The Civilization of Perpetual Motion

Issue section: 

Nomads are often dismissed or overlooked. Indeed, one relatively recent book declared that nomads “have had no major role in world history for the past 500 years”. Such views are often based on inaccurate and outdated views of nomads and their role in the modern world. Historically, nomads have been seen as backward and violent people — Genghis Khan’s barbaric hordes pouring down on the defenceless civilised world, or more recently the romantic view of people “free of cumbersome city goods” living in empty, pristine wilderness.

These views persist, as a sort of modern “noble savage with smartphone” trope; people occupying an empty land that could more usefully be used for agriculture or the mining of minerals. Some of these ideas have been given an academic underpinning, and there is a crude Marxist analysis that often originates from the former Soviet Union, that saw nomads and hunter-gatherers as simply “dead end branches” of development.

But, as this interesting new book argues, nomadic peoples are much more important to the modern world than is usually acknowledged. The problem is, as Nick McDonell explains, that nomads are often only seen as an economic group, existing through herding or trading.
Their role fighting for their communities, interacting with their surrounding population and managing and using the landscape is ignored. Nomadism, he argues, is a form of political expression.

Nomads contribute significantly to the economic output of several states. One sixth of world livestock, for instance, comes from nomadic pastoral production in East Africa. Nomads frequently use land that would be unsuitable for cultivation, and do so far more sustainably than other forms of farming, or the industries that often replace them.

Despite economic and environmental benefits, governments frequently attempt to control nomads. McDonell argues that one reason for this is that nomads are inherently “anti-state”. Governments cannot tax, conscript or control their behaviour. Western intervention in the Middle East has renewed attempts to control some nomadic populations. Frequently this has been based on crude stereotypes, or fears that the nomadic life will inevitably lead to an association with extremists.

Sometimes, as in the case of Sudan, there has been a quasi-racist narrative of nomads versus farmers, as though this is the source of all conflict, irrespective of Western intervention, climate change or economic crisis, even though there have been centuries of such communities living in interaction with each other.

The book left me with many questions — not least what “a form of political expression” actually means in relation to nomadism — and its academic approach was not always accessible. But it does highlight how capitalist states will try to destroy or contain any community whose behaviour is outside of the norm and how nomads are part of resisting that change, and fighting to define their own future in a world where people and land are second to profit.