The Civilization of Perpetual Movement

Nomads in the Modern World

March 2016 9781849043984 224pp


From the Chinese Emperors to the Romans and the Byzantines, from British Foreign Office agents in the Great Game to today’s hippies, backpackers and aid workers, a long line of ‘civilized’, sedentary, peoples have again and again misunderstood nomads, and nomadism. Caricatured as backward herders, thieving pastoralists, or members of some vast and undifferentiated horde of humanity forever wandering the planet, nomads are usually perceived as anything but modern and almost always as on the verge of obsolescence.

The Civilization of Perpetual Movement is the first examination of nomadism as a vital global political practice. Nick McDonell — bestselling novelist and war correspondent — draws upon his years spent with and research into nomads around the world to illuminate what is, and has always been, a most modern practice. In the lucid, evocative prose which earnt him comparisons with Graham Greene and John Le Carré in the New York Times, McDonell uncovers the ways nomads and states influence each other, historically and today — with surprising consequences, from the plains and mountains of Central Asia to the grasslands of the Great Rift Valley. Part literary meditation, part reflection on international relations, part original history, The Civilization of Perpetual Movement is firmly in the tradition of iconoclastic thinkers from Bruce Chatwin to James Scott to T. E. Lawrence.


‘This is the book about nomads that Bruce Chatwin spent a good part of his life trying, unsuccessfully, to write. … [W]e are only now starting to come to terms with who nomads are and what they do. McDonell’s fine book provides valuable help in this task.’ — Times Literary Supplement

‘This book is exceptional not only for the new perspectives it gives on nomads, but for the out-of-the-box thinking which Nick McDonell applies throughout the text … reading this book is an exercise in critical thinking.’ — The Jordan Times

‘Nick McDonell tackles one of the great blind spots of political science: the persistence of nomadism in the contemporary world. Nomads are not, McDonell shows, a relict of an earlier era of societal development, but a thoroughly modern challenge to contemporary governance.’ — Alex de Waal, Research Professor and Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, Tufts University

‘In this intriguing, unusual and well-written little book, McDonell shares his frustrations with the political difficulties faced by nomadic peoples in the twenty-first century and the failure of international relations theory to comprehend nomads’ lived realities. He describes in detail several instances of the unequal and often tragic clash between the “civilization of perpetual movement” and that of tax-gathering, boundary-jealous, rule-bound, development-oriented states.’ — Richard Tapper, Emeritus Professor at SOAS, University of London, and author of many books and articles on nomadism including Frontier Nomads of Iran

‘Since he was a graduate student at Oxford, Nick McDonell has studied the question of how important nomadism has been to world history for the past 500 years. Very, is the answer. This well-written and extremely accessible book is an account of that journey.’ — Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration and formerly Director of the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

‘[In] this interesting new book … 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.’ — Socialist Review


Nick McDonell was born in New York City in 1984. He is the author of the novels Twelve, The Third Brother, and An Expensive Education, and a book of reportage, The End of Major Combat Operations. McDonell is a graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities and has reported from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East for TIME, Harper’s, and others.

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