In the National Interest

The collective psyche of nations


'National interest' is usually handed down to us, as if agreed. It is usually defined by specific interests that dominate society. Yet national interest is a bigger and wider question.

A nation is a gaggle of characters, voices, interests, groups. They don't act as a whole - each plays its own drama. A nation has a conscious ego (government), a subconscious (civil society) and an unconscious (the people).

Government, institutions, official culture and top-level power-holders, however they got there, embody the controlling ego - 'mission control'. They coordinate and summate all the interests and viewpoints of a nation, in the nation's best interests - theoretically.

But they tend to form a self-defining culture living in its own universe ('Westminster', 'inside the Beltway', 'the Kremlin', 'the G8'). At defining moments, the majority's universe scrapes and collides with it.

Institutions, organisations, media, civil society and local power-networks represent the subconscious, operating locally and in sectors, each with their viewpoint. The public, popular feelings and movements, nature and 'chance events' represent the collective unconscious.

All of us have conditioned areas of our personal psyches that subscribe variously to the beliefs and strictures of 'central command', the subconscious and the unconscious - we are behaviourally inconsistent.

The national pile usually functions in an orderly fashion but sometimes things shift beyond the framework managed by mission control. During the 20th C there have been mighty attempts by mission control to contain and channel the collective unconscious along prescribed lines, according to its logic.

But ultimately the controlling ego exists by the grace of the subconscious, civil society, which itself operates by the grace of the unconscious, the people and their feelings.

All the world's a stage


Today, consumers, voters and 'the street' have ways of seeing things and asserting sentiments they have not articulated or understood before.

In the collective movie, characters and situations come on the screen to embody issues and imagery in the collective psyche - stars, figureheads, floods of refugees, heroes, troublemakers, advocates, victims - whose appearance might be short-lived, but they catalyse processes by which the collective psyche evolves and distils its position.

Add to this events and 'acts of God' - storms, earthquakes, climatic extremes, plane crashes - which at times have an uncanny, apposite timeliness and apt symbolism.

These phenomena happen not just 'by chance'. They stir up ideas, feelings and processes that are the stuff of real change and real life.

People and events bring out a nation's highest and noblest qualities and its seediest, lowest and most destructive elements.

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts...
- Shakespeare, As You Like It.


As walking involves cooperation of limbs, organs and brain-function, so the various bits of a nation have to work together to produce net movement. When this is dysfunctional, turbulence breaks out, and a fermentation follows.

In the national drama different elements shout for attention - some attempt to dominate the agenda. Outcomes depend greatly on truth-levels in a society.

Each nation plays a part in a larger global chess-game. Some nations really like hogging the podium. The chess-game has its own agenda and story-line, enveloping those of nations. Global stage dramas are different from what goes on backstage or at home.

Travel, education, media, telecoms and population growth have brought a shift in the chess-game: since the 1960s the world's population has incrementally become aware of itself as a wholeness.

The psychic internet


The psyche of a nation is a buzzing interactive network of attention, ideas, feelings and preoccupations, with a certain commonality of psychology and interests.

It encompasses the nation's imprinted history, remembered and lost, and its self-image, icons, angels, devils and future possibilities.

A 'morphic field' of psychic data-bits, it contains stored memories, dreams, hopes, fears, hang-ups, tendencies, impressions, viewpoints, experiences, sub-personalities and tonalities.

Public figures, institutions, representative groups and organisations, as well as symbols and images, cultural output and events, become its agents, lightning-rods and channels.

The life-story and mythology of a nation is contained within the imprinted saga of all that has brought it to the present time. Public consciousness draws on this pool of subjective experience as it faces different situations, and often in unpredictable ways.

Nations are reality-bubbles, each with a way of seeing life unique to them.

National psyches rumble strongly when momentous or symbolic events take place - wars, tragedies, shocks or high or proud moments. This rumbling invokes deep forces beyond people's full comprehension, at times causing eruptions and reactions disproportionate to the situation at hand.

The boundaries of collective psyches are unclear. Transnational groupings cross spatial boundaries yet they have a psychic territory - and when they meet up, their own little world is reactivated in that meeting.

Nationalist feelings derive from a feeling of ethnic lostness. They represent a grasping for identificational symbols and protective stockades, often because people have lost track of the true heart and pulse of the nation.

Rubbing up, rubbing along


In the 21st C, an enormous global forgiveness and reconciliation process is needed to help redeem enduring negative effects of the past while helping to integrate the positive effects of globalisation.

There's no inherent problem in racial, ethnic or class differences unless problems are made out of them, or unless those differences become exceptionally unjust or irreconcilable.

