After Scotland …Federal Europe?

So…Scotland remains in the UK but just under half the population want to leave.  This could be seen as the worst result. Like telling your spouse you hate them, but will stay together for the sake of the kids. That is not a basis for a very happy relationship. The worst thing about the last two weeks has been the uncertainty about the future, and that uncertainty is still there overshadowing any decisions businesses make in the future. The upside, from Scotland’s point of view, is that there will be a massive devolution of powers in their favour. All other separatist movements around Europe take note: the louder the wheel squeaks, the more grease it gets.

The independence debate has been cast a battle between emotion and reason: heart vs. head. The ‘yes’ campaign has made emotional appeals about Scottish tribalism while the ‘no’ campaign has marshalled economic arguments about currencies, bank debt and trade and political arguments about constitutions and EU membership. The two sides could be crudely categorised as an enfranchised local community swayed by populism and a distant metropolitan elite who believe that “nanny knows best”.

The situation has some parallels to what has been happening in Thailand in the battle between the red shirts and the yellow shirts. The red shirts are the numerically superior rural poor whose votes are strongly influenced by populist measures and pork barrel politics. The yellow shirts represent the well-educated urban elite who believe they know what is best for the country. They call themselves Democrats, but still struggle to accept the verdict of the majority because they believe it has been tainted by vote buying and corruption. Street protests by the two sides and government gridlock led to a military coup in May this year.

In 5th century Athens, the birthplace of democracy, there was no such conflict because there was no universal suffrage; only ten percent of the populace had the vote. Your views only counted if you were a land-owning male citizen over the age of 35. Slaves, foreigners, women and youths were all excluded. In fact, if you look for the modern state that most closely matches this ideal of Athenian Democracy today, the surprising answer is China. Some ten percent of the population are members of the Communist Party who conduct a vigorous internal debate before deciding on the future path for the country. What is more, when it comes to economic growth, the system seems to work.

Be that as may be, it is a mistake to view the aspirations of the Scottish nationalists as irrational emotionalism. In fact, there is a quite rational argument for Scottish independence and for all the other separatist movements throughout Europe, which can be summed up as ‘eliminate the middleman’, the middleman in this case being the traditional Nation State.

The essence of the conflict is right there in the name, conjoining the two different concepts into a single descriptive term. The word ‘nation’, from the Latin natio (to be born), implies an interrelated community; a tribe of interwoven families. The word ‘state’ derives from the word estate implying ownership, controlled assets, and power. The nation state faces the threat of being pulled apart into its catataxic components. There is a pull downwards into smaller regional units that better reflect communal identities. This gives a stronger voice to local cultures who feel disengaged from national level politics as evidenced by falling voter turnout across Europe. There is also a pull upwards towards a supranational entity, namely, the EU. Many of the world’s current problems are global in nature and cannot be solved on a national basis. Consider the following list: global warming, corporate tax dodging, banking regulation, global free trade agreements, the Ebola plague outbreak and the threat from Islamic terrorists such as ISIS. All these issues are best solved at a supranational level. A strong argument can be made that defence and security issues sit better at an EU level than a national one. The current crisis in the Ukraine is best countered by a robust response from the whole of the EU (or NATO) rather than by individual countries.

In this three level structure, the bottom level gives a greater degree of democratic representation while the top level gives better economies of scale and ‘safely in numbers’. What need therefore for the middle layer – the nation state – which fulfils neither function very effectively?

This vision of the nations of Europe being dismembered into smaller regional entities under the overarching umbrella of the EU has been regarded with horror by the UK with its tradition of strong control from Westminster. Since it is similar to the current German model of federated states or lander, it is often summed up by the phrase “Federal Europe“ .

What would such a Federal Europe look like? It may come as some surprise to find out that it already exists, at least in the minds of the bureaucrats in the EU’s office of statistics. If you go online to examine the Eurostat database you will find the EU has been gathering economic data on a federal basis since the year 2000. The UK has been divided into 12 federal regions (three of which are Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) under an EU devised scheme known as “Nomenclature d’Unités Territoriales Statistiques” which is normally shortened to the acronym NUTS (yes, really!).

Take a look at the map below. It shows the federal regions of Europe (NUTS 1) scaled by GDP. In other words, the size of each region corresponds to the size of its economy while the colour shows the average annual growth rate from 2000 to 2011. There are some interesting points to note:

1. The UK’s growth rate looks poor relative to the rest of Europe. These figures are denominated in Euros and Sterling’s 20% devaluation in 2008 made a big negative impact.
2. Things which are small tend to be green. In other words, smaller regions tend to grow faster. This may be because a common market tends to drag up laggards and is further exaggerated by the fact that EU development funds tend to be channelled to impoverished regions.
3. It’s not just Scotland. There are a lot of other regions that would like to be independent in Europe. All regions with an established separatist movement have been outlined with a purple border.
4. Many of these proposed breakaway states are larger economic units than existing EU countries (eg Latvia, Slovakia, Luxembourg with bold black borders) which offers some support for their viability.
5. The names of the regions have in some cases been changed from a dry bureaucratic definition to something more culturally resonant. For example, South West England becomes Wessex, Romania Region 1 becomes Transylvania and North Region Poland becomes Pomerania.

