Henry Hopwood-Phillips 11.04am
"I think the twenty-first century will be decided by how we handle the identity crisis." - Bill Clinton, November 2012
Few people when pressed are able to pin the genesis of Western Civilisation to a date; fewer still can name its father figures; and what it is “Western” in relation to seems to constitute an enigma on the scale of the Holy Grail.
Decline is not terribly complicated. The idea of Rome, Jerusalem and the Rhine still loom large in the European imagination. Civilisation is at its heart an article of faith; so when Jerusalem was doubted, out of the equation a substitute had to be found. Faith was installed in Reason.
Nietzsche famously destroyed the hubris of this imposter in the late nineteenth century. Philosophy since can be quite accurately dismissed as a footnote to Nietzsche. Lurching French constitutions have reflected the philosophical listlessness. Ideologies, distorting life through various reductionist lenses and pummelling it into all-embracing systems, features as a despairing response to the Prussian; attempts to create new faiths on thin air.
The attempt at vertical distention in the Age of Ideology was aborted in favour of a rather less impressive horizontal extension. Globalisation, the civilisational equivalent of a belly-flop, coincides with post-modernity in much the same way that the Age of Imperialism coincided with the West’s last crisis of faith: the Reformation.
In the absence of metanarratives into which identities can be anchored, the West now experiences existentialism. This is a big word the French use for feeling depressed in nasty cafes.
These trends have huge political ramifications. States that could once assume loyalty on racial, historical and cultural grounds can no longer afford to do so. The old building blocks of nation, geography and family look to go the same way as fealty in the feudal system or membership to a parish. New networks, environments, images, identities, peoples; some superficial some not, are being connected, generated and subscribed to at a increasingly rapid rate.
The practical political responses have been twofold. The movement towards unity focuses less on constructing civilisational life than on decreasing discomfort, controlling the fallout, and managing material decline. It concentrates on subduing conflict and increasing wealth. Its means are technocratic and it is heavily reliant on the creation of an international bureaucratic class. Its systems are currently underdeveloped but already display tentative totalitarian tendencies. Identity is its weak card. Diversity is publicly applauded but in private internationalists would prefer that irrational identity were relegated to the same private sphere religion was consigned to in the Enlightenment period.
The atomistic movement, in contrast, places heavy emphasis on identity and homogeneity. Decentralisation, democracy, accountability and liberty all flow from the axiom of “us”. It is a return to the building blocks of Europe. The ghosts of feudalism return: Catalans, Basques, Scots, Sicilians, Venetians, Cornish, Walloons and Flemish all want their identity back. These centrifugal trends are exacerbated by poorly controlled immigration - a phenomenon symptomatic of a collapse in unifying faith. Immigrants, having displayed a tendency to vote en bloc for leftist parties in order to topple status quos perceived to be historically prejudicial, now seek to raise their own flags in the Western graveyard.
The end result is that at a time when national identities are becoming terminally fractured, international infrastructure remains rudimentary. At a time when homogeneity is emerging as important, identities are becoming more fluid. Perhaps the solution to the identity crisis Bill Clinton bewails is the berthing of a primary identity in micro-communities in which basic needs such as homogeneity, resources and security are established.
Yet there will be an extension of “self” into other plastic identities in the international arena. The polar extremes of localism and internationalism will be joined in the hyperconnectivity of the next age and Europe will be returned to its constituent parts.
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