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.

Immanuel Kant and Walt Disney, but Kublai Khan*

Who remembers Kubrick’s Vietnam movie Full Metal Jacket ? It starts with young cadets being brainwashed in boot camp under a torrent of salty abuse from Sergeant Hartman (played by R. Lee Ermey).  The middle part of the film was shot in Galleons Reach in London’s Docklands. The addition of a few strategic palm trees transformed this global financial centre into a perfect facsimile of a Vietnam warzone. (Yes, yes, I know …but they do say story telling is all about the willing suspension of disbelief…)

The film ends with US Marines marching into the darkening night singing the Mickey Mouse March. It’s meant ironically, of course, “Mickey Mouse” as a slang term meaning something petty, useless and senseless. It also emphasizes the soldiers’ youth. This final scene is trying to sum up the film’s core statement :  Brainwashed young men follow orders from above and commit atrocities in a pointless war.

The military is almost synonymous with top down control. Generals tell Colonels what to do, Colonels tell Majors, and so on down the line until it reaches the poor grunts in the line of fire. The emphasis seems to be on following orders and the chain of command. Don’t question what you are told to do. Just do it.

In fact, things are changing and it is becoming more important for soldiers to think for themselves. They are teaching US Cadets about Immanuel Kant in West Point these days. The BBC recently broadcast a report on Radio 4 about how moral philosophy has become a key part of the syllabus when training soldiers in the USA.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can not be won through force. That may have worked for Kublai Khan, which was the last time both countries were under the thumb of the same foreign invader. But today it is all about winning hearts and minds. So what a US soldier does when patrolling in a dusty village makes all the difference. He needs to make the right moral choices. He is not following orders from above so much as using his own independent judgment.

Part of the reason America lost the Vietnam War was the obsessive top down control from Washington. The military has learnt its lesson. There are two different levels. High level strategy that can be planned and moral choices made by an individual on the ground. One is top down the other bottom up. Different levels, different rules. That is catataxis.

*   if you didn’t get it, try reading this title aloud in a Glaswegian accent

French Roma catatactic sandwich

Gypsy catataxisFrance has deported more than a 1,000 Roma in the last month, after President Sarkozy  decided that 300 illegal gypsy camps should be disbanded. He views the camps as sources of illegal trafficking , child exploitation, prostitution and crime. The decision was triggered by a riot in the town of St Aignan. Dozens of Roma attacked a police station after a gendarme killed a 22 year old from their community.   Cynics believe Sarkozy’s hardline but populist stance is an effort to raise his low approval ratings in the polls.

However, the EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has called the French actions “a disgrace” . She has urged the European Commission to take legal action against France since EU law bans discrimination against any ethnic group or nationality.  Inevitable comparisons have been drawn with the round up of Jews and Gypsies by  the Vichy government in the Second World War.

This is a catatactic sandwich. There are four hierarchical levels involved: citizen, nation, state and supranational entity. In this, the Roma are a ‘nation’ in its traditional sense: a group of people who share a culture, language and ethnic origin. The Cherokee nation is another example. Though the words nation, country and state are often used interchangeably they have distinct meanings. A country is the land that belongs to a nation. The State is the government of the nation and the country. We are habituated to think in terms of the sovereignty of the “nation state”, where the nation and the state are a single entity. The more multicultural we become, the more inappropriate this is. There are now many nations in each state.

The Roma are unusual in that they are a nation with no country. They are believed to have left north-west India  a millennium ago and migrated throughout Europe. They are most concentrated in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey but have communities in every part of Europe.

The French government claims it is acting against citizens who are in the country illegally. The EU believes France is discriminating against an ethnic group or nation. So level 3 thinks it is fixing a level 1 problem while level 4 thinks laws are being broken on level 2. That is the catatactic sandwich.

Its one step more complicated because the EU also has laws about the free movement of EU citizens. In other words, level 4 also has oversight at level 1. Unlike Britain, France requires citizens of Rumania to have special work permits.  This special exception to the EU rules expires in 2014. So in three years time, Bulgarians and Rumanians will be free to work anywhere in France. Any deported Roma can legally come straight back again.

It seems the future will be one of united nations and disunited states.

Kyrgyzstan and Winston’s Hiccup

The recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan looks like a Balkan crisis.  Gangs of masked thugs have started a campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Uzbek minority in the south. Almost half a million Uzbeks have been displaced from their homes in an orgy of rape and murder. Their homes have been looted and torched to stop them coming back. Its a strategically important country for Russia and China since it is on both their borders. It is also important for the USA who have an airbase outside the capital Bishkek, which supports their efforts in nearby Afghanistan. Just like the Balkans, it is a geopolitical hotspot with a mismatch between the patchwork quilt of ethnicities and the national borders.

