Summary: this text explores the idea of group identity, and shows that it is based less on objective realities than on the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and how we fit in with other people. This set of stories is called the "narrative".
The national narrative is under huge pressure from a range of forces which will not abate: commercial and economic change, geopolitics, demographics, technology. Many people feel less supported by a consensus reality than was once the case, not least because the interpretations that reflect reality are both very complicated and inimical to the personal interest of many, notably those who want a quiet life in which nothing much changes. The environment in which such people necessarily live is hard to understand and is managed by elites who are also hard to understand, and therefore trust. Issues that are deemed "beyond" the electorate are generally handled by elites, and issues that deeply concern sub-groups in the electorate are "wall papered" over by generalised rhetoric.
The response to this is unpredictable. Narratives are consensus explanations of the world in which people find themselves. If the human-created world becomes too complex to be encapsulated in a consensus narrative, then it will be denied by one that requires people to return to a simpler, sounder time. Nascent narratives of this sort are on display in many countries. However, humanity is now critically dependent on its support infrastructure: there are no other mechanisms immediately available that will keep seven billion alive and safe. Narratives that prevent effective political leadership, or which obfuscate the issues, may be extremely damaging. However, as already noted, the forces that weaken confidence in the consensus narrative are set to increase. The debt-funded false paradise of the 1990s has given way to a cold reality in which competition is more intense, welfare provision weakened and demands on the system continually increased. Demographics will make this accommodation even more difficult for many industrial societies.
"I feel at home." What a comfortable phrase. It implies security, friendship with those around you, plenty and comfort. We like to feel "at home" in our place of work, in our society – to be wanted and accepted, needed and useful. When we have become used to these things, it is distressing to lose them.
Comfort comes from many little things. Try folding your arms. Now try folding them the other way: right over left if you naturally choose left over right, or left over right if you like the opposite. It feel odd and uncomfortable, doesn't it?
Many of us have been overseas, on holiday. Shop keepers may press to hard, want to bargain over prices: perhaps you like this, perhaps not, but it makes a relaxed transaction into something else – a struggle, an embarrassment, something that makes you hesitate to go near a shop. Like mis-folding your arms, a change in the little things in life can make us feel remarkably uncomfortable. In many ways, it is what we mean by "foreign" – that other people have unthinking habits and patterns of behaviour that surprise us, and which leave us feeling inadequate and uncomfortable when we have to carry out little, routine actions in their territory.
But there is something strange about this notion of territory, is there not? It is not just foreign lands that make us uncomfortable. If we go outside our social comfort zone, we also feel awkward: attending a wedding that uses other people's rites and customs has an endless potential for embarrassment. Being an outsider is always uncomfortable, whether the cause is social isolation, being adrift in a vast bureaucracy or not knowing what is expected of you in a new job. Many of our most common nightmares consist of being dumped in a testing situation – for example, having pending examinations, or having to sing on stage or give a speech – without the least capability or preparation.
One of the facts of modern life is that almost all of us live in several different worlds, each of which has its own rules and its own norms of behaviour. A child will be exposed to the competitive, often cruel and challenging school environment, and to the quite different situation at home. How they behave, relate to others or sit in the power hierarchy are all completely different. Te indulgence shown to mistakes, laziness, rowdy behaviour and personal moods is completely different.
As adults, we also occupy different roles. We may be "tough boss" at work and flip to being "caring parent" when we receive a telephone call from home. An article in a newspaper may ignite "outraged citizen" and "concerned environmentalist". Each of these come with broadly different values and goals, nearly with different identities, yet we flip unconcerned between these. They are psychic "places" where we are at home: relaxed, confident, sure of our grip on the tools. These places have very little to do with the kind of people we are, deep down, as we have to negotiate relationships with them, or avoid them altogether.
There are hundreds of companies and academic activities around the work that try to measure what kinds of people there are. They do this in order to study how people may react to anything from political trends to a new brand of toothpaste. The result is that this universe has been very thoroughly probed, and the result of doing this are extremely interesting.
The discipline is called "psychometrics", or measuring minds. There remains controversy about how this issue is best handled, but a general consensus has emerged. It turns out that the individuals in all of the populations of the world vary along a quite narrow range of common variables. Some people, for example, like bright colours, intense activity around them, bustle and noise. They want chance encounters with others, to be surrounded by a swirling social universe where friends and new acquaintances pop in and out unpredictably. Others, by contrast, like quiet colours, situations in which the only stimuli are those relevant to the task in hand and to be able to choose how and when to relate to other people. We call the first group "extroverts" and the second, "introverts". Extroverts see introverts as dull, dim, nerdish people whilst introverts see extroverts as brash, irritating and unfocused. Everybody exists somewhere along this scale, not as a point but as a moving centre of weight that shifts around a fairly fixed point as events change around them.
