The journey of a million years begins with a single step.

A few months ago I had a dream that left a very strong impression on me.

In this dream, I found myself briefly transformed into one of humanity’s early ancestors. One minute I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, and the next I was naked, covered in a fine coat of hair, and sitting under a tree on a savannah. I changed back very quickly, but there was something profound about that instant during which I was, essentially, what human beings were about a million years ago.

What I remember most was the sensation of that early hominid being confronted with the understanding of the modern world and modern living that was in my head. Against every cliché of ‘caveman frightened by all things modern’, that brief moment of hominid-me experiencing the modern world was characterised by a sorrow the like of which I have never before felt. I was overwhelmed with a sense of ‘him’ exclaiming:

‘What have you all done? This is not how we were meant to live.’

All this time having passed, and I can still recall how that felt.

So, this got me thinking. Was he right? Have we somehow strayed from the very way our species had evolved to live? Could this be why so many of us are afflicted with some sort of deep, existential void or unhappiness that can’t be named yet neither can be ignored? It is true that, in recent history, humans have become capable of unprecedented damage not only to each other, but also to the very planet and environment on and in which we live. The hominid’s cry sounds so very utopian, so very idealistic. And yet… something.

I’ve decided to search for a possible answer. To start with the present and work my way backwards through time to see if ever there was a time when human beings lived in such a way that was in balance both with the world in which they lived and with each other. To retrace our path to see if and when we missed a marker at some point along the trail.

To do this we must begin with some definitions. What actually constitutes ‘the way in which we were meant to live?’ Philosophers and religious leaders could give countless answers to this question, so it it important to attempt to dispense with the set dressing and get down to essential principles that most, at least, could agree on.

Stripping things down to the bare bones, the definition may perhaps look something like this.

  1. All humans have unrestricted access to the basic necessities of survival (space, food, shelter/cover, freedom of movement, and company of other humans).
  1. All humans maintain a balance in their way of living such that their existence does not become toxic to themselves or their environment.
  1. All humans are unable or unwilling (or both) to alter their way of living in such a way that would violate points 1 and/or 2.

I’d like some feedback on these points. Once we’ve got our definitions, then the journey begins to find a time when we may have actually embodied them.

I should point out at the start that I’m fully prepared to not find precisely what I’m looking for. It may be that there has never been a time when we’ve had ‘it’ fully figured out and sorted. And if that turns out to be the case, fair enough. At least we know, right? We do know that at various points in our past, and in various cultures, one or more of these aspects have manifested. If we can’t find our goal all in one place, it means we must cherry-pick; that we must find the best lessons that our ancestors had to teach us at various times and places and combine them into the best possible present and future for our species

I suspect I’m about to embark on a long journey.

Who’s coming with me?

 

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Flying Blind

The aim of Applied History is to bring to the table insights from the past that may be useful to a given present or future situation. That means a lot of telling people something to the effect of ‘What you’re talking about is similar to X, so look further into X for some possible guidance on what to do, and what not to do.’ This approach is old. Very old. It is asking the same question that has been asked for as long as humans have asked questions: What did our ancestors do in these circumstances? The practice of asking this question has informed the actions of humans since the beginning. Our ancestors managed to survive so that we are here today. They must have been doing something right, so their record was considered useful.

You can imagine, then, how unsettling it would be for the answer to be: ‘They never had to deal with anything like this. We’re on our own.’

This doesn’t happen very often. Most events or ideas are somehow related to, or influenced by, something that has come before. When it does happen, however, we’re forced to make things up as we go; to rely upon trial and error in the hopes that we figure out the best path.

On this day, 236 years ago, a small group of men in Philadelphia decided to undertake an unprecedented political experiment that eventually became the United States of America. Although they were inspired by certain Classical ideals, and although their model was constructed from well-reasoned principles, it cannot be denied that the structure of US was largely created by making things up that were fit for purpose. The project has had its ups and downs, and it will likely be centuries yet before anyone can honestly weigh in on whether or not it has been successful.

The important thing to keep in mind here is that the success or failure of this political experiment is, in the greater scheme of things, inconsequential. If the US were to fall apart, History shows that, although it’s potentially unpleasant for the couple of generations in the immediate aftermath, people will carry on and the event will not likely pose an existential threat to the human race or the planet as a whole. Plunging forward into the unknown to see what happens in this case can thus be considered an acceptable risk.

