Sauron, Meet Wallerstein: Middle-earth as a World-System

This semester I am teaching college geography for the first time. After looking at a number of different textbooks, I finally settled on one that uses the (in)famous world-systems approach of neo-Marxist scholar Immanuel Wallerstein as a template to examine political geography. For those unfamiliar with world-systems theory, here’s a brief primer.

Wallerstein was a sociologist specializing in Africa. While teaching at SUNY-Binghamton he published, between 1974 and 1989, the three volumes of The Modern World-System. A fourth volume came out in 2011, and before he died in 2019 Wallerstein had published several dozen more works, almost all on the same broad topic: that the planet is dominated, at least economically, by a capitalist “world-system” created by the Europeans–specifically the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English/British–starting in the 15th century AD. These countries formed the first “core” which economically exploited the rest of the world, which was divided into “periphery” and “semi-periphery.” The biggest difference between the latter two is that nation-states in the semi-periphery are striving enter the core. whereas those in the periphery will not, or cannot, do so–at least without great effort and time.

Wallerstein’s world-system is different from a “world-empire,” which would control the whole world politically–and which has never existed in human history. At least not yet. It posits a world-economy, instead.

The core of todays world-system consists of the Anglosphere, most of of western Europe, and Japan–the only non-Western or former Western colony to make it into that club so far. The semi-periphery is led by the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Argentina and Iran are also in this grouping. The periphery is most of the rest of the planet, mostly what we used to call the “Third World.” Some of these are debatable, of course. We have talked much in my classes this term about whether China should be included in the core now. Ditto for Israel and South Korea. And where do you fit Turkey?

At this point let me add that I am about as far from a Marxist, neo or not, as one can get. I agree with Wallerstein that his world-system theory does accurately lay out how the global capitalist system was created. Yet I strongly disagree that global capitalism is always and forever a zero-sum, exploitative regime benefitting only the core powers. If that were so, then how to explain the massive reduction in global poverty over the past few centuries? Capitalism may be a poor system–but, as Churchill observed about democracy in a political sense, it’s the best economic system humans have yet devised. Global socialism would not be able to feed a population of 8 billion people.

But what has Wallerstein to do with Sauron? Well, as some readers of this blog may know, I published a book a few years ago on the political history of Middle-earth. So teaching political geography using world-systems theory led me to start thinking whether the template would work for Tolkien’s world–specifically, the Third Age thereof. After all, for decades scholars have fine-tuned Wallerstein’s theorizing to include world-systems even in the ancient world. So why not extend it back to Middle-earth? Tolkien himself stated that “this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet” (Humphrey Carter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220).

I attempted to apply the core/semi-periphery/periphery paradigm to Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring, assuming that the Free Peoples had a form of agrarian or oligarchic capitalism.

I put Gondor, as the most populous and powerful kingdom, in the core–along with its close (both geographically and politically) ally Rohan. Core powers have the strongest central governments and militaries, sufficient tax base, a complementary bourgeoise and working class, and are free from outside control.

In the semi-periphery I placed the Elven and Dwarven polities, the Shire, and the lands of the Beornings and Woodmen. Why? They have relatively weak governments, are not very industrialized (in fact, the Elves avoid it!), and by-and-large depend upon the core states for military protection. (Yes, this is a bit unfair because virtually everyone in late-Third Age Middle-earth depends on Gondor in this regard–which is why Boromir was correct to point out that out [starting at 2:16 in this clip from The Fellowship of the Ring].)

The periphery consists of the the areas controlled by Sauron, and those allied with him: Mordor, Harad, the lands of the Easterlings; but also Dol Guldur and the Orc fortress of Mount Gundabad in the far north of the Misty Mountains. Peripheries are poor, little industrialized, tend to depend on only one type of economic activity (slaving and slavery?), contain large numbers of poorly educated, and possess weak or nonexistent government institutions.

I was tempted to place these in another category entirely, one which Wallerstein created, but which is rarely used anymore: “external area,” a region totally cut off from the world-system. Antarctica was originally typologized as such by him. But it’s hard to believe that the Men of Harad and those in the lands to the east of Dorwinion engaged in absolutely no trade with their fellow humans in the northwest of Middle-earth–as much as their god-king might have tried to prevent their doing so. His Orcs, on the other hand, were a different matter. He could, and did, control them to an extent far beyond that of the Haradrim and Easterlings. In that regard, it might make sense to posit Mordor, Dol Guldur and Mount Gundabad as either external to the rest of Middle-earth–OR as aspiring, Sauronic alternative core areas. I wasn’t sure what to do with Moria, but eventually I lumped it into the semi-periphery.

