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Last refuge of a scoundrel? How to understand the psychology of Nationalism and Identity in a changing world

On the evening of April 7, 1775, when Samuel Johnson made his famous pronouncement “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” he was not saying, I think, that it was wrong to love your country. Indeed, Dr Johnson was renowned for combining robust patriotic enthusiasm with his Enlightenment views and a tender conscience that championed the rights of men and women and even animals worldwide. He was particularly strident in his condemnation of the excesses of Britain’s colonial project.

The key to understanding Johnson’s controversial statement is in the central word refuge. The patriotic urge, I suspect he was saying, is frequently underpinned by an unexamined refuge instinct we cling to when the going gets tough. Here we need a little neuropsychology to flesh this out.

The retreat to nationalism is often a flight movement born out of the mobilisation of the Sympathetic branch of our Autonomic Nervous System, our inner instinctual safety mechanism. In times of fear, or unconsciously anxiety, the tough get going, as we know. Physiologically, we close out hearts, experience other people as other and the word as hostile; we fly to where we can wall ourselves in and be safe.

In the word of ideas, this translates as a retreat to the known, even in the face of contradictory evidence, because the fear and the demonisation of others that ensue prevent self-reflection. Our most ancient instincts, sometimes called reptilian, overwhelm the neocortex where already our visual systems are scanning for those who look different to us. Socially, the tribal response is usually to shoot first and ask questions later; larger political units exist essentially to overcome this instinct and maintain semi-porous national boundaries, as Jared Diamond patiently explained in The World Until Yesterday.

For this reason, tribalism should not be romanticised, whether among Rousseauian New Agers, religious literalists, football fanatics, or in today’s populism – for it depends on the demonisation of the other and is hard-wired. We should take care not to regress to this, for the simple reason that we are able to.

Our self-preserving instincts, however, are not the end of our story: there is evolution too. We now know that consciousness itself is subject to evolution, both on a macro and a micro scale. We see this everyday in group-psychotherapy: when people feel safe, listened to and make an effort they begin to open their hearts to one another. When they start to deal creatively with difference, to recognise they have been projecting and blaming because they were being run around by their fears, their perspective on the world begins to shift dramatically. They now inhabit a new world, and their neuropsychology aligns accordingly.

On the other hand, when people are fighting for survival, as Maslow told us, and especially if their fears have been over-stimulated, personal evolution isn’t an option. This applies both to the socially deprived and to the hyper-rationally educated elites I have written about in Wounded Leaders.

On the macro scale, it is evident that our shrinking world implies the imperative to embrace difference. This is not simply some postmodernist call for plurality but a realistic necessity. We can evolve as species, but if we look to other species, we note that their evolution hasn’t always happened unconsciously: competing species often had to learn to cooperate, for example. We often have to make an effort over things that are difficult – why should it not be so in evolution? In fact intentional evolution, according to evolutionary biologist John Stewart, seems to be Nature’s favoured route up the ladder.

Equally, getting stuck in fear can autonomically send us slipping down the snakes, and, unfortunately, malicious manipulative intent will kick-start a regressive slide. We may well imagine how the fear-mongers of the Far Right have harvested this regression over the years. We usually look to the Great Depression for the most obvious examples, but I think it may be instructive to look back a little further.


The Great Deception

In British TV documentaries, we are regularly told that the pointless slaughter of the First World War was due to Kaiser Bill’s military build-up and sparked off by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. While it is true that Germany’s invasion plans had already been published in freely available books and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was teetering on the brink, there were other realities. What British mainstream media rarely mentions is that the 1890s saw an inequality gap that was virtually unprecedented. Perhaps we may be about to see something similar today – it was certainly peopled with tunnel-visioned reactionary political figures not so unlike our own Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees Mogg.

The consequent rise of terrorism, then called Anarchism, but, more importantly, the extraordinary power of International Socialism had the moneyed interests terrified. As Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in his 1893 Recollections: “Society was cut in two: those who had nothing united in common envy, and those who had anything united in common terror.”

Germany had the most developed progressive network, including one socialist MP who refused to bow allegiance to the Kaiser. But the main stumbling point in International Socialism’s ascendance was the difficult cooperation between France and Germany, since many Frenchmen – forgetting how often they had been invaders – rued their country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. The principle actor in uniting the two socialist unions was born and raised in South West France.

