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Same Planet, Different Worlds

National character-formation

There is a developmental psychology of nations. They are born and go through their growth stages, just like individuals. The story is different for each nation, as with individuals, but there is a generalised sequence of growth characterising the formation of a nation. It goes something like this.

The birth of a tribe or first-nation comes with its establishment. For the Uighurs of Central Asia it was around four millennia ago, and for the early white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans landing in Virginia and Massachusetts it was in the early 1600s. The tribe stakes out its patch, setting about making it home. They live a simple, quiet life in their corner of the world, nurtured by the landscape and each other, attending to their own business. It is a pottering existence where the main issue is to feed their people and be happy. Such a community can easily be mown down but, if it finds its feet, it starts exploring the wider possibilities available in its patch. It starts crawling around.

Such a tribe develops life-ways, culture and mythologies, unique environmental adaptations and its first strokes of genius and initiative. Language, farming, domestic and architectural styles come into being, and outlying villages are founded. First contact is made with other tribes - spare items, specialist services and people are exchanged. If trade and interchange don't work, it doesn't matter greatly. If there is serious difficulty, such as territorial disputes or crop-failure, tribal confidence takes a hit, and the tribe might retreat into a safe valley or forest fastness, or adopt a fight-back strategy. The crisis forces the tribal society to get more organised, building precautionary structures or reserves. Perhaps it becomes more hierarchical, to quicken responses to challenges. Yet the first signs of dissension arise too, over strategy, rights and power. The men develop response systems in their own model, discounting the reservations of the women.

Tribal security, imaginativeness and contentment are now more disturbed than at first, introducing stresses which can spread virally. If one household expands its food-stores or stock of weapons, others must too. Antipathies might grow, and some people walk out or introduce the possibility. Loyalties are tested and relationships stretched. This might result in growing social atomisation or tribal unravelment, or perhaps it is sublimated into shamanistic and religious developments engaging the tribal gods and ancestors, or it might be externalised into conquest, construction or expansion, or, with luck, a benign chief contains the situation, guaranteeing security under his auspices - but this survives only as long as the chief does.

Social specialisation and differentiation expand as members gain experience in crafts, agriculture, homemaking, warriorship and artistry. Relations with other tribes get more serious, and inclusion-exclusion issues, equity and justice, resource management and governance all get weightier. Internal and external tribal politics demand growing skills, stimulating stronger leadership structures. The tribe has transited to a new stage - some ripping and tearing has occurred but vestiges of the traditional structure hold firm. The quality of these transitions influences subsequent trends and events. Some things have been gained and some lost: what matters most is what the tribe has made of the experience. Loss might not be negative in the end, and gain might not be positive. Most likely it's a mixed bag.

What is important is the capacity of a tribe to hold together, understand and organise its reality, master technical, environmental and social issues and form arrangements with other peoples. This is roughly equivalent to an individual's development around age seven to nine - and, like such children, excesses can occur as the boundaries are felt out and increasingly complex lessons are discovered and learned. Horizons are widening: the world's response to the tribe's initiatives and the tribe's response to the world's pressures and enticements strongly affect that tribe's future. Some tribes come out strong while others are weakened, subsumed, overwhelmed or retreat. The Lapps and Finns, once Siberian, were squeezed west and north to escape pressures, while Germanic peoples moved south from Sweden in search of new pastures, pressurising others and eventually taking on the Roman Empire.

Internal political arrangements - leadership, resource distribution, rights and power - must be clearly established because they affect the capacity of the tribe to function, up against peoples who might be more advanced or graced with advantages. Inter-tribal space and resource allocation gets thrashed out - here comes the beginning of statecraft, diplomacy or the habit of war. At this stage, war is a failure of relationship which can disadvantage or kill a tribe or, in some cases, make it a dominator.

Here we come to tribal puberty and youth. The tribe is becoming a proto-nation, feeling its boundaries, laying in stocks and fallback resources, building trading centres, agreeing treaties, sorting out allies and sources of risk, merging or confederating with other tribes, thinking about its future and carving its place in a more complex world. Increasingly, this is men's domain, since the women tend to hold the hearth and maintain the community's essential functions while the men range around the peripheries, establishing their domain in newly-developing areas. These start out as insignificant and marginal, becoming important as time goes on. Such impulses might arise within the tribe, perhaps amongst a restless, visionary or pragmatic subgroup, or they might constitute a response to challenges from further afield. Something more calculating, ambitious or defensive comes into play. There is trade specialisation, artisanry, infrastructure investment, attention to the trappings, traditions and symbols of tribal life, a fore-arming against eventuality and a development of richer, deeper traditions, histories and lore. Beliefs consolidate and complexify as shamanic nature religion gives way to more ritualistic or doctrinal faiths.

