289. The taming power of the small (VII)
Sentimental nationalists will tell you that everyone within their nation—their racial tribe—can be a brother to each other; on the other side, self-righteous liberals will tell you to ditch Christmas celebrations if “that racist uncle” is included this year—and you should feel good about it, too. You are, after all, an individual; you do you, it is the moral and rational option. A minority, the socialists, will tell you that a Chinese worker in a car factory, a Bolivian who works in a field, and a British guy who works in the Apple store are all united by the same interests and outlook as members of the working class. Yet if you brought these characters together what would be of most interest about them would be their differences from each other.
All these modern ideological attempts to create collective coordination or to maximise the individual are retarded. The Arabs have an older saying: “I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.” If you speak to a modern Arab he will tell you that this proverb was how it was in the old days, before they were modern. Life is more sophisticated now, just as in the West, and they would not want to fall back into barbarism again.
Yet the proverb reveals the truth about how humans organise themselves—to a greater or lesser extent. We are not like the ants or the bees, we are not a perfect hive that obeys orders on command; we do not sacrifice ourselves for the collective—for the race—because we are one interchangeable unit within the whole. We are not atomised individuals driven by reason and a desire to be empathetic and kind either; and we are not examples of a class, formed by our relation to private property and industry.
Our collective expression emerges from the tension between individuals, between families, and within families. As Shakespeare’s plays reveal, the family is often a site of strife, murder, and betrayal. In Hamlet, it is a brother’s murder and the acquisition of his wife and kingdom that causes a stink—a rotten smell—in Denmark; and this sort of thing, to various degrees, as Freud might have observed, occurs in all families. Yes, the liberals are correct: the family is a bitch; it is only that all the other alternatives are much, much worse.
When another tribal group—the marauders—appears on the horizon, the rancour about a passive aggressive Christmas gift from your aunt and uncle is forgotten. The sullen words fall away; and the time has come to ride against the external enemy, the interloper. Of course, sometimes the betrayal carries on; but, in a general sense, the Arabs—and our genes—are right: it is only when the outsider is at the gates that we begin to think in a collective way. We need the knife at our throat to start to love our neighbour, even to love our brother—and not even that always works. Schmitt understood this with his notion that politics relies on a friend-enemy distinction, the external enemy is necessary to maintain an even keel—otherwise the polity degenerates to brother against brother, cousin against cousin.
What the Arab nomads knew is that we are neither as selfish nor as altruistic as people think. We have our genetic interests—our blood interests, they would have said—and we have our individual sense of self. It is the external conditions, the changes in incentives, that determine whether we act as a very wide band or very narrowly—for our own interest alone, against those within our own family. As usual, sentimentalism is a great danger: the desire to think—so easy in industrial modernity—that we are more collectivist or more individualistic than we really are. We can see a great many things from our great cities, but some things are still better seen from the desert.