Map of Federal Europe

It is easy to dismiss such a map as a bureaucratic fantasy dreamt up by statisticians who wish the untidiness of the real world could be neatly filed in appropriate pigeon holes. The dividing lines are arbitrary and in many cases merely drawn to create administrative units of similar size. The resistance to any such devolution from existing nation states would be so great as to be almost insurmountable. Many powerful entities invested in the current status quo would have much to lose. But at the same time, countries who decry the encroachment of the ‘unelected’ EU as an offense against democracy may find the same argument turned against them. After Scotland’s surprising vote, how many other European countries will allow an independence referendum? And if they do not, will their democratic credentials be tarnished?

There is another way of viewing the data that avoids the artificial segmentation of bureaucratic regions. This is to go one level deeper and look at cities rather than regions. Cities, particularly in a service economy, are the true engines of economic growth. A few decades ago, it was the common view that manufacturing industries caused clustering because of the requirement to have parts suppliers in close proximity. In contrast, it was thought that service industries, freed from the drudgery of the daily commute by teleconferencing, the internet and mobile communications, would spurn the cities in favour of a better quality of life in the countryside. In fact, the opposite has happened. The service sector, particularly in high tech, clusters together in cities to a greater extent than manufacturing does. This is mainly due to a happy blend of convenience and hedonism. For the service sector, the people are the product so meetings with clients and suppliers are even more important. In cities, meetings are easier to organise (convenience), there are great restaurants (hedonism), and internet connections are much faster (both!).

If you look at the second map, you will see a map of Europe by city, this time based on population. The size of each circle is proportional to the number of people living in the greater urban zone (both the city and its suburbs). Any urban centres with less than a million people have been omitted. In this view, London and Paris are in a dominant position while Brussels and Amsterdam are showing the fastest growth. Turkey is not currently part of the EU, although if it is admitted at some time in the future it would make a major impact.


These two maps, then, show two possible futures for Europe. One where increasing devolution favours smaller regional communities and one in which a post-industrial Europe echoes its pre-industrial, medieval past with powerful city states playing the dominant role. Or maybe it might be both. Either way the outlook for the traditional nation state does not look too rosy.

Feudal lessons in tax avoidance

At the top of David Cameron’s agenda when Britain hosts the G8 this year is tax avoidance. In a presentation in Davos in January he called for an internationally co-ordinated clampdown on companies that pay too little tax. In his view companies that don’t pay their fair share needed to “wake up and smell the coffee, because the public who buy from them have had enough.” But he was then quick to point out that the UK had a “great offer” to companies because it was cutting its rates of corporation tax. The speech was strangely schizophrenic, castigating those who did not pay enough tax while trying to seduce at the same time by offering a lower tax rate. A bit like being nagged by a prostitute in fishnets.

The big problem facing the Western world at the moment is that governments are essentially bankrupt. They can’t afford the promises and commitments that they have to the general populace. They need more money which means more taxes and so the corporate sector is an obvious target. But this is not a new problem. It fact, it is so old that it goes all the way back to a time before companies, and even nation states, existed; all the way back to feudal times.

The feudal relationship between a king and his nobles was one of personal obligations: the use of land owned by the king in return for loyalty and military service. Over time wars, intermarriage and complicated inheritance customs resulted in a patchwork of decentralised authority with many overlapping jurisdictions. Nobles could own land in several different kingdoms therefore owing fealty to several different kings. This caused friction and feudal history is, essentially, a history of the struggle for power between kings and nobles with each looking to bribe, cajole or conquer the other.

As the economies in Western Europe developed, trade and wealth began to be concentrated in cities which disrupted the old feudal arrangements. In essence, the cities became a third player in the struggle between the nobles and the kings. This ‘three way’ game had different outcomes in different countries. In Germany, weak kings meant the cities banded together to form leagues (such as the Hanseatic League) to protect their interests against the nobles. In Italy, the cities became large and strong enough to defend their own economic interests and so formed independent city states that resisted the authority of the Emperor or Pope. In France, the cities and the king banded together against the nobles creating a strong central bureaucratic state. The cities and the king had many interests in common, both benefiting from a uniform legal system, a standardised  tax system, good transport infrastructure and a standing military force to keep the peace. In the end, the French model proved to be the most successful and in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 most of Europe followed suit and the modern notion of the nation state was born.

What lessons can we learn from this history? We can cast the struggle in catataxic terms like this. In feudal times, the king had legislative authority, the nobles had power (particularly military power) and the cities had wealth. The alignment of the wealth creating cities with the highest legal authority (in the form of the king) against the political power of the nobles was the winning combination.

