Today, I compare the fall of Rome and the rise of what used to be called the Dark Ages, and what’s going on in Europe today, to see if there are parallels and if we can understand our modern age a little better by reference to this period of upheaval in our past.
First, I should outline where I see us, now. What the EU provides us, we take for granted, so much is it engrained in our modern world view. The great successes of the West in the last 70 years can be quickly listed. They are co-operation, peace and prosperity, achieved after great loss of life and crippling expense which led to enhanced cooperation through sharing resources and pooling national effort. The flowers of this cooperation are supranational organisations such as NATO, the UN and of course, the EU.
Recent revelations about interference in European and US elections and in the Brexit referendum are beginning to uncover the shadowy network of agitators and corrupt businessmen aided by Russia who see such institutions as their enemy. It is no coincidence that Trump has criticised each, alongside other voices of the far right, such as Farage, Banks, etc, who remain instinctively tribal in their world views.
How have so many in the West forgotten that these organisations, though far from perfect, have helped maintain European peace? The answer in part is that the generation who fought in the last war has gone, and their children (many of my generation) conceitedly believe that war and division could not happen again. Ironically, they believe it because there has been peace thanks to the very structures they now criticise – those supranational cooperative bodies, such as the European Union. When you point this out, they don’t believe it.
As a result, over the last decade, we have seen the rise of the far right in the UK, interference in the Brexit vote, the election of Trump, the popularity of Orban in Hungary and agitators such as Geert Wilders and Beppo Grillo rise to prominence. There has even been a rise of the far right in Germany, one of the great defenders of pan-Europeanism. The danger is that such forces will fracture Western civilisation, turning it away from cooperation, and making it intolerant, inward-looking, xenophobic and protective of national interests over supranational ones. This desire for protection will make our country and those we are newly competing against rather than cooperating with, weaker. The winners will be big business and the mafiocracy in Russia.
With the death of those people who directly experienced the last great upheaval in Europe, the Second World War, history has been replaced by mythology. Instead of remembering that Britain relied on America, Russia and numerous European soldiers, agents and resistance fighters to prevail – all working together to ensure mutual survival – the post-War generation has grown up with the idea of British exceptionalism – a belief that somehow Britain doesn’t conform to and shouldn’t be constrained by international standards. In war, this little island wins against impossible odds (a false view, considering that Britain had the world’s largest Empire during this period), and it doesn’t have to follow the norms of peaceful international diplomacy. Much of this goes back to a pre-war view, when the Empire could “resolve” disputes with gunboats.
Whether this historical interpretation of Britain is realistic or not, in the modern world, the UK is not an exception. It is a country among countries of more or less equal standing.
Generation Brexit, however, is locked in the old paradigm of Empire. Many believe there was something benign about the British Empire. At the same time they accuse the EU of being an Empire, which they say is a bad thing in principle. None note any cognitive dissonance in these two views.
So we see the fracturing of the West, and the rise of new, localised power bases, some political, some business-related.
Is there a precedent in history?
I have lately been drawn to study parallels in the Early Middle Ages after the collapse of Rome. This period used to be called the Dark Ages, and though it is now deeply unfashionable as a term, it is perhaps accurate to use it when we talk about parallels with the modern day.
I should add that I am not by any means defending the principle of Empire here, nor am I directly comparing the EU with the Roman Empire, except on the broadest terms, that there was a pan-European administration in place during its existence.
As the Roman Empire came under stress from marauders from the 3rd Cenury on, its finely honed administrative structures adjusted to the new reality. Central control was lost. Yet the administrators continued on. These administrators comprised a cadre of selected officials who held the Roman Empire together. The Comes Palatinus was one such type of civil servant, who looked for some form of political continuity.
In the course of the various waves of invasion by successive tribes who broke the communication lines to and power of Rome, the Comes devolved from a selected regional administrator answerable to Rome to become a type of self-governing landed gentry appointed by the local king.
Meanwhile, the federates and buccellari who worked on the land were drawn to their local Comes for security in the face of so much upheaval. The estate of the Comes became the localised centre of power. In order to enjoy the protection of the Comes, the workers ceded their rights in the name of security, working essentially as slaves tied to a local magnate. The federates were former soldiers in the Roman Imperial Army who had claimed land in retirement, and also offered military service to the Comes. Thus a new and specific power relationship arose in Europe which will be familiar to us today, since this was the start of the European aristocracy.
