Nicholas DIMA, PhD
The contemporary world is going through a crisis of identity and divergent interests that manifests itself in local, national and interna-tional conflicts. In Europe conflicts are national identity and integration of immigrants at transnational level. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement represents an identity crisis exacerbated by economic disparities. At the root of the current crisis seems to be the desire of every person to be recognised and respected as such. That’s why it’s very difficult to reach social consensus and solutions acceptable to the majority. As a result, extremist tendencies of the right and left have emerged that are difficult to reconcile with each other, which makes the future uncertain and confusing. What’s going to happen and where is it going to end up? This article attempts to explain these phenomena.
We live in an era of new conflicts, new challenges and new identity crises! Historically, we have evolved from local identity to national identity and have organized ourselves in nation-states. During the last century we moved even further to form international organizations and global forums. We have improved drama-tically our technology and have changed considerably our society, but we failed to change our nature and to avoid conflict. Is our innermost personality programmed genetically for conflict? Most international conflicts result from incompatible national interests. However, they often start at lower levels. If during the Middle Ages diverging personality interests of various princes could lead to war, in our modern world private interests can also lead to conflict. One of the roots of all conflicts consists in the very way we divide ourselves and identify as We and They. And there is a link between personal identity, national interests and conflicts.
Our identities are mostly determined by our births, by our families and by our upbringing. Culturally, in today’s world, individuals identify primarily with their native countries. That means ethnic origin, language, traditions, and very often religion. These traits, some of them emotional, constitute our innermost identity. Other traits, such as ideology, education, social class, are also important, but they are second to our deep individual identity. From a social point of view, identity leads to specific affiliations, to political activism, to conflict and violence, and in the end it challenges and changes the world. Can we reach a higher degree of mutual understanding, change our identity and live together peacefully?
Europe is a case in point. Is the EU able to find a common denominator for a continental identity and thus save itself? So far, the European Parliament has pushed too fast the drive for a new identity, has caused centrifugal tendencies in several countries, and has made England decide to leave the union. Although a melting pot and a country tolerant of diversity, the United States is not immune to diverging trends either. The recent movement Black Lives Matter is just an example of the importance of personal identity and political activism. What is going on?
A number of books have addressed the existing social problems confronting the contemporary world. Some of them studied the past to better understand the present and to build a safer future. Yet, real solutions have been so far out of reach, a trend that imperils the stability of the world. Less than a generation ago, Samuel Huntington, a prominent American professor, wrote The Clash of Civilization, a book which emphasizes that civilization is the highest level of human organization.
Civilization is defined in broad cultural terms with an important component being sharing the same origin, language and religion. But he cautioned that a clash of civilizations at a global level remains a real and very risky possibility.
To understand ourselves and our nature and to avoid a catastrophe, some authors have turned to psychology and philosophy. Francis Fukuyama, an American writer of Japanese origin, addressed the topic in his book Identity. He analyses the current political organization starting from the exploration of the very human soul. His approach represents a new stage in understanding the link between individual behavior and social organization. And the author is applying his study to the present era of globalization. His conclusion is that in a world of democracy, characterized by individualism, there is little in common to hold the society together. Each person wants to express his or her inner most identity and to translate it into political representation. The result is that true democracies can no longer unite everybody. Thus, in his opinion, the present is confusing and the future is uncertain.
Fukuyama also writes that Western political systems are driven traditionally by conservatism, meaning the old nationalism and religion, and by an increased liberal democracy, a sort of neo-socialism. Each of these trends gathers many small groups, but the individuals forming them have little in common. Accordingly, the new world of diversity and inclusion no longer fits either the old traditional conservative beliefs or the new socialistic motivation because people want individual recognition. Question is, how can unity be maintained in such diversity of interests?
Take Europe, for example. Currently, the unity of the European Union is under a double threat. Some regions such as Catalonia crave the idea of independence, while the continent as a whole perceives its identity threatened by non-European immigrants. The result is that new nationalistic trends began to challenge the political establishment from the right, while neo liberal groups assail Europe from the left. Both trends entail a high risk of social collapse.
In another book named Who are We? Samuel Huntington analyses the same situation in the American context. Traditionally, he wrote, the Americans were defined as a people sharing the Christian faith, European origin, English language, and commitment to democracy. Yet, the current diversity is reducing America to only two commonalities: English language and democratic principles. And he asks rhetorically, is this enough to keep the country together?
These days America wrestles with social unrest and old racial problems left over from the past. Black Lives Matter is a resurfacing of such problems aggravated by economic ills and exploited by pseudo-progressives, violent anarchists and socialistic circles. And the movement is like an iceberg. The visible part is a fraction of what’s hidden under the water. Addressing those problems requires political consensus, but consensus is almost impossible to achieve in the present age dominated by indivi-dualism. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, for example, Black Americans make up 13 percent of the population while Latin Americans make up 18 percent, Asian American 6 percent and Native Americans 2 percent. According to an Associate Press article of August 26, each ethno-racial category is further divided by smaller groups and ultimately by personal interests. Competing goals make universal solidarity difficult to achieve. In many ways the confusion and social polarization that prevail in the United States are characteristic of many other countries. People seem to be revolting against a rigid global system that is perceived as threatening interests and identities at every level.
With regard to contemporary global problems, Richard Haass, another American analyst, published the book A World in Disarray in which he explains the current state of international affairs. His study shows that our world continues to combine idealism with hard-core realism. That means trying to balance morality, sovereignty, legitimacy, rights… with personal, national and corporate interests, a task that is simply impossible. Consequently, in his opinion, force is still needed to avoid chaos, and some countries must be able and ready to supply and apply the necessary power. Henry Kissinger is even more cynical in his latest book World Order. He claims that America ought to remain strong and engaged internationally and must try to keep the world in balance. Referring to group identity, Kissinger is convinced that national identity is still a strong social and psychological trait, but the question is: will nation-states survive the process of globalization? This question makes many Europeans feel uneasy. The unification of Europe makes political and economic sense, but acquiring a common identity is a painfully slow process. Europeans belong to different nationalities and unlike the United States do not even share a common language. Europe’s most important common heritage is the Christian Faith, but it is this very cement that is strongly denied by the neo-Marxist left.
Recent evolutions in Europe are troubling and history offers little encouragement. In her book Twilight of Democracy Ann Applebaum has noticed that in spite of the democracy that now prevails in Europe there are strong signs of political tendencies toward right and left extremism. And she is worried because the present situation looks like the events that led to the Second World War. There is indeed a crisis of identity in Europe that is exacerbated internally by threats to national sovereignty and externally by non-European immigration.
While Europe as a whole is groping for a new identity and each country it trying to protect itself, England is leaving the Union. When the United Kingdom will leave the continent will be weaker and the very existence of the Union may be jeopardized. A voluminous book authored by Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe, shows that historically, England got involved in European affairs rather late, but once involved her participation was crucial in keeping the balance of the continent. London helped keep a delicate balance between France and Germany and between East and West, and at the same time, it linked the old world with America. Now, with the resurgence of an aggressive Russia and with increased internal dissension England is needed more than ever. As for the future, it’s hard to predict anything!
Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1996)
Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018)
Richard Haass, A World in Disarray (New York: Penguin Press, 2017)
Henry Kissinger, World Order (New York: Penguin Press, 2014)
Peter H. Wilson, Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016)
Ann Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy – The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (New York: Doubleday, 2020)
USA, August 2020