History of International Relations Textbook

Research blog

Nomadic political theory

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When this book is finished, I’m going to write a book for CUP about “nomadic political theory.” Now what is that?

Reading about how the Mongols and the Arabs conquered the rest of the known world, it’s so obvious that they thought about most political concepts in an entirely different way than the Europeans. They were nomads, and nomads have their own view on borders.

Nomads need pasture where their animals can graze and they continuously move to places where they can find it. Grass grows naturally, it does not have to be planted, only carefully managed, and land has no meaning apart from what it can yield. Farmers, on the other hand, invest labor in their land, together with seeds and fertilizer, and they put up fences which limit access by outsiders in order to protect what they own. Fences, to nomads, is an abomination since they block their ability to move and thereby to feed their animals and themselves.

This understanding of, and relationship to, the land had implications for both warfare and trade. As nomads, the Mongols were interested in booty but not really in territorial acquisition. They would consequently take what they could get their hands on and move on. As a result they often had to reinvade land which they had invaded earlier. This is also why their empire left no monuments in the form of buildings. The Mongols did not build things since buildings cannot move.

This applies even to their own capitals. In fact, during Genghis Khan the Mongols did not have a proper capital. Instead Genghis would take his court and his advisers with him in a ger mounted on a cart which was pulled by a set of particularly strong horses. They toured the country, and the world, accompanied by their capital.

The only thing the Mongols built were bridges — to take their armies across rivers and to help merchants conduct their trade.  They were also experts at breaching walls. Indeed, siege warfare was the only field apart from horsemanship in which they made substantial technical innovations.

Bridge-building and wall-breaching are activities in which barbarians engage.  Barbarians want to break down barriers and force cultures to open themselves up to the rest of the world.  This is how — brace yourself for the contradiction! — barbarians help spread civilization.  Civilization, as opposed to culture, is not a feature of a particular society but of relations between societies.  This is what both Arabs and Mongols did.  The Arabs preserved the knowledge of the ancients and passed it on to the moderns; the Mongols supercharged the Silk Roads and facilitated trade.  In this way both Arabs and Mongols civilized the Europeans!

All of this becomes very interesting indeed once you realize that 21st century capitalism is a barbarian, but civilizing, force which operates in much the same manner.  Capitalism doesn’t have any respect for barriers either.  Capitalism breaks down walls and builds bridges.  Capitalism too conquers the world but doesn’t occupy anything.  Capitalism is destroying our cultures while making it ever easier for us to interact.

I can’t make up my mind about nomads.  Are they cool or just cruel?


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