Jean Jaurès had already resolved industrial disputes and organised socialist parties locally as well as nationally, and it was his assassination on 31st July 1914 at the Cafe Croissant in Montmartre that really kicked off the war, four weeks after Franz Ferdinand bit the dust. The build-up to this is described in exciting detail by Barbara Tuchman, an American journalist and historian living in U.K. in her elegant 1966 masterpiece The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914.

In the patriotic psychosis that followed, the young French nationalist who had murdered Jaurès was acquitted, though someone got to him in Spain in 1936. The great powers had colluded in pulling off a massive coup. Just in time, they had repackaged and resold a revamped nationalist myth to the masses. It was celebrated in a cult of death that haunts us all still – a scoundrel’s refuge of patriotism indeed.

To the vested interests this sacrifice was justified to maintain the status quo, for International Socialism was all but finished. To the masses, which operated – to use Spiral Dynamics terminology – mostly at “Traditional” or “Blue Meme” consciousness, sacrifice for the home group was a value and a duty they could sincerely express under the banner of patriotism. Even though the context was utterly false and utterly manipulated, they were told to do commit sacrifice and they chose to do it. They took part in the slaughter of their brother workers, marching to their own patriotic flags, because they were doing it for something.

At this level, where sacrifice is a meaningful value bordering on a duty, identity patriotism operates as an overarching value expressing the importance of the fundamental human need to belong. The value here is genuine because it supports the group. The same social groupings still sacrifice themselves today – putting out fires or rescuing people off mountains or oceans – and they will respond to today’s “Blue/Orange Meme” value of so-called “national security”, even when the data is dubious.

With the luxury of reflection, however, we can recognise how identity patriotism, when whipped up, can operate as an insular tribal refuge. Let us be very alert then to arguments of well-meaning postmodern liberals like David Fuller, who says, “modern liberals will have to make peace with tribalism and patriotism if they are to create new stories that gain traction,” lest we fail to name the Emperor’s nakedness in a rush to contextualise our current troubles. This is not to say that accounts like David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere, quoted by Fuller, which proposes a stark polarisation between those who are rooted somewhere and those who might live anywhere, aren’t useful warnings. This echoes Hanzi Freinacht’s Metamodernism that sees a demographic future stretching between Creatives and what Guy Standish calls the Precariat.


Identity and Belonging

What both mainstream and progressive views on identity politics, nationalism and identity in general have in common, though the latter thankfully lack the attendant aggression of the former, is a simplistic concept of identity as a phenomenon. In particular, both seem to miss the paradox of identity’s inescapable psychic domination that sits side by side with its dynamic, expansive and evolutionary potential. So if you’re still with me, I want to devote the rest of this post to exploring this with you.

Identity is the central question in human psychology: it affects all our thinking and behaviour. Equipped with the self-reflexive neocortex the human animal is permanently searching for identity whether he knows it or not. Our minds are constantly posing the question “Who am I?,” so it is no surprise that some spiritual methodologies concentrate uniquely on intentionally repeating and reflecting on this question.

And it is near impossible to switch this “Who am I?” function off. Our minds always have some answer, for they are endlessly associating our identities with qualities. For example, each time we look in the mirror we inevitably generate an automatic commentary on what we see there, and therefore who we are. It could be “ugly”, “fat” or “having a bad hair day” or even “not bad for your age!” Our sense of self is formed of identifying adjectives that describe where we come from and what we believe ourselves to be.

Identity is a touchy subject because it is emotionally driven and regularly produces and re-produces very strong feelings. Our minds are rather easily dominated by the “lower” emotions: anxiety, neurotic shame, fear and disgust. When we are temporarily gripped by fear or if we inhabit a long-term low sense of self-esteem we can make rather radical choices to bring about a new sense of identity or belonging (or both) as an attempt to ease the emotional discomfort. An extreme example on an individual level is someone who does not feel comfortable in his or her body and who might opt for gender-reassignment surgery.

On a societal level (staying away from the political for a moment), someone who does not feel particularly valued in their community may displace their identity issues into some commercial brand or leisure identity. Advertising and marketing take full advantage of this, so that those who wear a T-shirt displaying a little crocodile feel perhaps they belong to a more valuable group, and those who wear a particular scent feel more beautiful, or those who support a particular football team feel more powerful.

