21. Nation Souls
A national vision is not usually clearly seen by people, though it can be sensed as a sort of inevitability or imperative to which people instinctively can rise. However, the usual habit is to continue along old inertial lines until there is little alternative. 'Business as usual' usually creates resistance to change, though at other times the urge to reinstate 'business as usual' can also cause wars and deadlocks to end.
The rapprochement between Israel and the PLO in 1993 was greatly motivated by a regional need to end hostilities and to establish growth and free-trade in several inherently-related, formerly-Ottoman countries – Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Driving this peace initiative was a fear that the debilitated Middle East would be squeezed between economic superpowers in Asia and Europe, to be left behind or made into a client culture.
People in the region sensed an opportunity: something shifted, allowing a growing consensus of compromise and relative trust. However, such a shift does not make success inevitable: effort does. Yet effort can be motivated by a collective sensing of a new direction in the wind. In the case of the Oslo process, the effort expended was insufficient - whether amongst Israelis who failed to stop incrementally occupying the conquered West Bank or amongst Palestinians who, exasperated, failed to persevere long enough to avoid further conflict, which came in 1999.
Such situations of rising collective vision or possibility can be dangerous: societies render themselves vulnerable when they enter into great changes. Anything can go wrong. People can start heading off everywhichway. This highlights a schizophrenia in most national psyches: two polarities operate, sometimes aligned, sometimes dissonant. The first polarity is radicals-versus-conservatives (in all their variations), and the second is visionaries-versus-controllers. Each polarity is capable of causing a nation to subvert its needs by choosing either indecision, polarisation or avoidance of choice.
In pluralistic and tolerant circumstances, such schools of thought can sharpen and clarify issues, drawing on the best elements of divergent ideas to create a new consensus. But in situations where debate is stifled in favour of shouting, manipulation or force, disaster usually ensues. Each nation, at times of crisis, is faced with a choice to act in unity toward a mutually-beneficial end, or to lapse into what Toynbee calls schism in the body politic – a deep, divided and disempowering loss of potential, leading to deeper national crisis.
Revolutions are usually engendered because conservative elements refuse to acknowledge the needs of the time. Thus they resist change excessively, sparking protect and uprising. Such a pattern was typified in Marie Antoinette's famous alleged response to the news that rioters were demanding reduced bread prices – "Let them eat cakes". She later came to be guillotined. So much for Marie Antoinette.
Revolutions are also engendered when conservatives or dictators cynically use mass hardship as a way of punishing society, to keep control or to weaken opposition – as did Russian boyars and the Czarist government in the decades preceding 1914, when they plunged Russia into war against the Germans, a move which precipitated their downfall in 1917. The extreme radicalism which drives revolutions cannot gather steam without such conservatism.
Radicals draw strength from the future and conservatives from the past. However, radicals are not always ideologically socialist or revolutionary: in a stultified imperial or conservative-dominated situation, business interests can act as radicals, critical of aristocracy or administrators and often precipitating change. This was the case in South Africa in the early 1990s: though change was pushed from below by black South Africans and anti-apartheid campaigners, it was a shift of values in the business community which finally pulled the plug.
Conservatives can also be left-wing, as was the case in the latter days of the Soviet system in the 1980s and of the Maoist period in China. In both cases, left-wing gerontocracies (in China they were revolutionary veterans) were opposed by younger, more capitalist-inclined go-getters. Radicals and conservatives are thus defined not by politics but by timing and relative positioning to past and future.
Ideally, a nation would oscillate cyclically between urges to reform-transform and urges to stabilise and consolidate. This is a natural evolutionary pattern. However, if institutions prevent healthy and balanced swinging of national feeling, distress and disaster can follow. Twentieth century China, possessing a long heritage of imperial continuity and rigidity, launched into a century of disorder and wrenching, ruthless changes: the Maoist Cultural Revolution of the 1960s was like an orgy of national self-punishment (with brighter aspects too) in which little remained constant. Collective sanity-levels were volatile – like a case of historic dysentery after centuries of constipation.
However, psychologically, people manifest the government they deserve. This seemingly heartless statement has great meaning behind it. Logically, suffering peoples do not deserve oppressive governments – such situations are often collectively inherited from a preceding generation. However, psychologically the world is nevertheless an outward manifestation of the quality of our collective thoughts. Many oppressive regimes exist because no one has put an end to them, either by consensual pressure, civil disobedience or popular force. The connection between people's thoughts and world events lies through the unconscious and the underlying agendas of the soul of humanity and of nations. This might seem unfair, yet the challenge for us all is to get to grips with our collective unconsciousness.
If people hand away their power to strong leaderships, then we render ourselves psychologically liable to encounter experiences which teach us why we need to take control of our lives. If a people cannot take control of its collective life without highly centralised, controlling power-structures, then such power-structures will grow and thrive until people cease to have an unconscious emotional consensus needing them. Similarly, the best way to remove dictators or ruling elites from power is for people to take charge of their lives – not necessarily in revolutionary activity, but by ceasing to need to obey orders and to be a victim of circumstance.
