Metis, Bie and Kerdos: Some Thoughts On Defeating Terrorism

Maybe it’s the presence of Talos in the comments section, or maybe it’s the arrival of the Athens Olympics on my personal horizon, but something this morning is carrying me back to the world of the Greeks, and to some early ideas of how best to secure objectives in the face of adversity.

First metis and bie:

What Does Metis Mean?

The history of the word goes back more than 28 centuries to the time of Homer around, 850BC. To the ancient Greeks, metis represented a particular type of cunning intelligence used if success was to be won in the most diverse fields of action. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, Odysseus is the hero most commonly associated with metis. The most famous strategem (metis) is the Trojan Horse, by which the Greeks finally managed to conquer Troy. This is a good example of metis for it represents a solution to a problem not resolvable by conventional means.

Metis is often contrasted with the word, bie, which means brute force. All through the Iliad, the big question is, will Troy fall by metis or bie – by wiliness or brute strength? The answer is by metis.

In the intellectual world of the Greek philosopher, there was a radical dichotomy between being and becoming, between the intelligible and the sensible. On the one hand there is the sphere of being, of the one, the unchanging, of the limited, of true and definite knowledge; on the other hand, the sphere of becoming, of the multiple, the unstable and the unlimited, of oblique and changeable opinion. Metis is characterised by the way it operates by continuously oscillating between the two opposite poles. Within a changing reality with limitless possibilities, a person with metis can achieve.

So metis is a type if intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behaviour which combine flair, forethought, resourcefulness, vigilance, pragmatism, opportunism and the wisdom of experience.

When art and science unite, extra possibilities and opportunities are made resulting in innovation that can be driven by creativity. Metis is about finding elegant solutions to difficult problems instead of relying on brute force.

Now are you with me? What is lacking in our war with terrorism today, and all too often woefully lacking, is the component of metis. It is as if 2,000 years or more of history did not lie behind us, as if we had to learn every day anew the painful lessons of yesterday. Why am I saying this now? Well look what happened in Spain yesterday, what is happening today, and what will happen in the elections tomorrow.

Yesterday 11 million people marched the streets of Spain, united in one objective: the condemnation of terrorism. (I say ‘people’ not ‘Spaniards’ since many of those who marched – and I am not only talking about the Basque country here – would not consider themselves to be Spanish: here is the first problem, here is the first need for metis not bie). The problem is that beneath this apparent unanimity lay two opposing conceptions of what terrorism is, of what it represents, of how it can best be fought: indeed one might almost talk of two separate theories of reality. That was the force of my allusion to Antonio Machado yesterday: his ‘two Spains’ was a reference to the right/left divisions of the Spanish civil war. This division still exists, and it can be found in the language of both sides, but given that our reality today is a more complex one, then this division too is also more complex.

My feeling is that at no time since the civil war has Spain been so divided against itself than it is today. Now this may well not be the moment, but somewhere along the road political responsibilities for what at the very least could be considered ‘negligence’ in allowing this to happen need to be identified.

However before examining in more detail why certain obscure Greek concepts may have more than a passing interest for those who want to understand what is going on, we could consider adding a third one: kerdos. Kerdos is traditionally associated with the following: ‘gain, profit; desire for gain; craft employed for gain; craftiness’.

Let me be clear: what I am suggesting here is that the techniques being deployed by virtually all parties to the Eta/Al Qaeda debate right now have more to do with kerdos than they do with metis, and herein lies Spain’s problem. It is impossible to disentangle the opinions held as to the nature and author of Thursday’s crime from one or another desired outcome in Sunday’s elections: and this is very, very dangerous.

Now I myself responded on Thursday to the bombing with an immediate assumption that this was the work of Eta. I still think – as I have been explaining in my posts – that this was the most reasonable hypothesis to get hold of in the first moment. But it is important to stress the word hypothesis here, and that the only working scientific methodology I know of is one which involves opening your hypotheses to confirmation or refutation (What is the title of Popper’s book: conjectures and refutations, isn’t it. You need a conjecture to get the game going, and it should be strong, reasonable, and daring). Of course if your version of what happened is a matter of dogma, of faith, of political wordview, you will handle the problem differently. That is the main point I am trying to argue in this post. And that, incidentally, is why I welcome all my ‘contrarians’ in the comments section: since if the reality we have in front of us is complex, and the context is one of a globalised, informationally horizonless world, what we need is metis, and a plurality of viewpoints to produce a more complex vision of our ‘object’.