Now let us replace the feudal chess pieces with their modern equivalents. In this case, the EU is the highest legal authority and the wealth creators are the multinational companies. The nobles with the political power are the national governments. In other words, David Cameron is the equivalent of a feudal baron. If history repeats itself, you can expect the multinationals to club together and pay corporate taxes directly to the EU rather than to national governments. Both parties would benefit from a truly single borderless market in legal and taxation terms. It is the nobles, in this case the national governments who could have the most to lose…


The tragedy of the commons

grazing cows and the tragedy of the commons“Don’t worry darling, there are plenty more fish in the sea ” said my mother as she comforted me after my girlfriend dumped me in 1983. It was little solace to my heartbreak then: a platitude worn thin by careless usage. It is even less use today, because it is no longer true. Sorry Mum. There aren’t plenty more fish in the sea.

Cefas, the government fisheries laboratory, has announced that  there are only one hundred adult cod left in the North Sea according to their estimates. Yes, that’s right only a hundred. Mature cod can live for up to 25 years and reach lengths of 6 foot. In 2011, a North Sea survey of catches showed not a single fish that was older than 13 years. Cod become more fertile as they get older. Most cod are caught when they have barely reached sexual maturity, on average when they are 4 years old. If there are no older fish, there are no eggs and larvae to perpetuate future generations. In the early 1970s, trawlers were catching 360,000 tons of cod a year in the North Sea. This year the catch is only 32,000, less than one tenth of the previous level but still 50% higher than the sustainable limit according to Cefas.

What makes this even sadder is that it is not a new story. It has happen before. In 1992, the Canadian Government finally banned all cod fishing in the Grand Banks following the complete collapse of the fish stocks. In Newfoundland, 35,000 fishermen became unemployed overnight, devastating the local economy and ending a traditional industry with a 500 year pedigree. The fishing moratorium was intended to last only 2 years to let the fish stocks recover. Sadly, this did not happen. It is only now, 20 years later, that cod stocks are recovering again but they are still at only 10% of previous levels. So the current collapse of the North Sea cod fishery is merely repeating a journey down a well worn tragic path*. If you plan on going fishing soon make sure to check out the best fishing kayak.

The crisis of the cod fisheries in both Newfoundland and now the North Sea were well flagged many years in advance. So the real question is  “Why didn’t someone do something about it before it was too late?” The short answer is that they couldn’t. The collapse in fish stocks had a ghastly inevitability; a high-sided luge track leading to disaster.  This phenomenon is known as the tragedy of the commons. Individuals acting in self interest deplete a common resource, even though it is in no one’s long term interest for this to happen. It was first observed by Thucydides and Aristotle, then resurfaced in the arguments over the British Enclosure Acts in the 18th Century but was most precisely defined in economic terms in a paper by the ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968. It is also an excellent example of the reversal of virtue at a catataxic boundary.

In the tragedy of the commons, the word “tragedy” does not imply unhappiness and sorrow but rather the inevitableness of destiny, a remorseless working of logic to its inescapable conclusion. The logic working here is the economic concept of marginal utility. Picture an area of common ground – maybe a village green. Local cattle herdsmen have the right to graze their animals there. Gradually the number of cattle increase until the size of the herd is greater than the amount the grazing land can support. This is the catataxic boundary. The time when more of the same becomes different. Each individual herdsman is faced with a choice: should he put more cows on the pasture or fewer?  At this point the marginal utility equation comes into effect. He gains all the benefits of putting his extra cow on the common, but the negative effects are shared amongst all. He owns the cow but he does not own the commons. So the marginal utility to him as an individual is an overall positive: he gets all the upside, others share the downside. Therefore the logical course is for him is to keep putting more cows on the pasture until it is destroyed.

There are many examples of the tragedy of the commons and it is central to many of the problems of the modern world. Traffic congestion, email spam, the destruction of the rain forest, water shortages, pollution, global warming and overfishing all examples of the abuse of the commons. In each case, a slight gain to a self-interested individual results in a major detrimental effect to the larger community. So, for example, the new car owner gains some mobility but causes traffic congestion for everyone else. The online marketer gets a tiny positive hit rate as he clogs up the internet with spam. A farmer’s borehole to irrigate his parched crops lowers the water table for everyone else. Likewise,illegal logging, factory fishing fleets and toxic waste from chemical plants destroy the environment for every one else.

So what is the solution? In 18th century England the answer was obvious. Put the commons into private ownership. If the same man owns both the cow and the land, there is an economic incentive for effective stewardship. He owns all the upside and all the downside and so will manage both to positive effect. This was the argument behind the hugely unpopular “Inclosure Acts”: acts of parliament that allowed large landowners to expropriate  common land, turfing off peasant farmers and enriching themselves in the process. The Highlands of Scotland were cleared of crofters who then emigrated to the USA and in turn expropriated land from the native indians through similar trickery with title deeds. In England, a landless working class was created to feed the newly emerging “dark satanic mills” depicted in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony. Karl Marx, living in London and watching from the sidelines, saw this as the first act in the class struggle that would eventually lead to the triumph of the proletariat. He outlined a different solution to the tragedy of the commons. He believed that the commons should be owned by the state not private individuals; hence, communism.

