Change Writer

Antifragility and Modern Nation States

AntifragileI’m reading a book at the moment that really has me thinking – Antifragile by Nassim Taleb (as recommended to me by @smn)

I’ve found the ideas in the book so engaging that I’m going to write about some of them before I’ve even finished reading it, since I think I’ve got a handle on at least the core of the idea, and writing about it will help me encapsulate what I’m thinking…

First off, I should probably summarise the idea of antifragility:

Whereas fragility is a state in which the more pressure something is put under, the more damage is caused to it, antifragility is the state in which the more pressure that something is put under, the tougher it becomes. This is not the same as robustness, since something that is robust simply isn’t affected by pressure: it becomes neither stronger nor weaker under pressure.

Nation States vs. City States

In part of the book Taleb juxtaposes the popular idea of the modern nation state with systems that have a more devolved approach to power. He describes how, prior to the rise of the Baath Party in the Levant, the region enjoyed 12,000 years of economic industriousness and prosperity. This was thanks to devolved networks of power that allowed local elites to run the regions. First it was the Roman Empire, then the Ottomans. Both had a relatively light grip on everyday affairs, so long as they received their taxes.

After this era, the Nation State Project took over, as western influenced powers insisted that this was the best, most ‘democratic’ and ‘civilised’ way to organise a nation.

Power became more centralised and the region which was governed by a single government became larger. Larger governments give the illusion of stability for a longer period of time, but when they fail, things are cataclysmic. This is because large states hoard more powerful weapons and possess more organised military, and because when they make a mistake its impact is amplified across a larger region.

When power is organised into smaller groupings, those groups may make more mistakes, but the mistakes have less impact. Mistakes made on a smaller scale allow for correction without the risk of mass-scale crisis. Decisions can be reversed.

Taleb compares the Nation State with how Switzerland is organised into smaller municipalities that are largely self governing. People vote more regularly in referendums on issues that affect them. They are engaged. Switzerland is one of the most hardy (antifragile) nations in the world, and the book argues that this is precisely because it’s government isn’t highly centralised.

When power is top-down and distant from the electorate, it becomes easy for those making decisions to lack empathy for those they are representing. They are just another name, another row in a database.

It also creates room for disproportionate influence of unelected corporate-funded pressure groups. In the Swiss setting, a lobby group would have to focus their efforts on the entire population to be able to sway lawmaking in their direction. In a nation state, they just need access to the corridors of power (which can usually be purchased in one way or another).

An example from my own life:

I occasionally email my local politicians in Wales: Members of Parliament who represent the interests of me and my neighbours in Cardiff North. The emails are usually related to some issue that I’ve become aware of, that I know that Parliament will have the opportunity to focus on: refugee reunification, aid to Syria etc.

Usually, after several weeks I get a response like this:

“Thank you for your email, which I take very seriously. You will be pleased to know that the Conservative Party cares more about this issue than you do. We actually have the _________ scheme and the __________ scheme already running to address this problem, and we’re doing better than any other government in the history of planet Earth. You really should be pleased that you have a Conservative Government.”

Of course the content of the email varies, but this is the tone and general message of the emails that I get back. Always. 

A Cradle of Apathy

There are two problems that result from this system:

  1. Apathy towards the political system
  2. Reduced ownership for our surroundings

Ordinary people become alienated from the political process and make fewer attempts to redirect the attention of their leaders.

The leaders are left to their own devices to make decisions in their own interests (or the perceived interests of their electorate).

In a more devolved system, where I know the people making decisions and am actively participating myself (through referendums, community gatherings, submitting email feedback), the opposite is true:

  1. The people are engaged because they know their input creates results
  2. They take greater ownership

If I know that my input will affect my family and my neighbours’ family, I am willing to give it. 

Conversely, if the political system is mysterious and inaccessible, it becomes irrelevant to my life until the Government begins infringing on my freedoms (by which time they have the legal and militaristic means by which to control me).

Can smaller groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?

I really like the idea of devolving power to its lowest possible level, having seen first hand the effects of apathy and disengagement. But I also see the need for some kind of centralised expectation on the way that the least in society are treated. In a globalised world, there’s a place for documents like the European Convention on Human Rights.

That said, the humane treatment of human beings is more desirable than words on paper. After all we live in a world where Saudi Arabia, the bastion of human rights abuses, can chair a UN panel on human rights.

I suppose the question could also be reversed: “can larger groups be entrusted with upholding human rights?” 

Right now in Europe and America there’s been a surge of people voting for anti-immigration parties and representatives who would happily deny asylum to (and even deport) those fleeing war.

