The Trans-dimensional Democracy
Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” outlines a world in which nationalities and the identities (both civic and cultural) they are inherently associated with only materialize when the very idea of them becomes deeply ingrained in the hearts and minds of a group of people. This allows them to believe in a metaphysical union of sorts, the notion that they are part of an entity larger than themselves, thus forming a psychological basis for the 20th century social contract.
This revolutionized the way we view our world and our ethno-national selves. States were no longer merely geographic, linguistic, or administrative units, but a palpable social reality born out of something as abstract or intangible as an idea or belief. This mass conception of commonality between people of innumerable different backgrounds seems idealistic, almost too good to be true, yet it is a theory whose evidence lays in the condition of today’s geopolitical landscape.
Yet, this intangible unity between people does not merely appear and autonomously, continuously renew itself, it is largely created by another immutable component of modern society: the “public sphere”. Jurgen Habermas authored his hallmark social theory about this “public sphere” during the 18th century, writing that a healthy community needs to have a public entity comprised of private individuals, responsible for helping mediate between society and state.
The conditions for such a body are based off the saloons of enlightenment-age Europe: an all-inclusive, well-informed debate regarding matters of general interest that ultimately hashes out a commonly held public opinion regarding governance and the issues of the day. To discuss this conclusion in context of Anderson’s theory, the ideology that is born out of this public sphere often becomes the sociopolitical cornerstone upon which this new, “imagined” community is built.
In short, the formation and operation of the public sphere socially constructs the conceptions of citizenship that form the basis of the “imagined community”, which lies at the heart of national identity. Yet, the procedural features of the “public sphere” (universal inclusion; a well-informed, reasoning public; discussing matters of common concern) seem to be absent even in the nations hailed as supposed pinnacles of democracy.
These elements, considered so essential to the formation and function of a democratic society, do not seem to manifest themselves in the institutions and practices of the world’s governments. A harsh mix of pragmatism, nativism, and global power dynamics have resulted in the exclusion of many from the public sphere, a denial of participation in the formation of public opinion, and the wide-scale disenfranchisement of minorities, immigrants, and those on the periphery of society and at the bottom of the proverbial economic totem pole.
Succinctly put, the “public sphere” is becoming smaller, increasingly homogenous, and the “public opinions” it now forms are completely aloof and indifferent to the actual interests and concerns of the majority. Yet, if the foundational set of common beliefs that supposedly form the basic ideals of a nation are anything but commonly held, what does this mean for the existence of said nation?
Evidence of the existential threat political and economic exclusion poses to even the states with seemingly the most longevity and stability can be seen in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Mohamed Bouazizi, a street grocer in Tunisia lit himself on fire in protest after a municipal official harassed him and confiscated his inventory, which incited demonstrations throughout the country that ultimately resulted in the ousting of President Ben Ali and inspired similar movements in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Jordan, and several other MENA states.
Where did the marginalized and oppressed peoples of these countries turn to when they were pushed to the political periphery? As the ideological foundation of their “imagined community” crumbled and became unrecognizable to them, how did this new, revolutionary community form political consensus and formulate a new “public opinion”?
The answer is social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. They left the “imagined community” of their respective nations and found a new sense of citizenship and ideological kinship in a digital one. This is a watershed moment for how the world perceives political and national identity, establishing a new geopolitical, uniquely 21st century precedent: if one one’s social and political reality is dissatisfactory, if they find themselves the victim of oppression or persecution, they can seek solidarity online.
Wael Ghonim, Egyptian google employee and revolutionary, used a Facebook page he created to raise awareness for a friend murdered by the Mubarak regime called “We are Khaled Said” to build a community of over 100,000 people ready to demonstrate. 9 out of 10 Tunisians and Egyptians said they used Facebook for organizing political action. Its staggering to think social media helped catalyze the most remarkable regime change in a century for two massive countries.