Since then, more nuanced solutions have emerged. Elinor Ostrom, who sadly died this June, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her work on the tragedy of the commons problem. Her solution was neither private nor state ownership, but local, communal ownership. She call such a solution “common pool resource” (CPR) management.  After years studying pasture management systems in villages in Africa and Nepal, she codified a set of rules which would enable common resources to be exploited in a sustainable way. In essence, these involve clear cut boundaries between entitled locals and outsiders and a strong set of property rights and sanctions administered in a self determined way by the local community. To some, this CPR solution is the holy grail: a temperate middle path between the twin evils of rapacious capitalism and spirit-crushing communism. But others will notice that this solution the problem requires the introduction of a different type of evil: xenophobia.

CPR requires a clear division between locals who have ownership rights and outsiders who don’t. There needs to be a line drawn between “us” and “them”. Through rose tinted spectacles, CPR is the idealised English village community; good neighbours, earnest vicars, friendly grocers, church fetes, a good local school and a cracking village pub. Take off those spectacles and you see small mindedness, nimby attitudes, petty chauvinism, corrupt local councillors, disapproving frowns from behind twitching lace curtain and the all the ghastly wrangling of the local housing committee.

Any system that encourages the demonisation of outsiders and foreigners is surely to be deplored. One headline in the weekend press was more tragic than the story about disappearing cod. It was the killing of the US Ambassador in Libya. J.Christopher Stevens was  a Peace Corps veteran, fluent in arabic with a deep knowledge of the Middle East; surely just the type of of ambassador Libya should welcome. He was killed by militant Islamists enraged by an offensive movie put on YouTube by a US citizen on the West Coast. It seems so unfair that a sympathetic arabist in Libya should be killed in retaliation for the actions of a crazed bigot in California, but to a xenophobe all foreigners are the same.

So the tragedy of the commons has three solutions, all with potentially negative side effects. Is there nothing positive to be said? Yes, there is. Let’s look at the mirror image of the tragedy which we could term the “comedy” of the commons or the “inverse commons”. This is where a small negative to an individual results in a major positive benefit to the community. Those who believe in the economic utility function would classify this self-harming, altruistic behaviour as impossible. But not only does it exist, it is the basis of a lot of successful business models in the new information economy.  The best example is Wikipedia where individuals contribute their knowledge for free for the good of the greater community. The “inverse commons” concept is also at the heart of the “facebook” social networking revolution and open source software movement.

On a lighter note, even cod shortage may have a silver lining. Fewer cod has meant a boom in the population of the crustacea that the cod feed on. It looks like you will be swapping your “cod and chips” for “scampi and chips” in the future…

* For those who are interested in further reading on the subject, I highly recommend Cod by Mark Kurlansky (Vintage, 1999) and The End of The Line by Charles Clover (Ebury Press, 2004).

The Olympics – who really won ?

Andy Murray Olympic MedalistI spent a few weeks in Scotland at the Edinburgh festival on my summer holiday. I was struck by how the local press was trumpeting how successful “Scotland” had been in the Olympics, even though it was competing as part of the UK. Had Scotland been a separate county it would have come 12th in the league tables with 13 medals ( UK as a whole won 65). On the other hand, people who dream of an independent Scotland must have been disappointed to see Scots like Chris Hoy and Andy Murray draped in the Union Jack after winning their golds and proclaiming their pride in being part of “Team GB”.

The Olympic medal table shows how many medals each country won. You might think that it should be very easy to figure out was is the overall winner. Not true. Even with such a simple set of underlying facts there are plenty of tricks you can play in the interpretation of those facts. Which only goes to prove the old adage “Statistics are often used as a drunk man uses a lamp post – for support rather than illumination”.

The version of the table most familiar to readers of the UK press goes like this, with the UK in third place:


Rank      Country               Gold            Silver            Bronze            Total

1.             USA                     46                 29                   29                  104

2.             China                   38                 27                   23                     88

3.             UK                       29                 17                   19                     65

4.              Russia                 24                 26                   32                     82

5.             Germany              11                 19                    14                     44


But you will notice that this ranking is on the number of Gold medals. If you rank countries by the total number of medals won, then Russia is third with 82 medals and the UK moves down to fourth place with 65.  Then again, maybe it is not fair to rank each medal the same. Surely a Gold medal should be worth more than a Silver. So you can give a weight to each medal like this: a gold is worth three points, silver two points and bronze one point.  After crunching the numbers, the result is still the same. Russia is third with 156 points and UK fourth with 140 points. For some other countries it makes a more dramatic difference. South Korea won 13 gold medals and relatively few medals of other rank. They score 5th on the “Gold only” ranking but only 10th on the weighted points method.

