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Empire Of The Clouds
Neomedievalism In The 21st Century
We are often confronted with two conflicting depictions of our world:
one of increased globalization, centralization, and homogeneity.
the other of increased polarization, fragmentation, and heterogeneity
The hallmark of our times is the clash of universalism and particularism. While universalism applies global systematic rules for sake of efficiency, particularism optimizes for difference and its opportunistic application. Top-down versus bottom up.
Universalism is akin to singularity. Particularism is about leveraging the entropic nature of the human organization. To some extent, these forces can coexist. But sometimes they compete. Especially when emerging technological realities set them against each other. Our age is one of the overlapping authorities of the universal and the particular.
In the Middle Ages, western civilization began to transition from a universalistic system (driven by singular, unwavering religious ideology and empire) to a particularism of territory and decentralized governance. This was officially established in the Peace of Westphalia with the emergence of sovereign states. Faith has lost its singleness and the church's central role in life was undermined.
In the 1970s Hedley Bull proposed a thesis that the world is experiencing a period that he called Neomedievalism. His theory describes an inverse relationship between the Middle Ages of the 13th century and his/our day and age.
A gradual transition began in the 13th century; from the ultimate authority of the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire to a network system of local principalities. During this period Bull described an overlap in legitimacy between the universal and the particular. Universal competed with the “local”.
Already in the 1970s, Bull saw that there is an inverse passage of sovereign states ceding part of their authority and sovereignty to various universalistic subjects such as the European Union, and the UN but also to a non-formal polity of the American Empire, both its hard and soft power, petrodollar and globalism.
Bull did not suggest a rapid transition but pointed out universalist forces that could overtime increasingly overlap with the sovereignty of nation-states. Old institutions are challenged by the rise of the interconnected world.
The new universalist forces are different from those of the past. We are facing new forms of polity - and perhaps at this stage, it is too far-fetched to call them polities. For those unfamiliar with the word; polities as entities that serve human coordination or organization.
We are stuck between the old and the new but we are still politically structured according to outdated concepts. In decades and centuries to come, we will discover components of political, economic, and civic organizations other than states.
In the words of Lorenzo Ornaghi these new polities, or institutions; “have transversality, a non-localizability, that makes them both in perception and reality much more powerful and difficult to balance if one remains only on a particularist level”.
It will become increasingly more difficult to maintain the integrity of old institutional entities within new technological realities of the internet, specifically cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin and Ethereum are instances of new universalist forces challenging established particularist authorities given the inherent digital sovereignty (and credible neutrality) they introduce.
Whether these digital polity-like objects are here to stay is hard to predict. If they fail, new ones will follow as they have been direct manifestations of new technological realities affecting human organization.
The transition has already begun and it reminds us of anarchy. Balaji Srinivassan describes the perils of the immediate future:
“What’s coming isn’t fascism or communism, like the left-wing and right-wing pundits will have you believe, even though they don’t believe it themselves. What’s coming is the exact opposite of that, a world where the civilized concepts of freedom and equity are extrapolated to their decivilizational limit, where you ain’t the boss of me and we are all equal, where all hierarchy is illegitimate and with it all authority, where no one is in charge and everything is in chaos.”
Back To The Middle Ages
In his "Dreaming of the Middle Ages" (1973) Umberto Eco took the concept of Neomedievalism further, saying we are permanently stuck in the Middle Ages and dwelling inside of it. Contrary to the classical heritage of antiquity which we periodically reconstruct, The Middle Ages has never been rebuilt, just became a thing in which we live.
“We have cobbled up the bank as well as the cathedral, the state as well as the church. We no longer dwell in the Parthenon, but we still walk or pray in the naves of the cathedral.”
The fact is that in some ways we still live in the world that was conceived in the Middle Ages. According to Eco, we have inherited most of our problems from this era. This is when the Western legacy emerged in the form of merchant cities, a capitalistic economy along with banks, checks, and double-entry bookkeeping.
“In the Middle Ages, we witness the rise of modern armies, of the modern concept of the national state, as well as the idea of the supernatural federation (under the banner of a German Emperor elected by a Diet that functioned like an electoral convention); the struggle between the poor and the rich, the concept of heresy or ideological deviation, even our contemporary notion of love as a devastating happy happiness.”