There comes a point where focusing on differences becomes counter-productive. We're all people, co-inhabitants of Earth.

Yet our differences pose real questions which cannot be swept aside - they inevitably rise up again if denied or underrated.

Basic common global values are gradually being thrashed out in our time. No one cultural bloc will prevail. This is the weaving of a tapestry where all threads create the pattern.

Socio-diversity enriches the world, and inter-cultural respect is now vital. Respect doesn't demand agreement, only recognition of the part cultures and nations play in the world matrix.

We fail to see our ethnic and national strengths and weaknesses as others see them.

We become what we most seek to control, suppress or exclude. Intolerance betrays the hidden agendas of those practising it.

No conflict is resolved unless all parties acknowledge themselves as others see them. No understanding is achieved unless we own in ourselves what we most dislike in others.

No statement of national interest carries true weight unless the whole of a nation's psyche - with its fear, guilt, shame and regret - is built in.

Nations act out their self-images, dramas and shadows while reciting lines from an official script. International politics is riddled with this - a divergence between the official line and real life unfolding on the ground.

Nations see only what they choose to see of themselves. Within each nation there is variation of perceptions. The sumtotal of all perceptions is the true national psyche. Therefore the priorities of limited interests are not the national interest.

The tip and the iceberg


The official, publicly-accepted story, is but the tip of an iceberg. At times hidden stuff makes the big difference in international relations.

A nation's psyche has many rooms, halls and corridors. The main hall into which guests are invited is the national ego - its sanitised attractions, official culture and assets. Looking down the back-streets at its squalor, corruption or poverty is taboo. A nation can get irritable if its cover-ups are exposed. All countries have this under-the-carpet stuff.

A wise country acknowledges all parts of itself, owning up and taking responsibility for all it is and does. This is in a nation's overall best interest.

An unwise nation hides and excludes those parts it doesn't want to 'own' and be accountable for. Unacknowledged traits will come back to haunt it, even centuries later.

What a nation believes about itself conflicts with what it is. A nation's ego makes the defining decisions about money supply, policy, law and a big chunk of the national agenda, exercising a tone-setting and enforcing influence even when the country is against it. Those in office live very different lives from people 'on the ground'.

A nation's core institutions should reflect rather than control the nation. This is what democracy aims for. Political systems work longterm only if the nation's centre responds to the periphery, the people, the provinces and real life.

The collective unconscious moves in strange ways and, if central command over-controls the national flow, funny things start going bump in the night, and control ebbs away.

In national decisions, someone will always lose out, but a just and fair balance of loss and gain has to be found. Without this, something fundamental is lost in the national spirit and a tidal pressure for change builds up, eventually to burst. Sooner or later. By whatever means.

If a nation fails to acknowledge the full extent of its problem, the new order takes on many characteristics of the old order, sometimes making things much worse.

Nations' shadows


The shadow is the back-end, what a nation doesn't want itself or the world to see - or smell.

The shadow is a nation's down-and-outs, losers, exiles and rejects, its garbage-dumps, prisons, pimps, seedy, sordid and corrupt aspects, and its 'black' or 'grey' economies, bombs, failed harvests or violence.

Some societies get seriously stuck in a shadow-loop: high levels of social badness and mutual deception grip the population, and the rot cannot be stopped.

Stepping out of such a loop involves a cultural revolution wherein wholesome human trust, honesty and mutuality are restored.

All nations need to examine themselves, reviewing their truths and untruths, setting in motion a process of reintegration and self-healing.

This process reconciles conflicting influences in a nation. Without it, conflict always comes up, since concealed truths turn differences into conflicts.

Here narrower definitions of national interest don't work. The whole national interest needs to be clearly perceived, with no concealments - or the nation and the world both pay a price.

Governments conceal their true agendas - and the public usually goes along with this. Worse, the public goes along with the official line even when it doesn't believe it. Such complacency is not in the national interest.

It is in the national interest to strengthen and enliven human life and civic fabric. It means fostering good, warm and genuine community and international relationships. A police presence is no substitute for a friendly society. Advanced healthcare is no substitute for wholesome food and a healthy environment. Armed forces are no substitute for good relations with other countries.

Defining national interest is not as simple as is usually made out. Narrow national interest charges a high price in wider implications and longer term. Future generations are left to handle the results.


Take me to your Leader

© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2005-08. You may print out single copies of the material on this site for personal or small-group use or study, in a spirit of fair play. Larger quantities, commercial or website reproduction - anything more than fair-use quotes - . Thanks. Palden Jenkins.