There are further steps to you can take to come up with a fair method of deciding who really won. Not all countries are the same size. Large countries have a larger pool of talent to pick from. So maybe a fairer method would be to adjust for population size and measure  medal haul per head of population. If you do this the ranking becomes:

Olympic medals per capita

  1. Grenada
  2. Jamaica
  3. Bahamas
  4. New Zealand
  5. Trinidad and Tobago
  6. Montenegro

Then again, since training top level athletes is expensive, it might be fairer to adjust for a country’s wealth rather than population size. If you look at the medals to GDP ratio then Granada and Jamaica are still at the top but the rest all change change:

Olympic medals to GDP ratio

  1. Grenada
  2. Jamaica
  3. North Korea
  4. Mongolia
  5. Georgia
  6. Kenya

There is another possible factor that might distort the results: team size. If you enter lots of athletes then you are likely to win more medals. So if you adjust for the size of the olympic team that was sent to the games the table looks like this :

Olympic medals to olympic team size ratio

  1. China
  2. Jamaica
  3. Iran
  4. Botswana
  5. USA
  6. Ethiopia

All of which goes to show that if you play with the data enough then everyone is a winner. Maybe a better conclusion is that sport is about athletes competing and that the glory should belong to the individual not the country. In other words, all the arguments about which “country” was the winner are merely a catataxic distraction. The spirit of the competition lies at level one (the person) not level two (the nation). Nationalistic triumphalism hijacks the very essence of the competition. Maybe things have not changed that much since Hitler’s Berlin Games of 1936.

All of the above examples are merely reshuffling the order of existing countries as recognised by the Olympic Organising Committee.  We can highlight the catataxic issues at the heart of the debate by playing with the concept of “country” which is much more flawed than you might think. Let’s returning to the Scottish example we started with. Scots athletes won 13 medals, but this includes team medals.  If you exclude the team sports (show jumping, gymnastics, rowing, canoe slalom, tennis doubles, team cycling) where the team was not 100% Scottish then you are left with only 3 medals – two golds ( Hoy and Murray)  and silver in swimming from Jamieson. Not too encouraging if Scotland competes under the blue saltire flag in Rio in 2016. If you want start practicing gymnastics here are some of the best gymnastics mats for home.

Would Scots athletes automatically be part of Team Scotland? Not necessarily. Northern Ireland sets an interesting precedent.  It is technically under the jurisdiction of the Olympic Council of Ireland, despite being part of the United Kingdom. Athletes from Northern Ireland can choose whether to join the Irish or UK Olympic team. There were three people in the team that won the Sprint Cycling medal for the UK: an Englishman, a Scotsman and a German (Phillip Hindes). Sounds like the beginning of a joke? Well, it is. The joke being nationalism in the Olympics.

I must confess to getting a small frisson of pleasure when I saw a medal ceremony with the three flags of the UK, New Zealand and Australia in gold, silver and bronze positions: they all had the union jack in at least part of the flag. One definition of a country is “a group of people who share the same flag”. If you were to recast the table so that all countries with a Union Jack in the flag were viewed as a single entity then then the supra-country “Union Jack Land” beats China with 42 gold medals and 113 medals overall.

Maybe can use a different definition of a country: territories that are united by a single head of state. The USA has President Obama. We can theoretically create  “Elizabethland”: those countries that have Queen Elizabeth II as Head of State.  This, amongst others, includes UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Barbados and Grenada.  The total medal haul is 143, of which 48 are gold, which puts this entity top of the list whichever way you count it. The USA is second with 105 and 46 respectively.

A third definition of country could be this: a group of territories that form a single economic entity with a single currency. In which case the Eurozone would be the overall winner by far with a total (weighted method) medal score of 276. This is possibly the only positive thing that can be said about membership of the Eurozone at present….



Is the EU too democratic?

Burma cancels dam

Burma cancels damYesterday the Slovaks voted “No” to the Greek bailout. Quite reasonably, the poorest country in the Eurozone could not see why it should bailout a country where the average wage and pension provisions are far higher than their own. The result is continuing financial turmoil and uncertainty as the markets get frustrated by the lack of visible action. The meeting between Merkel and Sarkozy over the weekend ended with a statement along these lines: we have a plan to save the Eurozone but we can’t tell you what it is yet. There is a growing sense of impatience amongst the pundits and commentators whose general consensus runs something like this “European leaders are behind the curve. We need fast, decisive action. Why can’t these things be done more swiftly? Why is there not more leadership?” Notice that this line of argument is only a short step from a complaint that the EU is too democratic. After all, Napoleon or Hitler could have sorted this mess out in a trice. Is this laborious process of asking everyone what they think and getting a consensus a waste of time?

