Social Identity

For at least the last five million years, our ancestors have been fundamentally social creatures. It’s not just that we like being around others; we NEED others. A solitary Homo Sapiens is doomed. This need is deeply fused in our psyches; every person has a deep-seated need to feel part of a group.

Right up until the dawn of civilization, that group was the extended family: the tribe or the clan. Our tribe was at perpetual war with all other tribes; it was us against them.

The historian Peter Turchin has borrowed the Arab word asabiyah to denote the concept of social solidarity, the sense of “one for all, all for one” that characterizes strong societies. (The word was popularized in this sense by the Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun.)

But the rise of civilization changed everything. Society was re-organized into cities larger than the social comprehension of individuals; from one person’s point of view, the city was full of strangers. The strict social hierarchy enforced by the kings maintained order, and over the centuries, people’s sense of identity expanded. Their identity was defined by their city, not their clan. Even within this structure, some of the old tribal structures remained; Greek cities, for example, were organized into formal “tribes” for purposes of civic registration, tax collection, and so forth — but these tribes were formalities, not actual genetic groupings. 

But cities contained a tiny fraction of the population; outside the more urban civilizations, most people lived in small farming villages. For these groups, language was the primary determinant of social identity. If you spoke my language, you were one of my group. You dressed the same way I did, worshipped the same gods, and were probably related to me in some distant fashion. The span of a single social group extended perhaps a hundred miles. 

The history of civilization is a tale of expansion of social identity, accomplished by many unsuccessful attempts overlaying slow forward progress. People came to identify with larger social groupings. Two factors drove this process: war and trade. 

War was the visible and least successful of the methods. Ambitious kings set out conquer their neighbors. Most of the time, they succeeded only in depopulating themselves and their victims. Military success seldom yielded expansion of social identity; the conquered peoples seethed under the yoke of the conquerer and always ended up rebelling. 

The central problem was that military conquest served only to expand a society beyond the power of its social cohesion. In fact, the process had a self-defeating aspect: when a society did succeed in expanding its social cohesion to incorporate a larger population, that made it more powerful than its neighbors, which in turn led to further expansion — which inevitably led to loss of social cohesion and internal disintegration. Usually the disintegration came about through the efforts of lesser military commanders who controlled a large enough portion of the military power of the state to bring it down.

And so social groupings grew, overshot, and collapsed. But underneath this process, trade was slowly establishing the foundation of larger social identity. The armies marched back and forth over the terrain, but the merchants following in their wake brought economic benefits that everybody appreciated. This in turn led to slow cultural integration. If City A made superior pottery, pretty soon City B would be equipped with City A’s pottery. Local languages gave way to central languages. Common weights and measures were necessary to facilitate trade, as were common legal systems for resolving commercial disputes. 

Early Civilization
This process began in Egypt, which was united commercially by the Nile River. It developed a single cultural identity by 5,000 years ago. All up and down the Nile valley, people began to think of themselves as Egyptians, not citizens of the nearest city. Elsewhere, progress was slower. Early civilizations there were small city-states that constantly fought each other. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers encouraged trade, and as battles and wars blinked by in the fast-forward of history, the trade links slowly drew those cities into tighter groupings. Individual cities Uruk, Ur, Kish, and Lagash vied for superiority, and slowly two groupings (Sumerian and Akkadian) merged into a single culture spanning all of Mesopotamia. For more than a thousand years, Mesopotamia oscillated between periods of unity and periods of disintegration, but underneath all the fighting and chaos, a single Mesopotamian identity was developing. The region was not truly united into a single solid unit until about 2,600 years ago, but when it did crystallize into a single entity under the Persians, it suddenly became very powerful, expanding to become a huge empire. Of course, in doing so, it overreached itself and quickly collapsed under the attack of Alexander the Great, whose empire in turn disintegrated on his death. 

Meanwhile, in Italy, the insignificant city-state of Rome had developed a new concept. The conflict between the wealthy landowners and the middle-class farmers was stabilized by the formation of a republic. Rome grew up in a unique set of circumstances: it lived in the shadow of the more powerful Etruscan state to its north, yet it was surrounded by numerous similar small city-states with whom it constantly warred. The ever-present threat of the Etruscans forced the Romans to tread carefully; when they defeated a local rival, they prudently refrained from annihilating it; instead, they integrated it into the Roman state by granting full citizenship to the citizens of the defeated town. This policy was motivated by a desire to gain some strength against the Etruscan threat, but it had stupendous long-term consequences. When Rome conquered an enemy, they came not as oppressors but as “big brothers”. The newly conquered regions were quickly and fairly integrated into the expanding Roman state. 

