John Rapley has a provocative article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that suggests we’re entering a post-modern version of the Middle Ages, with power devolving from national governments to either local communities or global corporations. (The full text of the piece is available, for the moment, here.)
Rapley draws together a number of megatrends – the globalization of the economy, the portability of knowledge work over the Internet, the erosion of governments’ taxation power, the increasing concentration of wealth – in arguing that we may now be witnessing the rise of a “new medievalism”:
The shift towards knowledge-intensive products, reductions in the transport costs of both goods and labor and the rapid acceleration of technological change have loosened the state’s hold on its traditional resource base. At the end of the Middle Ages, states assumed the role of intermediaries between the local and world economies. But today’s postmodern economy comprises not centralized national economies operating under state guidance, but small, fragmented and increasingly autonomous economic units capable of evading state control. What is emerging is a global economy more and more centred on what some theorists have called “global cities” – major urban centers that are connected less to their hinterlands and more to their counterparts elsewhere.
Because neoliberal policies have done more to free the movement of capital and goods and services than to reduce barriers to human migration, the balance of negotiating power has shifted in favor of the managers of multinational or even global firms. In many countries, this has skewed the distribution of income, leading to the emergence of pockets of vast wealth and areas of abject poverty. As the more prosperous players plug into a global economy and their production relies ever less on local labor, they retreat into secure enclaves protected by private security forces – a process former US secretary of labor Robert Reich has called the “secession of the successful.” Marginalized communities have essentially done the same thing, using a different kind of private security force – the gang – to maintain order in the global cities’ multiplying and expanding ghettos … People everywhere, finally, are leaving behind national symbols and cultures and turning to local and global hybrids … And so the coexistence of local and transnational identities that typified the European Middle Ages has reappeared.
Rapley notes that the old Middle Ages rose out of the rubble of the Roman Empire. Rome fell, he writes, “because barbarian tribes gnawed at its edges and eventually toppled its core. Its sheer wealth set it apart from the petty kingdoms on its frontiers, which, denied access to Rome’s riches, grew resentful, envious and finally obstreperous, bringing the mighty low through the death of a thousand cuts.” He foresees a similar fate for the “new Rome,” the United States: “the outside world is destined to move increasingly beyond the control – and even the understanding – of the new Rome. The globe’s variegated informal and quasi-informal statelike activities will continue to expand, as will the power and reach of those who live by them. The new Romans, like the old, might not enjoy the consequences.”