The fullness of time, and often a great deal of suffering, takes care of this issue, and modern times present us with a potential for worldwide breakthrough in leadership and followership patterns. However, interpreting geopolitics this way has its risks: such interpretations do not justify callous unsympathy for suffering peoples, even though they can help us understand their situation.
There have been times when monarchs have acted as altruists, reformers and change-agents in history. Some noteworthy patrons of culture and improvements in daily life were Ashoka (king of Maghada 272 to 231 BCE, a religious humanitarian); Empress Suiko of Japan (593-628 CE, reformer of social conditions); Sri Harsha (last native king of India, 606-647, a poet and builder of social works – even forbidding the killing of animals); Hsuan Tsung (T'ang emperor in China 712-756, a patron of the arts); Harun al Rashid (Abbasid caliph of Baghdad 786-809, renowned for disguising himself and walking the streets of Baghdad to find out the state of his people); Leo the Wise (Byzantine emperor 886-912, a good ruler, moderniser and scholar); Saladin (sultan of Egypt and Syria 1175-93, noted for impeccable principles and piety); St Louis IX (king of France 1226-70, just and chivalrous); and Akbar the Great (Moghul emperor of India 1556-1605, who attempted to meld the religions of India, to end religious conflict). Each of these left the world something of a better place than the world they found – with some of the mixed blessings which mighty leaders inevitably bring.
One progressive ruler who went too far was Shih Huang Ti (Shi Huangdi), founder of the Ch'in (Qin) dynasty, emperor of China 221 to 210 BCE. He unified China by force, began the building of the Great Wall and set about destroying the old oppressive feudal system – this included burning the works of Confucius and other traditional sages, to eliminate conservative traditions. Though his aspirations were generally well-meaning, he created great suffering for those who resisted his changes, and in time a conservative reaction followed. While many of his efforts were reversed, he moved China in the direction of imperial unity and good administration, which was to develop thereafter over the centuries.
Amongst more ordinary people who have played reforming roles, we hear of the Gracchus brothers (active in Rome in the 120s BCE, land reformers ); Wang Mang (founder of Hsin or Xin dynasty, China, a minister who usurped the Earlier Han dynasty, to become a reforming emperor, 9 to 23 CE, contemporaneously with Jesus); Shankara (early 800s CE, a wandering teacher in India); Moses Maimonides (active 1170s-90s, philosopher, physician, public servant, codifier, teacher and advisor to Saladin); Francis of Assisi (active in Italy, early 1200s); Cosimo de Medici (banker, statesman and patron of arts, active 1430s-60 in Florence); Janos Hunyadi (Hungarian soldier and hero in fighting the Turks, active 1440s-50s); Joseph Locke (active 1690s in England, philosopher, empiricist, commentator on governance); Simon Bolivar (revolutionary, active 1812-24, liberator of South American colonies from Spanish rule); and Karl Marx (philosopher and political theorist, active 1840s-90s). Many of them planted seeds of change which matured long after they died.
Conservatives tend to reinforce the established order, which at times can stabilise and consolidate change, and sometimes can lead to social ossification: Meng-tzu (Mencius, 371 to 288 BCE, a Confucian philosopher and state adviser who urged stability and stressed the legitimacy of rulers); Justinian I (Byzantine emperor 527-565 CE, recoverer of lost territories, codifier of law); Maximilian I (Holy Roman Emperor 1493-1519, who expanded the Habsburg empire through marriage diplomacy); Elizabeth I (queen of England 1558-1603, a strong and popular ruler); George Washington (American general and first US president, active 1770s-90s); Count von Metternich (Austrian statesman in early 1800s, restorer of stability and suppressor of liberalism in post-Napoleonic Europe); and Benjamin Disraeli (English prime minister, active 1840s-70s).
Radicals and conservatives represent forces which sometimes work in alternating balance, and other times lead to social schism and hardship. An example of the former case came in the form of the alternating premierships of conservative Disraeli and the liberal William Gladstone, who together dominated British politics in the 1860s-80s. Disraeli: "There is no waste of time in life like that of making explanations". Gladstone: "All the world over, I will back the masses against the classes". The quality of political interaction between these two gladiators was unparalleled.
An example of schism was the succession of events under the socialist president Allende of Chile (1970-73) who, setting out to nationalise key industries and reform Chilean society, was felled with the help of the CIA and replaced by the right-wing dictator Pinochet (1973-89). Pinochet ruled ruthlessly, instituting extreme free-market changes. The combination of both leaders wrenched Chile to the left and then to the right, deeply damaging the country.
