Presently, the way in which we deal with the question of identity has been unsatisfactory. Every half-educated fedora-lord will tell you that national and ethnic identity is arbitrary. Are they wrong? That is what the universities teach, that is what well-meaning people come to believe. We are being taught that regional identification is backwards, and ethnic and national identification are dangerous and can lead to mass murder.
No alternative explanations are really popular, except the openly irrational, amoral and mystical ones. Of course, this idea does not appeal to those that feel, deep down, that there is something fundamentally wrong with it. However, “facts don’t care about your feelings.” We cannot always rely on our instincts to show us the right way, and they are completely useless when trying to convince others. In any case, it is important to try to analyze this phenomenon rationally, because it is one of the most fundamental elements of human behavior.
What is the value of identity?
Humans are team players. Their ability, or even the need to identify stems from the need to be good team players. In every team effort there is a risk of the players working for their own narrow interest, even when it is against the interest of the team. Identification helps limit that risk. Identification makes one see the gains and the losses of the team as his own gains and losses. When one identifies with a team, when being a member of a team becomes a part of one’s identity, one is less likely to cheat.
Humans assume various types of identities. The entertainment one enjoys, brands one knows, one’s political stances, certain character traits one perceives to have, and even some sexual practices one engages in can be a more-or-less important part of one’s identity. Humans will assume and publicly proclaim any identity that makes them a part of something they consider good, so that they can show their investment in it to others. However, arguably the most important part of one’s identity is a geographical location one is born or lives in and one’s origin. Why this might be is something that will be argued below.
Identity can really be thought of as a certain psychological investment. A person that identifies with something will act like someone who has a vested interest in that thing. The degree of psychological investment can vary, but people can certainly be very heavily invested in a certain identity, to the point of sacrificing life and limb for it. The display of identification helps signal precisely that, both to rally those that share the identity, and to deter potential aggressors against it. Identity is assumed to allow for coordination between the players of the same team, even when there is no central direction.
Is it rational for people to identify? Is it rational on an evolutionary and on a subjective, self-interested level? It might not be, were other people not very good at assessing the degree of one’s loyalty to the cause. Identification is a mechanism built in the brain. It cannot be faked. However, there is a degree of choice involved. Identity is not imposed on people, and not simply “stumbled upon” and accepted. It needs to be accepted, and it needs to appeal to one’s interests or sensibilities.
The question of “public goods” is one of the more serious issues with making our society work. A public good is a good that has to, by nature, be shared by many people. One of these public goods is civic engagement, that means people working for the benefit of their community, making sure their governments are acting properly, etc. All members of a community share in that public good, all receive a benefit if there are people that are engaged in the community, not only those that are engaged. This results in a problem of “free-riding,” that is the attitude that one does need to work on public goods, and that others will or should take care of it. A strong identity based on geography or origin helps to overcome that tendency to free-ride.
It is questionable whether it is possible to maintain any level of political freedom, much less any republican and liberal institutions without the bulk of the population holding a deep sense of identity with their country.
Which identity is the strongest depends on what game we are playing
To understand why certain identities are more important than others, especially more important politically, consider again how teamwork is vital for humans. Almost every social interaction comes with a free-rider problem. Identity allows people to alleviate this problem as they coordinate their actions in society. The coordination is almost never centrally-directed. For example, voters can vote as they please. They can vote for their economic interests, for example. More often than not, however, they will vote on the basis of their identity.
If we are playing the game of demonizing normal people and wanting to take their money and influence, all of a sudden deviancy will become very important for one’s identity. If the game is to demonize white people and to try to take their money and influence, one’s racial Identity will become very important. That is unless one is white, since white identity confers no advantage in that game. That is unless whites themselves start playing the game of fighting to further power of one’s own racial group, in which case the rules start to change. Obviously, sooner or later the dominant game in society will shift in that direction, since a dominant group, in every sense, financially, militarily, demographically is not likely to continue to play the game that is to its detriment.
In certain places and times in history, religion was of immense political importance. Thus, it was also a crucial part of one’s identity, much more so than it is now. Language and dialect are also crucial elements in identity, acquiring greater or lesser importance depending on the conditions.
If, however, we are playing a game of working for the public good, it is advantageous that identity follows the patterns of public goods. Now, most public goods are placed locally. A certain responsibility towards the neighbors, not littering, putting pressure on the local authorities, making sure local infrastructure works, etc. These are all issues of crucial importance to everyday life. Local identity can also serve as a catalyst for struggle against central authority.
Thus, it becomes apparent that it is in the interest of every community and naturally of its members to protect all those cultural, historical and linguistic peculiarities that set their community apart from the rest.
Authentic vs artificial identity
Here the issue becomes increasing difficult. People will actively seek out an identity. They will not, however, accept any identity they are presented with. In the United States, those on the right are starting to reject what they perceive to be an artificially-constructed new American identity, an identity that centers around progressive values, rather than around a common history or origin. The European right is almost unanimous in rejecting a “common” European identity, which is promoted by the European Union. How do we distinguish between the “artificial” and the “authentic” identity?
It appears that the issue lies somewhere else. One can be an authentic “European,” an authentic “new American,” an authentic “Soviet,” or even an authentic “citizen of the World.” There are many such people in the public sphere. There is nothing inauthentic about these people or “bugmen” in general. The problem is that most of these people can’t be considered right-wing in any sense of the word. What we are witnessing is the consolidation of empires. If the game is that the values of the “Seat of power”* need to be imposed on the periphery, or “occupied territory,” then the imperial “European,” “new American,” or “global” identity becomes very important. The problem for us is that those values are almost without exception progressive, rationalistic and etatist. To argue against such identities is to argue against the effects that identity will create.
What cannot be said is that such identity is truly continental or “global.” That is always and everywhere the authentic identity of the seat of power and all those that serve it. It is not an identity for all. It draws its strength precisely from its opposition to he “parochial,” “provincial,” “flyover,” “redneck” identity. Its strength is derived from the advantages the servants of the Seat of power derive from the Empire.
Local identity seeks to solve problems on a local level, and to preserve the freedom and independence of its people and communities. National identity can serve to aggregate local identities to defend against national and imperial aggression and attempts of subjugation. An imperial identity, on the other hand, seeks conflict, through imposing its will on others. It is marked by the idea that its rationale is the only right one, and that all the world should conform to it. It scarcely needs to be pointed out why liberty-minded people should care to preserve any and all regional and national heritage that can help form identities that could oppose the imperial design.
Identity is a result of the reality people find themselves in. It serves the needs of the people that use it, and there is nothing arbitrary about it. Local and national identity can serve to protect against imperialism and the imposition of one will over the world, while a global identity is made to impose such a will.
Citations and references
*I use the term “Seat of power” to avoid confusion that the term Capital (or capital city) may create. I also use it to emphasize that that identity is primarily functional, and not geographical or linguistic. It is the identity that is useful to all those that serve power, no matter where they are situated and what language or dialect they speak.