The modern world was in fact invented back then. Eco describes the Middle Ages as the infancy of Western civilization, with the ills of our time forming back then, similar to adult psychological issues stemming from its childhood.
Medievalism can be rediscovered in the postmodern Manhattan’s castles which are “curious instances of new feudalism, with their courts open to peasants and merchants and the well-protected high-level apartments reserved for the lords”.
Eco says that in our longing for the Middle Ages, we’re unaware that just by putting computers into dungeons we transform them into starships. And perhaps the portrayal of Elon Musk is not far from Don Quijote de la Mancha, fighting a noble but futile endeavor with a mix of lunacy and genius.
Is the dream of conquering space unlike the dream of conquering new lands of unfathomable riches? Here we transform Elon into the new Columbus. The explorer, the adventurer gives us hope that this is not the end of it all.
The medieval expectation of the apocalypse is transformed into Zerohedge’s daily supply of doom and gloom. The apocalypse becomes secular but it is still the end of the world.
Obsession over Game Of Thrones-Esque cynical interpretation of the power struggle gets projected onto the world en masse. The pleb now thinks of itself as a legitimate critical observer, denouncing the “official truths”, mainstream media, and fake news, “drunk on reactionary poisons sipped from the Grail, ready to hail every neo-fascist Will to Power…antiscientific by definition.”
English is the new Latin. The AI-generated beauty standards are the ubiquitous portrait of St. Mary during the Middle Ages. We embark on holy pilgrimages to Tulum and Bali because they are related to a rising generation’s overarching identity as digital nomads. If there was Instagram in the Middle Ages people would be flexing their pilgrimage. Universalism abounds.
Even though we would like to think our world is so different from the Middle Ages - on some level it might not be that different. The best analogy for what is to come is the new attempt at The Reformation but with an inverse passage from particular to universal.
From Gutenberg Galaxy To Metaverse
The invention of the internet is as consequential as the invention of the printing press. But if the printing press enabled Martin Luther and others to challenge the universalist's monopoly on truth, the internet enables the creation of new universalist principles transcending geography - a power law at its finest.
With a global instantly accessible network the deeply-rooted notion of nationalism and national interest gets challenged, and export becomes a matter of soft power rather than hard power:
“Do you think that in the morning, when they wake up, Americans think about exporting their music and food? It’s simply that on the other side of the planet, young people prefer to eat hamburgers.”
Although at first, this seems that the internet enables particularisation (or decentralization), it, in fact, enables the consolidation of a power-law distribution. There is one Amazon and then countless others who we don’t know. The Internet also enables absolute mimesis; masses converging on universal ideals. In other words: it enables globally distributed belief in “one” thing (or a couple more of them).
Taleb calls the notion of people not being able to reconcile with the fact that national interests do not have to map to the interest of individuals, as states are not natural polities, a “Westphalia Syndrome”.
“National interests are abstract things, and people end up believing in them even when they conflict with those of those populations they encompass.”
At the granular level, the internet enables decentralization but because of the inherent nature of man, this will converge to a few universalistic concepts. Today the world drinks Coke - in the future, there might be products of socioeconomic importance that will be adopted globally.
Old memes of national interest are slowly losing substance. This is not to say that there are not people who believe in nationalism, but there will be new abstract identities that will be forged in the chambers of Discord groups.
The clash of new universalism with old particularism will unfold over decades if not centuries. But the polity of the nation-state will be replaced as it is already unwillingly ceding parts of its authority.
Almighty centralized algos in the cloud are becoming the global newsmakers, they are the new universal God. Science is cited as a dogma, not a self-correcting endeavor. Some truths, not originating with the state, cannot be contested in public.
The Internet is a great mediator of this transition from particularism to universalism while facilitating anarchy in the process. Unfortunately, adding more data and calling on “science” does not help us to form “truths” (truths as lies that we all agree on).
Without “truths” society has a tendency to disintegrate into chaos and anarchy. The optionality of interpretations robs society of its ability to have political and moral conversations with itself. By way of generating too much data, we embrace the optionality of interpretation.