Even on a smaller scale, the same fundamental principle holds true. The #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations are, in effect, a marginalized community who feels they have been ignored by the general public and its political concerns and have sought unity with people who share their sentiments via social media (the perfect medium for such an endeavor). Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and even SnapChat now have become the default sanctuary for political misfits, searching for people who feel the same way.
What’s more, despite the promise of Anderson’s discovery, we live in a state of statelessness. As of 2013, 232 million people or 3.2 percent of the world’s population lives outside the country in which they were born. This figure has grown exponentially with the violence and political turmoil that has displaced millions since this survey and is projected to double by 2050. Yet beyond the statistics, the sociocultural effects of this are growing increasingly visible:
Somalian families have settled in and transformed Lewiston, Maine. The rural suburbs of Rochester have been inundated with Bhutanese farmhands and their families. The area surrounding Detroit has become home to thousands Yemenis. Rwandans run Auckland. South Asians swarm London and Moroccans do the same in Reykjavik . Just the other day I was told, “there are more saris hanging from windows than British flags in London.” As famed globalist Pico Iyer once wrote, “everywhere is so made up of everywhere else — a polycentric anagram.”
These rapid demographic changes are leading to an increasingly exclusionary public sphere, spawning more frequent and vitriolic proclamations of someone as “other”. The figurative fibers that bind together the imagined communities which hold together nearly every one of the 196 countries that inhabit our globe are being degraded by pitting those in favor of inclusion and sociocultural integration versus those against it.
The once quiet, tranquil nations of Europe have become cultural and literal battlegrounds; their populations turning into profiling gangs of vigilantes, attacking anyone with a long beard or brown skin and voting overwhelmingly to put populist, neo-facists in power. Since 2012, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Belgium, Hungary, Austria, Greece, and the United Kingdom have all had formidable conservative political revolutions, definitively declaring their dissidence from the new norm of integration.
Essentially, the circle of political power and participation has become tightened by xenophobia and nativism. If we look at the trend of exclusion catalyzing the disenfranchised’s search for community and solidarity online, we begin to see the cyber and psycho-political underpinnings of the most important geopolitical development of the last five years: the rise and subsequent global expansion of the Islamic State or Daesh.
While young Muslims living across the Western world are more susceptible to these feelings of alienation and more receptive to potential extremist messages via social media correspondence, this phenomenon affects even those whom society would deem least at risk. This summer, The New York Times ran a story called “ISIS and The Young American”, describing in great detail how a white, devoutly Christian 23 year-old Sunday school teacher from rural Washington State was courted by a member of the Islamic State via social media and nearly decided to travel to Syria.
Obviously, the Arab Spring uprisings, #BlackLivesMatter movements, and the rise of the Islamic State all came about under different sociopolitical circumstances, yet, the harrowing thing they have in common is their expert ability to launch fiery online movements and to connect to people living on the periphery of society. There are a few conclusions we can draw from all of this:
Exclusionary, xenophobic, and nativist political practices and public spheres do not work to solve any social issues. In fact, they propagate more of them:
Had the United States made a concerted effort for the economic, geographic, and cultural integration of blacks after civil rights were achieved, would it still be experiencing such acrimonious race relations?
Had the regimes in the Middle East not marginalized their political, religious, or ethnic rivals, would the chaotic disrepair that characterizes the region today exist?
Had Europe not attempted to strip Muslim immigrants of their cultural and religious identities (largely as the result of the right-wing movements mentioned above) and refused to politically and economically integrate them into society, would thousands still be returning to fight for the Islamic State?
Lastly, I leave you with this: If an “imagined community” perceived by a large enough group of people served as the primary foundation for the 20th century social contract, is a digital community going to be the prerequisite for that of the 21st century? As the conventional characteristics that bind states together (common ethno-linguistic identity, religious beliefs, political ideologies, etc.) are disintegrated by the breakneck speed and scale of globalization, could that which forms our national or political identity exist outside the three dimensional world?