Welcome to the New Middle Ages
Five years ago, driving out of Peshawar toward the Afghan border, my friend Nawaz leaned over and said, "You are leaving Pakistan now."
It was an odd statement. Peshawar is almost 60 kilometres from the border, and we drove for more than an hour to reach the top of the Khyber Pass, still well within Pakistani territory.
What he meant was that the Pakistani government had little to no authority in this region. Instead, it was dominated by traditional tribal leaders of the Pashtun people.
There certainly seemed to be little sign of government control in Landi Kotal, the last town before reaching the summit of the pass. There, men strolled across the dusty central square, most with AK-47s slung casually over their shoulders. No one was wearing a uniform.
Northwestern Pakistan is not unique. In countries throughout the developing world, the triumphal 300-year march of state power appears to have crested and begun to recede. Southern Lebanon, much of Afghanistan and southern Colombia, to take three examples, all exist outside the control of the central government, dominated by various paramilitary organizations.
Even in more stable countries, it is not unusual for large swaths of great cities to become virtual no-go areas for the authorities.
Recently, gangs in Brazil's Sao Paulo state attacked police stations and destroyed property in at least 10 cities. It was the third time in four months that an organized crime group known as the First Command of the Capital openly confronted the state.
Is there any common thread that runs between Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Sao Paulo?
John Rapley, a columnist with the Jamaica Gleaner, suggests there is.
"Groups ranging from criminal gangs to Islamist civil-society networks have assumed many of the functions that states have abandoned, funding their operations through informal taxes as well as proceeds from the drug trade, human trafficking and money laundering," he says in a provocative essay in Foreign Affairs magazine.
He calls the resulting system the "new medievalism," dominated by a new class of "barons." These barons, in turn, create informal networks outside the formal realm of diplomacy, essentially a parallel international order.
This is a more subtle formulation than the "new anarchy" scenario put forward in books and articles by American journalist Robert D. Kaplan.
Whereas Kaplan simply sees disorder and violence engulfing poorer parts of the world, Rapley suggests a new form of political and economic organization is emerging: "Non-state actors forge networks linking global cities so as to create a highly adaptive economy that exists largely beyond states' notice."
Rapley may have hit on something that helps to explain recent conflicts around the world. These tend not to be between states, nor even between "civilizations," but between states and the "new barons."
The barons can be motivated by religion, political ideology, clan or tribal loyalties or the simple desire to make a buck. What they have in common is their ability to carve out enclaves in supposedly sovereign states where they take over some or all of the functions of government.
In some cases, such as Pakistan and Lebanon, the national government never had complete control of the country. In others, such as southern Colombia or the slums of great cities, governments have lost control.
The factors driving this process, in Rapley's view, are economic globalization and the failure of governments to deliver the benefits of modernity or provide services to their people. The rich can fill the gap by buying services from private suppliers. The poor and marginalized turn to gangs, militias and traditional clan or tribal networks.
In the 19th century, the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich
Hegel hailed the rise of the modern state, seeing it as the "moral whole
and the reality of Freedom" because it provided security and order for