On the Origin of Cooperation. | Photo Credit: Kevin N. Laland/The New Atlantis

Revising Civilisation: The Great Division Between “Us” and “Them”

Following the nationalistic revolt to separatism, to the current iteration of neo-nationalism, Khai from The IAS Gazette offers conspicuously contrarian ideas and explores the wretched impolicy accorded to mankind between great power rivalries, suggesting insights if human-sciences could, in fact, discount the enduring adversities.

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Cooperation, inherently attributed?

Collective identities have existed long before the first revolution – that is the cognitive revolution. Anthropological evidence suggests that foragers, and by this I mean the first early humans, could have only experienced Darwinian natural selection through one factor: their ability to hunt in groups.

 “Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist, only in people’s collective imagination” Yuval Noah Harari

Cooperation, just as evolution, has increased in size and density – from native foraging to multinational organisational structures. While the word “cooperation” is directed and suggests to some degree of altruism, it is almost always perceived to be a desirable principle of man, constructivist linguistics would argue that it is only but an instance of acting together to achieve mutual benefit, not necessarily for any form of betterment. Contextualised in today’s contemporary society, the vastest amount of cooperation could only mean national mobilisation and regional integration.

Imagined constructs

The “nation”, as put forward by Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson, is an imagined political community. It is imagined because members of the smallest nation are incognizant of the existence of another member, yet an image of their communion is discernible. At the date of publication, America has a population of close to 332 million whereas China has a population of more than 1.4 billion. It is not conceivable for an American or a Chinese to be aware of even half that population, yet nationalist sentiments are immense within these nations.

French bayonet charge. | Photo Credit: Francis Joseph Reynolds et al., The Story of The Great War, Volume III

While imagined constructs accustom people to behave in accordance with social norms and arguably sustain social orders, how can the notion of the “nation” create artificial instincts of self-sacrifice? Undoubtedly, direct causality can be drawn between nationalism and great world wars. For instance, the First World War has been attributed to Pan-Germanism and the German Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm II, although it was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip which initiated military response. The fanatic ideology that German Volks had of Aryans as the pinnacle of human racial hierarchy was a critical factor in the outbreak of the Second World War. Even Pax, as a period of peace dominated by a hegemonic power, is cognizant of nationalism: Pax Romana, Pax Britannica, and Pax Americana, to name a few.

 “Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings” Benedict Anderson

Rise of liberalism, death of nationalism?

Resonating G. W. F. Hegel’s notion of dialectics, liberal ideology to some extent has surpassed nationalism. Indeed, international organisations such as the United Nations have compelled nations to forgo the barbaric tendencies of war and power in pursuit of collective sustainability. The new optimistic orthodoxy, most notably Pinker’s Enlightenment theory, postulates that war and violence are in decline. An analysis of the numbers of war-related deaths does seem to confirm that surely this is “History’s Most Peaceful Time.” However, to presume that nationalism is dead would be ignorant. An economy of dialectical progress would suggest that this is not complete.

Of course, if nationalism only occurs on a “national” level, there can be no conceivable evidence. But on a significantly smaller scale, a similar vicious circle perpetuated the American racial hierarchy from 1860 to 1861. The secessionist movement saw the withdrawal of 11 states, which precipitated the American Civil War. Similarly, nationalism can transcend beyond borders, as it is in the case of tenacious cultures. Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations observed the overall trend within the Islamic civilisation in the 1980s and 1990s converging in an anti-Western direction. In an interview with The Economist in 1992, an Egyptian government official said that “Americans come here and want us to be like them. They understand nothing of our values or our culture.” 