Identity is both simple and complex. It is partly given, such as our sex at birth, our original language group or the religion into which we were born, and partly developmental, as in our age, social status or eventual country of residence. It is also partly a matter of choice, since we can move to another country and consciously identify with that culture, or we can support a certain football team because it is local to us or we like the colour of the strip, and we can convert to another religion because we like their ideas or our partner belongs to it. Sometimes there are crossover identity or belonging groups, for example women from different cultures may have lots of thoughts about what men are like that transcend their cultural differences; similarly the old may recognise similar feelings about the younger generation, whether they were born in Andalucía or Azerbaijan.

Back now to Dr Johnson and the question whether there may be anything wrong with loving what we identify with – whether it is based in country, religion or football team. We are social beings: we all need to belong in order to feel safe and valued and not alone. And so we naturally love what we belong to and identify with it. We can even adopt a critical identity to it: we are still not alone but have differentiated a bit. The problems of belonging identity arise only when it becomes too rigid, when we over-limit our identity rather than enlarge it and embrace the multiple identities that are possible for us. It gets particularly problematic when we need to defend an identity at the expense of other identities that are perceived as in competition with it, which is when it risks becoming pathological. This has massive implications for our politics.


Towards a Global Identity

It appears that we humans are subject to two rather different pulls that govern our identity. One is rather static: an incontrovertible need to belong and a tendency to want to maintain fairly fixed identities, in order to have a sense of who we are and therefore avoid cognitive dissonance and function well. But a second force acts on us too: we also have a dynamic capacity to expand our identities and increase our sense of belonging and thereby jettison fear-based identity compensations such as national chauvinism. It is evolutionary, but is not so difficult to engage as is often thought. In fact, we can have multiple overlapping identities that fit us tightly like the skins of an onion or that can wear more or less loosely. As example, I will use my own case.

As a North Londoner, I have a playful disdain for Peckham and districts south – but don’t take me too seriously. I am an Englishman and support the national football team – even though it is a grim task and I am convinced that 11 Englishmen in one team is a very bad idea. But I have lived in four European countries and have Scandinavians in my family, so I also identify strongly as European. This doesn’t stop my exasperation at why they prefer to sell you a cup of hot water and a sachet in Europe rather than add boiling water to tea. As a European, I look with horror on how the USA normalises its gun culture and the razzmatazz of its politics. But I belong to the same language group and I spent three years in an American school, so this aversion doesn’t stop my full cultural immersion in their music and literature.

And, despite Fuller’s reasoned suspicions about identifying with the global (which strangely chime with Vote Leave’s master spin doctor Dominic Cummings’s assertion that an early proposed slogan “Go Global” was the biggest turn-off in their supporters’ focus groups) I find it easy to feel a citizen of the world. First because it is a delightful feeling, and secondly because all the major problems that really bug me, like climate change and tax havens, have to be solved at a world level.

The last reason is why I gladly accepted political activist’s John Bunzl’s invitation to co-write The Simpol Solution: Solving Global Problems Could Be Easier Than We Think, just out, in which some of these thoughts on identity are expanded, and to work with him on the psychological implications of and resistance to his “Simultaneous Policy”.

Bunzl’s major claim is that in hanging on to our national cherished identities we are in mass denial of the current global reality. It’s a disarmingly simple logic rarely focussed on elsewhere, except by some thought-leaders such as Turkish economist Professor Dani Rodrik. Rodrik’s “Globalisation Trilemma” states that we can have one of two: global economic integration; democracy; national self-determination. Pick two – any two; but we can’t have all three, without really changing things. Or as Bunzl says, until we wake up from the trance that continues what he calls the “Myth of the Sovereign Nation State” we cannot act meaningfully, for example via his impressive electoral pressure system, and demand that politicians tackle these big global problems by international cooperation.

On a recent BBC Radio 4 Moral Maze programme on nationalism, Matthew Taylor, the Chief Executive of the RSA, admitted: “We’ve been afraid to tell people about globalisation.” He went on to quote the American sociologist, Daniel Bell: “The nation state is too big for the small things in life and too small for the big things.” Taylor seemed the only sober commentator on the broadcast that featured much over-emotional opinionation. “We have created a space for populists to create an impossible future. The best nation state is one that hands downwards and cooperates internationally,” Taylor sagely advised.

Acting for such a result, rather than dreaming about re-engaging with tribalism, seems to me to be a proper way forward in these dark times.

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