definition of state with a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence but some of them can arguably be seen usefully as states anyway, the kind of apparatus of control and of information differs hugely between the two, as do the resources available to the modern states compared to the medieval ones. Fourteenth-century England spent an awful lot on the Hundred Years War, but the efforts of raising that money necessitated major concessions to the interests of the state; under Edward I, much smaller internal wars against Wales and Scotland helped create an institutionalised parliament simply because Edward I needed his élites' approval for taxes so often that it became regularised. Now, very few states could be said to be under any effective political pressure to reduce their spending on war, and their involvement in war is not forcing their governments to implement social reforms, even if actual individual wars are lamented, protested and of course still continue.

The modern state is spending on vastly more all round, in fact, and so are its citizens. The extent of the rich-poor divide may be difficult to compare between the two periods but the machineries of exchange are simply running at a far higher intensity now than they were at any of the points in the High Middle ages where Khanna's parallel rests. How often do you buy anything? Most days? At least twice a week? More, at least, than at a weekly or monthly market, I'll bet. This gives everyone more options, but individuals less power; the interests of wealth, whether represented through a government or otherwise, are considerably more far-reaching now than they once were. Neal Stephenson's burbclaves might be quite like a feudal castle viewed in this perspective; but that's still just about futuristic and in the modern western state, for example, the French government is not going to lose the ability to tax or arrest in a full half of its dominions again any time soon.

The fact that a lot of the phenomena Khanna notes have moved is therefore significant. Europe is not embroiled in perpetual war, for example, and is thus free to send substantial multi-national forces to secure Middle Eastern territories without fear of being militarily ousted, as long as it has substantial neo-Roman support at least. What would Pope Innocent IV have given for this kind of unity when trying to coordinate resistance to the Mongols? (And takeovers of many political poles in rapid succession by previously insignificant and hardly-known military powers, as the Turks had and the Mongols did, are another type of factor which Khanna's model has no room for, and which modern information politics make hardly possible.) On the other hand, trade power now lies outside these zones, or comes to more and more, whereas before the key element in the picture was arguably Europeanisation by both trade and force.

That these two are no longer operating in concert, and that Europe in this sense must include the USA or else the analogy seriously collapse, means that the dynamics of these new Middle Ages are going to play out in very different ways to the last ones, and that only the truly global generalisations this model provides are at all likely to hold up for any length of time. But, when was the last time one of these analogies even made it that far? For the point it wants to make, the model is overall surprisingly robust. So the article is well worth a read, and Khanna's other work may well be worth tracking down. My impression is that he knows what he's talking about.

I mention medievalists arguing about the nature of the state above; the best place to start reading on that, if you want to, would for my money be Susan Reynolds,"The Historiography of the Medieval State", in M. Bentley (ed.), A Companion to Historiography (London 1997), pp. 117-138, and her response to some criticisms of that chapter,"There were States in Medieval Europe: A Response to Rees Davies" in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 16 (2003), pp. 550-555, which is online here; there are also useful comparative perspectives, including by Reynolds, in Power and the Nation in European History, edd. Len Scales & Oliver Zimmer (Cambridge 2005). when I mention Neal Stephenson I mean of course the novel Snow Crash (New York 1992, repr. London 1993). The other thing it might be worth giving a reference for, since he is mainly famous for corresponding with them rather than opposing them, is Pope Innocent IV's alliance against the Mongols: on that see John H. Lind,"Mobilisation of the European Periphery against the Mongols: Innocent IV's all-European policy in its Baltic context – a recantation" in The Reception of Medieval Europe in the Baltic Sea Region. Papers of the XIIth Visby Symposium held at Gotland University, Visby, Acta Visbyensia XII (Visby 2009), ed. Jorn Staecker, pp. 75-90.

comments powered by Disqus