As for the inveterate oppositionism of the demise of nationalism – No, nationalism is not dead. It has only burgeoned through a series of trial and error to become what some refer to as neo-nationalism. In the midst of increasingly politicised identities within the United Kingdom and ascendant populism, the island nation realised Brexit. Political expert Robert Shrum cited revanchist nationalism as a motivation for Brexiters, whereas journalist of The Irish Times Fintan O’Toole argued that “[t]he Brexit campaign is fuelled by a mythology of England proudly ‘standing alone’.” Meanwhile, 50 million Chinese visit Yan’an every year in commemoration of Mao Zedong’s wartime stronghold in 1937. Today, Chinese’s argot ethnocentric nationalism is unarguably evident in the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic and foreign policy. The dialectical tension between nationalism and globalism is stark today. To some, a post-COVID-19 world signifies to some degree the triumph of economic nationalism, in other words, protectionism. To others, a post-COVID-19 world signifies the ascendancy of Fukuyama’s notion of liberalism as the “end of history”   the consummation of all other ideological epochs and multilateralism in its realised forms. From a practical perspective, the latter is attractive. But from an ideological perspective, the former is desirable. However, a philosophical and genealogical perspective would argue for neither.

“[The purpose of dialectics] to study things in their own being and movement and thus to demonstrate the finitude of the partial categories of understanding” G. W. F. Hegel

The “dark side” of oxytocin

Albeit the arguments for nationalism as an “imagined community”, genealogy begs to differ. According to neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky, the appalling realms of human behaviour is rooted in how organisms are hardwired to make a basic dichotomy about the social world: the distinction made between social organisms that are referred to as “us” and social organisms that are referred to as “them”. Oxytocin (also referred to by psychologists and researchers as OXT or OT), a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary, acts as a neurotransmitter that regulates social and nonsocial behaviour. Peculiarly enough, it is also often referred to as the “love hormone”. However, while often associated with empathy and trust, it is also associated with ethnocentrism, where in extreme cases leads to racism and nationalism.

Hypothalamus as depicted in yellow, which regulates the production of oxytocin. | Photo Credit: Wang J. et al., Neuroimage 81C, 199-204 (2013)

Considerable evidence suggests that prejudice is a by-product of evolution. Humans are inherently hardwired to divisions and bias. Some questions that arise include:

What is the “End of History”?

Is the “imagined community” in reality an “envisioned community”?

If indeed the social salience is organically natural, is the manifestation of Mill’s and Tocqueville’s “Tyranny of the Majority” interminable?

Nineteen Eighty-Four to 1991

Indeed, Orwell’s notion of “the lunatic modern habit of identifying oneself with large power units and seeing everything in terms of competitive prestige” seems inevitable. I ask that my readers consider this: the discontent in Eastern European blocs of the Soviet Union was instigated by Western propaganda of liberalism and democracy. Western political and economic recipes were communicated by the Truman Administration through what some refer to as the Television Revolution. 

While Eastern Europeans nevertheless regarded themselves as “us”, they wanted to be like “them”. Behind the iron curtain, Eastern Europeans were surreptitiously, furtively, and pruriently filled with envy and dissatisfaction for socialism. The recognition of Western foreign culture as superior to Eastern Europeans was in fact, a successful import of beliefs and values through glorification. Does this demonstrate the possibility for the “dark side” of oxytocin to be manipulated by facilitating partner preference formulation? 

With the above in considerations, it seems appropriate to employ Immanuel Kant’s idea of a “foedus pacificum”, that is a league of peace, as a resolution. 

A conscious consolation

“[T]here is no limits to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing” Steven Pinker

My preoccupation with this article is with the bridle of rationality over ignorant reasons of the inherent nationalist aggrandisement. Could we, by the amplification of liberalism then emancipate the nationalists? Could international institutions, states, and non-state actors play a role in socialising humanist morals – reason, compassion, ethics, and democracy? Could the division between “us” and “them”, that which gives rise to nationalism, be diminished through humanism and internationalism? Conscious rationality makes aware to us that redemption, albeit all the ardour, is attainable, for the conviction that internationalism is better than nationalism. Whether such a vehicle or process that facilitates the meaningful change realising will depend is contingent on the proselytisation of persisting traditional divergence happening now. In the words of Marx applied syntactically yet conversely, “[w]orkers and oppressed peoples of all countries, unite!”

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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