More recently, however, another unprecedented development has come into being. Like the above example, although trying to draw insight from past actions that have little if any real use as a comparison, when navigating life with this new creation we are forced to make it up as we go along and hope for the best. But the stakes, you see, are much, much higher.

In the early 20th century, humanity granted to itself the power of annihilation.

Sure, human beings have had the capability to inflict mass carnage for thousands of years. The chronicles of the past are filled with massacres, battles, and genocides where countless numbers were put to the sword, mowed down by gunfire, or otherwise killed at a scale that is stomach-churning. But there were limits. The focus might be only on one particular group (the enemy soldiers, or whoever currently bore the label ‘undesirable’). Those ordering the slaughter could call it off with a word. And even in cases of wholesale slaughter, the damage was restricted to a city or region. Nobody had the power to destroy everything. Until now.

 ‘Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.’

We have developed nuclear weapons powerful enough, and in sufficient numbers, to mars the world (yes, I’m using ‘mars’ as a verb, as I can think of no better term to describe what a post-nuclear exchange planet would look like). At least 14 nation-states have access to them, and some of those states don’t like each other very much. With advances in biotechnology, we have graduated from poisoning wells and slinging plague-ridden corpses over enemy walls to having the capability to create super-viruses that could wipe out at least the human population of the planet. Laughably, we have tried to work weapons like these into the way we conduct war; a model that has not been updated in any fundamental way since the 1940s. Furthermore, we’ve grown to sufficient numbers, and have developed certain technologies and ways of living, that simply continuing our current level of existence itself may well have throw off our world’s equilibrium and provoke Gaia to shake us off of her like so many fleas.

Having no precedent for anything even remotely similar to these capabilities to help us determine the best way of navigating life with them, we’ve been making it up as we go along. Thus far our strategies seem somewhat lacking. To date the only real deterrent against a nuclear exchange is the promise that in such a ‘battle’ (and here I use the term loosely) there would be no victor; that both sides, and likely the bystanders as well, would be equally wiped out. The fruits of bio-weapons research are placed in ‘secure’ facilities where, ideally, they will never see the light of day. Dogmas such as ‘Infinite Growth’ and ‘Free Markets’ trumps calls for sustainable, moderate existence, so many either aren’t aware of the data or choose to ignore it.

I’m calling it right here: this is New in all senses of the word. We have no prior experience of anything like this in the two million-year existence of hominids. Lacking any frame of reference, we have no idea how to adequately handle what we have created. We are flying blind.

Go back and read that statement a few more times so it settles in. You’ll know it has when your chest clenches a little bit.

As far as we can tell, no species on this planet has ever had the ability to single-handedly ruin everything for itself and potentially its fellow lifeforms. Within your lifetimes, or that of your parents or grandparents, we suddenly developed that power.

Looking at our track record over the last 10,000 years, does that seem like a good idea to you?

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Can the British Empire teach us about space colonies?

There seems to be a lack of discussion on practical governance in space. When a sustained human presence is finally established on a moon, planet, asteroid, or far-flung space station, what infrastructure will be necessary to see that it is both well administered domestically and well provided for from home? Although many innovations will be necessary to get this in place, the core problem, when you distil it to its essence, is actually not new at all.

An outpost in space will communicate with Earth in near real-time. However, when issues arise which cannot be handled with the resources currently at hand, there is a potentially lengthy wait for help from Earth to physically arrive. With our current technology, flight time to the ISS, orbiting the Earth at an altitude of around 400km, is about 2 days. The moon, at a distance of just over 384,000km, can be reached in a little over three days. Even its closest proximity to Earth, the 58 million kilometer journey to Mars will take around 214 days.

The British faced a similar challenge in the late 19th century. By 1877, a telegram from New Zealand could reach London almost instantaneously. However, even a steam-powered ship would take up to 120 days to cover the same distance. By examining the ways in which they dealt with this difficulty, we might be able to gain some insights that could help to address our present dilemma.

Firstly, they saw to it that the outposts themselves were as well equipped for any eventuality as possible. This included food, medical supplies, equipment for building and agriculture, trained specialists, and either a military garrison or a supply of arms for the settlers themselves. Secondly, far-flung outposts were reinforced and supported by a network of other such places nearby, or other points of contact closer than Britain itself. New Zealand, to continue our example, could seek urgent aid from Australia, India, or even some of the smaller South Pacific islands under British control. At the same time, Royal Navy vessels were constantly patrolling that part of the world and could be called upon for assistance if necessary.

