Saturday, April 21, 2007

Brave New War, The Upside of Down, and the fall of the Roman Empire

Andrew Sullivan's blog directed me to the inside flap blurb of John Robb's Brave New War as printed at Amazon. These passages caught my eye:

In Brave New War, the controversial terrorism expert John Robb argues that the shift from state-against-state conflicts to wars against small, ad hoc bands of like-minded insurgents will lead to a world with as many tiny armies as there are causes to fight for. Our new enemies are looking for gaps in vital systems where a small, cheap action—blowing up an oil pipeline or knocking out a power grid—will generate a huge return...

How can we defend ourselves against this pernicious new menace? Brave New War presents a debate-changing argument that no one who cares about national security can afford to ignore: it is time, says Robb, to decentralize all of our systems, from energy and communications to security and markets. It is time for every citizen to take personal responsibility for some aspect of state security. It is time to make our systems, and ourselves, as flexible, adaptable, and resilient as the forces that are arrayed against us.
Two weeks ago I was reading a similar argument in Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Upside of Down, though H0mer-Dixon, without ignoring "security," is more interested in the environmental challenges we face.

A couple of short reflections. Robb's subtitle is The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. It's not clear from the blurb (which was probably written by a staffer at the publisher's office, or even a free-lance editor) whether Robb believes that globalization, defined in the blurb as "worldwide economic and cultural integration," has been a matter of centralization, of more power in the hands of presidents, billionaire investors, and media owners. Opponents of globalization have seen it that way and you can understand why. But the globalization that some fairly ordinary people, obscure academics at small Canadian universities for instance, have enjoyed the fruits of, has never been a matter of centralization. We in North Bay, Ontario have been empowered to do work that formerly would only have been possible for people based in Toronto, New York, Oxford or Paris. So some of us are pretty keen on this idea of decentralized and flexible systems. Like the Internet, which numerous governments and "intellectual property owners" have already tried to rein in as a threat to their old-style power.

A worthwhile globalization is a matter of creating civilized networks that are more robust and powerful than the networks of people who want to blow up things and shut people up in secret prisons. It doesn't strike me that this is an unprecedented challenge. Some of the tactics of the destroyers and the slavers may be new, but the world has always been infested with small groups who want to make big killings -- literal, financial, or both -- and don't care who gets hurt in the process if it's not them. The new terrorists aren't going to be content to be crawling around blowing up pipelines forever. Some of them are looking forward to that Swiss bank account, that luxurious compound on the Riviera, that imperial palace filled with beautiful and compliant servants. These guys aren't all crazed, self-sacrificing martyrs. They employ crazed martyrs. And you can bet they appreciate the role of law and law enforcement in securing their gains. There's a big danger to innocent life and the productive economy and our environment as a whole from the cheapness of some possible aggressive tactics, but in some ways it's the same old game. The future world, if we avoid environmental collapse, may solve terrorism simply by strengthening slavery.

My second reflection is on the current debate about the fall of the Roman Empire (the fifth-century fall) between people who equate it with "the End of Civilization" (Bryan Ward-Perkins) and people who don't think it was an ending of unprecedented significance (say, Peter Brown and Walter Goffart). I really think that the unresolved and maybe unresolvable debate is about what civilization is. Is it a situation where a leisured minority sit around in the palace library, enjoying bread made from Egyptian wheat and dipping it in Syrian olive oil or Spanish fish sauce, and debating the great ideas of the ages, while other people dig minerals from the earth in dirty, dangerous mines, or harvest cotton in the hot sun, and die young? If that's it, then there was probably a lot less "civilization" in large parts of the formerly Roman world after AD 400 than there had been for some centuries, in that it was far more difficult to assemble a large variety of enviable luxuries in one spot through the routine operations of centralized imperial power. And there is more civilization now, because here I sit, not even close to being rich by Canadian standards, but able to read, think and then speak to a privileged minority around the world while hundreds of millions sweat profusely (and all too often, die young).

But it might be worth considering whether the height of luxury -- whatever luxury you prefer -- is the only measure of civilization.

I say, bring on those resilient decentralized networks and extend them as far as we can. The only alternative is slavery for somebody.

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