Consider this interesting counter example from the other side of the world. The military rulers in Burma have decided that they will cancel the construction of the Irrawaddy Dam. This is a slap in the face for China who was funding this 3.6bn hydroelectric project. Campaigners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, have been protesting against the dam for months, since it would inundate dozens of villages, displace at least 10,000 people and irreversibly damage one of the world’s most biodiverse areas. Why did the Burmese military junta change their mind? It was “against the will of the people”.

A dictatorship responding to the will of the people? This is democracy without voting. We could call it  “non-suffrage democracy”. Yes, I know that sounds as stupid as “bubble free champagne” or a “water free ocean” but it does suggest an interesting catataxic twist. We can call the people Level 1 and the government Level 2.  Clearly the normal way to transmute from one level to the other is through voting. That may be one way but it is not the only way, and in the case of the Eurozone crisis it may not even be the best way.

People power

Power of the peopleA Greek friend was explaining to me the mood amongst the Athenian citizens these days. Their frustration and anger is best expressed like this “The Government borrowed all that money and now they want the people to pay”. Notice that there is no identification between the people and the government. Despite Athens being the birthplace of democracy there is no sense of this being a government “by the people, of the people, for the people”. The government is some other entity, separate from the people, licensed to play their political games somewhere else. This is a catataxic split . The government is on level two, arising from the citizens on level one but separate from them. The slogan of the anarchists puts it best : no matter who you vote for, it’s always The Government who gets into power.

The second strand of frustration is with the Germans, because somehow it’s all their fault. The popular belief amongst the Athenians is that the Germans are trying to destroy them, just like World War 2 all over again. But the Germans have their own problems. In Germany, there is another illustration of the catataxic spilt between the will of the people and the government. Chancellor Merkel won the backing for a Greek bailout by a huge majority in Bundestag this week. But at the same time, a German opinion poll shows 75% of the people oppose it. The elected representatives of the people (in all parties) do not seem to be reflecting the people’s will. That is Catataxis.

Are ye going to Tewkesbury Fayre?

dog face bascinetI spent last weekend at Tewkesbury Medieval Festival helping my brother promote his new book, Kings Man, the third in his series The Outlaw Chronicles about Robin Hood. The festival is held to commemorate the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. This was the final battle of the Wars of the Roses in which Prince Edward, the heir to the House of Lancaster, was killed.

During the festival, the whole town is decked out in medieval flags and the streets throng with knights in armour and medieval re-enactors. It all culminates with a big battle down by the river on the historic battleground. A riot of cannons, men at arms and pikes as the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies clash. It is a big festival which has been going for 25 years but there are plenty of others which are popping up all over the place; not just in Britain but in France, Belgium and Eastern Europe too.

Historical re-enactment is a booming market these days. At the Tewksbury festival there are countless traders stalls selling medieval gear; hauberks, hose, vambraces, gauntlets, broadswords, smocks and jerkins. Fancy something special for the weekend ? How about a dog faced bascinet? There are so many different stalls it finally dawns on you that this is a big business. You have stumbled upon an underground fetish scene; not sexual but cultural. And it’s coming out of the closet to a town near you!

Tewkesbury Medieval Festival
Re-enactors at the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival

The big question is this: why is it suddenly so popular? The answer, although an oblique one, is in the title of a new exhibition that has just been announced at the V&A Museum: Postmodernism – Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990. Yes – notice that last date! This is a retrospective exhibition. That means postmodernism is officially over.

Post modernism was always a difficult concept since it sounds like something “after the future” and how can some thing be after a future that has not happened yet? The best way to explain it is like this. Modernism, as an artistic movement, had a tremendous sense of earnest optimism about the future. It believed that art could morally improve people; that a modernist skyscraper could improve your life. Postmodernism went in the opposite direction, not optimistic but ironic, not earnest but mocking. So where can you go next ? What is post postmodernism? After the earnest futurism and then the ironic futurism what is the next stage in the cycle? Logic dictates it must be the earnest past.

And lo, the pop charts are filled with folk music again. Mumford & Sons and The Arcade Fire are the hot new groups. And the streets of Tewkesbury overflow with people dressed in medieval tunics seeking community in the past: a secular commonality from a shared history to soothe the fits and agues of the modern world. Anywhere else, you would be arrested for wandering the streets after dark with a four foot blade in your hands. At the Tewkesbury festival, the pubs are welcoming you in for another drink.

You may be wondering where the catataxis comes in. Well, there I am in a pub dressed in a monk’s habit with a Spanish guy dressed as an elegant nobleman to my left and a French bloke in a man at arms outfit to my right. I am pointing at my costume and trying to explain a joke about ‘dirty habits’ but it does not come out so well in the translation…and suddenly it hits me. I am in a pre-national Europe. In 1471, there were no nation states. There were powerful barons, principalities, duchies and territories in a complex patchwork throughout Europe. Henry VI, King of England was also, for 30 years, the King of France too. Countries, as we know them today, did not exist. The Nation State, level four in the hierarchy that goes up from individual to family to community, does not yet exist.

