Year XXXVI, 1994, Number 3 - Page 196

 

 

THE IDENTITY OF THE INDIVIDUAL BETWEEN IDEOLOGY AND REASON
 
 
The identity of the individual and membership of a group.
 
One of the claims linked to the rebirth of nationalism in Europe is that of the defence of identity, which can refer both to whole peoples or to individuals. In reality this double meaning is not completely separable, since the danger of losing one’s individual identity is ascribed to the danger of losing the collective identity of the community to which an individual belongs, or wants to belong – the so-called national community, either existing or potentially existing.
Above and beyond the psychological, metaphysical or existential characteristics, that do nevertheless play a role in defining individual identity, this concept has in fact had, and continues to have, a strong ideological link to national identity, of which the nation-state is (or should be) the protector. To the extent that individuals are social beings, they belong (or seek to belong) to a community, and their identity is defined within it. The so-called “roots” (whose lack, or loss, is presented as a lack or loss of one’s own identity) nearly always refer to national subjects (language, culture, customs, etc.) and to the nation-state as an exclusive community with which to identify. Even revolts against the centralised, homogenising, state that call for the affirmation and re-evaluation of the “diversity” and peculiarities of various regional communities that exist within nation-states, do not escape the same tendency to maximise the exclusivity of the membership of a community – in this case of smaller dimensions, but still in its turn exclusive (it is not a coincidence that regionalism often manifests itself as separatism). It would seem then that the word “roots” does little but recall etymologically the concept of a stable bond that is fixed, almost inevitable, from which liberation is impossible once it has been established, once it has been “rooted” in people’s minds and souls.
The identification with the national community coincides with the obligation to feel bound to numerous individuals without names and without faces,

[1] that is to a fictitious community, but one that safeguards, along with the collective destiny, the destiny of the individual. It removes individuals from a life of monadism and gives them common roots, fictitious in their turn, and often established by means of the real and comprehensive falsification of history, geography, literature, and so on.
As a result, the individual identity of men as social beings in the context of a fictitious and exclusive community is subordinated to the community itself. The bonds that tie an individual to other individuals become the tool for subjecting individuals to models and values that they did not create, and people’s behaviour is in good measure determined by the membership of the group, of whom the individuals are simply dependent fragments of the “we”.[2] In fact, this means the renunciation of an individuality that participates by choice in a communal life with other individualities and shares a sense of solidarity with them. By reducing individuals and their identity to the state of a simple passive product of dominating political and social determinants, the ideology of the nation state, in short, deprives individuals of their identity and leads them toward self-negation.
Nevertheless, there does exist a different context in which the feeling of belonging to a community as a means to support an individual’s identity is revealed. This is the context of places where important moments of our lives are spent, such as periods of education, places both physical (roads, neighbourhoods, landscape) and social (school, friends or even simply acquaintances that are met daily). In this case the “roots” lose their ideological character and take on a more strictly emotional meaning, involving feelings that are experienced in common with others, but not collectively. In other words, all people have personal points of reference, and live the relationship with the physical environment and the community as a private experience. If they leave these places, they do not experience the departure as a loss of their own identity, which nevertheless the places contributed to creating, but rather they experience it as nostalgia. In essence, the dimension of remembrance is sufficient for them.
The difference between the two meanings of the word “roots”, whether it refers to the national collectivity or to the local community, emerges with clarity precisely when a separation of the individual or groups of individuals from them takes place. It is no accident that the theme of individual identity has often been linked to that of emigration to a new state or a new continent, and to the problems connected with integration and assimilation. In this case the remembrance of the places of origin does not belong to the private sphere, but becomes collective remembrance, historic memory, and that as such should be built up, cultivated and kept alive with the traditional tools that have been, and continue to be, used to create the national consciousness, in other words by referring to ethnicity, national history, and so on.
An interesting example of this defensive and supporting action of the historic memory by a community of emigrants is provided by a group of people from the valleys of Senegal. Some members of society in the land of origin are true professionals of the memory, visiting from time to time the communities of emigrants in other countries to “narrate” from house to house the history of their people from its origins, with the purpose of keeping the memory alive.[3]
There are different interpretations of the centrifugal function, or otherwise, of the historic memory in societies involved in a very broad way with the phenomenon of emigration. And moreover there exist different interpretations of the need or otherwise for the assimilation and integration of immigrants into the so-called host society. But if we seek to link these problems to the identity of the individual we must evaluate the phenomenon of the defence of emigrants’ “roots” by the same standards as the defence of collective identity in the national community, in as much as the individual identity of emigrants is anchored to a community that is homogeneous over time within itself (or that maintains that it is) and consistently different with respect to the world around it. In this case there are no real or effective instruments of power that induce individuals to feel themselves part of an exclusive national community, and that means that there are ever greater difficulties for the generations of emigrants born in the host country to recognise themselves in the traditions of their land of origin. Nevertheless, the mechanism that binds individual identity to the collective identity is the same.
 
