Towards a New Middle Ages (I)
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Since 1648 the 'nation-state' has been the protagonist of world politics. That was when the Peace of Westphalia was signed, bringing to an end the Thirty Years War and the era of fragmentation of political power. However, since the 1970s several scholars have been warning that the current system is being threatened by non-state actors and technological developments that point to a future with characteristics that are akin to past events.
Umberto Eco was the first to note the emergence of a 'New Middle Ages' arising out of the prevailing socio-political systems and as a result of central authority’s inability to govern in an increasingly complex world.
In his essay entitled 'The New Middle Ages', Eco described the ingredients that reproduced that historical period. The recipe included a deteriorating ‘great peace’, a great international state power that had unified the world under the same language, customs, ideologies, religion, art and technology and that had collapsed because of its ungovernable complexity'.
Eco compared the military, civil, social and cultural collapse of the Pax Romana with the Pax Americana crisis of the 1970s and he focused on the economic debacles and power vacuums that continued to exist in both cases, which strengthen the local powers and the powers of the 'new barbarians' who, with an alternative culture, undermine the foundations of the prevailing world order.
In 1977, Hedley Bull pioneered the 'new medievalism' and in his book The Anarchical Society he points to the existence of new trends that threaten the survival of the system of states, and he suggests that a new kind of medieval international order is emerging. This situation was experienced between the 5th and 15th centuries with the disintegration of existing states at the hands of secessionist forces, the use of violence by groups who saw themselves as legitimate, the proliferation of transnational organizations, NGOs and intergovernmental agencies, as well as the unification of controls through the most modern technology.
For his part, Parag Komaia, a researcher at the University of Singapore, notes that the fragmentation of the Middle Ages manifested as a case of pre-state sovereignties containing through violence many types of ancestry, social systems with multiple identities and a political system of multiple authorities, with each one being owner of its own power.
In the New Middle Ages, sovereignties become fluid and share power with supra-national entities, such as the European Union and powerful transnational forces, such as risk rating agencies and multinational companies similar to the Catholic Church before the Renaissance.
For his part, John Rapley, a globalization specialist at the Center of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge believes that right now we are witnessing a shift away from the highly centralized nation-state with its monopoly on sources of violence and its great power to allocate resources that allow it to gain the loyalty of its citizens.
For Parag Khanna, today the erosion of state sovereignty occurs voluntarily and involuntarily, since governments want their countries to participate in all the benefits of the global economy, although this requires making concessions and abiding by international rules such as indebtedness and investments, so that banks and financial institutions have become key drivers of the erosion of sovereignty.
Globalization is the main force behind this phenomenon that is taking us back to the Middle Ages as there has been an acceleration of the emergence of a multipolar system with the United States, China, India and Europe. This is in addition to power being given to cities, companies and other international entities. So today we have a world that is diffuse and multi-level, like it was centuries ago.
The Middle Ages, says Khanna, was an era of fear, uncertainty, plagues and violence, a situation similar to the current one with pandemics such as SARS, terrorism, cyber-attacks on networks, hurricanes and rises in sea levels. It is no longer as clear as investing in the future and coming to a realization of that fact will take several decades.
Addendum: In the next instalment I will analyze some information on the main giants of Silicon Valley at the present time.