So what is the ‘evidence’ that has been accumulating which might lead us to confirm or refute the original hypothesis. Well as far as the Eta theory goes I have to admit there is very little on the confirmation side (which does not in itself mean the theory is wrong: NB).

So then we have the rival theory.

First out of the gate on this front was Arnaldo Otegui, leader of the Basque separatist group, with strong ties to Eta, Batasuna. (At this point it is worth considering the objections raised by some that even using the expression ‘separatist’ rather than terrorist is to make some sort of concession. I cannot accept this view at all. Sometimes it is much more important to focus on the level of species and not on that of genus – think maybe of the different varieties of cats – and I don’t for the life of me see the disadvantage of doing this here. In fact prioritising metis over bie, I would argue that this is the only way to realistically defeat terrorism, and that we need to classify the different terrorist groups according to their objectives if we are to hope to devise strategies which are sufficiently complex to get to grips with them).

Now I have been arguing, and continue to argue, that investigating more deeply Otegui’s intervention can provide us with some important information. Why was he so sure this was not Eta? Why did he raise immediately the ‘Arab Resistance’ connection? What did he know, and how did he know it? Maybe, as some suggest, he knew nothing, but I think determining whether this is so is important, and if I were an investigating judge I would be summoning Otegui to come and testify before me right now.

Next we have the stolen van with the arabic tape. It is hard to know what to make of this. If you have a ‘conspiracy’ version, then this is a plant. OTOH if you don’t buy the conspiracy, then this is firm evidence, especially since the detonators found are of the same type as those used in the bombing.

Then there is the letter to the London Arab newspaper: again people only interpret this in the context of their bigger hypothesis. People regard the group making the claim as either fraudulent or credible depending on their bigger picture.

Then again we have the fact that the detonators and explosives are not of the kind Eta have been using in recent years. The detonators were of copper, while Eta’s detonators have always previously been made of aluminum. The explosive was not Titadine, but Goma 2. Goma 2 is a gelatinous, nitroglycerin-based explosive that is typically used in mining, but has been linked to ETA only rarely since the Spanish authorities began to tightly guard supplies of it in the 1980’s.
Again this is hardly conclusive, but it certainly is a negative to some extent for the strong Eta hypothesis, since it can hardly be read as a confirmation. OTOH, if you hold the conspiracy theory that Eta are responsible, but want to make it look like Al Qaeda, well this would be one way to do it.

There is an additional detail here which is important. One part of the problem in building the bigger picture is that of the credibility of the participants. Angel Acebes – Minister of the Intererior – has been running behind events, and is being forced to repeatedly correct. This may simply be because the information is continually changing, or it may form part of a ‘defend every ditch’ ‘kerdos type’ strategy.

Credibility hasn’t been enhanced by the fact that Acebes stated that the explosive was manufactured and stolen in Spain, yet journalists have contacted the Guardia Civil (the relevant police authority) and been informed that no such theft appears in their records, at least for the last year.

While we are on this topic, government credibility has also not been enhanced by the widely publicised revelation that Ana Palacios (Spain’s Foreign Minister) circulated all Spanish Embassies on the day of the attack urging them to forcefully defend the Eta theory, and to do their best to minimise the importance of any rival interpretations. This is hardly attempting to use Spain’s overseas network to try and clarify facts, and is rather an attempt at a kerdos-type political strategy.

Indeed in looking at all this, it is hard not to feel reminded of the Prestige affair. Institutionally information is not being well-handled, and the economist inside me is asking how exactly Spain is going to fare in the new ‘informationally driven’ society given what we are seeing each time complex information bundles need to be processed.

Then there are the recent denials from Eta itself. This taken alone would have no great importance, after all we aren’t going to start believing everything the terrorists themselves tell us, now are we? However, again, there are some interesting details. The person making the call was apparently the same person who announced only 3 weeks ago that Eta had declared a ‘special truce’ in Catalonia and the Basque Country. On that occasion this person, and his version of events, was accepted as entirely credible by Jos? Maria Aznar and many leading PP ministers, and even believed above the word of pacifistic and democratic opponent Carod Rovira. So, following the earlier logic, some importance should be attached to this, although clearly not of the definitive kind. I will not follow Aznar in accepting the terrorist version over the democrat one. However the denial is being given considerable credibility in non-Eta Basque nationalist circles, so if our interest is not scoring political points, but finding out who did it, we should at least listen to this.