The “status of citizen”.
 
As stated above, the search for individual identity in the context of a fictitious and exclusive community coincides with its negation. Hence the point is to find an alternative that does not deny the need for individuals to recognise themselves as part of a collectivity in order to build or preserve their own identity, and which at the same time is not based solely on ideology or on emotion. The framework in which it becomes conceivable to escape both ideology and pure sentimentality is the concrete one where daily social relations take place, where these are spontaneous and not dreamed up by the powers-that-be, nor manipulated. This is the local community where one lives, and in which participation and responsibility can begin to take place.
The search for one’s own identity can be likened to what Hannah Arendt has defined as the search for “public happiness”, namely the pleasure of participating in public affairs. Referring to the period of the American revolution, and citing John Adams, Arendt writes that “the people went to the town assemblies... neither exclusively because of duty nor, and even less, to serve their own interests but most of all because they enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions... Every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him, and within his knowledge. The virtue of this passion [can be called] ‘emulation’, the ‘desire to excel another’, and its vice... ‘ambition’ because it ‘aims at power as a means of distinction’... It is the desire to excel which makes men love the world... and drives them into public business.”[4]
Similar considerations can be found in Tocqueville when, describing the institutions of the American union, he writes, “Yet municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within the people’s reach, they teach men how to use and how to enjoy it.” And furthermore, “The New Englander is attached to his township not so much because he was born in it, but because it is a free and strong community, of which he is a member, and which deserves the care spent in managing it... The native of New England is attached to his township because it is independent and free: his co-operation in its affairs ensures his attachment to its interests; the well-being it affords him secures his affection; and its welfare is the aim of his ambition and of his future exertions. He takes a part in every occurrence in the place; he practices the art of government in the small sphere within his reach; he accustoms himself to those forms without which liberty can only advance by revolutions; he imbibes their spirit; he acquires a taste for order, comprehends the balance of powers, and collects clear practical notions on the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights.” And finally, “How can a populace unaccustomed to freedom in small concerns learn to use it temperately in great affairs? What resistance can be offered to tyranny in a country where each individual is weak and where the citizens are not united by any common interest? Those who dread the license of the mob and those who fear absolute power ought alike to desire the gradual development of provincial liberties.”[5]
The individual identity of men as social beings, then, is not based on passive integration into a closed and homogeneous group (a guarantee of security maybe, but, as stated above, the negation of one’s individuality), nor on an emotive identification with the community in which one is born, but on a more rational attitude, on the feeling oneself to be a participant in the life of the community, among whose members spontaneous bonds are created daily by means of the exercise of rights and duties.
As Paul Veyne has written, with reference to the city-states of ancient Greece, “all cities, large and small, had origins and were able to praise them...”, but “these eulogies were not designed so much to exalt a city above all the others, but to recognise the city’s individual dignity. These eulogies were aimed more at individuals than at the group... Eulogising the city did not make citizens feel driven by a collective force, but rather to possess, above and beyond their own merits, a greater personal dignity, namely the status of citizen. The exaltation of the group was the exaltation of individuals... It was not patriotic pride; the individual was not proud of belonging to one city as opposed to another, but proud to be a citizen rather than not being one. Citizenship in fact was not considered to be a universal characteristic, in the way that we are French or Italian on the basis that we can not avoid being something... The city was not a ‘people’....”[6]
Using Veyne’s terminology, we can say that the basis of individual identity, which is also the basis of individuals’ dignity, is the “status of citizen”, de-coupling however the term “citizen” from the connotation of exclusive membership of a specific political community, the nation-state, that turns citizenship into a fossilised concept, and linking it instead to the possibility and to the will for effective and democratic participation in the life of society.
 
Mobility and interdependence.
 
