(Roughly) Daily

“Resistance to the organized mass can be effected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself”*…

Thomas R. Wells on something to remember in these times of international conflict…

As any map will show you, the world is divided by political borders into spaces called countries. People and things can live in, come from, or go to these places.

But countries are not any more than that.

Firstly and most obviously, countries are merely a social construction. They are collectively produced fictions (like money, or religions) rather than mind-independent objects (like stones). Being fictional does not mean that countries do not matter, but it does mean that they only exist so long as enough people agree to act as if they do.

Secondly and more significantly, countries are places not agents. Places on a map cannot have interests or goals or take actions to achieve them. To think otherwise is to confuse the properties of one kind of thing with another. This category error infects not only general talk, but also much otherwise careful journalism and even academic analysis. For example, the influential Realistschool of international relations is founded on the axiom that countries do (or ought to) act only in their national interest. This trades on two category errors: that countries (rather than governments) can act and that they have interests. The result is confusing and unfalsifiable nonsense about buffer zones, access to resources and so forth that is about as helpful for understanding, predicting, and managing conflicts as an astrological map.

What lies behind this error is the eliding of spaces on a map with the organisations that rule them. Organisations are collective agents like armies or corporations in which groups of human individuals are converted into a hierarchically coordinated and powerful actor in their own right. Unlike countries, organisations are a kind of collectively produced fiction about which it does make sense to attribute interests and which can actually do things, often very significant things. What we call governments are a particular kind of organisation, one that has achieved the power to make and enforce rules over the inhabitants of a country, for example by hurting those who dare to disagree with it and by preventing outsiders from entering. In Max Weber’s famous definition, it “successfully claims a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence”. This power is called sovereignty and it is an attribute of governments, not countries.

People live in countries and are ruled over by governments. It is important to keep each of these three elements distinct and clear so that we can prevent the relentless category errors that confuse public discussion of international affairs. In particular, we should pay more credence to actual people and less to the organisations who claim to be their legitimate representatives merely because they have the power to hurt them. There are many tyrannical governments in this world. Their leaders may declare that they act in the name of the populations and territories they rule but they remain the ones responsible, the ones who should be held to account…

Being careful in how how we apportion blame in these fraught geopolitical times: “There Is No Such Thing As Countries,” from @Philos_Beard in @3QD. Eminently worth reading in full.

* Carl Jung


As we steer clear of stereotypes, we recall that it was on this date in 1602 that Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, or The Dutch East India Company, as it’s known in the Anglophone world) was born.  Generally considered the world’s first trans-national corporation and the first publicly to issue stocks and bonds (and the first company to be ever actually listed on an official stock exchange), it began with a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade.  The VOC also prefigured the mega-corporation of today in that it had quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties, strike its own coins, and establish colonies.  Considered by many to be the greatest corporation in history, the VOC eclipsed all of its rivals in international trade (and many nations in power) for almost 200 years.


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