Post No.: 0452
We’ll continue on from Post No.: 0408, which demonstrated how power starts to transfer to ordinary citizens from the elites because of taxation. Without the need to collect taxes, there’s no need to offer ordinary citizens a vote or voice. (This is one argument, amongst many, why the Arab Spring movement largely failed to democratise the region – many Arab states can simply exploit their natural resources and tax the oil and gas companies without needing to tax ordinary people much.) Ordinary citizens don’t have much to bargain with against a ruler unless they’re giving something that the ruler (with their army) wants or needs…
The power of a state or empire must align with the identity that its citizens adopt – the narratives, norms and values of the group should become the identity that every member of that group takes on as individuals. The social networks we’re a part of shape the beliefs and behaviours we’ll individually hold and perform.
Sometimes these national identities are imposed from rulers or colonial powers, such as what language will be officially taught and used in a place where there were once various separate tribes each with their own languages. They might achieve this via shaping the school national curriculum. A shared language is key to a shared identity – language isn’t just about communication but signifies one’s history and culture. Trying to overhaul a country’s official language from above will inevitably encounter resistance though.
These identities aren’t necessarily based on racial grounds (e.g. the different identities of North Koreans and South Koreans). Nations aren’t ethnically homogenous natural units – they need to be built, and a shared identity is important otherwise there’ll be internal division and opposition. If political parties are allowed to form then the risk is that they’ll predictably fall along these old tribal rifts as opposed to along a unified national identity.
A shared national identity can make it more likely that policies will serve the common interest rather than only the interests of the dominant tribe/subgroup. A territory with a fragmented national identity will instead have a difficult time trying to find policies that will satisfy every subgroup. And a lack of internal cooperation results in inefficiencies, and such a group will be at risk of being defeated by a more cohesive competing outgroup or state. Dictatorships and empires can, with an iron fist, hold disparate subgroups together with a ‘sense’ of stability – but this only ever tends to be a volatile and temporary state of affairs; and sedition, and violence, will likely erupt once that rule is weakened or challenged. How shared or fragmented a group’s social identity is will influence the elites’ decisions regarding how to manage the population and economy.
So people as individuals belong to a variety of social networks. These different networks provide different narratives for learning about the world, leading to the development of different group norms or expected patterns of behaviour, different values and, ultimately, different identities. Adopting a shared national identity can be very productive in the long run (e.g. Tanzania compared to Kenya). It creates bonds of trust between citizens, which lowers the cost of transactions, which is important economically because it allows for greater and more productive cooperation in the long term. In contrast, societies where fragmented identities form or persist, cooperation breaks down and social networks can become extremely divisive. Therefore united group norms, common values, shared identities, and social narratives that promote socially productive behaviours, optimise the development of a productive economy.
In the real human world, as opposed to classical economy theory, people aren’t just motivated to get more and more material stuff for themselves – they’re motivated to improve or maintain a good social reputation too. People care about what other people think of them, especially their peers. So rather than greedily claiming everything that people can for themselves, they might share some of it with others. For most adults at least, their decisions aren’t only based on themselves as individuals but themselves as part of a social unit with others. People’s decisions are affected by their empathy and compassion for others; or if they despise someone in particular, their hatred for them. Maximising our personal utility involves such social considerations.
We can usually freely choose to leave a network, but we cannot always freely choose to join one. Through our networks, we acquire an identity or set of identities, norms that might become internalised as personal values, and narratives that explain the world. These mental constructs affect our attitudes and behaviours. By complying with the identities, norms and narratives of how the world works through our particular social networks (such as our work colleagues, family or friends), we’ll receive peer-esteem (esteem amongst our peers), self-esteem and serve our self-interests. If we defy the norms of our particular social networks, we’ll conversely risk getting shunned for not fitting in. So, for example, if we’re brought up in a religious family or country, we’ll likely hold specific religious beliefs and identities; or if we’re brought up around drug gangs, there might be particular violent and bling-based ways to gain the respect of our peers. These group norms will over time become internalised as our own personal values too, and to comply with them – to essentially be true to our own values – will give one a sense of self-esteem too. It becomes our individual identity, but it was shaped socially.
No one is raised within a vacuum or with a total freedom to choose whatever influences them as they grow and develop. Human babies cannot survive on their own – they must be raised by others and will therefore be influenced by others. All identities are social and always belong to at least some group/class. If you were the only living being in the world, a sense of identity would probably be meaningless. We can have multiple identities (e.g. mother, daughter, skier, scientist). These identity narratives prime us too (e.g. if there’s a narrative within our groups that men are tough and strong then men will tend to behave (or act) tough and strong).
