Empires are normally associated with great cities, monumental buildings and vast tramping armies. Less well known, but perhaps as important is the phenomenon of the nomadic empire: the largest of all. By many measures the Mongol Empire utterly dwarfed Rome.
It is the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world. It emerged from the unification of Mongol and Turkic tribes in modern day Mongolia, and grew through invasions, after Genghis Khan had been proclaimed ruler of all Mongols in 1206. At its greatest extent it stretched from the Danube to the Sea of Japan(or East Sea) and from Arctic to Camboja, covering over 33,000,000 km2 (12,741,000 sq mi), 22% of the Earth’s total land area, and held sway over a population of over 100 million people.
Only the British Empire in its heyday, covering 13 million square miles and governing 458 million subjects, was larger. Even the Xiongnu were so powerful that the Chinese — representatives of that other types of civilization — built the Great Wall to bar them. Nomadic empires combined two seemingly contradictory qualities. They were fluid — moving across vast areas of the world with apparently no fixed abode — yet possessed a structure; they had enforceable rules and a system of governance. Interestingly the nomadic empires may have evolved the rules as a consequence of their mobility. It was the need to create order out of a dynamic system that drove — at least in part — the rise of these empires.
The story of this ancient empires acquires a renewed interest today because many of the conditions present in the vast, unsettled steppe superficially resemble the uncharted borders of the online world. In the 21st century just as in the 13th century, powerful ideological and economic forces move effortlessly across settled boundaries in ways that no single nation-state can easily control. It is interesting to speculate whether some deeply buried, subconscious memory of the peril of Xiongnu led the current Chinese government to establish the modern Golden Shield, otherwise known as the Great Firewall of China. It would be ironic if the most ancient continuous civilization on earth alone among all the rest truly understood the contemporary world.
The fundamental requirement of nomadic governance was to manage problems asynchronously. To do that, the nomads created a kind of federal structure that every American would instantly recognize. Susan Alock, in her book Empires: perspectives from archaeology and history, argues that the need to manage tribal collisions, disputes over livestock and manage relationships with the settled empires, the nomads created a three tier system. At the top of the pyramid was an imperial leadership, which arbitrated tribal disputes and handled common strategy and foreign affairs; one level down were the governorships, which performed the same tribal management and strategic function at regional levels. Lastly, there were the tribes themselves: maintained with the traditional leadership and customs intact. Intuitively recognizing the principle of subsidiarity the nomads had assigned to central authority only those functions which could not be performed locally. In some ways the nomadic empires operated under the aegis of a “distributed program” in which autonomous nodes interact with each other to pursue a common goal.
The psychological conflict between a modern socialist and the knuckle-dragging traditional American barbarian revolves precisely around the question of whether society should run under a “distributed program” or an imperative one. Whereas one side believes that government should be limited to tasks that the individual or local government cannot perform and that relationships between the parts are regulated by a distributed program expressed in the Constitution and Judaeo-Christian tradition, the other side believes that “government should be there for you”. It should be there for you in the bedroom, in the playground and recycle bin. It should be there when you are eating transfats or farting. It should even be your sexual mentor, where possible in school. Like every good imperative program, it should leave no room for anything but itself.
The endless proliferation of treaties, laws and regulations were the imperative rules; and their embodiment in a never-ending expanse of organs of governance from local governments to the UN — with NGOs and activist groups filling every conceivable gap — was the instrument by which the ungoverned were going to be fenced in. Even private life was brought under cultivation by slow degrees and a code of Political Correctness suffused every aspect of life. In time it would become impossible to even think a subversive thought; the language would be incapable of expressing it. The vast increase in government over the last sixty years brought the settlement of the world — some might call it the End of History — almost within reach. And then the Internet happened.
The Internet reinvented the steppe on a virtual scale.
The “climate change” debate is almost a perfect example of intellectual combat between the two sides. It is a modernized re-enactment of a struggle between one side operating under distributed programming and another using a top-down paradigm. The construction of the “climate change” meme followed the traditional socialist pattern. The idea was built up with articles written about it in the press. Advocacy groups formed around it; authority from some academic source found to bolster it; celebrities were engaged to tout it. The UN was persuaded to give the whole its imprimatur. It had always worked before. Post after post was driven into the ground anchored around Kyoto, the UN and the EU. Strand after strand of wire was fastened to the timbers. And then, just as the gate was going to be closed, the nomads of the Internet charged the wire.
They have almost broken through. Led by individuals like Plimer, McIntyre and Lomborg and followed by a motely, a growing tide of discussion on the Internet has pushed in the wire so hard that it might actually collapse. The nomads looked at the data, the computer models. Someone may have hacked the CRU documents or leaked them. And once the data was out they knew where to look. The site Watts Up With That is a perfect example of the demolition of a staid University Department meme under the cut and thrust of the terrors of the intellectual steppes. Watts Up With That goes through one instance of the CRUs data fiddling in step-by-step detail and by the end it you have gone along for the ride. You have followed the process and find it impossible to simply say that “the CRU may have been naughty but the data is good”. The data itself may be bad or intentionally corrupted.
It is a fascinating spectacle. What the nomads have on their sides is reality. What the sown has on its part is manner and method. And the struggle between the two sides is one whose outcome, even in general, is still unknown. The settled empires are not without their resources. The Hill reports that two pollsters for Hillary Clinton have received nearly $6 million in stimulus money. The forces of the establishment may not be particularly quick, but they do have the big battalions. Perhaps in the end the nomads will be subdued by a fence which in the memorable phrase of Buddy Larsen, “will outlast the Solar System”. But not yet. Not yet.