Well, that’s the list. And there isn’t much that is on it which confirms my original view. OTOH, I feel there is some evidence that Eta may well be divided, that some people associated with the Eta environment may well be involved, with or without the assitance of a more-global terrorist network. Only the hours and days to come will make this clearer.

Finally a word on tomorrows elections. My feeling is of course that what happened on Thursday and it’s consequences will determine the outcome. This should, naturally, not be the case. There is no additional information contained in Thursday’s massacre which should lead people to vote one way or the other over and above what ought to have been clear and obvious to them during the weeks and months previous to the attack. Indeed the fact that the contrary may be true, and that many will vote ‘under the influence’ is not only a victory for kerdos over metis, but a victory for the terrorists themselves over the democratic process.

Postscript: Unless there is some really new information which can help us to better decide who is responsible I will not post again until after the initial election results tomorrow evening.

Those who have any interest in the Greeks, and the role of metis in Greek culture may be interested in reading the article which initially fired my own interest some years ago now:

Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant: Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society.

8 thoughts on “Metis, Bie and Kerdos: Some Thoughts On Defeating Terrorism

  1. I posted a comment to your previous post, Edward, before reading this. I think you begin to answer my questions, which was about the division in Spanish society.

    You wrote earlier that one section of Spanish society wants to believe ETA was responsible, while another wants to blame Al Qaeda. Is this the analogous / similar / identical to the “two Spains” thesis, the right/left divisions dating back to the Spanish Civil War?

  2. “Is this the analogous / similar / identical to the “two Spains” thesis, the right/left divisions dating back to the Spanish Civil War?”

    This is there, but you also have the divisions of the so called ‘historic nationalities’: the Basque Country, Galicia, Catalonia.

    Thanks to the massive internal immigration in the 60’s and now again the external immigration of the last 3 years there are 7 million people in Catalonia, out of a total of 40 million. The PP here has about 15% of the vote: ie it virtually doesn’t exist. The biggest novely is the way Aznar has driven the Spanish speaking grandchildren of the 60’s migration into advocating separatism. They don’t feel understood, and they feel very aggrieved and wounded by all the anti-Catalan propaganda of the last few weeks.

    One new factor here is instant messaging: the young people have fallen virtually completely outside the influence of the traditional media. The PP have certainly lost the war for the hearts and minds here.

    The PP leaders were literally booed and whistled as they tried to join the demonstration here in Barcelona.

    Even in Andalusia, if the PP have an absolute majority next time, the demand for increased regional autonomy may become very strong indeed.

    So Spain, I would say, is very, very divided.

    And remember, whoever is finally found to be responsible for this outrage, peaceful Basque nationalism is preparing to demand independence, so it is a very difficult situation all round.

  3. “Why does one part want to believe it was ETA and another part want to believe it was Al Qaeda? What exactly is the basis of this split?”

    I’ve answered your question, but I haven’t answered it. The big issue is what Weber would call a legitimation problem, I guess.

    The last 8 years of government would offer a large part of the answer.

    This government has divided Spanish society in a way that it is difficult to understand from outside.

    The style of government, the arrogance with information.

    On the Iraq war, to take one example, not on the issue of the war itself, which is also there, but on the way informing the Spanish people has been handled. Many make the point that whilst both Bush and Blair have accepted that the issue of intelligence information on WMD’s is a legitimate topic of investigation, this has been consistently denied here. (Indeed, thinking carefully about it, it may well be that the clinging to the Eta hypothesis is not an attempt to win the election, as some suggest, but an attempt to shield Spain from the exterior spotlight, since what may be found may not be too attractive).

    Forget terrorism for a moment, and think about Gibraltar and Prestige.

    In the former case the British position was characterised as defending drug dealers and mafias. There was no understanding at all about letting the inhabitants decide. It was assumed that Britain could just tell the population ‘you go to them’ since they were simply tradeable ‘chattel’. There was no idea that they may have had rights. So if Britain didn’t do this, there must have been mafia interests putting pressure. This is how things are seen here.

    More than left and right, the expression Caciqueism comes to mind.

    On the Prestige, don’t believe me, go consult the Financial Times, which had to run an ‘it’s a lie’ article on the front page to refute Spanish allegations of British responsibility for the ship.

    So I think you need to understand this recent background. This complete insensitivity for legitimate demands for accurate information. This history of advancing one idea, and then retracting, if you want to see why so many people refuse to believe the ‘official version’.

