This is our truth, tell us yours
Colm Toibin writes, with the characteristic introspection that is the hallmark of Irish history, about the dethroning of grand narrative history here.
It’s a good place to start if you’re going to ask if we’ve just seen an event of historical significance, a crossing of the Rubicon worthy of note in the future. As the great, great E H Carr noted, thousands of people a day crossed the Rubicon. Only when Caesar did so with his troops did it become historically significant.
This time last week a firm of security contractors close to the American NSA deliberately broke the law and hacked thousands of computers in order to enable them to track down and seek to extradite a dark net service provider.
It might be that they would argue that they were engaged in a police action, breaking the law as little as necessary in order to bring a criminal to justice. Keener students than me might want to ponder on where previous American police actions have led.
Me? I think if grand narratives are unreliable (and I would argue they’ve always been unreliable) as Colm Toibin suggests then what’s left for historians? The answer of course is grand methods; history has always been more reliable as a collection of methodologies than as a collection of narratives.
One of the places where I learned more about methodology than I could possibly understand at the time was a great little attempt at a grand narrative, Gwyn Alfred WIlliams’ ‘When Was Wales’. Hidden within the title was a great, and thought provoking quest for Wales that taught me huge amounts about the way we impose our framework on the past, possibly at the expense of our understanding of the present. Gwyn Alf, of course, would have been happiest with an independent Wales; I shudder to think what he would make of the glorified county council in Cardiff that calls itself the Welsh Assembly. Like Eric Hobsbawm and E P Thompson he shared the enduring curse of being a great historian in a current day political cul de sac.
Anyway, what has the chimeric history of Wales got to do with cyber wars?
If the history of Wales serves any purpose it is to illustrate how somewhere can be something other than a nation state, yet exist as a cultural entity and be involved in real world events as if it really did exist. Wales was invented as a concept to describe those in these islands who wee not English – Wealas means foreigner or stranger, in old English. Something coalesced around Welshness, in terms of language and culture, that was not English.
This isn’t an essay about Welshness, but let me try and give you a concrete example. The idea that Wales had princes, not kings, ripples through Welsh history. It’s often seen, from an English perspective, as evidence of a Welsh inferiority complex and of the smallness of Wales. What if, however, it’s actually a reflection of of a Romano British rejection of kingship in favour of something more akin to a prefectship under the overall rule of a republican emperor far away? In such a scheme of things Gildas’s rant against over mighty tyrants becomes less of a lament than a fierce polemic in an ongoing debate about the nature of kingship and the state.
The Romano British state foundered on the rocks of Saxon kingship. In turn the tates of the Northmen foundered on the rocks of mercantilism and the Protestant revolution that mercantilism engendered. And so on and on, to the modern post imperialist state that is being challenged, however imperfectly, by ideas of communities and interest that exist beyond borders in cyber space.
The emergence of Bitcoins as a currency that refuses to be bound by law or geography, and the dark net as a place that tries to be beyond law may be nothing more than a fashionable trend. It maybe, however, a shaking of the order equivalent to the way medieval laws on usury could not survive once the wool trade required bankers and financiers to enable farmers and religious bodies in Britain to sell their wool on the continent.
If you dare to conceive of a way of conducting trade or commerce above and beyond the nation state you have to expect the state to try to re-assert its authority. That’s why I wonder if this week’s police action against some part of TOR was not just a police action but the first blows in a cyber war; not a war between existing states using advanced technologies, but an attempt to prevent a cyber state coming into being that refuses to acknowledge the geography and hegemony of existing nation states.
Irish history, like Welsh history, is full of grand narratives about states that never were and opportunities that were spurned. I’ve heard Welsh nationalists describe such places as nations of the heart. I wonder how the future will describe these nations of the web?