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  • Writer's pictureVladimir Chlouba

The Identity of Nowhere

In September 2016, the Nobel laureate Robert J. Shiller penned an opinion piece titled The Coming Anti-National Revolution. In his article, Mr. Shiller observes that

For the past several centuries, the world has experienced a sequence of intellectual revolutions against oppression of one sort or another. These revolutions operate in the minds of humans and are spread – eventually to most of the world – not by war (which tends to involve multiple causes), but by language and communications technology. Ultimately, the ideas they advance – unlike the causes of war – become noncontroversial.

Mr. Shiller then goes on to offer a prediction of what the next intellectual revolution will look like:

The next revolution will not abolish the consequences of place of birth, but the privileges of nationhood will be tempered. While the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment around the world today seems to point in the opposite direction, the sense of injustice will be amplified as communications continue to grow.

The renowned economist thus offers a succinct rendition of a common variation of modern-day cosmopolitanism, espoused by elites on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. It is based on the notion that human beings have more in common than they used to realize and that the advent of modern technology and global economy will ultimately not only smoothen the old world’s divisions but also cause increasingly outdated concepts and structures such as the nation state to wither away.

Mr. Shiller’s vision of the future inevitably pales when viewed through the prism of recent developments. Writing several months after the Brexit decision, the author did not yet foresee the election of Donald Trump and the ascent of his reactionary appeal expressed in the motto America First. Although perhaps reactionary by today’s standards, the notion that the nation state is the most natural building block of our world has defied the advances of alternative world views for centuries. Its staying power was demonstrated by the British prime minister Theresa May’s damning exclamation: “(..) if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Ultimately, both Mr. Shiller and Mrs. May touch on a crucial question of today’s changing world – the future prospects of national identity. In the course of this essay, I shall first critically examine what may be termed the cosmopolitan view, here illustrated by professor Shiller’s thoughts. Second, I shall accord the same treatment to Mrs. May’s school of thought. Finally, I will offer a third – my own – view and explain why neither radical cosmopolitanism nor dogged nationalism offer a tenable solution for our changing times.

The Impact of Technology

The notion that modern technology per se will somehow generate particularly intense identification with other humans on the other side of the world seems far from certain. Consider the degree to which the horrors of Aleppo, which certainly matched in their intensity the sort of injustice Mr. Shiller writes about, had arguably failed to engender strong enough popular demands on the part of Western electorates. In fact, the last time around we saw mass mobilization intended to alter the West’s actions in the developing world was in the mid-2000's when demonstrations in both the United States and Europe expressed intense disagreement with the Iraq War. In an important sense however (and this was no different from a similar experience at the time of the Vietnam war), these manifestations were focused inward; they did not press Western leaders to begin to do something but rather, they compelled political representatives to cease the West’s engagement in the developing world. The protests were thus profoundly domestic affairs. It is hard to see why, as Mr. Shiller expects, masses of Westerners would (even if they perhaps ought to) demand that their own prosperity be curtailed in the name of international justice.

This is not to say that the mechanism of communication and technology to which Mr. Shiller’s opinion piece points does not exist. It does, but it works in the opposite direction. Here is what I mean: the fact that modern technology enables us to see people from all over the world as fundamentally similar does not necessarily mean that our sense of justice will prompt us to demand that the economic implications of the nation state be removed. Rather, it is much more likely that ever more people in the developing world, after realizing that they are just as smart and just as hardworking as people in the developed world, will demand change. They might demand change in their home countries, for they will, more than ever before, clearly perceive that their standards of living are below now clearly observed possibilities. Citizens of less developed countries might also, and this is the more likely option, seek to travel, work, and settle in the developed world. In other words, I reason that the perception of injustice will be much stronger on the part of the developing world’s populations.

I do not aim to dispute that international travel and communications technology increase our awareness of common humanity. Yet, I do believe that the chief implication of modern travel, communications, and knowledge is the realization that one-dimensional identity, i.e. identity which is anchored in one definitional experience (e.g. nationality) is no longer sufficient. It is this realization, not necessarily the kind of altruism Mr. Shiller points to, which gradually renders the nation state obsolete.

The Losing Currency of the Nation State

Although those on prime minister May’s side of the argument are correct in concluding that the state plays – and will continue to play – a crucial role, they underestimate the extent to which a particular model of the state – the nation state – will no longer fit many people’s needs. As more people travel, work, and live all over the globe, the basic logic that links an individual to his government cannot be one based on hundreds of years of bloodlines as Mrs. May’s intellectual companions might have us believe. A certain form of cosmopolitanism will thus not be a philosophical position chosen by disconnected elites of their own volition; for many, it will be the only solution in a world that does not offer ready-made answers to the simplest of questions – Who am I? As more and more people find spouses abroad, form intercultural and interracial marriages and bear children with no single cultural heritage, the traditional nation state which is home to a single Volk will no longer suffice.

