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Stirling Newberry: Cathedrals of Resonance

Cathedrals of Resonance

By Stirling Newberry
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Monday 25 July 2005

Spain, in 1492, was a nation just barely born, and yet, within a century, it would have an empire that stretched around the world. America in 1865 was a nation that had just barely survived death, and was reborn. Yet within a century, it would be the most powerful nation in the world. For Spain, the rise of empire came with the gold from South America and Meso-America. For the US, it would come from the conquest of the farmlands of North America and the controlling of the oil of the Middle East. Each would pursue military might and have the largest armies within their reach.

While the Spaniards had technologies like horsemanship, steel swords and firearms, another important aspect of their victory was social. The Spaniards could send out a small group of adventurers, and those adventurers would bring their conquests under the control, if nominal control, of the crown. The Inca and Aztec empires both had political weaknesses that the Spaniards could exploit.

In Mexico, the Aztec empire ruled by a reign of fear, and this was exploited by Cortes, who allied with a rebellious tribe that would supply him with a consort and with warriors for his army. In both the Aztec and Inca empires, the kidnapping of the emperor caused political paralysis, which the Europeans exploited. In both cases, the need for personal diplomacy and the centralization of power in the person of the leader were the downfall of the two most powerful states in the Americas. In cultures with more resiliency, the Spanish had greater difficulties. For example, it took 18 years to conquer present day Chile, and the first governor was killed in 1553, some 12 years after he had founded Santiago. The tribes of Chile, because they were isolated and essentially independent, did not collapse with a single strike at the head, the way the Inca and Aztec empires had.

It was this social difference - of being able to independently operate from the center of empire - that allowed the Spaniards to exploit technology and disease to conquer. These social differences, as much as any physical fact, created the Spanish military and colonial machine.

And beneath all of them, as anthropologist Jared Diamond reminds us, is diffusion. It is diffusion of animals and technologies that equipped the Spaniards; it is the diffusion of diseases that gave them enough resistance to smallpox. It was the ability of people to leave one nation or culture, and go to others, that created the ethic of the errant knight, mercenary or adventurer.

What brought down Spain was the same social force that had raised them up - the lust to reach outward, and the willingness to risk everything to take what they found. It was the same spirit that would lead the Spanish to launch the Armada against England and wage a series of wars across Europe. They would use another social power: the use of marriage alliances to tie lands to their crowns. This web of alliances would make the House of Hapsburg the most powerful in Europe.

For a time it seemed that the gold from New World, combined with a spirit of conquest and a royal house that had heirs to tie others to them, would be an unstoppable force. However, just as it took only a century to rise, the fall of Spain as the premiere European power would be just as swift. The nation that stood at the pinnacle of power in 1600 was soon to be a plaything of the King of France by 1700. The final blow, in one of history's ironies, was that the House of Hapsburg had run out of heirs.

Just as Spain worshipped its faith, it saw its social advantages as being key, because those were the advantages that separated them from their competitors and allowed them to exploit the weaknesses of the new world's empires. However, what they did not see was the geography of chance that made this kind of "go for broke" mentality extremely effective. The Spaniards had an almost unlimited faith in their personal qualities - which included treachery as well as piety - because that is how they saw themselves. And they had an almost unlimited faith in their personal bonds, because that is what people's inner lives are made up of.

In the present, Americans are making much the same mistake. To no small extent, the fact that America was isolated from the main wars of Europe allowed us to rise quickly. And we look out over the world and see American corporations, American entertainment, and American outposts, much the same way that Spain saw Spanish marriages, Spanish cathedrals and Spanish forts. But in both cases the soft power is no more solid than the hard power that lies beneath it. The same faith in ideals that allowed Cortes to gamble all and "burn the boats" raised up the Spanish Armada.

A good deal is going to be written about the rise of China in the coming years. It will often focus on soft power, such as wages and hard work. But the reality is that China's rise is as much based on the shifting sands of hard power. America fell into supremacy, because the Great Powers of Europe, plus Japan, had bled themselves white, and the other nations of the globe were not yet ready to step onto the world stage. Other nations sought ties with America, not because American social and economic institutions were intrinsically better, but because America was the great source of supply and demand.

Just as the Spanish found that when push came to shove, the carefully built up web of marriage alliances was worth little, so too are Americans about to find out that treaties and corporate governing bodies and monetary rules are no stronger than the basic economics behind them. We got another warning of that this week, when China decided to set its currency by fiat and the rest of the world accepted this without a qualm. Imagine if America or the United Kingdom or Europe tried it, or a developing nation.

What brought about this weakness is that over time Spain became a conquest economy - with the national effort poured into conquering, or into endless court competitions to hold on to the results of conquest. The grasping nature of Spanish society in this time is painted by Don Quixote in strokes that are still fresh. The same is happening in America: most of our new jobs are in housing and in government-based homeland security and defense projects. The Spanish court and the American suburb are both vast sinks for national effort in the constant competition to leapfrog over others.

And then, of course, it comes to an end. And all of the bronze statues, and all of the cathedrals, rather than being props to the great social project, are seen as what they are: vast heavy weights tied around the necks of the next generation.


Stirling Newberry is an internet business and strategy consultant, with experience in international telecom, consumer marketing, e-commerce and forensic database analysis. He has acted as an advisor to Democratic political campaigns and organizations and is the the co-founder, along with Christopher Lydon, Jay Rosen and Matt Stoller, of BopNews, as well as being the military affairs editor of The Agonist.

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