Seán Flynn on the end of American Empire, and how the internet is more like the Catholic Church than you imagined.
Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye, counsels an old Russian proverb. Forget the past however and you’ll lose both, concludes the homespun wisdom of the steppes.
It’s long been a favoured intellectual parlour trick of academics and commentators to draw analogies between our turbulent present and some period in the past that best supports whatever Cassandra-like prognostications they wish to prop up.
Many people will tell you that the early 21st century bears striking similarities to the period of decline and fall that characterised the end of the Western Roman Empire and heralded the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages.
By all accounts, we are living through a period like that when Pax Romana still bumbled along; just before the administrative collapse of the empire removed the fig leaf of the rule of law.
For Pax Romana, substitute Pax Americana, take your pick of barbarians at the gates and before you know it, the 21st century looks a lot like Rome, just with the internet.
But I’m not sure I buy into that one. Sure, it has some persuasive elements but if this period of decline at the end of the so-called American Century bears any similarities to any other empire, it is probably to its immediate antecedent, the British Empire.
And there is plenty of support for that particular hypothesis. The similarities are incontrovertible; notions of individual liberty and commercial freedom were the ideological bedrocks of each empire. Both were empires built on an economic advantage based on industrial superiority and in each case, success was consolidated by the ability to build and protect a vast global trading network.
The empire argument works on the supposition of a golden Edwardian age of British Empire; the last long hazy afternoon before the storm clouds of the Great War gathered. In many ways, almost a hundred years later, that same sun could now said to be setting on the idyllic Gatsby-like garden party of the American Century.
But even that analogy starts to look stretched when compared to the ‘Great Depression 2.0’ hypothesis. The similarities here are very compelling: a major financial market crash precluding the breakdown of international consensus as the global economy goes into freefall. Throw in an environmental disaster of Dustbowl proportions and you’ve got The Grapes of Wrath with go-faster stripes.
The problem with this particular analogue, as with all the others, is that until we topple into Dark Ages style chaos or global conflict, all of these hypotheses are nothing more than devices to justify a particular forecast.
While the prophets of doom cast about in the dressing up box of history, my own searches for historical resonance have taken a rather different route. My journey started with Umberto Eco and ended with Assassin’s Creed.
We are not living through a redux version of the Fall of Rome, the eve of the Great War or even the Wall Street Crash. We’re actually so neo-medieval that we don’t even know it.
In his 1986 collection of essays Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco posited that “we are at present witnessing, both in Europe and America, a period of renewed interest in the Middle Ages, with a curious oscillation between fantastic neomedievalism and responsible philological examination”.
For Eco, the semiotics of this neo-medievalism are manifest in many aspects of modern popular culture and while he cites Disney’s fairytale castles as exemplary totems of this fascination, the truth is that—in one form or another—western European thought has probably been yearning for an idealised middle ages since before the medieval period even finished.
The perceived romance and simplicity of the Medieval narrative for example inspired the faux gothic bombast of London’s 19th century architecture; from the houses of Parliament to Tower Bridge and St Pancras, the turmoil and confusion the Industrial Revolution saw our Victorian forbears searching for some certainties among the dark satanic mills. Classicism was one avenue but neo-medievalism offered a vision that was both closer in time and more vernacular.
In political philosophy in the 1970s, former LSE International Relations professor Hedley Bull raised the possibility of a theory of neo-medievalism as a force for good, in which individual notions of rights and a growing sense of a “world common good” were undermining national sovereignty.
He saw a complex layering of international, national and sub-national organisations which might help “avoid the classic dangers of the system of sovereign states by a structure of overlapping structures and cross-cutting loyalties that hold all peoples together in a universal society while at the same time avoiding the concentration inherent in a world government.”
Neo-medieval theory has of course evolved since then, comfortably accommodating the changes to our evolving society. The rise of the mercenary (in modern parlance, the Private Military Company) is an emerging trend in the late 20th and early 21st centuries that would find plenty of medieval precedent. The importance of powerful trading city states like London, New York, Hong Kong and Singapore echo the commercial power and medieval autonomy of Hanseatic Hamburg, Venice and er … London.
Even ye olde internet is woven seamlessly into our neo-medieval tapestry. As a trans-territorial domain operating outside of the jurisdiction of national law, it has much more in common with the Catholic Church than is immediately obvious.
As technology improves, it enables us to create a re-tooled medievalism of fantastically ersatz detail: a Middle Ages that never actually happened; yet it is more vivid to us than any evoked by authentic artefacts.
The scale and detail of the future’s hyper-historical theme parks are not measured in physical units like acres and litres and tonnes but rather in units of information. Pixels and gigabytes are the currency of the hyperreal.
Only as I wandered among the digitally re-imagined ruins of the Coliseum or the Pantheon as they might have been in the Rome of the 1400s, could I even begin to understand the depths of that peculiar fascination; the desire to inhabit an inauthentic and pneumatically-enhanced mappa mundi.
Detail of famous old medieval astronomical clock courtesy of Shutterstock