Government As Social Identity

Long ago, tribal leaders promoted both factionalism and group solidarity through the social realities of such things as territorial imperatives, hunting rights, material possessions and joint survival. This strategy divided the general populace into 'in' and 'out' groups. There were those who understood the parameters of "world" business and commerce and so came to be the deal makers within and between tribes.

In preformative societies we encounter the religious brokers who, by and large, manipulated and exploited the fears and ignorance of the illiterate and superstitious. They convinced an unknowing and gullible cross-section of the populace that they, the brokers, were indispensible. Their authority included: mediating procedures between the people and the 'gods' (reading oracles, predicting eclipses, etc.), performing rituals, prophesizing, cleansing and purifying the unholy, and administering on-the-spot field psychology during rights-of-passage ceremonies and warfare.

Generally, they acted as go-betweens, counselors, advisors, and the interpretors of God's Will. They were not required to work, were exempt from actual warfare, and were cared for by the rest of the community through its labors.

The ruling classes have always been with us. "Divine Right," having a hypnotic and almost mystical influence over the 'peasantry,' worked to suppress the masses, those responsible for providing the material benefits supporting the opulent circumstances surrounding the daily lives of the elite. This condition, over time, eventually gave way to more egalitarian frames of governance; a modern condition which did not come about without a great deal of strife and anguish, often leading to rebellion

This shift to a more abstract approach to the concept of government did not serve to eliminate that topmost strata of humanity however; it only rendered a less ostentatious persona behind which business-as-usual has been conducted. There are now, intricately and inseparably woven into the fabric of all societies, these intermediaries and controllers, a class of people who have, through circumstance, made themselves indispensible to the world-wide infrastructure.

Probably one of the first functionaries of this ilk to come on the scene was the scribe. As an emperor's or king's routine grew in complexity with population and territory, so did the knowledge and duties of the scribe. He graduated in power, delegating authority, holding court on lesser matters of law, granting dispensations and pardons, and accepting gifts and gratuities--- all in the name of his royal highness.

He gradually became a political and social necessity. In modern life, the descendants of the scribes are the political administrators and bureacratic regulators, the shapers and channelers of the flux and flow of everyday human events. Invariably they work hand in hand with a world oligarchy.

The masses, the rest of us, have been and are, by necessity, undergoing the need to resign our condition to lower expectations and standards of living for no better reason than that we must to survive.

As soon as we are convinced we are lost, we are. Whether the current social environment is the effect of nation-state building, or a complete change in the basic political format (as say, from a tribal structure to some form of representative government, or from communism to democracy), an individual undrgoes an identity transformation, a crisis of sorts, on all levels. This 'ordeal of change' can, and usually does, precipitate irrational behaviour, although, given the proper circumstances, it can set the stage for positive creative forces to dramatically alter the prevailing psychological landscape.

At some time during a transitional period, between the crumbling and restructuring of both social and personal identities, the danger of falling through the cracks grows geometrically with each sudden alteration in one's own social framework. These are the critical points, the end results of any buildup to intolerable pressures and fragile balances.

The emerging new role identities establish a multi-tiered set of relationships, social and economic in nature. Ideally, and only ideally, these relationships, partly borrowed from other cultures and partly indigenous, meld to generate and form a working functioning infrastructure.

However, on the practical level, the street level, what usually grips one's consciousness is either a state of resignation to hopelessness or the sense of standing by the side of the road while the train goes passing by. This is to know that peculiarly modern socio-psychological invention-- alienation, together with its concomitant realtives-- isolation and helplessness.

Alienation is a cruel wasteland. Collective minds feed on one another. A group, regardless of size or scale, can form a perverted bond based on this sense of isolation, this withdrawl from the larger social realities-- fragmentation. These realities are arranged in a hierarchy of identities, and horizontally embedded as a gestalt. To be immersed in a transitional zone is to live in a state of almost continual ambivalence and anxiety, oscillating between the knowledge of potential opportunity (being at the right place at the right time), and the gnawing uncertainty and insecurity, vertigo, one feels when living on the edge of an abyss.

What differentiates an 'in' group from an 'out' group anyway? From one point of view, all groups might be considered 'outsiders.' These components give definition and nuance to a society and culture along the borderlands of mutual needs, wants, and information exchange, responding to the inevitable necessity to interconnect, if only for survival. The resulting social order, fleshed-out by this mosaic, finds meaning when engaged in a mutually beneficial process of inter- and intra-communications (including trade, transportation, ideas, and technological breakthroughs).

The alienated individual, however, and the similary fixed group, represent closed rigid systems, unable to secure a niche through which to plug into the larger whole. The normally transformative line of demarcation has become to them an unbreachable wall, separating and insulating them from the rest of what comes to be thought of as 'mysterious outside forces.'