There you have it. My first pass at a Wallersteinian, world-systems analysis of Middle-earth. What say you? Let me know in comments!

Special thanks to my old friend Tony Arrasmith, artist and photographer extraordinaire, who turned my crude scrawls on a map of Middle-earth into those professional shaded areas.

Will The Burmese Mahdi Shave?

Last week Global Risk Insights ran an article by Will Marshall entitled “Myanmar: Southeast Asia’s Next Frontline of Jihadism.” Marshall was part of the “New Democrat” movement, and as such has a more realistic view of foreign policy, particularly in the Islamic world, than many of today’s “progressive” Democrats. His article is actually quite illuminating and insightful in many ways. He surveys the oppression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar’s far northwestern province, which is now known as Rakhine but in past centuries was an independent Muslim kingdom called “Arakan.” ISIS and al-Qaeda have been trying to make inroads there, to little avail. But a new group has formed in Rakhine state: “Katibah al-Mahdi fi Bilad al-Arakan,” which I will translate for you (since Marshall never bothers to do so–probably because he cannot). It means “Battalions of the Mahdi in the Country of Arakan.”

“The False Mahdi,” an alternate cover of Quinnell’s 1981 novel The Mahdi.

The article discusses that Rohingya jihadists have been fighting government rule in Burma/Myanmar on-and-off since 1948, hoping to unite with their cousins across the border in Bangladesh. (Myanmar has the fifth-largest Muslim population in Southeast Asia, although far less than Indonesia or Malaysia.) Myanmar, which is overwhelmingly Buddhist and saw a military take-over in early 2021, has ramped up oppression of Rakhine state Muslims in recent years. This has prompted Salafi-jihadist groups to find ways to get involved in jihad there. A non-state group like ISIS or AQ, or a predominantly-Muslim state (Pakistan, perhaps), might have helped stand up KMBA. And Hizb al-Tahrir, transnational group dedicated to resurrecting the caliphate, is said to be recruiting Rohingya Muslims.

So a group invoking the main eschatological figure of Islam exists now in Southeast Asia, although it “has yet to claim any successful attacks and…its propaganda output remains limited.” Still, why does Marshall fail to point out anywhere in his article that KMBA is indeed named after Allah’s “rightly-guided one” who, according to hadiths, will lead the world’s Muslims to global victory? That is rather important. Either the founders of KMBA believe that they constitute the vanguard of the Mahdi’s army, or they realize the potency of the belief in his coming–and are quite ready to exploit it for political, military, and terrorist reasons. Once again, here’s an example of a Western analyst failing to see what’s right in front of him.

From “The World’s Muslims, Unity and Diversity,” Pew Research Center (August 9, 2012).

The Counterfeit COIN of the American Occupation

As of 31 August 2021 AD/22 Muharram 1443, America’s long war in Afghanistan is over. I wrote about this yesterday. And I wrote, back in March 2020, in favor of us leaving. Most Americans thought it was time for us to get out, as well. Just not in the humiliating way that the Biden Administration did it–leaving massive amounts of functional military equipment for the Taliban to use or sell and, even worse, abandoning hundreds of Americans as well as military service dogs to the tender mercies of militant fundamentalist Muslims.

But as I said in yesterday’s article, “the US never had much hope of winning in Afghanistan.” Just a fool’s hope. Why?

Because we keep viewing Islamic fundamentalism, and its oft-attendant violence, as some sort of aberration that most people in majority-Muslim countries abhor–when in fact groups like the Taliban are insurgents against the Western-dominated world order and strict Islam is, for them, not only a way of life but a vehicle for throwing off infidel shackles.

At least it wasn’t this bad for our final troops. (“The Last Stand of the 44th Foot….,” from Wikipedia, public domain.)

Drawing on the final chapter of my latest book (The COIN of the Islamic Realm: Insurgencies & the Ottoman Empire, 1416-1916), let me point out what we needed to do to beat the Taliban insurgency there–but didn’t. As well as observe what they did successfully on the other side

In order for insurgents to come out on top, they must

  1. Delegitimize the target government and erode its domestic support
  2. Hang onto safe havens
  3. Obtain some measure of external support
  4. Degrade external support for the government.