The adoption of this perspective becomes even more significant and objectively useful to us nowadays, the more the type of society toward which we are evolving becomes characterised through various features by the increased mobility of people. One aspect of this mobility concerns, as mentioned above, the phenomena of mass emigration/immigration; this will, sooner or later, slow down, but the effects will be present for a long time to come. Another aspect concerns the progressive interdependence and integration of markets at the continental and world levels, and the consequent interdependence and integration of the labour market, which will make it increasingly easy, also from a psychological point of view, for those seeking jobs to move about and settle down in a new community.
However, there remains the fact that, notwithstanding this gradual enlargement of the sphere of relationships among individuals, it would seem that this is not sufficient to overcome the problem of the “natural” and exclusive roots of individual identity.
How can we explain this discrepancy between a reality characterised by an ever greater interdependence among people, and the still existent need to identify and isolate a privileged and exclusive sphere within which we can feel ourselves safe and on which we can base our individual identity? One explanation is to consider the fact that we are living through a transition phase, through one of those turning-points of history that are characterised by the emergence of a new means of production, the so called post-industrial mode of production. In transition phases, the old categories with which people perceive themselves and the reality that surrounds them maintain their vitality, and the new categories find it difficult to make headway because they are as yet still unexplored and hence are bereft of proven validity. Society always advances at a snail’s pace, and the comprehensive understanding by its individuals of the changes underway is reached after a long and slow process of maturation. The wonderful passages by Tocqueville on the long process leading up to the French revolution provide a clear example of this.[7]
Moreover it should be pointed out that in transition phases, the “new” that is making headway is still imprisoned within an unsuitable institutional framework; one that hinders and is opposed to the potential that has emerged, and hence conditions people’s actions and thoughts. To affirm today the inconsistency and contradictions of the national principle in a society that is ever more interdependent is the fruit of rational analysis. But despite the fact that this affirmation is taken for granted by most people, it remains a fact that people continue to act and think above all within the national institutional contexts with which they must reckon to the detriment of rationality.
In a fluid and unstable world, as is the case during transition periods, reason often tends to become an obstacle and not a source of identity. As Ernest Gellner has written concerning the dialectic between reason and culture, “In a world over which socially underwritten and enforced Authority presided, identity was conferred and ascribed. It came in a package with the entire structure and generation of both nature and society: we had our place in the system, and this told us just who we were... In a world made uncertain and unpredictable, and in a society no longer endowed with stable and sanctioned statutes, there was nothing any longer to confer a role and self-image on each man. The old world had ranked and numbered seats; the new one only provided a free-for-all chaos. The old world was like a dinner with placement, which tells you pretty unambiguously who you are, whilst the present one allows and imposes an undignified or unstable scramble for places and identities.”[8]
It seems then that people may “know” but that they do not yet “understand”; they are able to describe the new emerging reality but lack as yet the conceptual tools for evaluating it and hence for modifying their behaviour: “custom and example”[9] prevail to the detriment of reason.
 
The status of citizen and institutions.
 
How can we separate the identity of the individual from ideology or custom; how can we respond to the problem of “roots” without being simply emotive; how can we create the conditions such that all individuals feel recognised and recognise themselves as members of a community, without their identities being overwhelmed?
The answer to these questions lies in the above discussion, but it is worth giving some order to the argument and making some final qualifications.
The central concept is that of the “status of citizen”, a concept that defines individual identity not in a static sense of purely passive belonging, but in a dynamic one: all individuals must construct their own identity, feeling themselves to be an active part of a common human project, of human co-habitation, regardless of where or how long they reside in a specific community.
The territorial framework within which individual identity can be more immediately constructed is the local community, the city (and within this the neighbourhood), “in which individuals themselves determine together their common needs, and the most suitable action to satisfy them. It is at this level that individuals can re-gain control over their own lives, over their way of life, over the content and range of their desires and needs, and over the amount of commitment they are willing to undertake. It is in the practical experience of social activities at the microlevel... that social bonds of solidarity and co-operation that are directly experienced can be interwoven, and that I can live the experience of that perfect reciprocity of rights and duties that represents belonging to a collectivity....”[10]
But the local community is no longer a mediaeval walled city. The local community bases its vitality on the fact of participating, directly or indirectly, in the life of communities of varying sizes – from regional, to state-wide, to continental, to global. As Lewis Mumford repeatedly emphasised, the world as a whole is the setting for every human activity, even if this activity is limited and localised in its application.[11] This real fact, which Mumford defines as a “declaration of interdependence”, in polemic with the “declarations of independence” that have marked the history of politically organised human collectivities, by now renders individuals potentially free from the tyranny of exclusive communities. There is however one condition to satisfy, namely that of seeing the status of citizen recognised in everyone of the contexts in which problems arise, or needs and instances emerge that demand democratic decisions. In other words, this concerns translating the existent fact of interdependence into a suitable political structure, based on a territorial articulation of government levels, and hence of participation. This will abolish those barriers that lie at the heart of a fictitious collective identity and will allow all individuals to base their identity on rational bases.
 
Nicoletta Mosconi


[1] Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1986.
[2] Cf. Alain Laurent, Histoire de l’individualisme, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, “Que sais-je?”, 1993.
[3] Mémoire et intégration, Paris, Syros, 1993, pp. 27 ff.
[4] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, The Viking Press, 1965, pp. 119-20.
[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (2 volumes), New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1948, vol. 1, pp. 61, 66, 68, 95.
[6] Paul Veyne, Les Grecs ont-ils cru à leurs mythes?, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1983, chapter VII.
[7] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the Revolution, Garden City, Doubleday, 1965.
[8] Ernest Gellner, Reason and Culture. The Historic Role of Rationality and Rationalism, Oxford, Blackwell, 1992, p. 70.
[9] René Descartes, Discours de la méthode (1637).
[10] André Gorz, Métamorphoses du travail. Quête du sens critique de la raison économique, Paris, Editions Galilée, 1991, p. 199.
[11] Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1938.

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