A colony in space will not share all of the same challenges as one in 19th century New Zealand. However, the approaches that the Victorians took to mitigate these risks are worth considering. They give us some basic pointers as to how these things worked then and, therefore, how they may be able to work now.

The people living on these outposts will have to have the resources and training to go it alone 99.9% of the time. This basic rule effects not only who goes, but perhaps also where they go. Unless a planet/moon is capable of being worked to somehow generate sustenance, we shouldn’t send people there unless they can produce sustenance there by other means (artificially in a lab such as with Quorn, or some version of the Replicator from Star Trek, perhaps). This method of artificial production would also be necessary in order to maintain far-flung space stations where agriculture is limited or impossible. At these times and distances, reliance on supply vessels would simply be too risky; the settlers might be one blip in the supply chain away from starvation.

For the 0.1% of instances where external help is needed, it cannot be too far away. This means a network of outposts and support systems where help can either be found from the nearest colony, the vessels that regularly patrol the area, or via a ‘stepping stone’ style ferrying of resources from a spot farther afield, but closer than Earth.

This will require much deeper consideration than what is found here. But insights like these will help make challenges like this far easier to undertake. We need not re-invent the wheel. Why should we not take advice from one of the most well-administered colonial empires in modern human history?

No matter where, or when, you are, the frontier is still the frontier.

 

 

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The Decline of the Amateur Expert

Leonardo da Vinci is regarded as one of the greatest minds in human history. He was the epitome of the Renaissance Man. While only formally trained as a painter, his expertise encompassed subjects as diverse as mathematics, architecture, music, science, and engineering. Throughout his life he was employed not only as an artist, but as a maker of musical instruments, author, civil and military engineer, architect, cartographer, artificer, and ambassador.

Had he lived today, he would likely have been a great painter, with his only outlet to indulge his other pursuits being a serious blogging habit.

As a trained artist, he would have flourished in the art world today. But could you actually imagine anyone hiring someone these days without a relevant degree, training, or certification to build a bridge, plan the defenses of a city, or represent a government in a diplomatic delegation?

To be fair, this was partly due to the fact that the university system was not as diverse as it is today in subjects taught. But this being the case, people relied on genuine proof of competency rather than credentials to decide who was capable of doing what.

I have the privilege to know a number of individuals who, without degrees or formal training, are nonetheless brilliant thinkers (and doers) in various fields. They took it upon themselves to study, practice and experiment their way to expertise. Lacking the formal qualifications now required by our societies to do anything major in a given area, they are forced to settle for the table scraps from the Ivory Tower; operating on the fringes teaching, writing, and working in the few circles that willingly overlook credentials in favour of their reputations and experience.

As a curator, I have encountered individuals whose knowledge of aspects of my collection rivals or surpasses my own. I treat them as teachers of equal value to my colleagues and professors. But I have a master’s degree, and they do not. Hence, I can be hired for my position, and they cannot.

Why should they not share their skills and knowledge the way that the ‘recognized’ experts do?

This is an issue that I feel will become increasingly more relevant in the near future. As money becomes tighter for everyone, fewer people will be able or willing to spend a small fortune to go to one of a handful of universities in order to gain a piece of paper and a few initials stating that they are capable of doing something. This is a luxury. Furthermore, having a degree in something does not necessarily mean that the person is actually good at it, just that you managed to pass your degree.

As the pursuit of degrees and other formal qualifications becomes less practical for many, we’re going to have to start focusing more on finding people who are capable of doing the job well, and less on finding those who have the credentials claiming that they are capable. Competency must become more important than qualification.

 

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The World Turned Upside-Down… Again

Over the past months, I have been following the Occupy Movement with great interest. It was while reading a piece addressing the occupiers by Vinay Gupta that a particular line caught my eye. While advocating a tactical retreat for the winter and a return to action come the Spring, Vinay writes:

‘Here’s my vision: in Spring, take-and-hold land and plant a hundred thousand wild flowers. In areas with bare earth, turn up with spades and grow food. Grow-occupy (#groccupy?) But work with the forces of nature, with the cycles of the earth, and cultivate a culture of growth, expansion, beauty and harmony’

Hmm…. I’d heard that sentiment somewhere before. I soon realized that he was advocating action very similar to that attempted by groups of political pioneers during the English Civil Wars in the mid 17th century. So I started digging (pun only partly intended, you’ll understand once you read on) and found that there were many parallels that could be drawn between this current movement and those English trail-blazers, some of which could prove insightful for this current generation of activists.