This enlightened policy created a new kind of identity: the Roman citizen. This was something much larger than citizenship in a single state; by the time that Rome had conquered all of Italy, Roman citizenship constituted citizenship in a country. Unlike residents of traditional kingdoms, Roman citizens had defined rights. Above all, they enjoyed the protection of the Roman state. A Roman citizen travelling in nearby lands knew that, were he mistreated by local authorities, Rome would do something about it. Thus, people identified with Rome.

As Rome grew into a great empire, with a gaggle of disparate languages, citizenship remained a highly-regarded status, and newly acquired regions sought to gain citizenship. At its peak, the Roman Empire had millions of Roman citizens, each of whom would say “I am a Roman citizen” with pride. 

But, as was always the case, Rome grew too large to maintain a clear sense of identification for its citizens. The Empire was too big to be effectively governed from the center. There were too many languages, too many differences between religions. The means of transport did not effectively span the Empire. Within the Mediterranean basin, Rome operated as a single economic entity, but the further away one travelled from the Mediterranean, the harder it was to feel solidarity with the rest of the Empire.

As the sense of Roman social identity lost strength, a new and radically different identity spread through the Empire: Christianity. There had always been religious cults with strong social identities, such as the Dionisyian cult in Greece. But these were elitist by nature and never presumed to attract a large following. Christianity appealed directly to the Roman lower classes, whose self-identification as Roman citizens was weakening in parallel with the weakening of democratic forces in the Empire. Christian congregations were tightly-bonded social units that took care of their members. As Roman citizenship steadily lost value, membership in a Christian congregation gained value. Much of this was due to the communistic values of the early Christian congregations; converts were expected to surrender their wealth to the commune, which in turn guaranteed their material security.

Christianity benefited from the declining prestige of the Roman Empire; it provided the perfect replacement for the sense of social identity that Rome was losing. The upper classes recognized the threat that Christianity represented and attempted to fight back by requiring citizens to swear faith to the old religion. Those who refused were stripped of their citizenship, enslaved, or killed, according to the bloodthirstiness or desperation of the local authorities. 

But the undeniable fact was that Christianity offered a better deal than Rome could offer. With the government in the hands of the wealthy, Roman citizenship no longer provided protection of the weak against the strong. While the Christian hagiographies extol the spiritual strength of the Christian martyrs, it was in fact the strength of social identification that drove them to such self-sacrifice. When people believe in their social group, they will readily lay down their lives for it. This powerful social solidarity impressed non-Christians, who yearned for something to believe in. As a Roman, you were just one more face in the crowd; as a Christian, you were a member of something powerful. The persecution of the Christians brought more converts to Christianity. 

The Christian version of history emphasizes the spiritual superiority of Christianity, but in fact, Christianity’s success was due to the slow decay of Roman social identity. Constantine's conversion to Christianity was not due to any epiphany, it was a recognition of the inevitable. By his time, Christianity had become the most powerful social force in the Empire; by co-opting it, Constantine assured his military success. 

Once the Christians had the upper hand, they set about persecuting the older religions with gusto. Their intense loyalty to the Christian social image required the destruction of everything unChristian. But Constantine failed to marshal that social solidarity into military power; Christianity remained deeply antipathetic to the aspirations of conquerors. While Constantine saved Rome from complete social disintegration, he could not inspire a renaissance of public spirit. Recognizing the futility of the effort, he divided his empire into two halves, taking the eastern (Greek) half for himself, hoping thereby to reconstruct a new “Roman” identity based on a merger of Christianity and Greek culture. He abandoned the totally corrupt aristocracy of the Western Empire, allowing it to collapse under its own venality. By brutally cutting his losses, Constantine achieved immense success: the Byzantine Empire that he created outlasted the Western Empire by a thousand years. 

History has shown that social identities fray under the stress of too-rapid expansion, and Christianity very nearly suffered that fate. As soon as it triumphed, it began to fracture into sects. The most dangerous rupture arose over different interpretations of relationship between God the Father and God the Son. Modern readers boggle at the thought that people would kill each other over such trivial religious differences, but in those days, people identified themselves as Christians first and foremost. Such differences in religious doctrine actually represented underlying social, linguistic, and economic differences. The written historical records tell only of the subtle religious debates, but the millions of normal people who passionately identified as Arians or Trinitarians did so for purposes of social identity and solidarity. 

While Christianity was the dominant form of self-identification, other lesser groupings also held the hearts of different groups. For example, in Constantinople, what started out as two competing groups of chariot race fans, the Blues and the Greens, mushroomed into a massive social movement that ultimately led to riots of such destructiveness that the Emperor resorted to trapping and slaughtering tens of thousands of them at the racetrack. 

