Back to the Future: Neomedievalism and the Postmodern Digital World Economy
Kobrin, Stephen J., Journal of International Affairs
We are entering a period of turbulent, systemic change in the organization of the world economic and political order--a period comparable to the transition from the feudal to the modern era in the 16th and 17th centuries. As Hobsbawm observes, the late 20th century world economy appears temporally confused, involving a "curious combination of the technology of the late twentieth century, the free trade of the 19th and the rebirth of the sort of interstitial centres characteristic of world trade in the Middle Ages."(1)
I have argued elsewhere that globalization represents a systemic transformation of the world economy that will result in new structures and new modes of functioning.(2) Globalization entails two interrelated, technologically driven phenomena. First, dramatic increases in the cost, risk and complexity of technology in many industries render even the largest national markets too small to serve as meaningful economic units. Second, and more important here, the emerging global world economy is electronic, integrated through information systems and technology rather than organizational hierarchies.
We are in the midst of what Cerney and others have called the third industrial revolution, "characterized by the intensive application of information and communications technology, flexible production systems and organizational structures, market segmentation and globalization."(3) The digital revolution has "dematerialized" manufacturing and commerce; all firms, regardless of sector, have become information processors.(4)
One result of the information revolution is the "deintegration" of the large, vertically integrated "Fordist" firms which organize a significant portion of international economic transactions within their administrative hierarchies.(5) In their place, a complex system of networks and alliances is emerging in which information technology facilitates the integration and coordination of geographically dispersed operations. An international system of production is being replaced by a complex web of interlaced global electronic networks.(6)
The scale and complexity of technology and the emergence of electronically integrated global networks render geographic borders and, more fundamentally, the basic construct of territorial sovereignty problematic. A critical issue raised by globalization is the lack of meaning of geographically rooted jurisdiction when markets are constructed in electronic space. There is a basic disconnect between geographic space and cyberspace.
THE NEOMEDIEVAL ANALOGY
The Peace of Westphalia (1648) is taken conventionally as marking the end of medieval universalism and the origin of the modern state system. The medieval to modern transition entailed the territorialization of politics, the replacement of overlapping, vertical hierarchies by horizontal, geographically defined sovereign states.(7)
The modern state system is organized in terms of territorial sovereignty: the division of the globe's surface into fixed, mutually exclusive, geographically defined jurisdictions enclosed by discrete and meaningful borders.(8) Nation states and national markets are defined spatially. Geographic jurisdiction implies that each state's laws, rules and regulations apply within its territory--within the space encompassed by its borders.(9)
As Carr noted many years ago, it is difficult for contemporaries to even imagine a world in which political power is organized on a basis other than territory.(10) Geographically rooted, sovereign nation states and the international state system, however, are relatively recent creations which comprise but one of a number of historical modes of organizing political activity.(11)
Furthermore, the current state system may well be unique, a product of a very specific historical context. Agnew reminds us that "the spatial scope of political organization has not been set for all time in a particular mode. The territorial state is not a sacred unit beyond historical time."(12) Territorial sovereignty is not historically privileged. There have been other bases for the organization of political and economic authority in the past. There may well be in the future.
Yet we tend to view systemic change as evolutionary by making the very modern assumption that time's arrow is unidirectional and that progress is linear. We assume that each era emerges, in turn, from existing political-economic structures and, in some way, moves beyond what existed previously.
It may be more reasonable to look at modern forms of international political and economic organization as a detour rather than an evolutionary step. The modern era may be a window which is about to slam shut. Guehenno, for example, argues that the nation state is an ephemeral political form, "a European exception, a precarious transition between the age of kings and the `neo-imperial' age."(13) Anderson characterizes the political progression from pre-modern to modern to postmodern as a "movement from relative to absolute and then back to (new) relative conceptions of space."(14)
The beginning of the 16th century is widely identified as the watershed between the medieval and modern eras.(15) If we are again at a similar watershed, on the cusp of a transition to a postmodern era, what might it look like? If the post-Westphalian era is coming to an end, can we discern the shape and structure of the emerging, global international political economy?
A closer look at medieval Europe, the "immediate" past, can help us imagine our postmodern global future. In the Star Wars Trilogy, Darth Vader is clad in the armor of the traditional villain of medieval epics--the Black Knight--and he and Luke Skywalker duel with laser sabers in a fight that, but for the weapons, would be at home in Henry IV. Similarly, the costumes in the futuristic Waterworld have been described as neomedieval iron and kelp. In politics and economics, as in science fiction movies, it may help to attempt to visualize the unknown future in terms of the known past.
To be clear from the outset, I do not argue that we are about to return to a world of manors and fiefs, of lords and vassals. If the modern era is an anomaly, however, looking back to medieval Europe may help us understand the rough outlines of an emerging postmodern global economy. The neomedieval metaphor should be seen as an inter-temporal analog of comparative political analysis. It allows us to overcome the inertia imposed by our immersion in the present and think about other possible modes of political and economic organization.
I am certainly not the first to use neomedieval analogies. Almost 20 years ago, Bull suggested that one alternative to the modern state system might be "a modern and secular equivalent of the kind of universal political organization that existed in Western Christendom in the Middle Ages."(16) Since that time, a number of other authors have looked back to medieval Europe to try to understand change in the international system.
Hirst and Thompson observe that international politics is again becoming more polycentric and suggest that its complexity will soon rival that of the Middle Ages.(17) Similarly, Lapham, discussing the emergence of a variety of non-national actors in world politics, suggests that "the hierarchies of international capitalism resemble the feudal arrangements under which an Italian noble might swear fealty to a German prince, or a Norman duke declare himself the vassal of an English king."(18) Anderson uses neomedieval or postmodern conceptions of territoriality to think about the future of the European Union.(19)
Gottlieb and Maier are both concerned about conflicts between nation and state and look to earlier times when sovereignty was "divided" and not inherently territorial for possible solutions.(20) Lipschutz argues for a global civil society which would mirror the pre-Westphalian, trans-European supranational civil society.(21)
In an interesting paper, Matthew suggests an analogy between environmentalism in our era and medieval Christianity as a possible universal ideology.(22) More somberly, many observers, including Kaplan, are concerned about parallels between the disorder and violence of the early Middle Ages and the breakdown of civil society and rise of crime in much of the Western world, often noting the similarity between modern suburban walled and gated communities and medieval castles and moats.(23)
Most relevant to the present discussion, Hirst and Thompson argue that the medieval analogy helps us think back to a period before the monopolization of governance functions by sovereign states, to a world which was not constructed on the basis of territorial sovereignty.(24) Thinking about the Middle Ages, the last pre-modern period, might help us to imagine possibilities for a postmodern future.(25)
This paper explores the following facets of medieval organization and relates them to changes in the current international political economy:
- space, geography and borders
- the ambiguity of authority
- multiple loyalties
- transnational elites
- distinctions between public and private property
- unifying belief systems and supranational centralization
SPACE, GEOGRAPHY AND BORDERS
Medieval concepts of perspective and viewpoint were not compatible with territoriality as a mode of political organization. Medieval maps reflected scriptural dogma rather than useful images. The wider world was seen through a screen of symbolism: the idea of external space was only very weakly grasped in terms of a mysterious cosmology comprised of heavenly hosts and other …
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Publication information: Article title: Back to the Future: Neomedievalism and the Postmodern Digital World Economy. Contributors: Kobrin, Stephen J. - Author. Journal title: Journal of International Affairs. Volume: 51. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1998. Page number: 361. © 1997 Columbia University School of International Public Affairs. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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