Then there are those who seek power by drawing people off at a tangent, incidentally or intentionally blocking progressive developments or hijacking social movements to their advantage: Julius Caesar (Roman general and dictator 50s-40s BCE); Leo III (Byzantine emperor 717-741 CE, iconoclast and militarist, who sanctioned the persecution of icon-worshippers); Mahmud of Ghazni (Afghan-Turk conqueror and forcible converter of Hindus to Islam in India, active in the early 1000s); Michinaga (Fujiwara shogun, early 100s, Japan); al-Hakim (Fatimid caliph of Maghreb 996-1021, an intolerant persecutor); Basil II (Byzantine emperor 976-1025, a cruel militarist); Timurlenk (Turk-Mongol conqueror, active in the later 1300s); Oliver Cromwell (England, active 1650s, a soldier, statesman and Puritan); Aurangzeb (Moghul emperor 1658-1707, a usurper, fanatic and exploiter); Napoleon Bonaparte (soldier and empire-builder, France, active 1790s-1815); Francisco Franco (soldier and dictator, Spain, 1930s-1975).
Such cynical diversion of nascent social movements to oppressive ends adds to the world-weariness of peoples and suppresses many potential positive forward steps. The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s concerned principles important to the whole of Western civilisation – matters of freedom and control. Had it been won not by fascists but by the more libertarian socialists and anarchists, the contribution of Nazism and the Cold War to modern history might have been very different.
However, it must here be reiterated that it is ordinary people who, tragically, allow such leaders as Franco to gain power over them – the fact fascism gained a foothold even before the Spanish civil war started was a sign that it was already too late. In the end, although it is questionable whether humanity really needed to follow such perverse and painful paths through history as dictatorships and civil wars, ruthless rulers have nevertheless added to the experience of humanity. Hopefully this will lead to the dissolution of need for such characters. This is a question of social choice.
There have been reforming leaders who have sometimes led people too far, too fast. When this happens, masses of people can become overly reliant on the strength of leaders, to the extent that impetus is lost or reversed as soon as the leader's death or downfall comes. Mahatma Gandhi's religious and humanitarian convictions, embracing non-violent action and fundamental restructuring of Indian society, left their mark, yet they were never achieved.
Some reformers can be well-intentioned at first, though the attainment of power and its maintenance leads to outrageous outcomes: Mao Tse-tung was one such leader. Humanity invests so much power in its leaders, who embody a crystallisation of national ego. Yet national selfhood – the body politic – can fulfil its purposes in far greater ways than this.
What is needed for sustained and fruitful change is collective action on an ongoing basis. This can arise only from a generalised uplift of awareness. Such shifts of awareness do happen. The historic surge into the public domain of ecological awareness in 1986-89 was an example of a consciousness-shift. It was catalysed by organisations such as Greenpeace, Earth First and Friends of the Earth, yet it arose independently of them – they simply gave the movement shape and voice.
Similarly, the rise of the European Renaissance and Reformation, though catalysed by notable individuals, represented a transpersonal shift of power out of the hands of monarchs, church and aristocracy into the hands of merchants and the newly-emergent bourgeoisie. Similarly, the downfall of many dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s (in South America, Spain, Portugal, the Philippines and the Soviet bloc) represented a worldwide shift of political values toward greater consultative and representative systems – though there is yet far to go.
Unity of purpose is absolutely necessary in the 21st century. This does not mean the eradication of variety or differences. It means the dawning of an awareness of mutuality and a popular cultivation of social intelligence and understanding amongst the masses of the people. The difficulty here is that masses of people are inexperienced in working together cooperatively over a sustained period of time. This probably implies that a transitional period is needed, where the quality of social and political leadership needs to change from a directive-coercive to a facilitative-consensual mode.
Leadership needs to move towards greater responsiveness to the social will, without populism. It demands a growing willingness to relinquish power when a leader's task is done, and a purification in the motivation of leaders. This also involves growing social vigilance and foresight, and diminishing mass impulsiveness, short-sighted public narrowness and herd-mentality.
Electorates allow themselves to be easily propagandised and hoodwinked, leaving important matters for leaderships and vested interests to decide. The public does need to educate itself in the issues at stake and to assert a more ongoing influence in decision-making. This requires a change of awareness of dramatic proportions from that of today.
This shift, however, is in essence quite simple. It involves a mass acceptance that we all sail in the same boat – and that longterm benefits sometimes demand short-term sacrifices. Understanding and solidarity are such necessary factors in human survival, and the prospect of wholesale global horror is such an enormous threat, that unity of purpose and resolution of age-old social schisms is not only necessary but also possibly inevitable. The alternative is unthinkable.
We live now in a concentrated period of history where our capacity to make such changes is under test. If we succeed, the payoffs could be immense. The price of failure could be immense too. The choice is ours. Everyone's.
This involves a re-examination of what divides us: the psychology of them-and-us. From now on, it is us-and-us, and there aren't really any alternatives.