Country, nation or state?

Wooden yoruba masksCountry, nation or state?  These three words are often used interchangeably. For example, the United Nations website describes itself as being “founded by 51 countries in 1945… and now providing a forum for 192 member states”. Let’s just run that past one more time : The countries in the United Nations consist of 192 member states. So all three words mean the same thing, right?

In fact nation, country and state all mean different things as the Latin roots of these words illustrate.  Nation comes from the Latin ‘natio’ meaning ‘to be born’, and refers to a group of people. Country comes from the Latin ‘contra’ meaning ‘against’ and refers to an area of land with a defined border. Why against? Because at the border, two countries lie against each other. State comes from the Latin ‘status’ whose meaning in English is the same. State refers to the status or power of the government. So a State is an organised community living under one government.

You can have a nation without having a state; think of the Cherokees, the Roma or even the Celtic Fringe*. These groups are defined through cultural and racial ties rather than land ownership or government. You can have a state without a country; think of Palestine or the Free French government in exile based in London in World War 2. You can be a country without being a state; Scotland and Wales are countries that are part of the sovereign state of the United Kingdom. But not all states are sovereign. A state may transfer some of its sovereign powers to the higher entity of a federal government. If so, it becomes a federated state as in the USA, Germany or India.

Each of these words is an attempt to describe the fourth rung on the ladder of society. The bottom three rungs are the individual, the family and the local community. What should you call the next rung up? If you are considering race or culture as the defining characteristic you would call it a nation. If your concerns were territorial you would call it a country. If you were focussing on who rules the people you would call it a state.

So what? Does any of this verbal gymnastics matter ? Well,  yes, it does to me because it is a catataxic problem. And it matters to you because the mismatch between the nation and the state is one of the primary causes of geopolitical instability. This stuff causes wars.

This week is a bad week.  The terrible tsunami  in Japan and the fighting in the desert in Libya seem like unconnected events on different sides of the world. But there is a link. Japan’s crisis is caused by the earth’s fixed tectonic plates colliding with each other. Libya’s civil war is essentially a conflict between tribes. Gadaffi’s tribe against the Rebel tribes.  The “tectonic plates” of the nations collide inside the state.

A geologist can identify the “Rim of Fire”. The places where earthquakes are bound to happen because plates collide : New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, California, Greece, etc. A political analyst can identify the places where conflicts can occur because tribal boundaries are misaligned with those of the state: Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Israel and West Africa. See my map of West Africa below. Can you spot the difference? Do you foresee a geopolitical tsunami?

West Africa Tribal map
Tribal map of West Africa




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Gaddafi and the Rub al Khali

Rub al KhaliIn 1973 the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi withdraws to the desert to contemplate. He returns with a draft of his “Green Book”;  a mystical tract that describes his political philosophy which can be summed up as being a “Third Way”. In the 1990s, many western politicians become Third Way advocates including Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. This opens up an intriguing possibility: did they steal the idea from Gaddafi? Tony Blair certainly helped to rehabilitate the Gaddafi regime with the ending of sanctions, and the two leaders were quite close.

In fact, Blair did not steal the Third Way concept from Gaddafi, because it was not Gaddafi’s idea in the first place. Hegel was there first and way before Hegel there was Buddha preaching about the middle path. His best known parable concerns a stringed instrument. If you tighten the strings too much it will break. But if they are too loose it will not make a sound. They have to be just the right tightness, and then they will produce beautiful harmonies.

That may sound a bit like Goldilocks and the Three Bears with the porridge that is just right. But Third Way politics is more than just a lukewarm blend of two extremes. It is sometimes describes as the “radical center“. It’s not just the balancing point at some fulcrum which is just a mechanical compromise but something extra. Less a lowest common denominator and more a highest common factor.  It implies progress; a beneficial outcome to two conflicting views.

Hegel’s dialectic is the purest theoretical statement of the third way. He posits three stages of development – theses, antitheses and then synthesis. A proposal or thesis is put forward. This prompts a reaction  which contradicts the proposal; an antithesis. Eventually, the tension between the two is resolved in a synthesis which brings us to a higher level.  The process then can begin again because this synthesis can be put forward as a new thesis.  And so, in an endless upwards cycle around the dialectic, we progress.

Hegel also offers up a worked example with his theory of the state. In this case,  the thesis is the family unit which Hegel called the “undifferentiated unity”. In other words,  a group of people who are the same (i.e. undifferentiated) and together (i.e. unity). The antithesis is “differentiated disunity” which is a group of competing individuals,  all out for whatever they can get. They are disunited and selfish. The synthesis of the two is the nation state which is a “differentiated unity”. In other words,  the state  pulls together a large and disparate group of people into a single unity. They are all different, but they are living harmoniously together. The state synthesizes a collective will from its diverse citizens.

Now look at Libya today. The people have risen up to try and topple Gaddafi.  It is an expression of the collective will. Sometime soon the situation will resolve itself and Libya will get the government that its people want. Meanwhile, the fighting in the desert continues, on sand that has soaked up so much blood before. This desert is made for war as the ghosts of Rommel’s Africa Corps and Scipio’s Roman Legions can attest.

