In 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…