Note: This article was written sometime in 1999 and adapted from an op-ed piece I wrote for my local newspaper, the Opelika-Auburn News. Much of it is badly dated, and that is precisely why I’ve chosen to re-post it. Despite the predictions of many elite observers, the nation-state has not been consigned to the historical ash bin after all – far from it. Brexit, the election of pro-nationalist, self-described “America First” candidate Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States, and the revival of Catholicism in France, despite unrelenting secularization and in the face of the growing threat of Islamization in Europe, are extraordinary developments. And they are remarkable indications that two factors predicted a generation ago – the the decline of the nation-state and the advent of a new medievalism in the form of multi-national regionalism – may prove to be forlorn hopes after all. The nation-state and the historic faith of Europe have proven far more resilient than many observers initially believed.
Medievalism Minus the Church: The Dark Road Ahead
by Jim Langcuster
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, futurists from Alvin Toffler to Kenichi Ohmae have predicted the decline and ultimate extinction of mega-states and their replacement by a new order characterized by a significant degree of decentralization.Under any circumstances, I and fellow decentrists undoubtedly would be ecstatic about such trends. Admittedly, there is much inspiration to draw from the growing fascination with regionalism in Western Europe and throughout the world. But before we get too swept up in the euphoria of the age we should consider if these trends really do portend blue skies.
The Return of Medievalism
Consider the January 2, 1999 New York Times Arts and Ideas section, which explores this theme in great detail. Based on 20-year-old observations by the late Hedley Bull, an Oxford University professor of international relations, the Times concludes that two forces are working in tandem to produce a “modern secular equivalent” of a much earlier epoch in human history.
The argument goes something like this: The modern system of nation-states, hammered out after the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, is evaporating. For centuries, these states have exercised absolute sovereignty over their citizens encompassing all aspects of their lives – secular, moral, and spiritual. But in recent years, this grip has weakened and, as it turns out, the traditional responsibilities normally associated with nation-states are being unbundled.
Experts believe part of this unbundling can be traced to the rise of multinational corporations,which have managed to stage end-runs around the moral and legal hegemony previously associated with nation-states. And, of course, the explosive growth of cyberspace, which transcends national boundaries and is owned by no one, also has contributed to this trend.
While these trends my initially seem appealing to many decentralists, their implications aren’t so heartening after closer inspection. For as national borders are transcended and national authority diluted, many nations have been forced to consign part of their sovereignty to international authorities.
In Western Europe, for example, the lives of individual citizens already are shaped by pan-national authority in the form of the European Union, in addition to the traditional levels of national and local government.
An Emerging Layer of Supranational Authority
This emerging layer of supranational authority has inspired some academics to remark on the modern age’s increasing resemblance to Medieval Europe – an age “when the boundaries of kingdoms were often vague and subject to the fortunes of war and dynastic marriage, and many different centers of power competed for influence.” Just as political power was shared between competing realms of secular and religious authorities, experts believe that a similar balance of interests is emerging today.
Any authority transcending linguistic and cultural boundaries, of course, must be predicated on some kind of all-encompassing vision and moral order. During the Middle Ages, Christianity provided the moral and cultural adhesive for this order. And even today, as the “neo-medievalist” trend unfolds, a quest is under way to find some modern-day secular equivalent of the old order. But with the influence of Christianity receding throughout the world, especially in Europe, where will this center, this unifying vision and moral order, be found?
Building a Moral Foundation
Even the sworn enemies of traditionalism, the leftists, understand that any extended social order must be predicated on some kind of moral foundation – only they want to substitute democracy, tolerance and (more recently and somewhat reluctantly) markets for the old Christian order.
To say that this kind of thinking boils down to placing the cart before the horse amounts to a vast understatment. All of the secular isms – liberalism, socialism, and capitalism – developed from the vision Christianity provided.
Chesterton Weighs In
As Chesterton argued so compellingly in one of his memorable books, The Ball and the Cross, “empires break; industrial conditions change; the suburbs will not last forever. Yet, in spite of all of this, the Christian Church “has a special power of virtue.” For, as he observed, only the church possesses the special power of imparting virtue from generation to generation, century to century.
That is why the moral visions being constructed for us by our new secular priesthood will fail utterly: It lacks the moral properties that only the Christian faith can provide.
Thinking of this, I’m reminded of the low regard in which Chesterton held free thought, the precursor of modern leftism:
Free thought may be suggestive, it may be inspiring, it may have as much as you please of the merits that come from vivacity and variety. But there is one thing free thought can never be by any possibility – free thought can never be progressive. It can never be progressive because it will accept nothing from the past; it begins every time again from the beginning; and it goes every time in a different direction.
Secular liberalism, whose baneful effects permeate every facet of post-modern society, merely is the latest in a pathetic string of isms that have eluded man’s pursuit of truth for centuries.
The Stark Alternative
Western man, once again, is faced with stark alternative: Either he re-embraces the Christian moral and social vision, rooted in the accumulated wisdom of the ages, or he continues down the road to serfdom, pursuing a loosely defined secularism that grows more perverse by the day.
“Be careful what you wish for because you may get it” was the constant refrain from my mother during my adolescence whenever I wanted to sample something in life bigger than my young age and emotional immaturity was capable of digesting.
Sound advice then and most especially today when it often seems virtually everybody is itching to dive into the deep, dark abyss of globalism and “world democracy” with very little forethought of the consequences.