A bit of background

The English Civil Wars (c.1642-51) up-ended things in England, Scotland and Ireland politically, culturally, and in people’s daily lives in some rather extreme ways. Civil wars are never pretty. If a large portion of your country is busy fighting another large portion of your country, work doesn’t get done, food doesn’t get grown, and infrastructure is not maintained. Nobody really wins a civil war, because either side’s victory leaves their own back yard a wasteland to clean up for years after the actual fighting has finished. The ECW was this and more. In addition to the devastating blow to the living conditions of the people, the very institution of the monarchy was questioned and subsequently overthrown. The order of society that had been in place for 600 years was gone. So it’s not surprising that, at times like that, all sorts of new ideas for living and governing should start to spring up. When everything you’ve known is gone or uncertain, all bets are off and the sky’s the limit.

One such group was the ‘Levellers’ . The movement emerged between 1645 and 1648 through the ideas of such men as John Lilburne and Robert Everard.. The term ‘Leveller’, which referred to some members’ acts of removing or leveling hedges around enclosures of land, began as a derogatory one used by their opponents. Eventually it became commonly used by members themselves to represent their wish to see all people treated equally. In their unofficial manifesto, An agreement of the people, published in 1647, they desired

‘That in all laws made or to be made, ever person may be bound alike; and that no tenure, estate, charter, degree, birth, or place do confer any exemption from the ordinary course of legal proceedings whereunto others are subjected’

The Levellers were not so much a political party as an ideological movement, albeit a very well-organized one. Local branches, even down to the parish level, were found all over England and were funded by members’ dues. Although there was never a complete unified agenda across all branches, generally Levellers stood against political corruption, religious intolerance, and restriction of the political power of the common people. Central to their philosophy was the idea of natural rights, that people

‘are, and were by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority, and majesty – none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power, one over or above another. Neither have they or can they exercise any but merely by institution or consent – given, derived, or assumed by mutual consent and agreement – for the good benefit and comfort each of other, and not for the mischief, hurt, or damage of any: it being unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked and unjust for any man or men whatsoever to part with so much of their power as shall enable any of their parliament-men, commissioners, trustees, deputies, viceroys, ministers, officers or servants to destroy and undo them therewith.’ – John Lilburnel, The Freeman’s Freedom Vindicated, 1646

Their actions were primarily directed toward pariliament, whom they accused of indifference towards the people and inaction when they had the power to institute substantial change in a post-war, post-monarchy England. They urged Members of Parliament to cease being influenced by the gentry, who

‘had hopes to work and pervert you to forsake the common interest of those that chose and trusted you, to promote their unjust design to enslave us – wherein they have prevailed too, too much… Ye are rich and abound in goods and have need of nothing; but the afflictions of the poor – your hunger-starved brethren – ye have no compassion of.’   – Richard Overton and William Walwyn, A Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens,  1646

The Levellers enjoyed a fair amount of public support, both in the general citizenry and in the Army, which had become a substantial political force at the time. Leveller activists, known as Agitators, were elected in each regiment to speak for the soldiers. Their ideas were formally debated with the top brass at the time, General Lord Fairfax and Cromwell, and several petitions made their way to Parliament.

In short, the movement was given due consideration by the authorities until, abruptly, it wasn’t. In the wake of government refusals to implement their policies, those who maintained Leveller ideas in defiance to official policies were subject to increasingly harsh treatment. After most of the leadership had been imprisoned or executed, the movement faded into obscurity by around 1649 or 1650.

As one movement declined, another could be said to have risen from its ashes. Led primarily by Gerrard Winstanley, the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’ also held that the Commons were being abused by the gentry and other power-brokers in the nation.

‘We see one great man favour another, and the poor oppressed have no relief… “Now,” saith the whisperings of the people, “the inferior tenants and labourers bears [sic] all the burdens, in labouring the earth, in paying taxes… beyond their strength, and in furnishing the armies with soldiers, who bear the greatest burden of the war; and yet the gentry, wh oppress them and that live idle upon their labours, carry away all the comfortable livelihood of the earth…” We daily see many actions done by state officers, which they have no law to justify but their prerogative will.’ – Gerrard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, 1652

But Winstanley felt that petitioning to Parliament for change was not enough. If people truly held natural rights to self-determination and to the land on which they live, then what need was there to seek permission to exercise them?