    A society with this kind of ‘Legitimation Crisis’ has to be very vulnerable to any kind of terrorist attack.

    I will say more about some of this when the election results are a bit clearer, since I am not going to engage in explicit electoralism. As I have said, I think this is wrong.

    But let me leave you with this. Many have recently criticised extensively the BBC, but would that we had at least the BBC here in Spain.

    Democracy depends on having an active and trusted fourth estate. This we do not have.

  4. Scott,

    If you want some idea of what the atmosphere is like, here’s a piece in English – which is not far removed from some of the normal invective – from a US blogger based in Spain:

    “Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira, a notable piece of dogshit in human form and leader of Esquerra Republicana, the Catalan independentistas, had this to say”

    John Chappel

    Now I’m no supporter of ERC, but Carod is a democrat and a pacifist, so I think this kind of stuff is totally out of place, especially if you are really interested in the 200 people who died.

    It is anti-Catalan diatribe at its worst.

  5. Edward:

    I know this will sound very off-putting to European ears, but I see the neo-con strategy of using democratic Iraq as a transformative force for the entire Arab/Muslim world as a form of metis.

    The strategy has been thought about for a long time – more than a decade. What’s interesting is that Europe has largely ignored the discussion, even though it was quite publicly accessible here in the US.

    The biggest opponents to the effort, however, seem to be organized media: AP, Reuters, BBC, Arab state sponsored media. And the interesting way they attack the effort – it’s clumsy, it’s American, it’s not working, it’s against international law, it’s Bush, etc. – seems to be an effort to deny the essential… metis, inherent in the effort.

  6. “I see the neo-con strategy of using democratic Iraq as a transformative force for the entire Arab/Muslim world as a form of metis.”

    Look RSN, as you may have noticed I’m a bit hard to pin down, or to stereotype. I would not have been against this idea except for three things:

    1/. I wouldn’t have told everyone that the isssue was WMD. Because then I wouldn’t have had people like me, who believed Blair, accepted the war, but then felt lied to later. This isn’t Metis, it is dishonesty.

    2/. I wouldn’t have used force to achieve this, since my understanding of the inter-ethnic trilemma, which is fearfully reminiscent of the Spanish problem in enormous dimensions, makes imposed democracy very difficult to obtain. I would have used direct economic intervention, trade, investment etc…..much more subtle, and much more effective in my view. This may be difficult to swallow, but it seems you need sunni nationalism to serve as some sort of pillar. The China strategy of transforming Baath from the inside may have been the best bet. Then again, I am no Iraq expert, and I would have asked some of the experts.

    3/. I would have tied this to a much stronger intervention in the Israel Palestine conflict. Without a permanent solution there, I don’t see stable democracy in Iraq whatever else you do.

    The real point is that ‘neocon’ by its very nature is ideological, metis is complex but pragmatic. Trojan horses are fine, but absolute transparency with your own supporters is a condition.

    Also you would have needed to convince the world that this was Metis (on behalf of the planet), and not mere Kerdos. IE your self-sacrifice, and absence of direct interests (even on things like the corporate level) would have needed to have been made much plainer.

    There might have been a way of doing all of this by not having used WMD’s, handing the political authority to the UN from day one and not later when things started to run into problems, maintaining the Baath infrastructure intact, and then moving on directly to apply all the undivided pressure and US attention imaginable to achieving a middle east peace. But then, history is full of might have beens.

    If the Spain Al Qaeda hypothesis is at all eventually confirmed we may already be entering a new chapter.

  7. Edward,

    “I wouldn’t have told everyone that the isssue was WMD. Because then I wouldn’t have had people like me, who believed Blair, accepted the war, but then felt lied to later. This isn’t Metis, it is dishonesty.”

    No, it’s politics. All politics is, by definition, pandering and attempting to build coalitions out of what would naturally be incompatible interests. If the various interests weren’t at least partly incompatible, politicking would not be necessary.

    You get as many as you can on your side with your whole story. If short of a workable majority, you shade and twist to suit the next sliver of the franchise at closest remove. You once again check for a workable majority. Lather, rinse, repeat…

    Bernard Guerrero, cheerful cynic

  8. Interesting. Although there appears to be a problematic confaltion of Detienne/Vernant on Mepis with Greg Nagy’s take on it (the opposition between mepis and bie).

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