Monday, August 17, 2009

Medieval wisdom

Paul Romer’s idea of charter cities (at outlined in his TED talk here) has a certain wry amusement value for any medievalist, since “charter cities” is simply a variation on how medieval rulers created cities as economic hubs. The notion was, quite straightforwardly, to create the situation where economic activity could take place that would not occur in the rural areas that were otherwise the norm. This was particularly so in medieval England, with its boroughs operating under royal charters run by corporations. The self-governing city, generating its own laws and institutions was very much a feature of medieval Europe, particularly northern Italy. Venice was, in some ways, the Hong Kong of its time: the stand-out institutional success. (I find attempts to dismiss the success of Hong Kong as some one-off freak quite ahistorical.)

Gen. Petraeus in his “Surge” in Iraq pulled US troops out of the “firebases” and put them into the local communities. The idea was security was security for people in the area: it was something you could not create and maintain unless you had ongoing connections to those people. So that they told you stuff, you knew what was going on and you provided the security services they actually needed and wanted. This was simply a version of what Commonwealth forces had done in Borneo, with their patrols living and working in the local villages and the Brits had done in Oman. The use and expansion of pre-existing connections was also part of the Commonwealth success in the Malayan Emergency.

These are versions of the medieval approach to establishing law-and-order: local lord/knight with a range of connections to the local populace and a long-term incentive for law and order (since dead or de-propertied peasants were not very productive). We know this worked better than other arrangements, since Arab chronicler Ibn Jubayr commented on how much better off Muslim peasants were under “Franj” rule than Muslim rule (the latter being based on warriors with revocable tax-rights rather than the inheritable land ownership of Western knights). The trick was long-term incentives. It is that lack of long-term perspectives that Paul Collier notes as a central problem in the regular failure of post-conflict reconstruction: the need, in his words, to move from the politics of plunder to the politics of hope.

The representative principle (electing folk to represent you) is a medieval idea: from Alfonso IX of Leon and Castile, Simon de Montfort, and Edward I. But it was built on existing structures—bishops and lords were already, and continued to be, members of the deliberative assemblies. So the assemblies worked because they reflected how the societies actually worked.

Clearly, they evolved over time but they started in a place that worked for those societies at that time. A model that has been sadly overlooked for Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which could have so done with a “Council of Sheiks” as an “upper house”, so that governance is connected to how things operate on the ground, not some merely theoretical notion of how things ought to be. As Paul Collier points out in his TED talk on the “bottom billion” the empirical evidence is that electoral competition is bad for poor governance resource-economies but checks and balances on power are good. A “Council of Sheiks” provides the potential for checks and balances connected to how things actually are on the ground.

The medieval period is the basis of Western civilisation: the most successful civilisation in human history. It is a period of major successes and achievements from a very bleak beginning. There are many lessons and benefits to be taken from it. Particularly for societies still locked into “tribal” (i.e. kinship and network lineages) patterns since they have rarely, if ever, experienced rulership as other than some version of predatory autocracy. Centuries of disparaging of medieval experiences, of talking as if it was just the “dark time” between the Classical period and modern revival, misses a lot of potentially useful ideas.

ADDENDA: Folk sometimes make a very big deal about the Taliban having a secure area to operate from in Pakistan's North-West Territories. But, during the Dark Ages, the Norse raiders going a-viking had secure areas to raid from. The solution was to build up local defenses, forcing them to operate in bigger groups that could be brought to battle and destroyed, such as at Ethadun, Clontarf and Stamford Bridge.

Or co-opt them as the new defenders. As was done in Iraq with the Sons of Iraq.

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