Travelling the Silk Roads
While on holiday, I read Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. It reminded me how much our current world feels shaped by trends that are actually very recent like social media and even the car — or very overrated like the internet if we compare it to the more revolutionary invention of the wheel which enabled people to travel many further distances and therefore spread their culture, or the invention of the printed press, which enabled a much greater number of people to educate themselves. It surprised me how current nations in their current configuration are very young, not just places like Kosovo or Israel, or even Italy & Germany, but even Spain and Russia.
The irony of nationalists
Silk Roads also made me think of the contradictions of people who are nostalgic about their empires but against people migrating to their country. While imperialists migrated to other countries and extracted others’ natural resources, migrants coming to our countries today often get their own skills exploited.
It made me think how ironic it is that people in the West who complain about people in other ancient empires like Turkey, Iran or China becoming even more dominant and authoritarian while wanting to recover their ancient empire, be that the UK, France or Spain. It also reminded me how the actions of the empires of my two nationalities — England & France — sowed the seeds of quasi-permanent unrest, in how it created new states in the Middle East, drawing up borders that didn’t reflect the cultural dynamics of the time, but instead reflected negotiations between colonial powers.
It surprised me how intrinsic the act of enslaving is to building empires, from the UK, France and Spanish empires to the Persian, Arab and proto-Russian empires. Did you know that the word “slave” derives from Slav which meant slaves of the Russ people’s, and then ending up being all people within a particular region of Eastern Europe? What’s ironic though is how important migration is to growing new cultures and powers, and where empires like the Ottoman Empire succeeded is where they mixed cultures and created cohesion between them and where they failed is when they overreached without creating that cohesion.
What does this mean now?
Just as there’s a greater need for people and countries to work together, there could be a greater risk of protectionism and isolationism, both for individuals and countries wanting to protect themselves and isolating themselves from others who could infect them.
We could be seeing all-powerful states overseeing economies dominated even more thoroughly by the few corporate giants (think Amazon, Facebook) that can monetize the crisis for further shareholder gain. People may prefer to be constantly tracked by Chinese style digital surveillance in exchange to be able to wander the streets. People may look to countries where the government is better able to enforce physical distancing or to countries where people expect better quality public services. However, people may also trust more supply chains that they can control more and which are closer to home, be it of medicine, PPE or food, rather than the current globalised supply chain we have.