Disclaimer: This is my most ambitious post yet for I am trying to condense thousands of years of human history into an essay, sincerely (and most likely foolishly) attempting to recognize patterns therein; in an effort to better understand the resurgence of nationalism today. In writing this I am not trying to make a contention of my historian credentials (for I have none) but merely positing a theory that emerges from my perception of the repeating stories in history.
My hypothesis is that despite differing manifestations, the circular storylines in history do repeat themselves. The difference in my view stems however from claiming where the cycle starts. Since it is a circular recurrence, there is a chicken and egg problem. Nonetheless, I believe that we have smaller groups (families/ tribes/ nations) that are born and just as children’s conscience and minds which are clean slates, wanting to learn from everyone around them- these smaller units engage in trade with everyone around them to gain as much knowledge as possible from them. It is this trade that results in fostering the spirit of globalization and internationalism. As these units expand their numbers and horizons, they start forming beliefs and strong sense of self; quite like an adult. This sense of self stems from generations being born into prosperity directly. As the spirit of nationalism heightens, generations born into prosperity grow detached of the world outside the unit. This inward looking behavior continues resulting in a display of a class struggle within the unit eventually disintegrating into distinct different new units. And so the cycle starts again.
I. Ancient: Hunter gatherers to Civilization to its Collapse
As hunter gatherers, homo sapiens only looked out for themselves at first and later their tribes. As we underwent the neolithic revolution with the discovery of wheel, cereal crop cultivation, mathematics and cursive script, we began settling down and forming urban centers. These urban centers traded with one another in order to gain the best products from each others. The centers that thrived flourished into civilizations- Mesopotamia (3500 BCE), Egypt (3000 BCE) Indus Valley (2500 BCE) and China (2200 BCE onward). As trade grew, a complex economy structure developed with barter system giving way to currency. The regulation of these innovations demanded a central government and sophisticated language and writing skills. With prosperity and a need to legitimize a government, cultures and religion emerged. Religions that started with praying to the natural elements enabling flourishing trade, ultimately resorted to deitification. It is with these deities and the myths conjured to legitimize their being, that competing philosophies started emerging in the world giving rise to the Axial Age (in 8th century BCE). An era of global trade and prosperity was about to give way to more self-centric sentiments.
Confucianism, Jainism, Buddhism, Jewish Monotheism all emerged approximately in the same century- 6th century BCE. The societies propagating these religions came at odds with the ideal Republic vision espoused by the Greek Philosophers Socrates and later Plato in 5th century BCE. Alexander the Great made an effort of getting the western school of thought into the east but competing theologies had already created regional empires here- Median in Iran, Mauryan in India and Han in China. We had become more inward looking. As these regional empires persisted, heavy costs were levied on peasantry and land-owners born into prosperity increasingly exercised their power of abuse while evading any sense of duty. Pressure on the frontiers and discontentment brewing within led to the collapse of these regional units into smaller groups.
The Han dynasty gave way to the triple kingdom in 220 AD which later disintegrated further with the invasion of the nomadic tribes from the north in 4th century AD. China remained a constellation of small kingdoms until the establishment of Sui dynasty in 581 AD. Similarly the Roman empire disintegrated into warring nations under the Germanic tribes with eastern part of the empire being annexed into the Byzantine empire.
II. Pre-Medieval: Silk road to Crusades to Black Death
The fall of the Roman empire in 5th century AD allowed for the rise of early Islamic conquests. Arab slave trade, Mongol invasion of central and south Asia and the rise of the Ottoman Empire. The Islamic traders set up ports across Africa and Asia to facilitate the trade of gold, spices and other commodities. A second wave of global trade and internationalism had emerged.
All of the newly established nations under the Germanic tribes, associated with the catholic church. While the silk road acted as a bridge for trade between Asia and Europe, the merchant economy of the Islamic civilization along with the goods brought its faith into China, India, West Africa and to Turkey, the door to Europe.
