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A long tale of ‘enablers’ (Part II)

Published on 23 April 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

(This blog entry is the second of two parts. In Part I an enabler – horsemanship – was shown progressively to transform material society. In Part II the social consequences of the enabler’s impact are visited)

At the “border” between nomadism and settled agriculture much exchange was taking place. Occasionally, however, nomads penetrated deep into settled country to raid and plunder[1].

For the settled agriculturalist the nomad coming “out the blue” was the ultimate scourge, the “other”; “evil” pillaging and killing. Defense against the nomad was difficult – he had mobility and surprise on his side. Religion may have been the moral answer to the emergence of long distance warfare on horseback, which left victims in its wake. Nomadic warfare (rather than local raid) and non-local religions happen to be co-terminous[2].

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(part of a cart – 1000 BC: two opposites – the (abstract) world of the “sown” and the (naturalizing) imagery of the nomads)

This fear was a world-wide phenomenon. The Greek spoke of the “barbarian” – referring to nomads or otherwise foreigners. The Chinese hua had its negative counterpart in the i, or barbarian[3].

Many strategies were developed to cope with the threat. They ranged from peaceful coexistence based on (managed) trade[4] and diplomacy, to indirect control through client states[5], to attempted conquest[6] or isolation[7]. They all worked, for a time. Centralized, conscious control policies tended to overburden the settled’ state – sooner or later the nomads seized the chance and engulfed it.

The settler’s primeval fear of the “other” – the certainly unsettled, elusive and unfathomable nomad – lives on today. Carl SCHMTT, a German jurist held that “morality is defined by the opposition of good and evil, the economic by the opposition of profit and loss, the aesthetic by the opposition of the beautiful and the ugly. The political is defined by the relation between friend and enemy[8]. Politics is a moral battle between enemies – one side must prevail. Carl STRAUSS took this unbridgeable bi-polarity to the US, and this worldview informed the policies of neo-con advisors to President George W. BUSH. His language was redolent of Wild West imagery and language – or worse[9].

We may draw a lesson from the fate of China’s Ming dynasty: “The basic problem, in the Ming as at other times, was an inability to compromise, even over decades during which a high military cost was being paid for inflexibility. To the extent that [China’s] Great Wall is itself a product of this inability, it sums up rather well one major continuity in Chinese foreign policy. The failure to reconcile pragmatic and idealized visions of the world, and the tendency to inject morality into political controversies, are two of that policy’s most enduring characteristics.[10]

In other words: after partisanship and court intrigue had doomed all other policies toward the nomads, building the Great Wall was the only option left standing – and it was implemented, despite its burden on the exchequer and its acknowledged futility. Being the “only consensual option” does not make it the “best” option.

Of course, this is all wild speculation – dressed as sober plausibility. But the emergence of the “enabling” horse – and with the possibility for long distance warfare – might have changed the world forever.

Enablers are the contrary of inevitabilities – they open up new ways of doing things. A new enabler may generate infinite possibilities. It is a heady moment, when we feel omnipotent. One option is chosen, and we go down that road. As all other possibilities recede from our awareness, we bestow inevitability to the road we have chosen.

Enablers may be subliminally subtle – often no more than driven by whimsy, curiosity, chance, serendipity, or emulation. They do not require prior visions or beliefs, but they may lead to them after the event. Such “visions” and “values” may be not much more than fabulating from available evidence. This is how our conscious processes seem to work, however, so we better take the possibility of fabulation on board[11]. Visions and values may be feedback loops that steady social action – creating “path-dependent outcomes”.

What to do with enablers? We may accept the differentiation that the “enabler” has brought forth, and try to cope with it pragmatically, as best we can. In short – we adapt. Or we may follow imperial China’s policy: “The failure to reconcile pragmatic and idealized visions of the world, and the tendency to inject morality into political controversies, are two of that policy’s most enduring characteristics.” A friend of mine just told me that “moralism is what one does when no longer able to sin”. Could this apply to policy and international policy as well?

[1] Why this took place is a long argument. Undoubtedly weather variability drove much of nomadic raiding. Base greed was hardly absent. Occasional heroic figures would then transform a bunch of tribes into a disciplined army ready to strike. Other historians argue for a response of the “non-state” to “state” formation. See: Thomas J. BARFIELD (1989): The perilous frontier. Nomadic empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757. Blackwell, Cambridge; Peter HEATHER (2006): The fall of the Roman empire. A new history of Rome and the Barbarians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[2] Carl JASPERS (1962): Die großen Philosophen: Erster Band: Die maßgebenden Menschen / Die fortzeugenden Gründer des Philosophierens / Aus dem Ursprung denkende Metaphysiker. Piper, München.

[3] Arthur WALDRON (1992): The Great Wall of China. From history to myth. Canto. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

[4] See: Jerry H. BENTLEY (1993): Old world encounters. Cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[5] See: Edward N. LUTTWAK (1976): The grand strategy of the Roman empire. From the first century AD to the third. Johns Hopkins, Baltimore.

[6] See: James C. SCOTT (2010): The art of not being governed. An anarchist history of upland Southeast Asia. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

[7] See: Julia LOVELL (2006): The Great Wall. China against the world 1000 BC – AD 2000. Atlantic Books, London.

[8] Anne NORTON (2004): Leo Strauss and the politics of American empire. Yale University Press, New Haven; p. 39.

[9] A case could be made that he used language that harked back to narratives of lynching. SeePhilip DRAY (2002): At the hands of persons unknown – The Lynching of Black America. But the “black man” was also an ultimate “other”.

[10] See: Jeremy WALDRON (1992): op. cit. p. 172

[11] See: Michael R. GAZZANIGA (2011): Who is in charge? Free will and the science of the brain. HarperCollins, New York.

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