Saturday, December 23, 2017


In 2019 or thereabouts, the UK is exiting the European Union.  Those who do not wish to leave sometimes mock the fact that some on the opposing side celebrate identity.  An example is the government's recent announcement that we will have a blue passport on exit.  This is welcomed by some as a renewed statement of separate identity, and dismissed by others as an irrelevance.  Furthermore, those dismissing the new colour say it will confer fewer, not more, benefits, since we are losing the rights that go along with community membership.

Let's pick apart some of the arguments on both sides.  Firstly, let's look at an implicit assumption of the latter argument above: that identity is worthless unless it confers special benefits.  This argument sets up some scales, and puts the nebulous concept of identity on one side; it then places rights to travel on the other side, and finds this side to be heavier, because it holds more tangible benefit.  What it fails to do, is acknowledge that, for some, symbols of separate identity can hold very large value for some.

Look at the behaviour of many religions.  The word holy has a meaning that includes separateness.  Holy objects, whilst arguably conferring no benefit on the worshipper, are highly prized.  In fact, even when such objects are held by enemies as incriminating, and therefore worthy of censure, the respecter of such objects hangs on to them as dear.  Equally, look at the behaviour of the North Korean leader towards his weaponry.  Even when the holding of such weapons, and the firing of his rockets, renders no benefit on the world stage; even when it causes sanctions against his country; he continues the same behaviour, convinced that he is demonstrating something valuable.  Finally, look at followers of unusual fashions.  They know that their habits may exclude them from selection for certain jobs; and yet they prefer to continue their individualistic behaviour rather than gain the apparent benefit of going along with the crowd.

The roots of such behaviour might be sought in attempts by tribes and species to distinguish themselves from those they might be mistaken for: attempts to create in-group rules which mark them as separate, and therefore worthy of special protection.  Imagine a species that could not recognise its own.  It would be much harder to mate, to reproduce, and to keep track of its young.  In the same way, modern identity-touting might be seen as a similar attempt to create an identifiable home group worthy of protection.  A necessary result of this is that other beings are excluded, and not considered so worthy of protection.

Applying this back to the European Union, we see an argument between identities.  It is not that one side sees the benefits of identity, and the other doesn't.  It is that remainers focus on the benefits of the European group identity (i.e. the protection afforded by membership of THAT exclusive club); and leavers focus on the the benefits of the UK group identity (i.e. the protection afforded by membership of a smaller, but equally exclusive, club).

Now, any club tends, by force of its existence, to encourage its members to be rather irrationally convinced of the benefits of membership.  Watch the behaviour of football supporters, and you will see what I mean.  A lot of behaviour seems designed around not rational support, but precisely the opposite: irrational support, against the demands of logic.

Looking again at Europe, we must surely acknowledge that irrational support of the home team is behind a lot of the behaviour of both camps, nationalists and EU supporters alike.  After all, the EU is smaller than many alliances that could take place, and yet insists on the value of its own existence as a home team.  And looking again at our evolutionary roots, we can see families surviving by dint of an irrational preference for supporting each other over others.  Where we draw the line is likely to be a matter of chance: where we were born, and which communities we have been close to.  It is a blunt instrument, this kind of loyalty; but it dominates much of our behaviour.

I am using a particular definition of irrational above.  I am taking rather an economist's view of the subject, and describing as 'rational' those behaviours which are explainable in terms of rules of benefit to an individual or group, and as 'irrational' those behaviours which are perpetuated even though they seem to result in no easily identifiable benefit to an individual or group.

However, we might explain different approaches to identity and groups, by seeing that different people attach different values to different kinds of risk.  Take Israel as an example.  One could describe Israel's international policy as 'brittle' - prepared to risk extreme loss at extremes of behaviour, in return for limiting loss within norms of behaviour.  Therefore, it doesn't care if it gets bad international press in the course of a normal day; but it cares deeply if someone suggests its very borders should change.  It is like a walled garden: doesn't care who it hurts building the wall, then focuses on building its own garden within its bounds.  Conversely, one could describe Palestine's international policy as 'soft':  It cares deeply about gaining international support; but it has less investment in a defined map of borders.  It is like an open garden: is used to living without boundaries, so seeks to minimise risk in a constant flux of extremes.  These behaviours are historically caused by an artificially set up situation.  One side is given privilege; the other is left to fight for what it can find.  It is similar to the position of the rich and poor in the UK, which is why, often, the left sides with Palestine and the poor, and the right sides with Israel and the rich.

Using the above model, one can see how a 'rational' wish to minimise loss causes different behaviours in different communities.  Both Israel and Palestine are being rational in context; it's just that Israel finds more benefit in hard macro boundaries (because they are what it is founded on), and Palestine finds more benefit in fluid macro boundaries (because they are all that it has got).

Applying this to rich and poor, we can see the same approach to risk.  The rich, having secured land, will wish to live in gated developments.  The poor, having none, will wish to flow across boundaries; they have less investment in them, after all.  Both sides are being rational.

Let's look again at the argument between those who want the UK to leave the EU, and those who don't.  It's interesting, because here, the leavers have voted for a smaller boundary.  This is unusual, in that we have got used to expansionism.  Israel, for example, pushes beyond its boundaries in order to protect them.  Why on earth should so many UK citizens have decided to buck this trend, and go smaller?

Well, a good analogy might be the creation of ghettoes.  Sooner or later, in any community, an area develops with a distinct character of its own.  And that area, like an evolving species in times millions of years past, wants to create its own distinctness, to ensure its own survival.

Ghettos dont mind being poor.  In fact, they take it for granted that, outside the ghetto, they may be reviled and disadvantaged.  That's not what drives its members.  For them, they are seeking to create what security they can in a smaller space.  They get an enormous amount of security from looking inward, to their own peculiar traditions and symbols.

I guess, in the end, it boils down to an argument between two forces of evolution.  On the one hand, there is expansionism, the wish to gain ground by pushing borders outwards, to encompass more of the world.  On the other, there is ghettoism, the wish to protect those closest to you in difficult circumstances by making your nearby ground rich in culture and symbolism.  The latter can create highly individualistic and creative cultures, as they are often found in highly hostile conditions, and forced into poverty by difference and circumstance.

Neither force is either rational or irrational.  In the UK, remainers have tended to celebrate their own rationality, and mock their opponents' irrationality.  But this is only true from the narrow perspective of immediate benefit.  From the perspective of the ghetto approach to UK independence, symbols such as a distinct passport have a value well in excess of material gain, because they create a sense of home in adverse conditions, and enrich the distinctness which ensures the continuation of a subculture.

For either side, understanding the other involves seeing why the other approach makes sense.


Some people mock nationalists for apparently losing the functional benefits of internationalism.  And yet, looking at our evolutionary past, we can see situations where smaller entities have developed their own symbolic micro-benefits, little reminders of home, that can be felt as more valuable than international compromise.  Under stress from expanding macro-borders, micro-cultures can develop a ghetto-like way of reinforcing their own separateness and resourcefulness.  This ghetto mentality is not focused on benefit as an economist would define it.  Benefit here can only be understood if we realise that, to many, symbols of home in a hostile world are worth far more than tokens of wealth.