Fernandez-Armesto’s interest as an historian rests in his unusual observations, framed in remarkable prose and made piquant with exceptional learning. His third prediction that big states will continue to fragment is based on some intuitions about the attachment people have to partial loyalties and local identity. “In a world where the bell tolls for all, people prefer to listen for only part of the peal” (p. 704) In other works he develops further the theme of expanding and contracting diversity, and tolerance for diversity, over long waves in deep history.
Does the relatively recent past of formation of larger state entities represent the end of a wave, so that the forces of divergence, provincialism, preference for the idiosyncratic over the universal may take hold. Fernandez-Armesto thinks so. “Whenever a big state is nestled, smaller-scale identities and political aspirations incubate under its shell until eventually they poke their beaks through the cracks and take flight.” So he foresees the breaking of European nations, and those seeming megaliths, China and the United States of America, are not immune. We imagine one too young and another too old to disintegrate, but Fernandez-Armesto’s most provocative prophecy is that both may splinter. India is likely in this view to be home for “more rounds of ethnic cleansing,” and South Africa is doomed with a flawed constitution that cannot contain its divergent cultures.
We cannot say Fernandez-Armesto is right or wrong after these twenty years. The United States appears on the brink of social and political collapse, but continues to limp on. But each Presidential round suggests a catastrophic democratic failure rises in probability. Here is a society in which it is expected there will be no ethnic majority within years or decades; and yet here is an electorate that taunts the world by encouraging Donald Trump’s candidature including his promise to expel millions of Mexicans. China on the other hand appears to be fighting its inner demons of corruption and dissent, and suppressing the identities of its citizens within a newly great China. This authoritarian wave is on the rise, and it may well be the prelude to twilight of the superpowers that Fernandez-Armesto imagines.
But I think Fernandez-Armesto has a loyalty to quaint and local cultures, and is perhaps too optimistic that they can survive in political form despite the death of culture in the endless spectacle. I see a breakdown of political and governing authority and a fragmentation of cultures, but without alternative identities that recreate nation or civil society at a smaller scale. The state is breaking down, but not fragmented, and may remain a husk of institutional identity for many years unless a countervailing current begins to develop from the ruins. Collapse not fragmentation may be our fate, and from collapse dark riders may come.