Being born into an era of global prosperity and motivated by a common allegiance to the catholic church, the kings of Europe, 11th century AD onward, launched number of crusades to push back Muslim power and retake the holy land. Their colossal failure at this task was exemplified with the onset of the plague in the 14th century AD which wiped out over a third of the population of Europe.
III. Medieval: Renaissance to Trade to Fall of Imperialism
With an utter lack of resources and will to fight, the European nations entered a phase of rebuilding themselves. The knowledge they gained from the developments of the Islamic world upon their interaction on the battlefield pushed them down the road to Renaissance. Scientific revolution owing to inquisitiveness having witnessed the glory of their opponents, resulted in these nations engaging in innovations and new manufacturing. The curiosity that formed the basis of this knowledge revolution forced them to be master seafarers and trade with new empires as well as continue learning from the old ones. Curiosity served with a dollop of necessity resulted in the third wave of globalization.
Machinery advanced with greater interaction with the rest of the civilized world and scientific revolution gave way to industrial revolution. Mass scale production of manufactured goods was witnessed for the first time. International trade flourished at first but with a generation born into such prosperity in the post Renaissance Europe, there now arose a need for acquiring customers and markets in order to ensure continuing profits for your nation’s factories.
This economic competition as a consequence gave rise to military challenges, which resulted in the creation of the modern system of nation states having aspirations for economic, linguistic, and hence socio-political dominance. The rise of colonialism and warring imperialistic states eventually plunged these nation states along with their territories at the time, into two gory world wars in the 20th century. With the empires stretched and pressure on the frontier, independence movements gained strength and swept across the ‘oppressed’ colonies resulting in the formation of new groups/ countries across Asia and Africa.
IV. Modern: Unions to Nationalism to ?
By mid 20th century AD, the world was reeling from the losses of the world wars and under the influence of new nations that aspired to gain from all their peers, in the nascent stages of nation-building. The fragile globe at such a stage entered into the fourth wave of globalization with the establishment of the European Union and United Nations respectively. Seeing the debacle of their own imperialistic actions, the European Nations aimed to re-brand themselves as a common market (rather than competing ones as in the past) under a set of common virtues including liberty and democracy. The United Nations was (intentional choice of the prepositional phrase) a valiant attempt by the giants of yesterday to maintain world order by having a forum to help themselves and the newly formed nations of the world. This era of internationalism was propelled even further with the onset of the information age given the improved transportation and communication, especially with the arrival of the World Wide Web.
But as Arnold Toynbee correctly asserts that ‘giants of yesterday are but pygmies of today’. The giants of today are not willing to accept gleefully the world order imposed upon them by those of yesterday (China a case in point for the current -lack of- functioning of the UN, WTO, etc.). In Europe a generation born without the memory of the excesses of the world wars and the imperial states that led to them is likely to take the EU and its advantages as a given. It is the disadvantages that the union brings to them in the way of immigrant crisis or outsourcing of jobs to those with a different linguistic predisposition, etc. that will be now at the forefront of their minds and hence their politics. So the rise of more inward looking behavior is natural; nationalism today is natural or at least given our history it should have been expected of us.
To guess what could come next, I go back to my hypothesis,
“As the spirit of nationalism heightens, generations born into prosperity grow detached of the world outside the unit. This inward looking behavior continues resulting in more iteration ultimately ending with a class struggle within the unit. The unit eventually disintegrates into distinct different new units. And so the cycle starts again.”
The first statement is already being proven true given the recent votes in UK, USA, Italy and now possibly in France in 2017. In Europe the EU disintegration could be a stepping stone to setting up newer nations. In China we see the patterns of the Medieval European cycle being repeated- their investments in Africa and Latin America suggest their want to acquire resources, customers and markets. We have seen what forms that can metamorphose into.
I think, in my lifetime, the giant of today (which in hindsight can very well be ‘yesterday’), USA, will be dethroned. Newer nations will appear on the anvil. Gains seen in technology in transportation and communication will stagnate. Emerging powers- China and India- too will see a class struggle emerge within them. While I cannot control these things, a framework enabling me to understand where in this cycle (at times vicious and at time virtuous) of stories we are in, acts as a lens to view current happenings through.