There is another desert but this one has no war. In fact, nothing has ever happened there. No people, no civilization, just sand. This is the Rub’ al Khali in Saudi Arabia. The name means “the empty quarter”. The other three parts of Saudi Arabia have some very significant features.  On the west coast is Mecca, the holiest site in all Islam. In the centre, Riyadh the capital city. On East Coast you have the industrial conurbations at Jubail. But to the south there is nothing, just sand. It’s the Rub’ al Khali. The quadrant that has nothing in it at all. The  place you can ignore.

You will notice that Hegel’s dialectic also has an empty quadrant – a Rub’ al Khali. His dialectic theory is a riff around two concepts – unity and difference. Imagine drawing a quadrant diagram with unity/disunity on one axis and differentiated/undifferentiated on the other. His dialectic has three different combinations – but there us a fourth combination that he ignores which is “undifferentiated disunity”. In other words, same but not together.

This fourth quadrant is where catataxis lives: more of the same is different. Hegel’s synthesis is a top down view that says something like this: you may all be different but at a higher level you will be made one by the state. The state will harmonise you. But catataxis says “you are all the same but one level higher, collectively, you make something different” something that emerges bottom up – unplanned and unpredictable. Is that not the real story of all the recent uprisings in the Middle East? From the empty quadrant, the Rub’ al Khali, the place that Hegel and others felt safe to ignore comes the unexpected. It is the Khamsin. A wind from the empty desert that sweeps all before it. That is catataxis. Listen carefully  – can you hear it – there’s a storm coming in…

Hegels dialectic

Warring twins on Wall Strasse

Warring TwinsTwo key concepts of the modern world were born at a similar time. The joint stock company appeared in the early 1600s with the English and the Dutch East India Companies as early examples. Then, in 1648, comes the Treaty of Westphalia which establishes the principles of the nation state . Both are abstract concepts: one economic, one political. Both are catataxic in that they are second level entities . They exist one level above the world of flesh and blood. Despite that, they are destined to fight each other with all the competitiveness of warring twins.

For a long time, country dominates company. Corporations are seen as national entities. In the most extreme cases like the East India Companies they become effectively an arm of their respective governments. As the industrial revolution comes, industrial prowess is seen as a form of nationalism. Steel production is used as measure of national potency for communists and capitalists alike. Breakthroughs in the chemical industries are seen as national secrets to be kept from foreign spies; secret formulas that are the macguffin at the heart of many adventure stories.

Then, starting in the 1950s, things begin to change. The company ceases to be national and becomes multinational. It is no longer contained by national boundaries. The key underlying economic inputs cease to be national too. Raw materials, labour and capital were originally national possessions but this is also in flux.

Raw materials become freely available to the highest bidder as colonialism breaks down and international commodity trading expands dramatically. Remember that the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour was all about access to raw materials. Labour frees up next. The shortage of workers in Europe prompts a big influx of immigrants. Multinational companies create openings for executives worldwide. Well educated people can get a job anywhere around the world. Then capital is set free when currencies move off the gold standard and exchange controls are abolished in the 1970s.

As a result, countries no longer control the levers of economic power. The second twin becomes ascendant, company becomes dominant over country. The economy is no longer national but global. The general populace still seems to find this fact hard to grasp. Companies are not national assets. They don’t belong to a country but to shareholders. The takeover of ‘national’ companies by foreigners is still anathema. This confused sentiment is catataxis: an attempt to apply out-of-date national rules to an international creature.

France is notoriously touchy about its ‘national champions’ . When Danone, a dairy products group, is threatened by takeover in 2005 the French Government drafts a special law to protect it. It seems yoghurt is a strategically important product for the French. But feelings in the UK still run on similar lines, hence the public moaning about Kraft’s recent takeover of Cadbury.

A better example of misplaced corporate nationalism is the confused sentiment about the ‘British’ film industry. Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies were shot in Elstree , lovingly made by British craftsmen. Are they British movies? What about a Wallace and Gromit movie financed by a Hollywood studio? Or Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” which was financed by a British producer ? Films may have a language but do not really have a nationality. Neither do companies.

The USA, which has gained most from globalisation, seems strangely intolerant when it comes to foreign takeovers. In the 1990s, Congressmen smashed Sony Hi Fis on the steps of the Capitol to protest a wave of Japanese takeovers. These fears have now been shifted to China. A string of proposed takeovers of US assets by Chinese companies have been refused in sectors including steel, mining, media, shipping and telecoms. Don’t feel too sorry for them because the Chinese are equally protectionist back.

The most recent twist in this tale is the proposed takeover of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) by the German exchange Deutsche Borse . This is stirring up nationalistic sentiment in the States again. It comes as a surprise to some that stock exchanges are not public institutions but companies that can be bought and sold like any others. So the takeover of the icon of American capitalism by the Germans rankles. But, of course, stock exchanges don’t have any real national identity either. The London stock exchange is merging with the Canadian exchange, and Singapore likewise with Australia. In the end, there is one big pool of capital trading on global exchanges free of national identities.

In Rome’s foundation myth, Romulus slays Remus and then names the city after himself. In a newly merged Wall Strasse we will see the triumph of another twin. The joint stock company slays the nation state to found a catataxic city at the heart of a new financial empire.