Science tells us that earth quakes are caused by a fault between two plates on the earth’s surface. The tectonic plates are very slowly moving, but they rub up against one another and get stuck at their edges due to friction. When the stress on the edge overcomes the friction, there is an earthquake. Energy is released in waves that travel through the earth’s crust and cause the shaking that we associate with an earthquake. In America, the most famous place for this is California where the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate meet.
It’s a useful image to keep in mind when looking at current events. The great rumblings we see are not just linear events, one cause and one event. Often, they are due to multiple forces working in series, parallel or even in direct contradiction to one another. The rumbling, in the case of direct conflict, may be a warning of what’s coming next. Two opposing forces headed for collision. When the rumbling is due to friction between two unrelated forces, the quake is just an adjustment period that will last a short time until the friction points are worn away and that will be the end of the trembling.
There are at least two great forces in human events. One is the drive for ever larger units of organization. Early humans were organized in small groups of related people. Later, we got villages where these groups would live in larger organizational units together with other groups. Then we got cities and then city-states. This tendency for every larger organizational units eventually gave us nation states that are bound together by a common language, culture and heritage. Our current rulers believe the next step is regional super-states governed by multi-ethnic global elites.
The other great force is working in a different direction. Here we see ethnic groups expanding and contracting their territories and reforming into atomizes sub-states, relative to the modern notion of super-states. The Brits voted to leave the EU. The Czechs split from the Slovaks. The Kurds want to leave the Turks. Catalonia wants independence from Spain. The Scots wish to go on the EU welfare system, rather than the English welfare system. The Uighurs seek independence from the Chinese. All over the world we see these ethnic movements for greater autonomy.
What we have, on the one hand, is a drive toward larger organizational units and the obliteration of ethnicity as the building block of sovereignty. On the other hand, we have movements toward greater atomization of the organizational units of society, based on every narrower definitions of ethnicity. The rumblings we are seeing in world politics could be the first sounds of a collision between these two forces or the smoothing out of the rough edges between these two forces where they bump up against one another. From where we sit today, it is hard to know, but history suggest the former is the right answer.
With that in mind, this story coming out of Europe suggests the people in charge of the super-state movement see the calls for autonomy as a threat to their thing. It is why they kept this under wraps until after the Brexit vote. It is also why they are now thinking it is time to hit the accelerator and impose their vision on the continent, before any other rebel groups get crazy ideas into their heads about leaving. From the response of European elites, it’s clear they don’t see a possible reconciliation of these two great trends. They want to crush the “smaller is better” movement.
Of course, the Brexit vote has given every nationalist party on the continent a shot in the arm, as well as a shot in the groin to the main parties. François Hollande did not invite the queen of the French Dirt People in for a meeting because he is full of confidence. Across Europe, people are wondering why it is they cannot just manage their own affairs, based on local custom and through their traditional methods. After all, if the Brits can decide for themselves whether or not to remain in Europe, why can’t the French people or the Greeks or the Italians? It’s not an unreasonable thought.
It was on June 28 in 1914 that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Serb nationalists. The Austrians believed they had no choice, that the tides of history were on their side, so they issued an ultimatum to the Serb government. To accept the terms of that ultimatum would mean Serbia ceased to be an independent nation. They could never accept that. The plate of nationhood was colliding with the plate of empire. Over the next month the best minds of Europe tried to figure out how to keep the earth from trembling. It was 4 years, 3 months and 2 weeks later that they finally stopped trying, for a little while.