Meanwhile, another religion was spawning in Arabia. Mohammed unintentionally re-created the appeal of Christianity in a new religion incorporating elements of Judaism, Christianity, and local spiritual beliefs. The crucial component of Islam was the same as with Christianity: its fundamental egalitarianism that granted each Moslem equal status before God. The desert nomads had been looked down upon by their civilized neighbors, disdained as barbarians. This new religion gave them a new and noble identity as warriors of God. Inspired by their new sense of identity, the Arabs swept out of their desert home and overwhelmed all resistance. Like the Romans, they treated conquered peoples decently and offered them equal status should they convert to Islam. To many of the downtrodden inhabitants of the regions they conquered, they came more as liberators than invaders. In the Middle East and Africa, they were unstoppable. They swept into Western Europe through Spain and were just barely turned back in France. Only the Byzantine Empire had the internal cohesion to resist the initial wave. 

The Dark Ages
Historians frown on the term “Dark Ages”, but I think it especially appropriate here, because the millenium following the fall of the Western Roman Empire is most striking for the absence of any real sense of social identity in Western Europe. Were you to interview a typical Western European of those times, asking him who he was, the answer would most likely involve his occupation, revealing the absence of any significant social identity. Yes, he’d confess to being a Christian, but there was no passion in his self-identification as a Christian. Western Europe had little sense of social identity or asabiyah. And so it festered fecklessly for centuries.

The only expression of strong self-identification during this period was the Crusading movement. Christians were able to find something to motivate them when the homeland of their religion was threatened. The Islamic authorities had initially treated the Holy Land with respect and Christians were free to make their pilgrimages to the holy sites. But when a more conservative regime began impeding Christian access to the Holy Land, the self-identity of Christians in Western Europe (although not in the Byzantine Empire) flamed up, and in a series of Crusades, the Christians reconquered their Holy Lands. But this flame of passionate self-identity flickered out and the Muslims retook the area. 

Although we look back at those times as decrepit, we must also note that they were devoid of large-scale warfare. Sure, petty warfare was ubiquitous and incessant, but there were no massive armies marching over Europe, conquering huge swathes of territory. Nobody cared enough about anything to bother with large-scale conquest. Instead of “one for all, all for one”, it was pretty much “every man for himself”. 

The rekindling of social identity: the Reformation
Despite the absence of any strong sense of social identity, Europe was steadily growing richer and people were living better lives. At the same time, the Church, which had remained the only Western institution with any sense of social identity, followed the well-trodden path of over-reaching itself. As it accumulated more wealth and power, internal dissension finally exploded into the Reformation, and the Church was riven. Henry VIII of England needed to divorce Catherine of Aragon because she could not give him the son he desperately needed to prevent civil war on his demise. But the Church was too self-important to bow to Henry’s needs, forcing him to dump the Church, declare himself head of the Church in England, and take charge of all Church properties in England. It took about two hundred years for the Church to learn some humility. 

In the interim, however, religious identity suddenly took on greater importance in the minds of Europeans. Religious schism was a never-ending process in Western Europe, but it had never grown to anything more than an irritant. In the sixteenth century, people once again identified themselves primarily through their religious affiliation. They were more willing to die for their religious beliefs — and there were plenty of people who were happy to accommodate them. The religious wars were fought with a viciousness difficult for the modern mind to comprehend. It all culminated in the Thirty Years’ War, a conflict of such barbarous intensity that central Europe did not recover from its devastation for a century. 

A new social identity: nationalism
The ferocity of the Thirty Years’ War shocked Europe into a more civilized approach to war, and for the next 150 years, wars were almost gentlemanly affairs, constrained by strong prohibitions against abuse of civilians, prohibitions that were to some extent respected.

But then France exploded in its revolution. The long-abused population rose up against the corrupt aristocracy and slaughtered them in their thousands. The other European aristocracies saw in this new populism an existential threat, and mobilized against the French. Facing the combined armies of Europe, the French citizens rallied around their flag and discovered a new society identity as Frenchmen. Bursting with the asabiyah of their own republic, and guided by the military genius of Napoleon, they flocked to arms and swept over Europe in revolutionary zeal. 

In the process, they kindled a dawning sense of nationalism in other European states. It took 50 years for that nationalism to manifest itself, first in the uprisings of 1848, later on in demands for greater representation, and ultimately in the complete collapse of the European aristocracies in the early 20th century. But certainly by 1920, Europeans identified themselves by their nationality. Some of them went a little overboard, Germany being the most extreme case of nationalism gone crazy, what with “Deutschland Uber Alles” and the demands for Lebensraum (“living space” — other people’s lands). There is a grain of truth in the observation that the two world wars were symptoms of the power of nationalism as a social identity.

