What is Neo Medievalism and Why it Matters in the Digital Age?

Neo Medievalism: globalization creates conflicting allegiences causing the fragmentation of sovereign power like during the medieval ages.
Photo by Laura Dewilde on Unsplash

While researching and writing about global politics in the digital age, I came to a realization. The world exists in a state of feudal anarchy. As globalism grows, organizations lay claim to the allegiances of people around the world and across traditional geographic borders. Local, national and extra-national governments (EU and UN), religions, individual identities and ideologies all lay claim to loyalties of people.

And at times, the needs of these organizations can come into conflict. They compete for the loyalty and support of their overlapping people. Ultimately this creates fragmented organizations and reduces the power of national sovereignties, much like political organization of the medieval age.

But what exactly do I mean by feudal anarchy?

There are 195 global nations with their own jurisdictions and rules that coexist in an evolving state of organized anarchy. This global system is feudal because of how it’s systems of coordination are decentralized. Built from a loosely accepted set of informal rules and understandings on how each nation should act towards its peers.

ie: It’s like global codes of chivalry, guiding national actions, with national leaders functioning as a type of feudal nobility. They interact as peers on the global stage, but not all peers are necessarily of equal standing. Although they have these systems of interaction, they are frequently ignored, bypassed and changed. This constant flux is a give and take that achieves a relative state of equilibrium on a global scale. It’s a loosely organized anarchy.

What is Neo Medievalism?

Neo-medievalism captures this idea reasonably well. It’s a modern adaptation of medievalism where non-state organizations or sovereign authorities compete for authority over a group of people. These organizations can implement rules and establish processes on the group that follows them. Sometimes, these rules come into conflict with one another because they come from overlapping authorities.

Overlapping political hierarchy was common in medieval times when the regional feudal nobility, the church, and national level sovereigns were forced to coexist. Each organization had rules and authority over their constituencies. Sometimes the church was in conflict with the nobility or a sovereign over the control of the people. In some cases, this conflict of authority led to the fragmentation of power.

This concept of overlapping authority and struggle for power is common in the digital age.

The Signs of Neo Medievalism

Today, the types of overlapping authorities take other forms. Global non-governmental organizations, the European Union, religions, and in growing cases, the extrajudicial nature of the unique group of Sovereign Individuals are breaking down power hierarchies.

The critical point is that territorial boarders don’t necessarily prevent outside organizations from possessing allegiance and authority over a group of people. In the digital age, organizations form globally in person or on the internet and frequently across government jurisdictions. These organizations can lead to conflicting loyalties and cause a fragmentation of identity.

But in principle, neomedievalism is a global governance model that forces state and non-state actors to coexist.

Decentralization of Power

In the digital age, global commerce leads to a reduction in sovereign authority. In part, this happens because of the golden trilemma, the idea that in order to participate in the global economy, “democracy, national sovereignty, and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.”

So as nations open themselves up to global commerce they invite competing interests and create a decentralized power dynamic similar to the medieval age. Initially fueled by consumerism, globalism empowers NGOs, created global governing bodies like the UN, and led to a fusion of culture. Each of which makes a claim on power.

This interconnected web of commerce fundamentally changed the allegiance of national constituencies. Instead of pure national allegiance, people began to identify as members of other communities and multicultural movements. These new allegiances often come at odds with nationalized policies. Thus taking power away from central authorities for other more decentralized organizations.

Decentralized Tech Creates The Sovereign Individual

But supports such a fragmented power structure?

Global commerce and the opening up of the world is of course the main factor. But inclusive of this change is the expansion of the globalized internet. In 2020, half the world’s population has internet access, growing at a rate of 10% a year. Should this growth rate continue, the global population should be fully online by 2030. And as more people come online, they interact with other communities and develop unique identities and allegiances.

Recently, there has been a push by nation-states to reclaim sovereign power but other factors contribute to neomedievalism. Decentralized and privacy oriented technologies like blockchain and an increase in the affordability of global mobility are major examples.

Because of these factors, a new social class is emerging called The Sovereign Individual. These people increasingly exist on an extrajudicial level, outside the traditional reach of nation-states. By utilizing the available decentralized systems and reduced cost mobility services, these individuals can bypass restrictive state rules.

As more work becomes digitized and workers are increasingly independent of their sovereign nation, we will see societal level change. And this environment reinforces a push towards the feudal anarchy characteristic of the neomedieval movement.

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