‘That Earth that is within this Creation made a Common Store-house for all, is bought and sold, and kept in the hands of a few, whereby the great Creator is mightily dishonoured, as if he were a respector of persons, delighting in the comfortable Livelihoods of some, and rejoycing in the miserable povertie and straits of others. From the beginning it was not so.’ – Gerrard Winstanley, The True Levellers Standard Advanced, 1649

To demonstrate their freedom, groups all over England took to common lands and wastelands, portions of land granted for all to share and make use of equally. They erected shelters, formed small communities, and began to grow crops. They invited the people to join them, promising that all would have a share of the food grown by their joint efforts.

Needless to say, the landowners were scared shitless.

Although technically what they were doing was permissible under the allowed uses of common land, landowners feared that such a precedent could lead to further expansions, possibly into their own holdings. After initially appealing to the government, Fairfax himself came to George’s Hill in Surrey, the encampment where Winstanley himself resided, to investigate for himself. While he dismissed their efforts as madness, Fairfax concluded they were doing no real harm and told the local authorities to use the courts if they wanted to do anything about the situation.

Unsurprisingly, the local authorities, pressured by the gentry, acted quickly and decisively. Court rulings were handed down forcing the Diggers to dismantle their communities, facing arrest and violence if they refused. At the same time, groups of thugs hired by landowners and bands of unsympathetic locals attacked the camps, assaulting those living there and destroying property. Faced with such harsh opposition, and the fact that the movement never grew beyond a couple of hundred individuals nation-wide, by around 1652-3 the Diggers were largely finsished.

(Here’s a folk song about the Diggers, one of my favourite songs of all time. )

The moral of the story

Having taken a brief glance at these two movements (and I encourage you to explore them further yourself), what can the Occupiers and their supporters learn from them?

The first and most important lesson is that you are not, and never have been, alone. The struggle for the common good against the interests of the powerful few has been going on in one form or another throughout human history. It has taken many forms; however, that of the Levellers and the Diggers are perhaps the most similar to what you are attempting to do now, if only in ideology. Study them, read their writings, and you may find useful allies to draw upon in the pursuit of your goals.

 A powerful example that Occupiers can take from both of these movements is the importance and effectiveness of print. Both produced volumes of pamphlets to circulate their ideas to the wider public. You want your ideas to reach the 99%? Publish. Publish online, in magazines, newspapers, distribute home-made leaflets and pamphlets. The Levellers did not need a unified agenda to be prolific writers about the ideas that guided their actions. Likewise, do not worry about the calls from the media or the public for a mission statement or manifesto. Write what you’re doing, what you want to do, and what you want others to do, and throw it out there for the consideration of the public

The extent to which you choose to learn from or emulate the Diggers depends on how far down the rabbit hole you wish to go. Attempting to establish micro swadeshi-style villages in parks and public spaces around the world may be either impractical or undesirable (although it would certainly be an interesting experiment). But perhaps one can learn from their efforts without having to duplicate them. In Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, when Sam Lowry asks guerilla engineer Harry Tuttle ‘Can you fix it?’, Tuttle replies ‘No, but I can bypass it.’ Perhaps, as the Diggers did, the best way to oppose an injustice, rather than fighting it head on, is to demonstrate a better alternative. Rather than fighting the system that favours the 1%, perhaps imagine and demonstrate a system that favours everyone equally. Show people what that looks like, and perhaps they will join in your efforts.

The final lesson is sobering but necessary. If the stories of the Levellers and the Diggers are any indication of the way these movements all too frequently go, then History is not on your side when it comes to achieving victory. Both were tolerated until they became too much of a nuisance to those in power, after which they were crushed decisively. If you are to persevere, it will not be easy (but chances are you knew that already). The Powers That Be have demonstrated over the centuries a willingness to utilise every tool at their disposal, lawful and unlawful, to oppose something that is viewed as a serious threat.

But above all, amidst your struggle, take comfort in the fact that you are the current carriers of a banner that has been raised for centuries in the interest of the common good. Many who bore it before you have fallen in pursuit of their goals, but the idea is such that it always seems to return one way or another. Do that banner proud while you bear it.

 

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Fictional States: Understanding Real Political Boundaries

Certain nation-states, functionally speaking, do not actually exist. This has been argued with respect to former colonial territories or former Soviet states, whose modern political boundaries rarely reflect the cultural/ethnic/tribal boundaries that existed previously. The Western nations have yet to be examined in this light, but there is every reason to do so.