The government, or occupying power, needs to

  1. Address the insurgency’s root causes
  2. Box insurgents into limited geographical areas
  3. Emphasize insurgents’ brutality
  4. Eliminate or expose insurgents’ reliance on any charismatic leader(s)
  5. Cut off foreign support for the insurgency
  6. Keep its own foreign support coming
  7. Incorporate some aspects of the insurgency’s agenda into governing.

The Taliban had no problem doing the first three of the insurgent priorities, and eventually pulled off the fourth one–at least in terms of help from the USA, the Kabul government’s foreign sugar daddy.

The US/ANG did have limited success, mainly with numbers 2 and 3. But even there, the Taliban always controlled large parts of rural Afghanistan. In fact, it could be argued that by the end it was American and/or Afghan government forces, holed up in Kabul and a few other major cities, that had been boxed in. Regarding the third point, the Taliban learned the value of good PR and cut down on their viciousness–at least in the last year, in order to facilitate American withdrawal (“see, we have abandoned rooftop parties for gays!”). But the most charismatic leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar–who, indeed, was considered the founder of the Taliban–died in his bed (of tuberculosis) in 2013, not at the receiving end of a US drone strike. Pakistan and Iran never ceased their financial and material support for the Taliban. During 2020 Kabul, at US instigation, even had meetings with the Taliban in efforts to throw them a few governing bones. But the insurgents didn’t want bones–they wanted the whole skeleton. And, most importantly, the arrogant American occupiers–blinded by their post-Enlightenment secularism, and the assumption that the people of Afghanistan wanted a government empowered by that ideology–never had a prayer of addressing the root cause(s) of the Taliban insurgency: Afghanistan’s people are more enamored of shariah law than any other on Earth.

From Pew, “The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity,” August 9, 2012.

Going for the Eschatological Gold

There are a number of Twelver Shia traditions which relate to the theme that when the Twelfth Imam al-Mahdi returns, “the earth will uncover all its treasures and bring out its blessings.” The Mahdi’s followers are getting a head start on this gold rush, however. Javad Faroughi, a pious Twelver Shii Muslim, took first place in the Tokyo Olympics air pistol competition over the weekend. Faroughi is described as “a nurse at the IRGC-owned Baghiyyatollah hospital in Tehran” who “practiced shooting in the hospital basement.” After winning, he gushed “I dedicate my medal to Imam Mahdi and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.” Faroughi also revealed that he had served with Iranian forces for several years in Syria.

Since Faroughi belongs to the most fanatical and well-trained military organization in the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism, one might question whether his small arms expertise was acquired solely in a hospital basement. Or if it was, whether his targets were inanimate ones. And whether “nurse” is his primary military occupation.

In any event, the still-occulted Muhammad al-Mahdi, as well his mini-me, Khamenei, must be happy with their current gold member. Especially since he seems to be a man with a golden gun. Perhaps even a gold finger.

Inside Jamkaran Mosque, Qom, Iran. No gold for the Mahdi–just prayers.

They Keep Using That Word….

One of my recurring social media posts–especially on Twitter–is to chide (OK, mock) hyperbolic headlines about some issue or other being “apocalyptic.” Here are three examples, just from today:

Enter “apocalypse” into Google’s search engine (which I slummed and used, temporarily–normally I stick to duckduckgo, but that doesn’t enumerate search results): “about 117,000,000 results.” Many of them would be as fevered as those examples above.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. Not only do we live in an age when everything is the worst (or, much more rarely, best) EVER; but the media long ago abandoned any pretense of objectivity–or even rationality.

Cue Inigo Montoya:

Billy Preston and Ibn Khaldun

Earlier today The Stream published my latest article: “History: Will It Go ‘Round In Circles?” Other children of the 1970s will recognize that as the title of Billy Preston’s #1 hit from the summer of 1973. Therein I look at four prominent historians’ concepts of cyclical history–only one of whom is Ibn Khaldun–and how those comport with the Christian linear one. As the Fifth Beatle sang, history does “let the bad guy win every once in a while.” But does that mean that it’s “a story [that] ain’t got no moral?” And will it just go round and round in circles?

On this same topic, in 1992 Francis Fukuyama published the controversial, but highly influential, book The End of History and the Last Man. In it he argued that with the collapse of the USSR the preceding year, Western-style “liberal democracy” had proved itself the ultimate form of human government–and thus that political history was effectively over.

