When the Centre No Longer Holds

Over twenty years ago, I first came across the notion of megapolitical analysis in James Dale Davidson & Sir William Rees-Mogg’s book Blood in the Streets. A megapolitical analysis tries to get up above events and see the larger pattern that exists. Assuming you’ve done your analysis correctly, what you’re looking at is the structural situation.

An example may help. In the late 1800s, Western nations had the machine-gun (whose efficacy had been proven in the American Civil War and confirmed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1871) and other cultures did not. When the British, for instance, tired of raids by the Dervishes from Sudan into their Egyptian protectorate, they sent a single river gunship up the Nile. The Dervish leader assembled 10,000 of the famed “Whirling Dervishes” — owners of a feared technique for sword fighting that gave them the mobility of a sole fencer and the ability to defend each other that the ancient Roman phalanx structure had given the Legions. From the deck of the gun ship a machine-gunner opened fire — and kept firing. 10,000 Dervishes went a-whirling to their deaths. The British nursed their sunburns and that was that.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, therefore, offensive weaponry like the machine-gun would win the day over any pre-automatic weaponry. A megapolitician would have concluded that Africa and Asia were to experience their almost complete colonisation by Europeans — and they would have been right.

Compare that to 1979, when the former Soviet Union moved into Afghanistan, and discovered that 50,000,000 ruble MiGs could be shot out of the sky by a lone Pashtun or Taliban soldier with an AK-47. Today, the projection of force requires highly expensive weaponry and sophisticated command and communications structures; the defence can work cheaply and melt into the hills/bushes/jungle as needed. Today, a megapolitician would say, again with confidence, that the cost of projecting force against an enemy who only needs to wear you down to make you go away (and thus, win) means not only that colonisation is at an end, but also the ability to “settle” a restive periphery. Today we live with the raids; we can’t “go upstream and settle the matter”.

Yes, as Thomas P. M. Barnett pointed out in The Pentagon’s New Map, the US military has the ability to project force (almost uniquely today) and “smash” any region they choose to in a period of a few weeks — but they lack the ability to pacify it, to establish a new stable order, or to make the “smash” deliver the results they seek. Nor can anyone else. The best we can do is tie up those who would take the battle to us in their homes — but we can’t “win and go home”. To go home, we must admit defeat and leave, tail between our legs. (Even when we appear to have pacified an area, it does not hold up long enough to get everyone out.)

For the projection of force has become affordable and practical for anyone — and so the advantage is to the nimble defender who knows local ground.

Countries of small scale can be held together more easily than those of larger scale: it is easier to project the necessary force across a smaller distance, allowing efforts to be concentrated. As we saw with the end of the former Soviet Union — the last of the great European empires to “come apart” — the effects of different cultures spread across a large land mass and the difficulty in projecting power in a collapsing economy forced the Union apart. The resulting Russian Federation has been plagued by insurrectionist movements since — not to mention worries about losing Siberia to surreptitious Chinese migration (which reminds me deeply of the individual settlers dashing into the West Bank following the 1967 Six-Day War from Israel and planting themselves there: not government policy, but a “situation on the ground” being created by individuals that then leads to government action for a long time to come).

We sit here, in Canada, in the United States, in Australia, in China, in India and in Brazil and we think “it can’t happen here”. But it will — two decades from now, I’d lay odds these countries have split up. Give me three decades, and it’s almost a sure thing. I doubt any continental scale entites will survive intact.

Holding a continental-scale country together is — as it was for the Roman Empire (and many other large human enterprises in history) — a challenge of maintaining growth. Technologies that speed transit times (to allow for sudden power projection: ask Louis Riel and his fellow Métis if they expected the brand-new and unfinished Canadian Pacific Railway to deliver the Militia quite so quickly and effectively!), and speed commerce; an economic engine for growth; access to affordable resources in growing amounts to deal with a growing population: these are the tools (others are analogues to them) to hold a large scale anything together.

Once the engine of economic growth falters, it must be restarted on a new and viable footing, or it decays into a period of milking the past and exploiting it for ever-more concentrated gain. Once new technologies that add speed and ease of movement cease to be invented — and cease to be invested in — those who would tear the territory apart have time to figure out how to deal with what is now a “static opponent”. Once resources are no longer easy to exploit or cheap to extract/purchase, every projection of power becomes an economic calculation (”do we really need to intervene here, or should we hope this problem solves itself and save what we have for another, worse situation?”). Eventually, increasing costs of energy, transport and materials, and the milking of a dead economic model, means that the battle goes to those who would impose an “iron hand” and “control waste”. Roman Senators give way to Emperors, who give way to a civil war for control of the seat of Augustus — until the Empire is no more (transformed into a religious state in the East, and sunk into what we called the Dark Ages in the West). Long before, the ability to deal with issues at the periphery had meant just letting it go its own way.