This is catataxis. It is a conflict between two levels: a nation and a State. I mean nation in the old sense of the word. It is s a group of people sharing a language, culture or ethnicity. So we can still talk about the Cherokee nation, or the Roma who are a nation without a country. A State is a sovereign territorial unit. It is a political and geographical entity. So there is a hierarchy of levels like this:

1) Person
2) Family – a group of related people
3) Community – a group of families
4) Nation – a group of communities with the same ethnicity and language
5) State – a sovereign territorial unit composed of one or more nations. A Geopolitical entity.

So the unrest in Kyrgyzstan is a catatactic friction between levels 4 and 5. So was the war in the Balkans in the 1990s and many of the post colonial African conflicts. The ethnic borders don’t match territorial borders.

The drawing of territorial borders is often arbitrary. The most famous example is Winston’s Hiccup. Its a huge zig zag on the border between Jordan and Saudia Arabia. Legend has it that Winston Churchill had a long liquid lunch on a Sunday afternoon in Cairo. When he came back to his desk, he hiccuped while drawing the new border for Transjordan. Hence the dramatic twist in the line.Since it was mostly desert no one really cared.

In fact it is an apocryphal story. The border takes account of ancient incense trading routes and Britain’s need at that time for an air corridor to India. But the notion that State borders are an arbitrary higher level intrusion into a complex ethnic landscape is valid.  It is catataxis: a confusion between levels. It has always been a source of conflict and remains so today.

Water – the catatactic commodity

Coal was the key commodity of the 19th century. It powered the Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century it was oil. The wars in the Middle East in the latter part of that period were clearly oil based conflicts. But oil played a significant part in both of the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. In the First World War, oil first demonstrated its importance. It powered the British Navy. The internal combustion engine in the form of the tank and the airplane created the decisive breakthroughs to end trench warfare. My grandfather was wounded in the ill fated Mesopotamian Expedition. They were fighting to protect British oil supplies in modern day Iraq.

In the Second World War, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour was in retaliation to the USA’s oil embargo. Japan’s invasion of South East Asia was an attempt to capture the oil fields there. Likewise, Rommel’s war in North Africa and Hitler’s invasion of Russia has the ultimate goal of securing oil supplies. Hitler diverted his tank divisions from the doorstep of Moscow south to the Caucasus. He viewed the oil fields there as the more important prize. That led to Stalingrad and his eventual defeat. It is easy to see why some historians view all conflicts in the 20th Century as “Oil Wars”.

So what of the 21st Century? Some pundits believe water will replace oil as the key commodity. Water resources are finite. Demand is increasing dramatically. This is not just because of the drinking and washing requirements of a population growing exponentially. Both agriculture and industrial manufacturing consume a lot of water. It takes xx litters of water to produce a cheap cotton T shirt. Limited supply, voracious demand. Will the price of water skyrocket?  It is already an investment theme. There is a good selection of Water funds you can buy, and a matching Dow Jones Index.

And now the chance of the first Water War. Five nations near the Nile’s source have recently signed an agreement to share the river’s water between them. Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda want to use Nile water for their own irrigation and hydroelectric schemes. Egypt is sabre rattling in response. Anwar Sadat, when making peace with Israel in 1979, said ” The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water” . Maybe he will be proved right.

Egypt and Sudan use 90% of the water in the River Nile but only make up a quarter of the population along its banks. Around  80% of the water that ends up in the Nile falls first as rain on the Ethiopian highlands. Half of the population of Ethiopia is close to starvation and there is a chronic lack of water for irrigation. So why shouldn’t they use some of the water for themselves? Eqypt’s reply is that it has hardly any rainfall so the Nile is literally its lifeline. Any attempt to divert that water is a serious threat to national security.

The problem is this. Water is not like any other commodity. Oil fields stay put, so there is not much dispute about who owns it. It belongs to whoever owns the land above it. You could sneakily try to drill in from the side.  (Please see the movie “There will be Blood”. Only Daniel Day Lewis could make the line “I’ll drink your milkshake…”  sound so terrifying). In practice, you have to own the land to own the oil. That’s not true with water. Water does not stay put, it flows. And half the time its not on the land anyway. Its in the sea, or in the sky. So its not really a commodity, its an ecosystem. A meta commodity. How can you use 19th century territorial laws to define the ownership of a cloud in the sky? That is catataxis.