On the other hand, Mrs. May is correct in suggesting that no one can live in an international vacuum, for a life without attachment to political structures based on firm values is hardly imaginable. The crucial question thus is not whether the state will survive, but what form it will survive in. Since the state of the future can hardly be based on primordial attachment alone, it will need to rely, to a greater extent than ever before, on shared values. This is where multiculturalism, a branch of cosmopolitanism, fails. It assumes that vastly different cultures can live side by side without succumbing to the melting pot, without ultimately developing a set of shared values. Western European societies which have long relied on multiculturalism are beginning to recognize that multicultural societies that do not base on the building block of commonly shared values remain fragmented.

The notion that the nation state will be fundamentally challenged by globalization is nothing new. However, let us be clear about what the specific nature of this challenge will be. It is often suggested that because of globalization, the rise of multinational corporations, international organizations, and NGOs, the nation state is becoming less relevant. I would suggest that although the nation state as a specific model of the state may be challenged, the primacy of states will not necessarily decrease and I can think of a scenario under which it might increase. The latter would be the case because globalization results in more interaction, not less. Because of this heightened interaction (trade, cross-boundary movement of people, etc.), there is a growing need for governing structures which will smoothen and regulate the process. It follows that because the traditional state is the most suitable and legitimate structure we have, it will be the state which will perform many new tasks that stem from globalization. The state is unlikely to become weaker, yet it might need to become more porous. As individuals travel and live around the world, the new state will need to accommodate their needs.

The New Identity of Nowhere

Globalization has enabled people like myself to travel across the world, live in multiple countries, learn several languages and make friends, and find a life partner across the globe. The real challenge that those with a cosmopolitan experience face on the personal level is lack of a clearly delineated identity. Rather, they possess a combination of multiple identities which somehow need to be reconciled. While simple answers to the question Who am I? have for many become impossible, the question itself is not going away. The challenge, therefore, is to figure out how to craft an answer, for others just as importantly as for oneself, that somehow captures the untenability of one-dimensional identity, yet provides the sort of security that one-dimensional identity used to give. The answer is that possessing identity itself is still possible but it will be a very different identity, not one based on race, origin, or the other characteristics that heretofore used to define who we are. The new answer will focus more on wider conceptions of humanity and it will resemble an intellectual position, a world view more than anything else. Naturally, the struggle described herein at present only concerns a minority of the world’s population – so-called expats, global citizens, and so on – but if current developments are any guide, the number of those seeking multidimensional identity will continue to grow.

Let me sketch the contours that this new identity might assume. First, it will in important sense be decisively individualistic. Particularly the West has long distinguished itself from the rest of the world’s intellectual heritage by placing emphasis on the individual. While this emphasis has by and large been a philosophical position and a choice, the individualism of the new identity will stem from the very nature of the experience that leads to multidimensional identity’s rise. Because individuals will carry a multitude of identities, it will be impossible to choose one and accord it the title of supremacy because the other identities will creep up soon enough and thus undermine whatever the first choice may be. A natural outcome will then be to acknowledge that, for example, a person is neither a Czech, a European, or a Christian. He is all these things at once. Because there will likely be few companions who share our very combination of identities, we will arrive at the conclusion that we are in fact a unique combination of identities. Hence the individualist philosophical position will be buttressed by a very real and lived experience.

Second, because the new identity can no longer rely on primordial connections to other members of society, it will build upon shared values which in themselves will be “transferable.” This means that the said values, similarly to today’s civic nationalism, will be available to anyone who wishes to accept them. Membership in societies that will build their identity around these values will thus be open to all. Rather than an identity of somewhere, it will be an identity of something. As the importance of kinship and primordial connections weakens, the importance of consciously accepted shared values will grow.

Third, the new identity will, in a break with human proclivity and a thousand-year long tradition, rely on a conscious process of discovering one’s multidimensional identity rather than on unconscious acceptance. Since fewer ready-made answers will be handed down to us on the silver platter of tradition, we will have to make considerable use of our cognitive capacity to justify our particular positions, relying on rational arguments rather than customs, rules of thumb, and maxims. Naturally, new, multidimensional identities will at first be limited to a minority, as any kind of cosmopolitanism has up to now been. Old identities will reassert themselves, at times engendering conflict. Eventually however, multidimensional identities are likely to seize the day because there are few other solutions in the complex world that technological progress has through globalization created.

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