The French word for Comes is Comte, meaning Count. These newly-created counts now began to bequeath their estates to their children, and so the hereditary principle saw powerful aristocratic families ruling over a serfdom. All this came from the collapse of centralised power.
For centuries the counts sat alongside the newly-arrived Gothic, Visigothic, Vandal, Frankish and other kings, who took on the original Comes to continue regional administration after they seized power. Even as late as the 11th Century, there were aristocrats in Europe who claimed descent from Roman Senators of the Sixth Century CE. Thanks to the hereditary principle, their families were ensconced in local centres of power across Europe, styling themselves as Princes, petty kings, Barons and other such titles, alongside their barbarian overlords.
In all of this grabbing of power during upheaval, the common man suffered. Feudalism was born – a strict suppression of the labouring classes and a creation of a rigid, insurmountable hierarchy designed to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor.
So, are there parallels to be drawn with what’s happening in the modern world?
Some, yes. If Europe falls into disarray, expect corporations to create new centres of influence and power. Just as the Comes class claimed areas of Europe that became their personal fiefdoms when central power was weakened, big business will pick off aspects of the State. Businesses are already interfering in democracy, hollowing it out to make it a plaything that they can direct. Expect petty local politicians no longer constrained by international treaties to create local laws to suit the needs of business rather than the people. In the UK, this will see the feeding of the NHS to big business, the privatising of other State assets, the lowering of standards of health and food-related legislation, and the reduction of workers’ rights, in the name of competitiveness.
At the same time, we are seeing the rise of the super-wealthy in politics, some of whom pretend to be on the side of the common man. Take, for example, Jacob Rees-Mogg, not a billionaire, but a multi-millionaire. He has no interest in the plight of the poor and dispossessed, but he does have an interest in being popular. His trademark appearance of a very polite comedy 1930s SS officer hides a truth we all can see. This man chimes with Generation Brexit’s desire to drag us back to a time we have nostalgised into a beautiful dream when “we” ruled the world.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump espouses the rights of the common man, because democracy is a numbers game and he calculates that the common man is the most numerous. He has no interest in the poor, the weak or the dispossessed, but more in those who are aggressively jealous that their little patch of America will somehow be threatened by people less well off – which is largely a spurious fear.
In both cases, and in numerous other populist politicians, their appeal is that they protect the livelihoods and lives of “ordinary people”, a phrase that immediately creates an identifiable group to defend. Thus they gather their modern workers to their sides, who in their fear at the supposed upheaval around them (much of which has been created by the far right) can’t see that their own rights will be eroded and their lives materially impoverished by their leaders’ policies. Their future will be yet more enslavement to capitalist systems, with, for example, the lowering of food standards in the UK to a US level and the predation of US companies on the NHS. Neither of the men named above, Rees-Mogg and Trump (and there are plenty more) are representative of the interests of anyone other than the privileged, the wealthy and big business. Yet, the frightened people flock to them and their message. Each is indeed a new Comes.
Billionaires and their propagandists are also the new invaders and marauders of democracy. The representatives of big business, the super-wealthy, are the new aristocracy that will suborn the current administrative systems to their agenda. Big business has no interest in the common good or in rights, except insofar as they are lucrative. It instead seeks to create new power bases within countries, to hive off services formerly provided by governments and to reduce rights to enhance personal profit. This is why they seek to destroy supranational entities such as the EU, because larger cooperative entities are harder to control.
The great irony is that many critics of the EU talk about the supposed New World Order, when they are in fact enabling billionaires intent on wresting control from legitimate governments.
This is the world we can look forward to if we are not careful. We are in danger of entering a new Dark Age – one of Feudal Capitalism in which workers’ rights are stripped from them and business seeks to maximise profit at the expense of the most vulnerable, while central government is either suborned or powerless. It is in many ways analogous to the decline of structures across Europe in the 4th Century. This weakening and fracturing of the West is exactly what Russia wants, and this is why it has been helping to unleash the heightened passions of nationalism and xenophobia to sweep across Europe like waves of savage tribes, destabilising all in their paths.
That is the direction we are heading in, if Brexit and the rule of the far right are allowed to continue.
Can we do anything to stop it? Perhaps. To speak truth and resist wherever we can. That is a start. To do nothing is to resign ourselves to the New Dark Ages.