And right there, in the beery good cheer of a friendly pub, surrounded by Europeans in fancy dress it strikes me that there is nothing to fear about a federated Europe. Maybe the time has come for the post Nation State, a return to a complex patchwork of entities under an EU umbrella. The resolution of the Greek Debt Crisis will be to push us all in that direction. Maybe the V&A museum will soon hold a retrospective exhibition called The European Nation State – Power at the 4th degree 1648 – 2018. After all, we do share the same values, the same history, and since I got the phone number from the elegant Spaniard, the same medieval outfitter too…

Phone Hacking? Catataxis!

Light brigade and phone hackingI remember when at university having a heated debate about the ethics of photojournalism. This was the issue. Imagine you are a photographer covering the Vietnam War. You see the slumped body of a dead GI on the road beside a paddy field. The sun is setting. You can’t resist the temptation to reach out and pull up the collar of his shirt to make a tableau of exquisite dishevelment ….and SNAP….in the dying rays of the sun you capture that perfect picture. One beautifully composed frame that says everything you could ever want to say about the horror and futility of war.Now comes the ethical question. Is it morally right to pull up that shirt collar? Some say yes. If that helps to get the point across then it is perfectly justified. The art of photography is act of visual selection. You force people to isolate and focus on what you decided they should focus on. You are using all the tricks of aperture, exposure and depth of field to make them see what you want them to see. Where is the harm in a little set dressing. Is that not just the natural extension of your other camera techniques. Every photo is just a subjective moment of reality captured on celluloid, after all.

But some say no. The point of photojournalism is objectivity. You are there to report the facts not to tamper with them. So pulling up the collar on the dead GI breaks the solemn compact between the journalist and the readership. Your role is to silently observe and document the facts, not to mould reality until it fits the contours  of your personal perspective. You must be veracity’s evangelist; the unobtrusive monitor of truth.

Technology changes things. William Russell (1820-1907), the world’s first war correspondent with The Times covered the Crimean war. His dispatches from the front had a huge impact on the public who were shocked and outraged by what they read about the appalling treatment of the troops. A huge public backlash demanded that something should be done. But, of course, there were no photographs. It was artists who visually immortalised the Charge of the Light Brigade. Painted several years after the fact, their heroic pictures bore little resemblance to the reality of what had actually happened.  It was not until the invention of light portable cameras that photojournalists could capture the brutal glamour of World War 2 as it really was. Later, TV cameras captured the horror of the Vietnam War and delivered it charred and bloody like a rare T bone steak to the voracious homes of the American public. That public was, yet again, shocked and horrified and demanded that something should be done. The ethics of the new technology were clear: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.

Now we have newer technology. The internet, social media, mobile phones and twitter. What should a journalist do when observing this vast digital shunting yard of packet switched data? Maybe the same as before: monitor unobtrusively, record the facts, edit them sensitively and show the public the tip of the iceberg.  If so, then phone hacking is morally acceptable. Silent monitoring in the background to establish the truth; is that not what we want our journalists to do? Ever since Watergate did we not anoint them as the watchdogs of liberty. Politicians have their secret services to ‘protect’ us. But we want our journalists to keep a check on the politicos. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who guards the guardians? Why, the journalists do. If Secret Services can monitor phone calls, then why not the journalists too.

Ah yes, you might say, but what about the principal of privacy? Is that not an essential human right?  To put the question in another way: is information in the ether in the public or private domain? Can cyberspace ever be personal? My answer is this: to believe so is to make a catataxic blunder.  Cyberspace occupies a realm beyond the personal. Information wants to be free, and Wikileaks wants to liberate it. Every mobile phone call, text or tweet you make is a geo-located pinprick of emotional luminance. Step back and marvel at that galaxy of starlight. Should not the journalists chart those heavens like the early astronomers at their telescopes. We are stardust, and our mobile phones calls even more so.

To end, we return to where we first started. The quintessential Vietnam movie is Apocalypse Now: a fusion of Joseph Conrad, helicopters and paddy fields. In my view, the information age obliterates the personal, but this is not a bad thing. In the mighty torrential Congo of digital effluvient, we are not battling upstream to a ‘Heart of Darkness’ but downstream to the open ocean and, beyond that, to a glorious far horizon of freedom, which is a freedom beyond bounds…

Trial by Catataxic Jury

Trial by Jury Trial by jury is one of the underpinning notions of justice. Juries, made from 12 people chosen at random from the community, inject a societal element into the legal system. They act as a check against the power of the state, and were one of the key principles established in the Magna Carta which curtailed the power of the King. Juries are proof that justice arises from the community. While judges concern themselves with issues of law, juries are responsible for determining the facts of the case. In other words, they are there to decide who is telling the truth: juries are a 12 body community lie detector. The only problem is that this time worn mechanism for establishing truth has a lie, or at least a fiction, concealed in its own heart.