Do we see ourselves primarily in terms of the group, the community in which we exist, or do we prefer to think of ourselves as individuals? Further, do we feel a special duty to others in the group, or do we believe that our responsibility starts and ends with our personal contribution to society, such as by earning a living, conforming with the law, bringing up a family and so on? When we feel solidarity with the group, should we grant privileges to those in our group: to support our national poor more than the international poor, or to promote members of our family over others in our society?
Do we like to explore ideas, places and relationships? Or, by contrast, do we prefer a settled and predictable world in which events repeat themselves with only minor variations? Do we prefer to mingle with people who are just like us, who take their values from the past and from tradition, or do we want to meet completely new kinds of people, individuals who will force us to abandon our current perspective?
How do we think about other people's behaviour, and about the values which this shows? Are we inclined to draw a narrow box around acceptable behaviour, and then to be severe with people, organisations and even nations which transgress these rules? By contrast, do we tolerate a wide range of behaviour provided that it does not directly affect oneself or one's immediate family? Do we want to impose strong sanctions on offenders, or do we feel that tolerable, reasonable behaviour is best achieved through reasonable pressures?
Do we see other people primarily as rivals, people with whom we have to compete and do we actively enjoy competing and winning? Do we enjoy rank, in the sense of knowing where you stand as a salesperson, how wealthy or well-connected you are or whether you are more virtuous than others in the community? Or, by contrast, do you actively dislike competition, wrangling for advantage, being in some sense ranked by others and put in your place? Do you prefer to negotiate life on your own terms, and minimise the say that others have over this?
Do we have strong sense that some behaviours, foods, social groups, locations and even times of the year are special, either in the sense of being especially pure or the opposite,, polluted and worthy of disgust? Is a cathedral on a spring mountainside innately more pure than an industrial wasteland? Is this or that group of people more elevated, more pure than another? Can a given group be set aside from consideration because they belong to some abstract category: criminals, capitalist plutocrats, welfare scroungers, not members of our tribe, caste, religion or birthright? This dimension is very strongly expressed in Asia, and must less so in the industrialised West. However, it is still common to hear left wing theoreticians talking about "class enemies", groups of people who can be discounted solely because they fall into some abstract category or other.
How do we feel about sources of authority? If our society shows reverence to high position or established truth, then are we bound to acknowledge its power, even – perhaps – if we suspect that there are better ways of thinking about the issues? Or, by contrast, is all authority automatically ridiculous or corrupt, and therefore a target for satire, demolition and mockery?
These seven dimensions are extremely powerful. Given the rough location of an individual on them, it is possible to predict a great amount of their behaviour when faced with specific and general situations in life. It will tell you what kind of training they are likely to seek and in what sort of job they will probably settle, whether they marry and to whom, the stability of that marriage and their relationship with their family and offspring. It tells you whether they save or consume, what they consumer and what preferences they show towards holidays and destinations, adventure and relaxation, honesty and criminality and so forth.
Naturally, a great deal is not captured in these dimensions. Nevertheless, if one measures someone to be an "introverted, community-dedicated, traditionalist, normative, competitive" person, for whom there is a clear social elite and for whom authority is absolute, one has a very specially defined and easily recognisable individual. Much the same is true of other extremes. (Of course, most people are not extreme, and exist somewhere in the middle of these dimensions: a bit extrovert, fairly competitive and so forth.)
Two extremely interesting things leap out of this analysis when it is done globally. First, any one nation will have a mixture of these types, which it is possible to measure. When you do this, you find that there is very little difference between nations. China has the same range of types as does Britain or Bolivia. Second, however, the character of nations are plainly different. Second, however, we find that nations appear to have very different collective aspirations, values, institutions and forms of dispute settlement.
How are we to think about this? Somehow, very similar and diverse populations create marked differences when taken at the level of nation character. Comte François Duc de La Rochefoucauld, writing in the Seventeenth century, said that "nationality was like an odour: indefinable but unmistakable." We tend to agree with this as being obviously true; yet if all the nations are built from the same bricks, what is it that makes the architecture that is built from them so very different?