Social identity in the modern era
People still need to identify strongly with some group, and the modern era has eroded many of the old identities. This is partly due to the sober realization that many forms of social identification are dangerous sources of unnecessary conflict. Nationalism (labeled ‘patriotism’ by its adherents) is stained with the blood of horrific wars. It remains a serious threat to world peace. For example, there is simply no real need for conflict between America, Russia, and China, yet many of the citizens of all three nations assume a pointless patriotic enmity towards the other nations. The stronger our sense of “Us”, the greater our antipathy towards “Them”. 

 The world is now a single community threatened by the many competing identifications. The strongest sources of social identification are also the greatest threats to peace. The obvious example comes from Islamic fanatics who gleefully massacre non-fanatics in their thousands. It is difficult for Westerners to understand, but in fact it makes perfect sense when you think in terms of the evolution of Homo Sapiens. Remember, we all need a sense of social identity. The people of the Islamic countries have always relied on the oldest form of social identification: tribal and clan associations. Right up to the present day, that has been the only social glue for their societies. Three forces have shattered those mainstays of their societies. The first is the dramatic population explosion they have undergone in the last 70 years, which has completely disrupted all the old social traditions. It has also upset the age distribution: societies that once had a goodly number of older, wiser heads now find themselves with huge numbers of younger people and insufficient oldsters to restrain their youthful passions. 

The second force at work is urbanization. These larger populations are no longer dispersed across the broad countryside, but concentrated in cities, where anonymity is the rule. The were an old saying in medieval Germany: Stadtluft macht frei — City air makes you free. Young people are attracted to cities where they can live without the restraints of the clan hierarchy. But they obtain their freedom at the price of anomie; they find themselves alone and without a social identity. City air also makes you lonely, robbing you of social identity. You can have a large circle of friends and yet no safety net.

The third force at work is globalization, and I mean that not just in the narrow economic sense but also in the larger political and cultural sense. A hundred years ago, a typical Egyptian fellah (peasant) had little idea of the world beyond his village. Nowadays he sees on television wealthy people living in luxury. We are all connected together more intimately than at any time in history. This intimacy has served to bring our cultural differences into bigger collisions. 

Put all these forces together and it’s easy to see why young Muslims feel disconnected, devoid of any social identification. The old clan and tribal identies have been dissolved in the modern world. Nationalism? Who wants to identify with a corrupt, decrepit, and morally bankrupt national regime? Even conventional religion offers little in the way of social identity. But fanatic Islam offers a powerful, burning sense of identity. It offers a cause to live for and, more importantly, to die for. It provides a close-knit group of highly motivated colleagues, bound by an intense feeling of asabiyah: one for all, all for one. What lost soul could resist such a siren song?

Social identity in America
While the extreme case of Islamic fanaticism demonstrates the worst possible case, we should not ignore our own problems with social identification here in the USA. What modern commentators call “the culture wars” is really just another manifestation of the evaporating social identification in America. Just 70 years ago, during World War II, American social identity was at its most intense. We knew exactly who we were: white, middle class, Anglo-Saxon Protestants who spoke the same dialect of English, celebrated the same holidays, and shared closely similar values.

But our own values of egalitarianism and equal opportunity are undermining our sense of social identity. To be true to our own values, we have been forced to acknowledge, respect, and accommodate a great diversity of other identities. First it was blacks. Then it was women. Then we went wild with accommodations for non-Christian religions, Native Americans, gays, Hispanics, and a parade of other identities. Most of us applaud this social progress, but a significant minority — perhaps 20% — of the population feels threatened by the loss of social identification with America. They feel that “their” country is being taken away from them. This threat to their social identity has energized them so much that they now wield political strength far exceeding their numbers. 

The label that comes closest to describing them is “Tea Party”, but even that term is losing its applicability. They are conservative in the sense that they want to preserve the old America of their youths. They want America to be Christian (preferably Protestant), white, middle class, English-speaking, and preferably Anglo-Saxon. They see themselves as fighting and losing a desperate rear-guard action to preserve as much of “the American way” as they can. 

One of the most dangerous aspects of any strong social grouping is its closed-mindedness. Loyalty to the group is more important than rational thinking, so they tend to be monolithic in their beliefs. For example, they all deny anthropogenic global warming, not because they know anything about it, but instead because it’s what the group believes. They all oppose abortion, because that’s what the group opposes. Deviation from the group standard is destructive to social identities, so they all loudly declare their loyalty to whatever the group values. These people are dangerously vulnerable to a demagogue like Donald Trump. 

A world without social identity?
Erasmus was one of those rare individuals who eschewed group identity so that he could create his own identity. The quote on the homepage of this site summarizes his attitude: “I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger.” This is the only attitude that can work in a world that is a single community. But members of Homo Sapiens need a sense of social identity. What does this tell you about the future of the species as a world community?