Narratives, in this context, can influence merchants into believing in zero-sum or positive-sum outcomes – this affects whether one thinks that trade is about ensuring that the other side loses or is allowed to also win, respectively. They can also shape our time horizons – whether ‘patience is a virtue’ or ‘a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’. A culture can believe in saving more for the future or spending more right now. (Some argue that the high saving rate of Chinese citizens contributed to China’s economic rise.) A culture can believe more in an individualist and competitive, or collectivist and cooperative, identity. The prevalent narratives of a society can thus influence real-world behaviours (including during a pandemic) and have an impact on central economic policies, such as regarding taxation and welfare.
Of course, narratives, norms and identities can just organically evolve over time, often as a result of the current adolescent generation taking a divergent path from their parents (e.g. when something suddenly becomes not cool to do anymore, or due to an economic impact that disproportionately affects their generation). Changes can arise because of the greater education from one generation to the next, such as from the result of more scientific discoveries, novels that improve one’s empathy with people in very different situations to our own, and philosophical thinking on matters of morals and ethics i.e. an expanding pool of human knowledge. The laws may in time evolve and reflect these changes too.
Identity ‘packages’ narratives, social norms and personal values together. Both power and identities can be placed at the supra-national, national or sub-national levels (e.g. EU, Spain and Catalonia). When the power of an empire misaligns with the identities of the people within it – perhaps because an imperial power has been colonising various geographic regions, each with their own tribal identities – then such an empire seriously risks eventually collapsing. These subgroups don’t sufficiently see themselves as one harmonious unit because their individual tribal identities are distinct and perhaps even opposed to each other (e.g. a country with several different religious sects, even if they’re all Christian or Muslim, such as Catholics and Protestants or Sunnis and Shiites). Meow.
A mismatch between where the power lies and where the identities lie is going to create difficulties in turning that power into a stable authority where everyone will choose to obey without much effort or opposition. When there are too many different subgroups with starkly different identities within an empire then the central power logically cannot side with or speak for all of them. Some subgroups (possibly within subgroups) are going to question that central authority (e.g. feeling more Scottish and European than Scottish and British in identity, which might lead to a successful vote for Scottish independence one day?) Maybe the risk of internal division is the price of democracy and free speech? We can therefore understand why some countries want their people to all sing from the same hymn sheet identity-and-narrative-wise, and pledge their allegiance to the national flag every day.
Colonialism or political unions therefore never work in the long run without a process of systematic harmonisation (or indoctrination depending on one’s perspective) into a shared identity. Subgroup identities that are too vastly different from each other will likely eventually lead to internal division, particularly during economic crises when (it appears) there’s not enough jobs or other resources to go around hence people start to want to secure their own narrower self-interests because (they perceive) there’s not enough to share with others.
Central powers can attempt repression through fuzzy force but that’s expensive because it needs a lot of police and military power, which requires a buoyant economy to fund and all that’s needed for that. If there’s insufficient power then there’ll be uprisings and open conflict. Central or confederate powers can alternatively give up on certain territories or employ ‘power as theatre’ i.e. issue directives or resolutions but not really enforce them or expect them to always be adhered to – such power is more of an act than a reality (e.g. the UN overwhelmingly voted for the UK to relinquish its illegal occupation of the Chagos Isles in 2019, but after the UK ignored this resolution, it faced no consequences. This resolution was non-binding though, but then so are UK referenda results!)
The internal conflicts or civil wars we still see across some parts of the world today revolve around the misalignment between power and identity. Empires in history have fallen due to this fundamental misalignment. But when power and identity are aligned, it becomes easier for power to turn into authority and achieve compliance with less or no coercion – citizens will happily choose to obey, and this cooperation will lead to greater social and economic productivity rather than wasted resources spent on infighting (unscheduled snap elections themselves cost money to run and produce volatile market uncertainty). A clear example of not sharing an identity with the state is when one doesn’t feel inclined to comply with paying its taxes. If one does feel a shared identity then one will understand that it’s for the greater good of the country, as if it’s an extended family.
So to improve the alignment between power and identity – gradually build a shared identity. Use more words like ‘us’, and emphasise a shared struggle such as a historical military struggle against a common foe, for example. (Emphasising a shared struggle is also vital when trying to address shared problems like climate change.) Conversely, devolve or decentralise power to a more local level. This may only merely delay an eventual call for independence however.
Meow. A shared identity isn’t alone sufficient to turn power into authority for it depends on how that power is used – but without it, achieving compliance and harmony will be much harder to realise.