The idea of the ‘nation-state’ is rather a new one, perhaps a few hundred years old at most. Previously, Europe was divided into duchies, counties, and other feudal holdings, most (but not all) of which tipped their hat to a monarch. Even if the king was said to have ruled a kingdom, frequently it was these regional structures that did the legwork. To a farmer living in Northern France in the 14th century, the actions of the Duke of Brittany mattered far more in day-to-day life than those of the King of France.

Some peoples made the transition to nation-state better than others. William the Conqueror laid a fairly solid groundwork for a unified England/Britain, and France has its Revolutions and Napoleon to thank for its strong national identity. But notice that both of these ‘unifications’ were enforced, William by conquest and Napoleon by an active campaign of stomping out regional differences (local French dialects were actively suppressed under his rule). This suggests that something extraordinary needs to take place to unite nation-sized populations under a single banner. Left to their own devices, people will happily stick with local or regional governments.

Take, for example, Italy. This ‘nation’ was only created about 150 years ago. The struggle for Italian unification was not a grass-roots movement, but rather a series of attempts by the power brokers of the many duchies and city-states to join up the peninsula, each wanting a go at unifying Italy under them. Yet the regional identities continue to run deep. One rarely meets an Italian, although there are plenty of Milanese, Romans, Sicilians, or Neapolitans. Italy, quipped Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternic in the 19th century, is ‘a geographic expression.’ Thus when we hear the Italian Deputy Prime Minister talking about a split between Northern and Southern Italy, it is not hard to imagine such an arrangement working out fairly well when we remember that, for centuries, the Duchy of Milan and the Republics of Venice, Florence, and Genoa ran just fine on their own while the Pope and the King of Naples ruled much of the south.

Belgium remains the unexpected poster-child of this phenomenon. It was ‘founded’ in the 1830s after a popular revolt resulted in five of the seventeen provinces of the Low Countries, composed of both French and Dutch/Flemish-speaking peoples, were grouped together and given by the Congress of Vienna (literally created to re-draw the boundaries in Europe after Napoleon) to the first King of the Belgians, Leopold I. These regions, once duchies and counties and now Belgian provinces, still exist, flags and all, within the greater fabric of Belgium. Consequently, these local identities are rock solid, dating back to the Middle Ages and earlier. Thus when Belgium became the ‘world’s most boring anarchy’ earlier last year, it was these local levels that allowed the country to continue to function on the local level such that people on the ground feel little, if anything, of the lack of federal government at the top. I repeat: Belgium does not have a functioning centralized government, but the local and regional governments, divided along linguistic and cultural lines that pre-date Belgium itself, have allowed life to continue there with almost no disruption.

But even the US could be so examined. When factoring in the past of these former colonies and territories, where groups were forced to go it alone in a hostile environment far from established centres of power, is it so hard to imagine a New England Confederation, a Free City of San Francisco, or a Second Republic of Texas emerging from an impotent United States?

This viewpoint can also be applied to supra-state bodies. We can find earlier success stories from such organisations as the Hanseatic League, the international mercantile collective of the major cities along the coast of Northern Europe and the Baltic. As an economic powerhouse in Europe from the 13th to the 17th centuries, the past decade has seen attempts to revive this economic alliance as a regionalized alternative to the EEA.

On the flipside of the coin, we can see precedents for the difficulties of the EU in the ultimately unsuccessful Pax Dei movement which attempted to unify and quell disputes within medieval ‘Christendom’. Inter-European warfare continued, and the idea of ‘Christendom’ only served to polarize Europe against the Muslim East during the Crusades. While direct parallels cannot be drawn, this latter point should be kept in mind with respect to the current climate of Western/Muslim relations. In both of the above instances we see people returning to older loyalties where new ones are proving inadequate, in the case of the latter, to our peril.

The lesson here is simple: examining the pre-nation-state boundaries and allegiances of countries, both cultural and political, will provide valuable insights into a) the lines along which things will fracture if the nation itself begins to decay and b) the ‘banners’ that people will flock to should the nation-state fail to provide support.

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One foot in the grave: America in Afghanistan

I’ve talked about this with my friends and colleagues for quite some time, so now I’ve finally decided to put pen to paper (digitally-speaking).