The lie is this: the unanimity of the juries verdict. Twelve people of different backgrounds are expected to coalesce together into a single viewpoint. This is a catataxic transformation. Twelve individual voices on level 1 merge to form a single, representative community voice on level 2. This magical mutation happens in private; nothing must disturb the seclusion of this sacred metamorphosis. Anyone who violates this will be severely punished. Just look at today’s news that a juror who facebooked the defendant has been given a eight month sentence. Social networking can be criminally dangerous!

When touched at their weakest point , the strong react with disproportionate violence. Maybe the reason for this excessive reaction from the judicial system is that their vulnerable underbelly has been poked. The protective veil drawn around the jury’s deliberations conceals a fatal weakness: it is not possible for twelve people to speak as one. Not without a lot of back room bullying, threats, posturing and other social unpleasantness.

The inherent conflict of a jury’s deliberations had been exploited to dramatic effect in the movie 12 Angry Men (1957) and to comic effect by Tony Hancock in a TV episode of the same name. Recent research shows that jurors often feel intimidated and do not speak out in a group as large as 12. A better size for a proper, balanced group discussion is a group of four. This implies that a smaller jury , or a “best of three system” based on subgroups of 4 might give a more representative result. To traditionalists, suggestions like this which tamper with the fundamental rock of justice is anathema. The catataxic transformation of individuals to a single community voice is sacred. It should not be messed with even if it pushes the bounds of credulity. In fact, it may be sacred because it pushes the bounds of credulity. It is an article of faith just  like the transubstantiation of bread to the body of Christ at the heart of the Christian ritual. Or the belief that anointing with sperm whale oil transforms a mere mortal to a monarch. This is the only part of a British coronation that is so sacred it has never been photographed or televised.

Apocalypse (not right) now

Harold Camping, an 89 year old televangelist, has spent the last 8 years preaching that the end of the world will occur on 21st May 2011. He spread his message through the Family Radio network in the USA. His followers sold all their positions to raise more than $100m in assets to fund a media campaign. On that day of judgement, true believers would ascend to heaven in “The Rapture” with everyone else dying in a cataclysmic wave of earthquakes. Of course, on the day nothing happened. Shamefaced proselytisers returned to their place work the next day. The world carried on as normal, beset by the evils of globalisation and the rising threat of terrorism which can be taken as a sign of God’s displeasure.

Globalisation and the rising threat of terrorism? We have all been here before. Cast your mind back to 1900. The world’s economy is truly global with little hindrance to the flow of goods and people. Western investors are pouring money into emerging markets: Brazilian rubber plantations, Chinese railways and African mines. Passports do not exist and emigrating just means catching the next ship to anywhere in the world to seek your fortune, whether you are an Irish farmer, an Indian shopkeeper or a Chinese labourer. This globalisation exists because most of the world is under the control of European empires.

At the same time, many heads of State are being killed by anarchists or, as we call them today, terrorists. In a few short years around the turn of the century the Austro-Hungarian Empress Elizabeth, King Umberto I of Italy, the King of Serbia and the US President McKinley are all assassinated. A decade later, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria triggers World War 1, a nationalistic war between empires.

Recognising the dangers of nationalism, the first supranational organisation, the League of Nations is set up in 1919. Sadly, this is too weak to prevent the even more destructive nationalistic conflict of World War 2. The second attempt in the form of the United Nations has a longer shelf life. It still exists today, as do other supranational organisations such as the EU, the IMF and the International Court of Justice. But consider this. If it took the horrendous, destructive conflict of World War 2 to create these dysfunctional, toothless, supranational paper tigers, just how bad must things get before sovereignty is passed up to an entity that can really fix today’s problems.

Take global warming or the depletion of the world’s fish resources. Although international organisations exist that theoretically address these issues they have no power. Sovereign states rarely wish to pass up their sovereignty to a higher entity. It is possible to coerce them. The last time this was attempted was the US Civil War. The northern states forced the southern states to join the club and submit to a higher federal government. Higher level entities are forged in the furnace of conflict. The carnage of the US Civil war was hot enough to fuse the United States together. Unfortunately, World War 2 was not ferocious enough to make a powerful United Nations, despite the death of 60 million people. It created something, but it was something too weak to properly address global issues.

In the late 1940s, most of the world was impoverished and happy to follow orders after years of war. Today we have TV, the internet, sexual liberation and the consumer society. There is far less chance of citizens doing what they are told voluntarily. Just think how hot the fire would have to be to sinter those disparate citizens together into a common purpose.

So there might be one good thing that could arise from a forthcoming apocalypse. It could give birth to a global institution capable of solving our environmental problems. As the Vietnam general said “ It may become necessary to destroy the village in order to save it”