This is a very important issue. In writing a handbook for the US Army on counter-insurgency, The RAND corporation came up the concept of the "ethnic entrepreneur". This gives us a good entry into how to think about the issue of how individual nations come to have what are called national "narratives", ways of thinking and talking about who they are and what constitutes proper conduct.
An ethnic entrepreneur uses a technique that cuts a group of people away from existing society and makes them increasingly separate from it. The entrepreneur establishes him- or herself as their de facto leader, and as their point of contact with the rest of the society. In this way, they gain power, authority and often, money. The typical process by which this happens is as follows.
A disadvantaged group is mobilised by such an individual, usually through a small cadre of assistants, typically referred to as "activists" but as often as not, thugs. The recruit, for example, religious leaders to their cause, often because they present themselves as a source of orthodoxy and stability amidst social chaos. The community is encouraged to think of themselves as being different and unfairly picked upon by the rest of society. They are encouraged to show that they are different through specialised dress, haircuts, beards or similar inexpensive displays. One sees this in gang displays in the US, for example, or in the Yakuza tattoos in Japan. In developing countries, one often sees a reversion to traditional modes of dress, tribal identifiers and the ostentatious adoption of alternative religious forms and observances.
Once the group is established as an entity, the entrepreneur encourages "border incidents", sometimes provoked, to ensure that the imagined persecution is, to some extent, real. Money can now be collected for "self-defence", and the initially voluntary dress code – or whatever was used to show solidarity – now becomes compulsory and also more conspicuous. Contact with the rest of society is minimised, except through the offices of the entrepreneur. He or she is now collecting what is, in effect, protection money, has control of the community, and is able to manage what it reads and believes, how it interprets events and how it responds to these. These "community leaders", said RAND, were the very last people with whom the army should negotiate, insofar as they had no interest whatsoever in reaching an accord and every reason to polarise the situation further.
It is odd that people who find themselves in such an isolated community also report that they now feel "at home". They have solidarity with their fellows in the community, they share the same ostensible values, beliefs, reactions to events. This "story of who we are and what we are about" is called the narrative. All communities, by virtue of being a community, have common narratives. They tell a member of the community what their role is, what is expected of them, how to behave and what will happen if they do not conform.
We have now discussed individual differences, and how people fall into a universal typology. However, we have also seen that communities, which are made up of all sorts and kinds of people, also seem to exhibit personalities all of their own. These "personalities" are the community narrative. A narrative will crush people who live under it whose personality types does not fit into it. Very domineering, intolerant narratives are indeed repressive. Research that looks at the tightness of the narrative assigns top spots to Pakistan, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Korea, Norway, Turkey and Japan. China is next on the list.
Countries with loose, open narratives include, in ascending order, Brazil, Israel, the Netherlands, Hungary, Estonia and the Ukraine. They are exceptionally tolerant of dissent and of deviant behaviour. People are pretty much left to get on with their lives in something of an institutional anarchy. The majority of European nations, Canada, Australia and the US tend to sit in the middle of the score, being gentle about social deviance, but not at all loose about illegality.
So far, we have thought chiefly about individuals, communities and nation states. However, all and any coherent social group will have a narrative. For example, strongly defined groups such as scientists, doctors, musicians; even organised crime and sport all show strong narratives about, for example, how a scientist behaves, competes, what ethics a person should follow and how one should get along with one's peers.
People in even slightly complex societies will exist at the nexus of several such narratives: "I am a Brazilian school teacher with a strong interest in football and environmentalism." It is not at all clear that any one of these is dominant, and when a person is confronted with a particular context and set of challenges then different narratives will come to the fore. Thus, as we discussed earlier, "tough boss" can dissolve instantly into "caring parent" or "on of the lads". If one lives in – let us say – Qatar – does one therefore think of oneself as primarily a citizen, as a Muslim member of the umma, as an Arab, as a doctor, as a father? The answer is that such a person will see the balance shift precipitately between mixtures of all of these. One's values are, therefore, innately flexible and responsive to the particulars of the situation. They are not infinitely flexible, however, but tightly restricted to the narratives in which one feels "at home".
Narratives tell us how to be. It used to be the case that national and religious narratives were harnessed, together with essential individual characteristics, such as age, gender and social class, in order to define virtually all aspects of life. For example, a male Catholic Austrian aristocrat living in the Eighteenth century was bound by invisible chains to behave in certain ways. He had to wear dreadfully uncomfortable clothes, to fight duels to defend himself against imagined insults and to dedicate the bulk of his life too more or less ritualised social interchanges. However – and it is a profoundly important "however" - he would have felt himself to be "at home", comfortable in the conviction that this was how life had to be, and surrounded by others of like mind.