A few years ago I had the honour to meet HM George Tupou V, King of Tonga. He’s an old Sandhurst gent, so the military anecdotes flew fast and furious between us. There was one particular thing he told me that remains with me to this day: ‘The Rules of War is a book with only two pages,’ he said. ‘Page one says “The enemy can always be relied upon to attack on two occassions: 1) Whenever they are ready and 2) Whenever you are not.” The second page simply says “Never attempt to invade Moscow.”‘ If I may, I would propose a third page to this book. It would read: ‘Or Kabul.’

There does not seem to be any hyperbole to the old saying ‘Afghanistan: the graveyard of empires.’ Without exception, every foreign power that has attempted to invade and hold that place has either failed miserably, or achieved what can barely be called a limited success, and that at a massive cost in men and resources.

The first recorded attempt was Alexander the Great in around 327 BC.  While his steamrolling across the Near East toward India seemed almost unstoppable, he encountered enough resistance by the locals in this area (the early ancestors of what are today the Pashtuns) that, although he was moving ahead, he saw fit to erect a series of fortifications behind him in order to reduce the possibility of further trouble. Granted, he was in a rush to get to India, so completely pacifying the territory he was passing through may not have been his main priority. But nonetheless, this suggests that his usual practice of leaving a decent chunk of troops behind him to maintain his hold was not enough in this situation. Some historians say that his delays dealing with present-day Afghanistan sufficiently took the momentum out of his campaign to ultimately foil his attempts at conquering India.

Over 2000 years later, we have the British Empire taking a crack at it, this time as part of the continuing rivalry with the Russian Empire in the East that came to be known as the Great Game. Dominance over Afghanistan was seen as vital to creating a buffer between the slowly southward-moving Russians and British India. They tried not once, not twice, but three times to assert their will over the country. Time and again they were chased out and decimated, not so much by the ‘regular’ Afghan army, but once more by the tribesmen who were armed to the teeth and had a mean streak a mile wide. The last attempt was the only one that could technically be called a success. But even then, as I mentioned earlier, it came at a tremendously heavy cost and was not ultimately long-lasting.

About sixty years later, the Soviets decided to have a go. This is probably the previous attempt most of us are familiar with. And we all know how that turned out. Granted, the mujahideen got a lot of support from the West (particularly the US) in the form of arms and money. But I’m willing to bet they’d have given the Russians a run for their money armed only with obsolete rifles and knives. It’s the innate fighting spirit of the tribesmen that beat the Russians, the modern kit just helped it along a little.

So why on earth is the US trying to do essentially the same thing? Surely anyone would have looked at how this tends to go and thought better of a full-scale occupation.

The answer of course, as it so often is with cases like this, is that old cliché ‘This time it’s different.’

Yes, the reasons may be different (may be). Why the US is there seems to vary depending on who you ask. Some say it was to get bin Laden. OK, mission accomplished then, so why are they potentially looking to stick around until at least 2024? Others claim it’s a resource war; that the US is interested in Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth. Others still say it’s an ideological war; that the US is committed to the ‘War on Terror’ and is determined to thug it out with any nation or people that they see as promoting terrorism or any other view or practice that it anti-democracy. If the last is true, then this war is more dangerous than many realize. That would make this a war of saving face, meaning that a US withdrawal would represent the invalidation of the very reason they went there, and arguably part of the general American MO at the moment (that everyone wants western-style Democracy and that the US can help everybody get it).

And yes, the tech is vastly different (Alexander didn’t have Predator drones). But rather than thinking of modern weapons versus earlier weapons, it’s better in these situations to think of comparability of kit at the time, which has arguably remained constant. Every time the invading force had slightly better arms than the Afghans. And while it meant they packed a heavier punch, in the long run that advantage meant absolutely nothing.

I think there is one key lessons we can take away from an examination of how Afghanistan has dealt with invaders in the past.

1) The Pashtuns and other Afghan tribesmen are scary. Do not mess with them.

Time and again we’ve seen armies with vastly superior numbers and equipment sent running tuck-tailed by Afghanistan’s tribesmen armed with inferior weapons, small numbers, and cold, hard will. Do not attempt to engage these people on their home ground. You will lose. Badly. They will dig themselves into their mountain passes, which they know intimately since they’ve spent all their lives there, and you will lose hundreds, if not thousands of troops attempting to root them out. This type of war is cultural to them. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. You will not beat them at their own game.