Our voting systems are built on the idea of anonymity, because anonymity encourages people to vote honestly, without the pressure to conform to our peers, bosses or family members. I think in principle this is wonderful, but I also wonder if it allows inhospitable values to fester like untreated wounds.

I’ve noticed people on Twitter recently asking “who are all these people voting for Trump? I haven’t met a single one.” 

I’d guess that they have probably met several dozen, but the anonymity of the voting system means that you can vote one way and profess another. And perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.

But I’m not sure that it would be as easy to express anti-immigration views if you had to do so in front of your neighbours. If you have to look people in the eye (including the very families that you’re discussing) and admit that you don’t care for the outsider, the orphan, the traumatised, the widowed mother.

Is it possible that smaller communities could become more hospitable, more caring, if the individual members felt more empowered and more accountable?

(Image source: United Nations Photo)

Language Hack 4: Use All Your Senses

There are some of us who learn really well directly from books. But most of us are wired to learn experientially: by doing. Although this applies to other spheres, it’s especially true of language learning. Learning a language isn’t just about the words that we’re speaking, but about the whole culture that those words belong to.

For example, an Arabic dessert like Kanafeh.

There’s nothing like it in Britain: a sweet cheese desert with caramelised strings of sugar and pistachio nuts on top.

To learn the word Kanafeh, don’t just look at the word in Arabic.


Repeat it out loud.

But don’t just repeat it out loud. Look at a picture of Kanafeh.


While you’re looking at the picture, with the word written underneath it repeat the word “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh!”

But while I know you’re having a super fun time doing that, even the repetition while looking at a picture, while reading the word isn’t the best you can do.

Go out for a walk. Find a shop that sells Kanafeh (if you’re in Amman, head for Habiba). Stand in the queue and breathe in the sweet smell of kanafeh. While you’re doing this, repeat to yourself “kanafeh, kanafeh, kanafeh”. As you get to the counter, use your words to order yourself a slice.

Walk into the room and hand over your receipt for your order. Look at the trays of sweet, syrupy kanafe just waiting to be eaten. Think “kanafeh”. Say “kanafeh”.

As you put the kanafeh in your mouth, remind yourself what you’re eating. Savour it: think about the flavour, the smell, the feeling against your tongue. You aren’t just imagining Kanafeh, YOU’RE LIVING KANAFEH!

(Image source: hjl and stu_spivack)

Language Hack 3: Telling Stories

Words get caught up in our memory much more easily when they have hooks to hang them on. Stories act as great hooks for these words.

I find this particularly true of stories that I know well in my mother tongue. Movies are great for this. Or if you know a lot of Bible stories or fairytales. Anything that won’t take effort to reconstruct the basic narrative.

Using stories like this means that we can focus on our target language and not on some complicated and unfamiliar narrative.

Once you’ve chosen your story, work through it in your head in your target language, identifying any words that you need to look up or learn.

Make a list of these words and find out what they are in the language you’re learning.

Then tell the story as best you can in your target language.

Write out the story in your target language. Read through it.

Then put away the text and tell it back to yourself without referring to your notes.

Then go back to your notes and re-read the story to see if there’s anything you missed out.

Once you’re confident that you’ve memorised your story, go and tell it to someone else. The pressure of an audience will help you to assess how well you really know the story.

(Image source: Celeste RC)

Language Hack 2: Make It Default

This is where emersion can come in handy, but it’s not essential. The key is to do the ordinary, habitual things that you do, in your target language.

If you watch movies to unwind, switch to movies in your target language.

If you use Twitter, start an account in your target language and follow people in that language.

Like music? Find some artists in your target language. It doesn’t have a lot of words, but I’ve been enjoying this recently:

On Facebook? Add some people who only speak your target language as friends and start messaging them (it turns out this is way more normal and not at all as stalkerish here in Jordan than it is in the UK).

My wife and I have recently started using Arabic when we’re together at home for ordinary conversations. It’s been a challenge, and often frustrating, but the practice has paid off when we’re with our Arabic speaking friends.

For a while one of the things I found hardest to get was Arabic numbers. I just couldn’t seem to convince my brain to recognise a ٥ as a number 5 (not a 0), or a ٦ as a number 6 (and not a 7).

So one day I switched the time on my phone over to Arabic numbers. That way, if I was going to get to appointments on time, I was going to have to master Arabic numbers.

The first week was super frustrating, and I regularly mistook ٦:٥٥ for 7:00 (6:55) but after that, I became faster. With heavy exposure, my brain finally absorbed these new shaped numbers.

(Image source: GotCredit)