Naturally, some people did not fit into this repressive mould. If the pressure to conform became too great – and if they had the resources – then they could break away into other milieux in which the narrative was different. Our aristocrat might have explored, in descending order of respectability, the army, provincial administration, the arts or the demi monde of Vienna. Often these were combined together, with the individual acting like an intelligence agent, adopting masks and identities for each milieu. In the modern world, where many narratives exist in parallel, and where any individual can expect to inhabit several of them, it is generally possible to find a set of frameworks that allows the individual to feel comfortable and fulfilled.
That said, the unified narrative in which we all feel solidarity towards everyone who lives on the same chunk of geography as we do has, perhaps, come to an end. There is only the most generic of possible narratives that encompasses a whole nation's worth of diversity, save the acceptance of certain general principles that are often more a form of words than a reality.
Abstract emotional ties once used to bring a nation together. Eighteenth century Britain would have subscribed wholeheartedly to notions of patriotism, to traditions of fair play and accepted social stratification, to an innate hostility to the foreigner and particularly the French. These have been supplanted from below by many diverse and complex narratives, as we have just seen, but also erased from above. This has occurred as a result of a third set of forces, to which the state and commerce try to respond in isolation from the general population and its opinions.
To see what this means in practice, let's begin with the notion of national economic management. A hundred years ago, people had no idea equivalent to what we today mean by "the economy". There was prosperity, which went up and down in its own mysterious way, and there were economic crises that struck without much warning. Wars were generally fought around the vaguest of motives: broad dislike of the other combatants – of their national narrative – and triggered by "incidents". Consider the origins of the greatest catastrophe of the century, World War I, which emerged from a tangle of nationalist envy, alarm at industrial and social change, weak institutions and erratic monarchs. Nobody knew clearly what they were fighting for, except the next few feet of muddy Flanders, and millions died without the benefit of even clarity in hindsight.
Today, by contrast, a huge body of expertise has grown up to explain the wealth of nations. This knowledge is used to enhance comparative national performance and to micro-manage the many variables and institutions that are involved with this. This insight has also been extended to benchmark everything from school performance to public health against best practice in peer nations. We have developed a formidable body of knowledge about best practice and appropriate tools. If you want low inflation, do this; if you want more mechanical engineers in the work force, do that.
With this capability and insight has come a growth in state expenditure, which now encompasses about half of all expenditure and saving in the industrial nations. The equivalent figure a century ago was typically under 10% of wealth creation. Some of this growth is due to the expansion in social welfare. Allowing for this, however, complex states now spend roughly three times the entire national budget of a century ago. Keeping a modern state capable of competing with its peers requires massive expenditure: on energy costs and transport, on the supply of healthy people with appropriate skills, on maintaining security and generally policing the commons, on preventing one aspect of the nation from hampering or fighting with another and on ensuring that new ideas and commercial capabilities flow smoothly forward, ideally ahead of competitor nations.
This is, of course, a monstrous task of complexity reduction and abstract optimisation. It occurs in its own elite space where existing, often abstract, technical or legal considerations set the terms in which further developments will occur. It acts with increasing reference to international concerns and pressures, and with less and less reference to the national narrative. Only where such optimisation collides with issues of electoral significance do those involved consider how the changes that they are making will interact with traditional life. Indeed, they generally feel themselves to be cleaning up the mess made when traditional systems break down and novelty erupts over them.
There are, therefore, three forces at work on those trying to feel "at home" in their society.
If one lived in the late Nineteenth century, the workings of life were extremely clear. Where food came from and how it was processed, what a doctor did and the tools that he used, how transport worked and what a bank did were all easy to comprehend. You could see them in action all around you.
Today, by contrast, a doctor understands only a small section of doctoring, and probably has a limited idea of how many of the tools that the or she uses actually work. People in general live surrounded by utilities that they do not even remotely understand. The essentials of life are delivered by inscrutable human-constructed mechanisms that demand trust. Each day makes these yet more obscure as responsibility is networked and activities distributed across specialised networks of supply. Many people have never seen the inner workings of a major corporation and have at best a cartoonish insight into the functioning of the state. They may feel themselves preyed upon by malign interests, to be at the mercy of "the system" and alienated from their own vital support structures.
