Think of the words that best describe who you are. For many people, the ones that first come to mind describe our personalities, interests and abilities: reserved, thoughtful, practical, cheerful and so on. Such a way of thinking about ourselves emphasises our individuality, what makes us different.
However, there are other ways of characterising who we are which draw on identities we share with others in our group: conservative, Baptist, blue-collar, Texan, graduate. And of these, perhaps the most commonly used concern nationality: American, Mexican, Brazilian, British, Peruvian, Canadian.
What makes this of more than sociological interest is that national identity is a political issue. This is particularly true in my country, Great Britain, where the left has become increasingly concerned about a perceived lack of patriotic attachment. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown made it one of his main concerns, expressing a desire to make the union flag “a symbol of unity and part of a modern expression of patriotism,” in his drive to reclaim national identity from the right. The subject has gone from being something the left never talked about to something it has an unhealthy obsession with.
This fervour for the flag springs from a justified concern for a range of problems related to social cohesion. Robert Putnam’s seminal book Bowling Alone started the ball rolling, as it were, with its analysis of an individualised society in which “social capital” was in decline. As people identify less and less with social groups, and become more “atomised”, society becomes more fragmented, and more fractious. The unseen benefits of strong community belonging– such as trust, and support for the mutual help system of tax and benefits–are undermined.
Many saw multiculturalism as part of the problem by creating, in Bikhu Parekh’s approving words, a mosaic “community of communities”, rather than one truly united community. In allowing–even encouraging–disparate ethnic groups to establish their own sense of community, the effect was, it is argued, to weaken the wider, shared national identity. The price we paid for embracing the “Muslim community” or “Bengali community” was the loss of a sense of the British community to which we all belong.
In Britain, a consensus emerged that we lack a “common sense of belonging and shared civic identities”, to borrow a phrase from Ben Rogers and Richard Muir’s report for the influential think tank ippr, The Power of Belonging. To deal with this, we need to come together and find, as Brown put it, “the essential common purpose also without which no society can flourish.”
This is an issue which every nation will have to grapple with, no matter what its current level of development is. Sociologists generally agree that individualism has been on the rise, and they link this to several factors. The most important, however, seems simply to be economic development. As people become wealthier, they gain more autonomy. They no longer need to reply on others and so they increasingly rely on themselves. They watch television on their own sets, not the one in the bar. They travel in their own cars, not by public transport. They own their homes rather than rent.
Wealth also frees up time. In the US, around 18% of the workforce puts in more than 48 hours per week, while in the UK one on four do so. In Peru, however, around half of the labour force works more than 48 hours per week, while in Mexico nearly four in ten do. As the psychologist Abraham Maslow famously explained in his “hierarchy of needs”, when people’s more basic requirements for food and shelter are met, they tend to turn to pursuits which are more to do with self-actualisation: fulfilling our potential and expressing ourselves. This inevitably leads to me individualism, as each person self-actualises in her own particular way.
Britain’s national identity crisis is therefore not likely to be isolated. When any country reaches a certain level of economic development, combined with a greater social mobility, including immigration, it is likely to find that shared identities weaken.
The solution, however, is not to try to reassert a shared national identity from the centre. For a start, it should be obvious that having a strong national identity is neither necessary nor sufficient to make you a well-integrated member of society. I lack a strong sense of being British, but I support our democratic processes, the rule of law, and even some of our national sports teams, when it is bearable to do so. Some, like leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, feels their Britishness much more clearly and strongly, yet this makes them more of a threat to social cohesion, not less. If I don’t feel my Britishness enough and Griffin feels it in the wrong way, I can’t help but fear national identity is far too complex a phenomenon on which to rebuild social cohesion.
In fact, identity is just the wrong kind of thing to do the job of binding us together. The issue for any country that wants a harmonious and cohesive society is not one of identity but belonging. What we want is for everyone to feel at home in their country, regardless of religion or the nationality of their forebears. The places where we feel we belong are those where we fit in so naturally, our identity is worn almost invisibly.
This idea is so close, yet so different, to one reflected in a telling phrase from Rogers and Muir’s report: “a shared sense of home”. The problematic word here is “shared”. Pretend for a moment that decades ago there was no crisis of national identity and ask yourself, in what sense did the Yorkshire miner, the city banker, the West Country farmer or the Scottish squire have a shared sense of home? Britain would have felt like home to them in very different ways. The only thing they shared was a sense that it was nonetheless their home as much as anyone else’s.
The same kind applies anywhere else. The USA feels like a very different place to a San Franciscan street cleaner, a Wall Street dealer, a Wyoming prairie farmer or a rural Minnesotan store owner. The México of Cuidad Juarez is a different from that of Mexico City, which differs from Oaxaca, which in turn is different from Yucatán.
Patriotism is unproblematic when all these different people nonetheless feel as though they belong. They don’t need to worry about a “shared sense of home,” just as long as their own sense of home is one which feels secure. The political desire to assert a strong national identity tends to emerge at precisely those points where such belonging cannot be taken for granted, when a people feels its way of life may be under threat. The flag promises a quick fix, a readymade reassurance that this is our home, but it only serves to cover over the root causes of our unease.
As a consequence, the political desire to forge a shared identity threatens to force a common sense of identity on people which just isn’t there. Instead of creating a country where all belong, in spite of their differences, it threatens to create a nation in which in order to belong you have to conform to a centrally-determined idea of national identity which resonates with no one.
Worse, the emphasis on national and other collective identities undermines the sense of individual identity. Indeed, this is the explicit goal. Much of the blame for the decline on social cohesion is placed at the door of individualism. What we are seeing is a self-conscious rejection by parts of the left of the whole post-enlightenment growth of the individual in favour of a return to more collective forms of identity.
The political project to build a shared sense of patriotism is therefore misguided in at least two ways: it is counter to an inevitable and desirable growth in individualism, and it fails to account for the extent to which people feel their national identities in very different ways. To try to reassert national identities and fight back individualism looks like a Canute-like attempt to stop the tide. Worse, it is attempting to arrest the development of something that we should see as good. It is good that more people are able to become self-determining individuals. This is the height of human flourishing.
Nonetheless, there is, surely, a problem with social cohesion in countries like the UK. What is to be done about it? What is needed is a way to combine individualism with shared values. The first step in doing this is simply to appreciate that individualism is a shared value. In a country like Britain, the freedom to be your own person is a core value, one which everyone has to sign up to. The second step is to identify other shared values, realising all the time that they must also accommodate difference. What unites a developed, liberal nation is going to be a small, but very important, set of values to do with tolerance, fairness and rule of law. But when it comes to more specific values, by which people guide their own lives, those are going to differ. The values of a particular religion, for example, just aren’t going to be widely enough shared to provide a basis for a nation to come together.
As the world gets smaller, nation states become less important, and individualism and wealth grow, national identity is going to lose a lot of its force. We have to be ready to deal with this, not by trying to put back what will be lost, but by recognising that we need something other than traditional patriotism to bind societies together.
Posted: April 23, 2012 at 6:25 pm