So pay attention, America. Your funds and support from home are both dwindling, and the locals are patient and clever. This is new territory for you, but they’ve done this many times before.

You’re marching through the graves of your predecessors. Best get out before your marker is finished.


 

 

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A Defence of Feudalism

Do not adjust your sets. You’ve read that right. I plan on getting into further detail about this at some future point, but for now here’s some basic thoughts.

Even when you factor in my perhaps inherent bias as a Medievalist, the more I think about the basics of Feudalism, the more I find myself concluding that it can be regarded the same way as many other forms of government.

Namely: When it functions the way it is supposed to, it is quite workable. The trouble comes when it doesn’t.

When you boil it down, Feudalism is essentially a reciprocal arrangement between specialists for mutual benefit. Let’s use the medieval model just for a case study. The ‘lord’ specializes in war and administration. What he needs is abundant time and resources. This allows for his extensive training in personal combat, leading others in combat, implementing effective defensive infrastructure, economics, and governance to name a few. None of these are quick to acquire or cheap if they’re being done right. Consequently, there’s not a lot of time for growing food and other such necessaries. The lord may govern the land, but he is not always able to live off of it.

The ‘peasant’  possesses specialist knowledge in agriculture and certain other crafts; tending to the land and surviving off of it. What they lack is the ability to defend themselves against anything significant. Small scale raids can potentially be dealt with within the village, and this is basically where militias come from. But anything larger, and the peasant simply doesn’t have the skills or resources to put up much of a fight. The Battle of Visby in 1361 is a good example of what happens when peasants go up against a substantial military force.

So a symbiosis is reached. The ‘peasants’ agree to tend the land and provide a share of their products for the ‘lord’ in exchange for his protection and governance of the territory. Both have skills the other requires, and providing both sides hold up their ends of the bargain without ‘taking the piss’, things work out alright.

I have to think that there were more cases of this working than those of oppressive lords sucking the peasantry dry while they cower in fear. The trouble, as with all things, is that the bad cases tend to be ‘louder’ in the historical narrative than the normal, functioning ones. We hear more about greedy and corrupt barons than the lord of the manor that acted justly and was generally respected by his people. More research is required before I can make any substantial claims to this, but I still think it’s a strong hypothesis.

Let me make this clear: I am suggesting that this may be a workable form of government in some circumstances, not the one type that will suit all circumstances. I think we’re getting beyond the ‘one government fits all’ view these days, and if we haven’t, we’d best start to.

I’m hoping that this will manifest in a more fleshed-out form in the book of essays. In the meantime, let’s chat about it, shall we?

 

 

 

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The Three Lessons of History

There are three primary lessons that History can teach us. They are:

1) This is where we came from.

No society began by its people sitting down and forming a culture by making up stuff that sounded cool to them. Everything, from our behaviour and social mores, our manner of dress, and our outlook on the world around us, were reactions and elaborations on things that came before. Men’s shirt button left over right because you didn’t want your sword to get snagged on your shirt when you drew it from your left hip. Ever wondered how humans figured out which plants/substances were edible and which were poisonous, an undertaking that would have taken countless generations of trial and error? We figured that stuff out when we were still apes. History has the ability to say to you ‘Hey, you know that thing you do? Well, it comes from this. Neat, huh?’

2) Things have not always been as they are now.

We have an unfortunate tendency to see History as the linear progression from primitivism to sophistication and ‘civilization’. But when we hear about the Egyptians having rudimentary knowledge of steam power and batteries, and the Romans re-inventing things like gridded street layouts and running hot and cold water after the traces of their earlier appearance in the Indus Valley thousands of years previously had all but vanished, that view starts to make less and less sense. Instead, we must look at previous civilizations as different ways of addressing the common challenges of life. Some were more ‘high-tech’ than others, but ultimately what they came up with worked for them, else they would not have lasted very long. What we can learn from this is that, contrary to the commonly-held viewpoint that, when it comes to civilizations, it’s either what we have now or ‘Mad Max’, our ancestors lived well and worked wonders with systems and outlooks that often barely resemble our own. Take comfort in that. It means that there are always other options.

3) Things will not always be as they are now.

Everything changes. The greatest cultures and movements of our species have emerged, risen, and then gradually declined and faded. Nothing could be more natural. To think that our civilization is immune from this process is delusional. Look around you. One day all the people and places that you know and love will be gone. Dust. Ruins. It is for us to decide what we leave behind for future historians. What stories will they tell about us?

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