Earlier, we talked about psychometric measurements and the clusters or types of people that emerged from this. About a fifth to a third of the developed world population fall into a psychometric group which we might call the "Traditionalists". These take their values from their immediate community and reject the values of the broader society; look backwards and to group practice for guidance. They will typically feel uncomfortable with abstract reasoning and intangible machinery, features of life such as markets, complex supply chains, technified agriculture and so on. The group want the present to feel cosily familiar, an extension of the past lived amongst a cleanly-defined group of fellow spirits: village life, the tribe, slow change and rules that everyone understands by instinct. Religion and more vaguely defined "spirituality" are used to give words to these often-inchoate views.
As we have already noted, this group reacts badly to change, particularly if the source of it arrived suddenly and is abstract in its nature. The group reacts even more badly to being marginalised, feeling impotent and placed at the mercy of an incomprehensible world. It invents stories to explain why it is disadvantaged, such as conspiracy theories, malign corporations, religious deviance, immigrants, the usual array of villains. Middle class traditionalists are particularly vulnerable, for they have taken so very much for granted in their comfortable, consensus world that when things go wrong, it is as though the entire structure has collapsed around them. Their emotional response is often to look for a way to replace the complexity of the modern world with something "kinder, more human"; in essence, to wish the problem away.
Three sets of forces are weakening broad, inclusive social narratives, the communal "we" that underlies nationhood. The smaller groups that are striving to find a new equilibrium, a new narrative that expressed who they are and what they want to become. Few, if any of these narratives will relate to conventional nationhood.
Does it sound a degree extreme to say that national narratives are being washed away? If so, consider the plight of low skilled workers in the rich world. Low wage, high skill labour produces goods elsewhere in the world that pulls down local prices. Local firms respond by seeking productivity gains. The amount that firms can pay in wages falls, meaning that either salaries also fall or jobs are lost. Transient immigration from low wage areas will further pull down earning power. Wages for artisans in London have more than halved in real terms in the past decade, as a consequence of all of these forces. Middle incomes in the US have not changed in real terms for about a generation. The ten percent with the lowest skills have seen wages fall precipitately, and most do not now work at all.
In addition, what the economist Illich called the shadow economy has had its impact exclusively on this group. Illich noted that we now do for ourselves what we once used support staff to undertake: select goods in a shop, type a letter, fill our car with gasoline, do our laundry or cook a meal. Technology, commercial cost management and choice have, therefore, destroyed an enormous number of low-skilled jobs.
Low skill individuals are, therefore, increasingly dependent on the state for welfare and subsidy. The narrative that tells of what a worthwhile citizen is supposed to be or to do no longer applies to them. Indeed, it paints them in very dark colours. They may withdraw into a community in which few earn much or even engage in paid legal work. They may struggle on, faced with declining income and weak prospects.
The population as a whole does very well from this. They enjoy lower cost goods from abroad and cheaper services locally, convenience and privacy. Clearly, a narrative that favours the interest of the low skilled does not favour the interest of the nation. It does not chime with the abstract, international narrative of economics and commerce.
That is an extremely polarised example, However, the middle classes are equally affected by conflicting narratives. Consider the self-image of a professional woman of Bangadeshi extraction, living in London who has worked to become a surgeon of international reputation. She has a complex relationship with her Muslim family, who lack precedents – a narrative – as to how to relate to so powerful a woman. Is her self-image primarily that of her roots, her current citizenship, or is she to see herself as belonging to the international tribe of master surgeons? Probably a bit of all of these, with the weights changing depending on the situation in which she finds herself.
Let's combine her complex situation with that of the political issue of welfare for the low skilled What might her attitude be to welfare claimants? Might she see them as an unjustified aristocracy of birth, who are owed a living purely by virtue of happening to have been born in one bit of geography rather than another? The notion of a polity of interchange, of mutual support, is much weakened.
Three forces are, as we have seen, driving the fragmentation of narratives, such that any one person may flip between several competing narratives in the course of a day. This does not assist communication, and presents very real problems for politicians who wish to communicate at the national level. It is literal death to the concept of traditional, national-scale political parties, which rely upon there being a central narrative and a corresponding reaction to it, or there being two dissenting narratives. In today's world, however, an individual may agree with a party about, for example, education, but differ on defence. That same individual may express quite distinct views when asked questions in different contexts, in which their personal narrative has changed: tough boss, caring parent, as mentioned above. The more acute issue for political parties is, however, the problem of how to deal with the myriad of dissenting narratives, views that often lack rational coherence and which express alienation from the very political system itself. The proliferation of rancorous, contrarian interests cannot be accommodated in the political process of reconciliation and dispute settlement.
