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The Notion of a Nation

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Simulation Technology for Ecosystem Wellness through Antifragile Resource Deployment (STEWARD) blog series - part 4 of 7 (part 1)

In a rare - and only momentary - departure from messianic fervour, Dominic Cummings admitted last night that "anyone who’s sure [Brexit was] a good idea has got a screw loose". One might have hoped that someone with a First in History from Oxford would have realised this earlier and saved the UK a lot of trouble. For example, compare economic migration into the UK today with that of a thousand years ago by German-speaking peoples into the lands of the Bohemian crown. German speakers eventually formed one in six of the population (today, one in five people in England and Wales are not White British). It is illuminating to look back on how settlers in medieval East Central Europe and native Slavs struggled to re-define their sense of self between the twelfth and the fourteenth centuries.

A constant preoccupation was the meaning of national identity. Was it geographical? Political? Linguistic? Cultural? Religious? No-one could agree. Some German speakers identified with the Slavic principalities in which they lived, while Slavs, Bohemians and Hungarians composed poetry in German. Meanwhile, "everyday cooperation, exchange of experiences, [and] mutual acceptance of one another's customs and culture" seems to have been common. The towns were particularly cosmopolitan, often populated by more German than Slavic speakers, as well as by Danes, Poles, Flemings, and others, conversing in a babble of languages including Latin. Germans had a reputation for being warlike, but their settlement was peaceful and lawful. Settlers had entered the kingdom at the invitation and under the protection of native princes, with the Bohemian royal dynasty prominent among them.

What jumps out from writings of the time is how debates about identity raged on inconclusively while "prominent and articulate German-speakers looked to the monarch for protection, and viewed their welfare as bound up with the disposition of the ruler." Bohemian rulers had historically been promoters and protectors of German speakers. "German settlers in Bohemia had not come in arms, but as clerics, artists, artisans, miners, merchants and, above all, peasant cultivators. A handful of German nobles also took land under the Bohemian crown, but they, too, came as settlers, not warriors, at the invitation of others."

German-speaking settlers in medieval East Central Europe developed a strong sense of cultural identity that persisted into modern times, but felt no need for their own structures of power and government. They trusted that existing institutions would continue to look after their interests - and in this trust lies the secret sauce of nationhood. Nationhood is not about ensuring uniformity, which is impossible at any scale. As discussed in the Introduction to my book Supercommunities, nationhood is really about "a deal that is as old as history — tax for rights."

The primary responsibility of government is protection of citizens, and this means more than countering military threats at borders. It is also necessary to prevent social breakdown, since apart from anything else such turmoil weakens military capability. The earliest civilisations recognised how inequality causes social breakdown and took measures against it, including to protect individuals from unmanageable debt. My book shows how, in modern times, human rights go further in some ways while backtracking in others. Just as in the nineteenth century, few people now can rely on their government to get them out of debt.

If you want a truly holistic concept of nationhood, debt is a key concept. Economists are starting to recognize how careless damage to ecosystems by industrial activity has created ecological debt - and as with all forms of debt, impacts cross borders. Damage to financial, industrial, or natural ecosystems affects us all. Even damage to localised religious and political ecosystems (for example, as caused by colonialising behaviour) affects other nations in ways that are hard to predict, slow to unfold, and often deeply undesirable.

A nation that wishes to flourish needs to understand its debts, which means data gathering of a new kind - in particular, at smaller scale. Debts are held by individuals, but their impacts are felt by communities. So the first question for a modern nation is, what are its communities? And what threats do they face?

The next step in data gathering is to help communities identify the resources and services available to their members. Support can be provided to help social enterprises, old and new, draw on global capital flows in order to remedy gaps and overlaps in provision. Education in the 5 Cs (principles) of collaboration can be offered to ensure the work succeeds. Open-source technology can help communities own their data and exploit it fully - including to establish trust both internally and with other communities.

Nations achieve antifragility in troubled times by helping their communities achieve it. This is the difference between a nation that responds to external threat just with military resilience (not losing) and one that goes further, to achieve a stronger position for stakeholders both internal and external (winning). In the next and final part of this blog series, I will look at some ways in which any nation can start moving in this direction, how to make the most of enabling technologies, and why we need to put more effort into protecting sharks.

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