About that….

The Facebook Messiah?

Yesterday I blogged on a fellow arrested in Egypt for claiming to be the Mahdi. A story last night in The New Arab shed more light on this: “Egyptian ‘Facebook Messiah’ Arrested after Claiming to be Muslim Mahdi.” According to the latter, his name is Muhammad Habash and he had posted on social media–not just via a sign on his house–that he was the Mahdi, and that “helpers of the Dajjal” were hindering the promulgation of his message. Egyptian authorities arrested him for “spreading false beliefs about the Islamic religion and claiming that he was the promised Mahdi….”

The staff writers of this article do manage to admit that “over the course of modern and medieval Islamic history, many people have claimed to be the Mahdi….” And that Egyptian security forces had arrested similar Mahdi claimants in 2020 and 2017.

As I have explained at length, and many times–starting in 2005 with my first book, Holiest Wars: Islamic Mahdis, Their Jihads, and Osama bin Laden–the Mahdi is predicted in a number of hadiths; dozens (at least) of Muslim men over the centuries have claimed to be him; and belief in his imminent coming is held by at least 1/3 of the planet’s Muslims.

So how was Sayyid Habash spreading false beliefs? Although not in the Quran, the statements about the Mahdi by Islam’s founder are accepted by hundreds of millions in the Islamic fold. And maybe Habash really is the Mahdi–because when it comes to Islam’s militant “messiahs,” past performance may not always be indicative of future results.

By the way: if Facebook is so obsessed with preventing the spread of “disinformation,” why did its “fact checkers” allow Habash to make his eschatological claims on that platform?

The coming of the Mahdi, according to the cover of a book in my library. The dove belies the jihads he will wage.

The Sign–of the Mahdi

Less than two months ago I blogged on a Saudi who put himself forward as the Mahdi–and in the Grand Mosque of Mecca, no less. Well, the same thing just happened in Egypt, albeit rather more sedately. Egyptian police just arrested a certain “Muhammad” for claiming to be Islam’s major eschatological figure. But unlike that Saudi chap–or many previous militant Mahdis–this man had simply (if grandiosely) posted a sign on his house reading “the House of the Awaited Mahdi for Memorisation of the Holy Quran.” This may get him charged with “contempt for Islam.”

The Gulf News correspondent, Ramadan al-Sherbini, then throws in a reference to the (in)famous 1979 “siege of Mecca”–but gets a major element thereof wrong. Juhayman al-Utaybi, the leader of the occupation of the Meccan Grand Mosque, did not claim to be the Mahdi himself; he announced that his brother-in-law, Muhammad al-Qahtani, was. And the “security forces” which evicted them and their armed followers were French, not Saudi. Al-Sherbini also mentions the May 2021 Meccan Mahdi claimant.

Still, an addled (or pretentious) Quran teacher just posting a Mahdist sign would seem to be harmless. Maybe he was simply announcing his belief in the Mahdi’s coming–although you’d think Islam’s deliverer wouldn’t need Quran lessons. Clearly, Egyptian officials were telling this Muhammad:

if Allah was here, he’d tell you to your face–man, you’re some kind of sinner.”

The Mahdi! (Actually, Bluto from “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s 40 Thieves,” 1937).

A Jihad By Any Other Name….

This morning The Stream published my 50th article: “A Guide for the Misled–on Islam.” Therein I give accurate definitions–not apologetic/media spin–for 20 key Islamic terms, and then provide four essential truths about the world’s second-largest religion. And I do so in a non-partisan fashion; in fact, some of what I write may anger conservatives–although most will run counter to liberal fantasies.

The Dome of the Chain, overshadowed by the Dome of the Rock. From my trip to Jerusalem, 2013.

War Worlds Worth Wrestling With

Over the last month or so I’ve guest-blogged at zenpundit.com, on the topic of military science fiction which I think should be on the various recommended readings lists for our armed forces–especially the officers. I focus on the excellent “Future History” series of books in the universe that grew out of (or, perhaps more properly, grew up to support) the 1974 novel by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, The Mote in God’s Eye. Here are the links:

Recommended readings real and imagined for military leaders–Part I

Recommended readings real and imagined for military leaders–Part II

Recommended readings real and imagined for military leaders–Part III

War World: Jihad! edited by John F. Carr, and superb cover art by Alan Gutierrez.