Current change is driven chiefly by commercial and economic forces. Some of these are extremely abstract: demographics, internationalism, patterns of organisation at work, regulatory regimes, technology. The impact of these on individuals arrives through these channels: work and employment, remuneration and indebtedness. What was once predictable – how life was to be lived by a skilled manual worker in, for example, Belgium, with its comfortable schedule of family and home, leisure activities and personal enthusiasms – is fragmented, unpredictable, unhappy. These norms are much weakened, and those norms which express the somewhat theoretical bonds of national identity that encapsulated these do not offer much comfort. People must, therefore, dig down to something that is not directly under threat – family life, popular culture – to achieve the same sense of group solidarity and stability.
"Being Belgian" may, therefore, be relatively down-played in order to focus on being a more strongly football-fancying working class person who just happens to live in Belgium, or to be a part of a mobile, rootless European professional elite. The narrative withdraws to areas in which strong, simple solidarity is easy to express and where it places little demand on a member, or grants them benefits from membership. Complex, balanced and inclusive narratives are extremely difficult to retain.
What remains from this is a feeble sense of consumer identity. The growth of the notion of "cool" captures this exactly. A range of consumer products define a socio-economic group – young, middle-everything, aspirant – and by the clothes you wear, the telephone you use and the haircut you display you announce that you are a member of this. A cool product is one that slightly - but not too strongly - asserts superiority over this norm. An iPhone says that you are a cool middling type of person, but a Blackberry is too aspirant and takes you out of the group altogether. The one is cool, the other is not. The brand offers not so much a communication device as membership of a group. The premium paid for certain products reflects the desperation to be the kind of person that Armani or Apple so expensively project.
Governments have sensed this and are trying to increase a sense of inclusion and community. For all of the reasons that have been discussed, this cannot possibly work. Imagine for yourself what a satisfying, all-encompassing national identity would look like for you yourself, making you the perfect (for example) European, perfectly satisfied and at home. A string of exceptions and reservations emerge as soon as you think about this. What governments tend to offer is an official, usually bland model of how we should want things to be. It will be filled with pictures of smiling children and green fields, packed with reference to education, the environment, social cohesion, inclusion and a host of generalities that mean nothing particular even to those who wrote them. One wants to say "Yes, all that of course, but where are the interesting bits? Where am I in this?" Generic, aspirational waffle is frequently located a great distance from where people actually want to live, or from the issues that actually concern them.
The disconnect from everyday concerns may reflect a sense that the state knows best, and that the people are too punitive, too excitable to be allowed to discuss some topics least – whisper it in government – they decide on the wrong choices. Painful subjects are avoided, and generalities and official truths wall papered over debate. This is particularly true on issues where the elite deem the population too selfish, too short term or too uninformed to be asked to contribute.
A good example of a painful subject is that of immigration, which tops the list of complaints in many nations. Governments are generally loathe to debate the issues in public. This is true for many reasons, but chiefly because states see the enormous economic advantages of migrants, the immediate consequence of which is the impact on low skill workers that we have already discussed. Bundled into this is the entire issue of race and ethnicity.
Groups with very different narratives do not live happily together anywhere in the world. In part, this is because each irritates the other due to the "holiday shopping" issue with which we began: other narratives are hard work to deal with. Often, those with a weakening narrative will see the presence of another as contributing to that weakness. "Damned immigrants. I remember when there was no crime around here and…". In part, too, it is because frequently the communities cannot even agree on what an answer to a question would look like. If your primary concerns are with caste and purity, a debate couched in terms of economic rationality will not be persuasive to you.
There have been extensive studies of mixed communities and, in the absence of crushing necessity, the complete fusion of two – or often very many more - dissimilar narratives is extremely slow, often running into generations. If narrative differences are problematic, issues of race can now only be discussed in public in certain sanctioned ways. The reasons are clear from recent history, and so intense is the taboo that it is illegal in many countries to even raise the issue. That said, ethnic fusion is an extremely slow process, and societies need to be able to talk about the implications of this without having the debate steered and the outcome prearranged by the political elite.
Wall-papered issues abound. They include topics such as the rationale of the European Union, the reality and options towards climate change and other environmental protection or the nature of defence and security in the modern age. Vested interests, heavy investment in political capital and a bland assertion that "it must be so" have replaced debate. For example, it has been deemed in closed sessions that the economy of Greece is to be saved. There is much talk of "contagion" but few convincing models of how that might happen. The key consideration is that the Euro must be saved. Thus, it appears that the Euro is worth many tens of billions to the German economy, which is what they are spending in order to protect it. Is this a rational view? Perhaps it is, but has it been tested? No: instead, we have grand declarations about how history will judge us if action is not taken.