Remember that in 300 CE the Roman Empire was a massive and integrated economy, operating farms at the scale of today’s agribusiness, with goods from a single city fulfilling the needs of the entire empire (modern corporate concentration of production, or the Soviet planned model of state enterprises, both are echoes of Roman organization). As 400 CE dawns the Empire is already in retreat: there is not enough military capability left to hold all the provinces. Ten years later, Rome is sacked and the split between what could be held in the East and what couldn’t in the West is definitive. Within the 400s the West falls and with it the economy, the transport of goods, and governance. (For most of the East it occurs a few centuries later as Islam boils out of Arabia, followed by the völkerwanderung of the Turkish tribes in 1071.) Until the Industrial Revolution really takes hold in the West, economic organization, energy use and production at scale does not match the Roman intensity of 300 — a century into civil wars. Yet shortly after 300 Rome can no longer sustain being a money economy and reverts to barter, its currency utterly debased and untrusted. By 350 all the legions, east and west, are in the hands of barbarian leaders: it is as though the US Military, up to and including its generals, were staffed by its enemies.

Where we are today, of course, is well advanced into the decay of our economic engine that served us well from the 1770s through to 1973: industrial production. Today we offshore the production and focus on manipulating symbols: increased investment in legal trickery, tribunal “justice”, obscure financial instruments, mergers & acquisitions, downsizing and country-shifting to squeeze a little more lucre out of a stable enterprise … the list is long. That it has blown up into a huge balloon that must now wreak its destruction on what’s left of the middle class and productive enterprise is no surprise: indeed, as Schumpeter noted, it’s necessary to remove the old to create the new. A class of courtiers, fixers, manipulators and money men instead have consciously established a rentier culture, creamed off the wealth for themselves, and not let their “cash cows” be displaced. (Chrysler, for instance, should have died in 1980; instead it has continued to destroy wealth and future prosperity for another 32 years.)

Add to this ever-more expensive-to-produce energy — and its concomitant, food — a political class that meddles incessantly with Nannyism rather than face the rentiers who finance it — and the stage is set for regional rebellion.

Eventually those that are constantly milked to keep the dying lands alive a little longer will say “enough”. Eventually the cities will decide the interior towns don’t matter. Eventually the three time zones from Ottawa to the Pacific shore, or the similar gap to Perth from Canberra, will loom so large that the relationship will be seen as pseudo-colonial. A Newfoundland with wealth will ask why it does not reassume its former independent Dominion status. It will then take only the neo-Feudalists to arise and declare “order” over small territories and the splits become real.

Western Australia has nursed grudges and felt ignored and milked throughout the Commonwealth’s life: now it is the part of the Australian economy that mostly supports the rest. Coastal Washington, Oregon and Northern California find Washington unresponsive to their needs and far too far away — meanwhile the Inland Empire of Washington State can’t fathom those around Puget Sound (and the same, too, as you go down the coast: it is the same division you find in BC and Alaska). So when the fracturing begins, it will carry down deeply: a province or state might declare unilateral changes in its relationship to the nation, but it will take but a few months before it, too, starts to come apart at the seams. (To see some of the seam lines, read Joel Garreau’s The Nine Nations of North America, or Colin Woodard’s American Nations.)

When the centre no longer holds, life, which has gotten harder and continues to do so, will suddenly get very much harder. Energy will be expensive; we won’t travel freely. We will be back to eating with the seasons and what is available locally. Democracy will likely fail, to be replaced by overt despots. The world will suddenly have 300+ … 400+ … 500+ “countries” (few of whom will worry about affording diplomats in very many places). The military, its veterans no longer serviced by the centre and its members in disarray, does as you can already see happening in Mexico, and begins to work for itself locally rather than project global power. Did you wonder why the collapse of the Soviet State did not immediately lead to warlords brandishing the weaponry of that state? It wasn’t just “rush moves” to secure them: ICBMs and the like are of nowhere near enough use. Instead, an arsenal with ammunition for old AK-47s suddenly holds great value, for it can hold a town and its environs.

Megapolitically, all the things that consume us today in politics, sport, entertainment and scandal will seem very unimportant and very far away.

I take no joy in saying these things. But they should be discussed. Only by doing so do we hold onto Carroll Quigley’s hope, in The Evolution of Civilizations, that once again we in the West will reinvent ourselves and prosper again. Waiting until the crisis is upon us will give up the one major advantage we still have — scale — to work to give new means and methods room to breathe.


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