Here comes another crucial divide, equivalent to teenage years. The tribe or proto-nation hardens itself, undermining clan trust and intimacy. This can happen from top down: perhaps the chief and his followers are usurped by disgruntled power-contenders, or they grow big for their boots or lose touch with the people, or power is seized from outside, or a need develops to ally with a larger power. Once tribal elders, rulers are now power-mongers with henchmen and warriors or possessing the most booty or sense of strategy. Cruel things can be done to develop, maintain or take power: women are raped, villages burned, heads roll and people bolt their doors. Sons are conscripted and heavy tithes charged. Big precedents happen. The tribe retains its shamans, healers, grandmothers and village heads, but no longer at the centre of society - they now patch up social fallout. Chancellors and priests crowd around the monarch, and strength matters more than wisdom. Some women are traditionalists holding the 'circle of power' and others cleave to 'progress' and change. Personal audiences with the chief are no longer available: scribes submit missives or ministers must be influenced or bribed. This is not necessarily negative or violent, but for ordinary people something is lost - there is less belonging and more obedience. Or families leave, heading into the forest or wilderness to get away.

This transition from tribe to nation is crucial in a people's development. It defines relations between rulers and ruled, affecting society's warmth and inclusivity, impacting on the landscape through land-ownership and land-use patterns, crystallising economies and the tax system and fundamentally influencing the spirit of the nation. In Europe, the early-medieval Vikings played a surprisingly large formative role in this hardening process. First they assaulted coastal areas, forcing victims to absorb the impact or to militarise. Culture centres were raided, looted and burned. Later they founded warrior aristocracies such as the Normans in France or the Rus in Russia, setting tough new precedents of rule, military activity, wealth-generation through trade and feudal land-ownership. Their treatment of people and land upped the stakes of social disdain. The Normans gained lands across France, England and Italy, nudging their way into royal courts as knights and political manoeuvrers. The Rus founded Russia, centred at first in Kiev (Ukraine). The Normans later formed the backbone of the Crusades, Europeans' first imperialist adventure. Their legacy lives on today in Britain's 'establishment', with good old fox-hunting, pinstripe-suited, Oxbridge-educated 'toffs' who still populate the nation's boardrooms.

By now, a nation has established its boundaries and capital, laws, currencies and systems, mythology and religion, trade and foreign relations. Its fortunes depend greatly on choices made and strategies enacted, and less on its inherent wealth, people, land or culture. Cathedrals, colleges, castles, armies, institutions, bureaucracies, trade fairs and courts are established. This stage is accompanied by political jostling, debate and manipulation. Here, the nation has become like a young adult - feisty, knows it all, on a roll, in control. But the serious stuff is yet to come. Having reached this stage, the evolving state seeks a purpose.

The egos of different nations - their leaders - can clash. England and France, in the Hundred Years War (a long series of wars from the 1330s to the 1450s), fought over Norman and French land inheritances in France. The French nobility was wiped out, then the English lost their French possessions and finally ended up fighting between themselves (the Wars of the Roses, 1455-85). This hardly concerned the majority of people, but greatly affected them - sons were lost, taxes levied, communities burned, atrocities were committed. Rape introduces warrior genes into otherwise quiet localities - 60% of Europeans carry a genetic trace from Alexander the Great, a very busy man! The people are by now more than ever at the mercy of their leaders. Earlier on, suffering at the hands of leaders would have been short-term, but this was now becoming a permanent condition of society, with a war in every generation.

Following this breakdown of social trust and intimacy comes a loosening of morals too. In medieval times many societies underwent periods of ribaldry and wastage, counterbalanced by a growing monastic movement, as a consequence of the loss of the containing moral integrity of earlier traditional societies. This brought loss of mutual trust, honour and respect: natural justice becomes codified law, easily broken and favouring the strong. Then come corrupt regimes, oppressive feudal lords, persecutions and other horrors, staining collective memory - unless such trends are somehow redeemed during phases of good governance and cultural upswing.



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