Equally, the very grounds for what constitutes international security changes when we consider a world of non-national actors, complex and easily disrupted technical systems and the ready availability of weapons of considerable - if not mass - destruction. How is power to be projected, and how much of that projection is to be strictly military? What problems are not open to solution? If intelligence, policing and deterrence are o act chiefly on individuals rather than nations, how are we to think about the ethics of scrutinizing essentially the entire world population? How is alliance and partnership to work in such a world?
The answer to these questions are unlikely to look like expensive hardware, or indeed the conventional military. It will probably entail much closer ties, better human intelligence, better data fusion, the ability to deliver precise force in situations abounding with civilian and other actors. This is not debated, however, except at the level of think tanks and specialist groups. At the political level, the notion of defence as synonymous with columns of soldiers and hulking lumps of olive painted metal reigns supreme. Yet people feel the falseness of the very models on which these official truths proceed.
What world do we find ourselves moving towards, given these structures? A clear trend is the move away from the nation state as the key agent and towards an interacting myriad of interests and capabilities, each with its own way of seeing the world and reacting to it. There cannot be a single narrative, and we shall all need to live within several competing world views. It is important to train – in particular – children to cope with what is, for many families, a novel way of thinking.
It is also important to identify intransigent groups and individuals who are prepared to use force to resist such change. Events in Norway show how much harm can be caused by a single individual reacting to a lack of certainty and narrative in his world. There are many more examples around the world, with an estimated five or so million Survivalists in the US perceiving the Federal government as an armed invader that has to resisted by force of arms. Related by very distinct, The Tea Party movement is an attempt both to get back to national roots and a desire to open up the closed world of Federal government. Most economic commentators see its policies as self-defeating at best and catastrophic at worst, but it strength is not analytical but the composite emotions of a group that feel their narrative to be under threat.
Reactionary movements exist in much of Asia – for example, the BJP in India – whilst the Arab world is essentially run by such. Nations such as Russia have them as the official opposition. Traditionalists are not the "far Right" or jihadi, but people outraged by the destruction of what was once their social foundations. They are very numerous and they have yet to find a voice.
The single most important act that we could take in this regard is, however, for the state to begin to open up the frozen topics for formal and informal debate. Issues that will affect people in a very deep way – how they are policed and scrutinised, environmental controls, how health priorities are set, international accords and the like have run into an acute democratic deficit, not least as the public have become spectacularly better informed and educated in the past twenty years.
We differ quite strongly amongst each other as individuals, but those differences remain very similar as one looks around the world. However, the style by which people live is far from constant, and this is due to what we have called the "narrative". Narratives enable some types of people and crush or repress others. Societies in which the narrative is very strong are therefore repressive of the majority of their populations. Societies with loose narratives – or a plethora of rival or layered narratives – tend to encompass variation much more readily. Societies evolve their narratives until, usually, most people feel comfortable within them, or can at least tolerate them.
If your personality matches a narrative, then this is a comfortable state, as much of your social interaction can be put on autopilot. It sets up rules for how you should behave towards other people in a wide range of situations, and presets their expectations of you. This makes for a cosy, hospitable environment.
Complex societies tend to display a number of narrative, consensus patterns of behaviour that range from how we are to behave at this or that kind of work to how a "person like me" should create a proper family environment, be a lesbian woman or follow this or that environmental discipline. We flip unconsciously between these narratives, changing our values and behaviour as we do so. Some narratives are not for us, and this is a space that we choose not to enter. Each of us has an "orbit" through the vast space of all existing narratives, and this defines our world of experience, the sequence of ways of being, of values, of transactions with others with which we feel comfortable.
On occasion, we find ourselves in situations in which we do not understand then narrative. We feel exposed and socially awkward. It turns out that a considerable fraction of the population feel like this more often than not. They are not "at home" in their own society. A considerable fraction of even a wealthy, educated society would like to live by a single narrative. Such people look to traditional values and to well-sanctioned verities for a guide to how to live their lives. This "traditionalist" population do not enjoy change, and they are hostile to those who live to other narratives – to resident foreigners, to other social classes, to the young or to the 'different' – and they may try to suppress such people or to shut them out of their experience. They grumble when such views are given exposure in the media and resent physical manifestations of the presence of other kinds of people, from their music overheard to their cooking smelled.