The overwhelming sense of having been uprooted, caused by the disintegration and dissolution of one's social identity, contributes to the confluing mass of chaotic turbulence and virtual vortices that come into being. This tentativeness of local conditions, with its threat to suddenly dematerialize back into the stream of random events, this ephemeral state of affairs, either sets the stage for the perception of emerging orders yet to be, or, forces a regression to a previous or deeper layer of social identity. This usually manifests itself in the guise of nationalism, but, if this also proves too tenuous, the collapse can filter down even further through ethnic allegiances to tribal and even smaller sub-group affiliations.

Transitional periods are just such experiences. Trying to sustain identity continuity, at a time defined to be discontinuous, produces an enormous amount of stress, anxiety and confusion. Also symptomatic is a terrifying vulnerability which can cause a kind of emotional paralysis. This, in turn, can effect a certain tug, an undertow, testing the resolve and character of an individual or group.

The rhetoric of ideological differences, the comparative evaluation of governing philosophies, or the empahtic insistence on the importance of some undefined, worn-out culturally distinct feature, in the face of ever-expanding practical needs like food, clothing, health care, and a safe place to live, is the expression of desperation and an arrogant, and I would add, naive, presumption on the part of the controllers.

When the maps no longer serve as guides, either to offer possible solutions to crises or problems, or to render meaning and validation to the existing social, political and economic realitites, then it is time to throw them away and get replacements.

All forms of government share certain definable features. The processes accompanying recalibration or, in some cases, abandonment of existing institutions no longer satisfying the needs of a people, go hand in hand with the crumbling and restructuring indicative of social identity transformation.

Societies behave nonlinearly both in nature and function. That is to say, they operate on a negative feedback system, innovating and changing through positive feedback amplification, and eventually, in most instances, returning to some nonlinear state. And, for every major extension, there has to be a consolidation phase. What size increment of change is considered tolerable is completely dependent on the adaptability and elastic resilience of a culture. (In what direction and on what level this change is to take place begs the title of this essay).

Society, therefore, seems to have an inbuilt and 'organic' self-organizing ability to resolve itself into a complex whole created by the set of impressions, memories and predilections of the people who, moment to moment, make it up. We do not live in any given society, but rather that society lives in us, through us, and because of us. No matter what else may impact a society, its true demise results when its participants and custodians no longer believe in it.

This embodiment of purpose is not only based on what the group shares in common but, perhaps more emphatically, on the shades of variation and contrast in the way they do the same things. Ideally then, once again, society as an organic web of shifting relationships can serve to support the individuals involved during localized chaotic episodes by its self-definition.

However, this 'natural' process is oftentimes hindered and frequently blocked by the modern day 'scribes.' Now more than ever they need a sense of purpose to justify their existences. The emperor needs new clothes.

The raison d'etre of governments has always been to facilitate avenues of commerce and the exploration of individual potential in a secure environment. This is balanced by duties and responsibilities inherent in the contract applicable, by measure, to both citizens and government. A society needs be an open system and must remain so in order for its members to realize even a minimal living standard and the possibility, at least, of attaining whatever the world at large has to offer, opportunity.

Any government, therefore, which detaches itself from its people, forcing closure of its specific system, must, by nature, grow increasingly rigid. The end result is a cutting off or complete denial of avenues, a strangling of the flexibility and adaptability of its members' native talents, and the establishing of the dictum of policy enforcement. On the practical level, this atmosphere works its way insidiously into every aspect of daily life.

Such overbearing control endows the dominant social/economic class with exaggerated powers and privileges while simulataneously stagnating the normal processes of reform and economic vigor, at least the economic vigor of the ordinary citizen. This is, of course, to the detriment of the entire self-contained system.

If government acts as a separate entity, it places itself at odds with all but those with whom it conducts business. The governing body, taken as a complex arrangement, has its own allegiances and agenda for the sake of continuing the status-quo. "Open" is a relative term issuing forth in degrees of freedom. Unlimited practical freedom for the elite, skewed as it is through the eyes of the media, is felt as discomfort by the nonetheless accepting disenfranchised, somhow making the overall state of affairs palatable. The entrenchment of the status-quo threatens the openness of the whole, setting the stage for its toppling.

The nonlinear character of society affects each individual's personal frame of reference; there is an interdependency implicit in the order of the whole. If certain basic expectations become unrealizable to a majority, fragmentation can ensue, and often does, within that society; and the various institutions designed to equalize opportunities become derelict in their specific functions. The resulting disintegration of these mechanisms and the fracturing of the collective will, essential for the prosperity and moral integrity of a society, has the effect of generating an overall breakdown in fundamental civic discipline. People must have hope.

There must be scale mobility in this nonlinear configuration we call "society"; elsewise we end up with a separation of layers brought about by the burning of bridges (from both ends) and the erection of separatist identity barriers. These barriers are enforced and given credence, validity and power, or not, by whomsoever the "government" identifies as.

Any government, or governing body with its extended arms, regarldess of size and definition, which succeeds in alienating itself from its respective society risks, invites, the inexorable, necessary and, by nature, irreversible dismantling transformation.

Who are we as a people? Who are we? The answer to that has to work to redefine the very notion of "government" as we, simultaneously, reassess our own complex of social identities.

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