The end result is chaos. We live in the world of too much knowledge but barely enough wisdom:
“For if knowledge became too great for communication, it would degenerate into scholasticism, and the weak acceptance of authority; mankind would slip into a new age of faith, worshiping at a respectful distance its new priests; and civilization, which had hoped to raise itself upon education disseminated far and wide, would be left precariously based upon a technical erudition that had become a monopoly of an esoteric class monastically isolated from the world by the high birth rate of terminology.”
Medium Is The Message
The great societal shifts that are unfolding are absolutely not about the content of social media. The content is irrelevant because “the medium is the message” as noted by McLuhan in the 1960s.
Society spends too much time arguing which content is more harmful; the NYT’s woke righteousness or the lunatic conspiracies spread by Infowars. But we spend little time thinking about the inherent structural changes caused by the new medium.
To McLuhan, the medium is any technology that introduces a significant change of pace or pattern into human affairs. To him “the electric light (bulb) is pure information”. In that sense; reading glasses or a bulb is information because they extend the human ability to read and write by a couple of decades; with information generation and consumption patterns changing.
Money is a medium and also information. Bitcoin and Ethereum are new credibly neutral mediums that could settle trade globally without local authorities doing anything about it except for banning their subjects from using them.
Bitcoin and Ethereum are the New Empires of The Cloud - universalist forces that fundamentally change the pattern of human coordination. The future will tell us if these universalist forces will drain funds Romewards just like the pope did in the Middle Ages (crypto becoming the new Rome).
To make sense of the world today, observe the technology-enabled power struggle of universalism and particularism unfolding. Native digital money is unbundling the concept of a ruler’s sovereignty over many things. Today, the two authorities overlap, but ultimately, structural change to patterns of human coordination cannot be resisted.
In the original Reformation of the 16th century, the faith lost its singleness. The Church was labeled as an unnecessary and corrupted middleman between God and The Christian. The idea of Christian liberty has arisen. Imagine how outrageous the idea was back then.
It is less radical to propose that today that the state and the government (all of its instruments including central banks that are getting increasingly more politicized) are an unnecessary middleman between the rule of law (property rights, etc.) and a citizen.
We are on a quest to find tools that enable stateless liberty.
This may seem radical, but in times like these, we should remind ourselves of these outrageous propositions. We are on course to build an infrastructure that is enabling new radical socio-economic pivots while the world balances between anarchy and totalitarianism.
Few Remarks For Clarification
Occident Vs Orient
The friction of universal and particular escalated into the violence of the Thirty Years' War. But this violence did not create a new unity. This was formalized in The Peace of Westphalia in which the sovereigns agreed to disagree. An idea of an individual was born out of this strife. Humanism gradually grew into secularism.
Beyond the Western civilization, this has never happened. In the Islamic world, in most instances, the sovereign derives its legitimacy from divine ordination (secularists such as the Shah of Iran or Hussain have been defeated), or China, which imposes the state as the ultimate God that is to be worshiped.
Although priding itself on its humanism; the West allowed these outside competing factions to purchase respectability - a clash of economic rationalism and the spirit of humanism. The West contradicts itself, in this instance making it clear that the economic rationale is the main guiding principle (whereas in the case of Russia it has chosen a different route).
I want to clarify the statement that there will be only one thing when speaking about the whole world. There might be few powerful universal concepts that will compete as they did in the past (e.g. Catholic Church and Muslim Ottoman Empire). Amazon or Facebook have no power in China.
This is where the case of Bitcoin and Ethereum gets interesting. These universal powers compete mainly with other universal power that is the American Empire and the dollar. Thanks to its credible neutrality it may as well be that these outside factions (Gulf States, China, Russia etc.) will embrace new stores for their wealth.
The freezing of Russian central bank foreign currency assets is a cautionary tale for factions that understand their ideological misalignment with the West. Whereas we might see cryptocurrencies as a force to liberate individuals, authoritarians might see them as an insurance for their non-compliance with the whims of the world’s policeman.
Overlapping Universal Identities
The internet does allow people to subscribe to various universal principles, hence; they may join the bitcoin tribe but that does not have to spill over to other aspects of an individual's life (not every Bitcoin holder embraces carnivore diet).
Bitcoin can be one of the universal principles they invite in their life and then there will be other identities that do not touch upon monetary aspects e.g. bitcoiner, apple user, gamer, keto. Some tribes will be more dogmatic than others, some will be based on loose affiliation some may be religiously bound.