Traditionalists hold the reins of power in many Middle Eastern societies, The state patrols the social norms defined by the single, dominant narrative. Outsider groups are crushed into conformity. The presumed role of each individual is defined by their social rank, gender, age and ethnicity, External change is regarded as a threat and every effort is made to exclude it. At the same time, there is anxiety that the society cannot compete on international terms. The products of the non-traditionalist world – medicines, consumer goods - are of course wanted, but the means to generate them is firmly rejected.
Traditionalists feel themselves under attack from another source. This is the continue assault on established narratives by the forces of change. These come in two forms, one of which we have just mentioned. This is, of course, the expansion of the number of alternative "ways of being" in a society as it becomes richer, more educated, more isolated from traditional orthodoxy.
The second and often stronger force that affects traditionalists is that of impersonal and often international systems. Examples of this include technological change, the drive for efficiency and competitiveness, the expansion of education and access to media and so forth. These imperatives quickly acquire a hectoring, nannying tone, for if it is obvious that this or that traditional practice has negative effects – makes you sick, fat or stupid – then from the perspective of the lean, clean state, it has to go. Propaganda is deployed against the practice. School children are taught to deprecate it. The population is nudged and shamed into operating in a different way.
The result is that another element of the traditional narrative – eating fatty breakfasts, tolerating the all-male night out drinking and subsequent wife beating, enjoying lengthy lunch breaks at work - shrivels and is gone. The rationalist community smile and dust their hands. Job done.
But what emerges, little by little but at an accelerating pace, is an official state narrative that feels rational but cold, a way of talking and thinking that is far from the individual ways in which the many parts of society have settled down to live their lives. It is inclined to dismiss these ways of living as self-evidently of no importance, for its benchmark for what constitutes importance is its own value system: that is, efficiency, competitiveness, rationality. Further, as it takes measures to press for efficiency and cost effectiveness, it marginalises those who are neither efficient nor able to compete with the costs found in other countries. As someone said of the English civil war, it was fought between the "wrong but romantic, and the right but repulsive."
Welfare budgets have reached the maximum to which the state can take them. As the population ages, and as the cost of health care expands as a result of new technologies, so state support for the able-bodied but non-working must be reduced. The billions of well-educated, low wage workers will compete with them. Their wages will fall unless their capabilities increase. This same group are seeing their traditional narratives shredded, both by the state and by the fragmentation of society into its myriad independent narratives. Their numbers nationally have tended to fall as a proportion of voters, and these groups will continue to be are increasingly subject to political marginalisation. This is a recipe for extremist political movements, some of them violent.
The implications of this are, of course, very considerable. A generation from now, global society will be primarily urbanised. Something under half of its people will see itself as similarly middle class or better. These people will have narratives as complex as those of the surgeon whom we met, earlier on. The forces of impersonal change will be much stronger, an incessant drum roll demanding action from government and commerce. Those who adopt a narrative that is unfit for purpose, people or nations who live in a world of wishful fantasy, will fail as comprehensively as has Greece, today. But in that world, there will be no rescues. Indeed, we may expect a rapid Darwinian evolution of narratives, as the most success propagate themselves and the least successful are expunged.
Where does that leave the remaining two thirds of the world's populations? Clearly, in a tightening trap in which everything from resource scarcity to environmental limits block aspirations. The comfortable narratives of yesterday will have evaporated in favour of two alternatives. First, the elite-focused ways of living, as exemplified by our international surgeon, and also as with any member of the professional elite. This will be less and less inclined to think in terms of nation states and more in terms of international industries and general mobility.
Second, though, there will be those who live in wealthy countries, where they are incapable of competing with the world's production on even terms, and of course those living in the poor countries, in which the basic institutions do not work. These will each tend to be increasingly uprooted and bewildered until populists and ethnic entrepreneurs supply narratives of blame, in which the shame is the fault of others, that the poor are downtrodden by a savage elite, that matters need to be put right. It is a general rule that people in a group do not stay bewildered for very long. As common cause is made, the group develops narratives that "explain" their situation. Populist politics has no taste for structure solutions or for realistic diagnoses. It want to blame, to confiscate, to expel from the community those who are said to have caused the bad times. Such forces will be all the stronger for international communications, in which languages are automatically translated and groups are able to filter their information through prisms that make them feel better about themselves.
Narratives are deep, slow things that are formed throughout the lifetime of a community, across many generations, woven into a net by the lives of cities and trade routes. They are made from interpretations of history and are grounded in myth. They gild the past with certainty and honour. They die when people stop believing in them, leaving dust.
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