Monday, April 2, 2007

Devolving Empires and the rise of Empires

This article, The Once and Future Republic of Vermont, reminds me of a story I read once about the devolution of European countries. It was published during the 1980's in CoEvolution Quarterly magazine (which later became Whole Earth Review). The article discussed various of the old regions of Europe which have their own language, culture, memories and aspirations, and they suggested these were the chief characteristics of what we call a "nation". The map was published in 1982 and I've had it in storage for a long time, though looking at it now it's very interesting because of the changes Europe has undergone during that time.

The map shows the then-current national boundaries of European countries, and the regions within each where local independence movements were active. Some of these independence movements are quite well known and have had a history of bloodshed, while others have been very much less known. The modern countries of Europe were an artificial creation following the French Revolution where local cultures were thrown together to form larger countries.

In what was then Yugoslavia they show flags for Slovenija (Slovenia), Hrvatska (Croatia) and Kosovo as well as the names Serbia, Bosnia, Hercegovina and Montenegro. These names should bring back some memories due to the wars during the 1990's which split apart Yugoslavia into several independent countries.

The map shows Alba (Scotland) which recently established its own Parliament to give itself a little distance from the Parliament of England. It shows Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and other regions of the former Soviet Union which are now devolved into separate countries. It shows Euskadi, the Basque Lands, which have been in revolt against Spain, and which were probably responsible for the train bombings in Madrid a couple years ago. It shows Wallonia and Flanders, the two regions which together make the modern state of Belgium. It shows Ulster, popularly known today as Northern Ireland, which was colonized in the 1600's by Protestant English and has for over 300 years been an English "garrison" against the "defiant Irish". I'm sure the Irish probably see this differently.

I recently visited Brussels Belgium and the first thing I learned was how Belgium is actually two countries. The Taxi driver taking me from the airport to my hotel was a Wallon, from the southern half of Belgium, and very proud of his ancient Celtic roots.

In the Middle East similar nation-building processes led to local cultures being torn asunder through the creation of modern countries. Consider the Kurdish peoples, who had formerly been Kurdistan, a region spread over land now divided between at least Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Iraq and Syria were artificially formed by the French and British following the dissolving of the Ottoman Empire following World War I.

The current problems in the Middle East likely stems as much from the artificial creation of those modern countries as from any other effect. The local cultures are not able to have their own significance. The Kurds are just one example of this, where Kurdistan is split among several countries leaving the Kurds themselves a minority in each of the countries who occupy the land from which Kurdistan might be created.

Are, on the other hand, these regional cultures occupying truly distinct blocks of land? For example consider Tibet, which China claimed as a region of China. Tibet was attacked by China in the 1950's, its government deposed, the leader of that government now living in exile, and the Chinese government has been encouraging the immigration of ethnic Chinese into the land that was Tibet. The same pattern happened in the old Soviet Union where ethnic Russians immigrated into each of the Republics of the Soviet Union such that Russians became significant minorities in each region. In other words it seems each of these regional cultures actually lives in a land of mixed cultures.

One of my spiritual teachers talked about this process of the global culture.

In the past a given local culture might be isolated enough from its neighboring cultures that the people "over there" might seem foreign or strange etc. More primitive transportation technology, such as horses or other livestock, makes it difficult to visit your neighbors. Especially when geographical boundaries like rivers or mountain ranges get in the way. Vermont, for example, was divided from the rest of the U.S.A. by the Green Mountains which let them be independent enough to form their own Republic for a few years. The difficulty of going from place to place meant each local region had an opportunity to create culture differently from their neighbors.

Today transportation technology has progressed such that we can travel around the world in a few hours, and the improvements of communication technologies has meant instantaneous global communications.

This means that we are in each others laps on a global scale. In the past separate cultures could evolve in relative isolation, they could develop cultural practices that might seem strange (or worse) to their neighbors. The differences could be enough to cause conflict. But those differences wouldn't matter too much because transportation and communication was difficult enough that the cultures might not come into contact often enough for the differences to be seen often enough to inflame the potential conflict to any great degree. Still, these differences have led to massive wars all throughout human history.

Today everybody can see everybody else in a depth that we cannot ignore the cultural differences between each of these local regions. Those cultural differences are causing conflicts all over the globe.

I wonder if the rise of large-scale regional governments such as the European Union gives an opportunity for local regional governments to reassert themselves. For example with a strong European Union what value is there for Spain to continue as an independent country, why shouldn't it dissolve into Catalonia, Andalusia, the Basque Lands (Euskadi) etc? Similarly with France, Germany, England, etc? Each were formed by gluing together local cultures which are to this day proud of their individual heritages even after centuries of being ruled by other governments. Perhaps the European Union can be an overall governing authority for Europe as a whole, erase the individual nation-states, and give each local region its own local authority.

Perhaps the same could occur across the globe since each geopolitical region has its own process happening. The European Union began over 50 years ago as a trade zone for Europe, and has grown to become a sort of European government. In the Americas is the NAFTA, and there are other regional trade organizations such as APAC. The United Nations is perhaps being positioned as a global government down the road.

And at the same time as these global organizations are being built there are reactionary movements resisting them. In Scotland, which I visited in 2006, they proudly use the Scottish Pound for their currency, eschewing both the English Pound and the Euro. There are many American Conservatives who have been disdaining the movements towards globalized governments. Just think of the negative reaction to various National Parks having been named United Nations World Heritage sites.