The Collapse of the Family and the Community, Imagined Communities

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The Collapse of the Family and the Community, by Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the daily life of most humans ran its course within three ancient frames: the nuclear family, the extended family and the local intimate community. Most people worked in the family business – the family farm or the family workshop, for example – or they worked in their neighbors’ family businesses. The family was also the welfare system, the health system, the education system, the construction industry, the trade union, the pension fund, the insurance company, the radio, the television, the newspapers, the bank and even the police.

When a person fell sick, the family took care of her. When a person grew old, the family supported her, and her children were her pension fund. When a person died, the family took care of the orphans. If a person wanted to build a hut, the family lent a hand. If a person wanted to open a business, the family raised the necessary money. If a person wanted to marry, the family chose, or at least vetted, the prospective spouse. If conflict arose with a neighbour, the family muscled in. But if a person’s illness was too grave for the family to manage, or a new business demanded too large an investment, or the neighborhood quarrel escalated to the point of violence, the local community came to the rescue.

The community offered help on the basis of local traditions and an economy of favors, which often differed greatly from the supply and demand laws of the free market. In an old-fashioned medieval community, when my neighbor was in need, I helped build his hut and guard his sheep, without expecting any payment in return. When I was in need, my neighbor returned the favor. At the same time, the local potentate might have drafted all of us villagers to construct his castle without paying us a penny. In exchange, we counted on him to defend us against brigands and barbarians. Village life involved many transactions but few payments. There were some markets, of course, but their roles were limited. You could buy rare spices, cloth and tools, and hire the services of lawyers and doctors. Yet less than 10 per cent of commonly used products and services were bought in the market. Most human needs were taken care of by the family and the community.

There were also kingdoms and empires that performed important tasks such as waging wars, building roads and constructing palaces. For these purposes kings raised taxes and occasionally enlisted soldiers and laborers. Yet, with few exceptions, they tended to stay out of the daily affairs of families and communities. Even if they wanted to intervene, most kings could do so only with difficulty. Traditional agricultural economies had few surpluses with which to feed crowds of government officials, policemen, social workers, teachers and doctors. Consequently, most rulers did not develop mass welfare systems, health-care systems or educational systems. They left such matters in the hands of families and communities. Even on rare occasions when rulers tried to intervene more intensively in the daily lives of the peasantry (as happened, for example, in the Qin Empire in China), they did so by converting family heads and community elders into government agents.

Often enough, transportation and communication difficulties made it so difficult to intervene in the affairs of remote communities that many kingdoms preferred to cede even the most basic royal prerogatives – such as taxation and violence – to communities. The Ottoman Empire, for instance, allowed family vendettas to mete out justice, rather than supporting a large imperial police force. If my cousin killed somebody, the victim’s brother might kill me in sanctioned revenge. The sultan in Istanbul or even the provincial pasha did not intervene in such clashes, as long as violence remained within acceptable limits.

In the Chinese Ming Empire (1368–1644), the population was organized into the baojia system. Ten families were grouped to form a jia, and ten jia constituted a bao. When a member of a bao committed a crime, other bao members could be punished for it, in particular the bao elders. Taxes too were levied on the bao, and it was the responsibility of the bao elders rather than of the state officials to assess the situation of each family and determine the amount of tax it should pay. From the empire’s perspective, this system had a huge advantage. Instead of maintaining thousands of revenue officials and tax collectors, who would have to monitor the earnings and expenses of every family, these tasks were left to the community elders. The elders knew how much each villager was worth and they could usually enforce tax payments without involving the imperial army.

Many kingdoms and empires were in truth little more than large protection rackets. The king was the capo di tutti capi who collected protection money, and in return made sure that neighboring crime syndicates and local small fry did not harm those under his protection. He did little else.

Life in the bosom of family and community was far from ideal. Families and communities could oppress their members no less brutally than do modern states and markets, and their internal dynamics were often fraught with tension and violence – yet people had little choice. A person who lost her family and community around 1750 was as good as dead. She had no job, no education and no support in times of sickness and distress. Nobody would loan her money or defend her if she got into trouble. There were no policemen, no social workers and no compulsory education. In order to survive, such a person quickly had to find an alternative family or community. Boys and girls who ran away from home could expect, at best, to become servants in some new family. At worst, there was the army or the brothel.

All this changed dramatically over the last two centuries. The Industrial Revolution gave the market immense new powers, provided the state with new means of communication and transportation, and placed at the government’s disposal an army of clerks, teachers, policemen and social workers. At first the market and the state discovered their path blocked by traditional families and communities who had little love for outside intervention. Parents and community elders were reluctant to let the younger generation be indoctrinated by nationalist education systems, conscripted into armies or turned into a rootless urban proletariat.
Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. The state sent its policemen to stop family vendettas and replace them with court decisions. The market sent its hawkers to wipe out longstanding local traditions and replace them with ever-changing commercial fashions. Yet this was not enough. In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column.

The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.’

Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidized or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, social security steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse – usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbors’ taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins.

Not only adult men, but also women and children, are recognized as individuals. Throughout most of history, women were often seen as the property of family or community. Modern states, on the other hand, see women as individuals, enjoying economic and legal rights independently of their family and community. They may hold their own bank accounts, decide whom to marry, and even choose to divorce or live on their own.
But the liberation of the individual comes at a cost. Many of us now bewail the loss of strong families and communities and feel alienated and threatened by the power the impersonal state and market wield over our lives. States and markets composed of alienated individuals can intervene in the lives of their members much more easily than states and markets composed of strong families and communities. When neighbors in a high-rise apartment building cannot even agree on how much to pay their janitor, how can we expect them to resist the state?

The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.

The nuclear family did not disappear completely from the modern landscape. When states and markets took from the family most of its economic and political roles, they left it some important emotional functions. The modern family is still supposed to provide for intimate needs, which state and market are (so far) incapable of providing. Yet even here the family is subject to increasing interventions. The market shapes to an ever-greater degree the way people conduct their romantic and sexual lives. Whereas traditionally the family was the main matchmaker, today it’s the market that tailors our romantic and sexual preferences, and then lends a hand in providing for them – for a fat fee. Previously bride and groom met in the family living room, and money passed from the hands of one father to another. Today courting is done at bars and cafés, and money passes from the hands of lovers to waitresses. Even more money is transferred to the bank accounts of fashion designers, gym managers, dieticians, cosmeticians and plastic surgeons, who help us arrive at the café looking as similar as possible to the markets ideal of beauty.

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Family and community vs. state and market

The state, too, keeps a sharper eye on family relations, especially between parents and children. Parents are obliged to send their children to be educated by the state. Parents who are especially abusive or violent with their children may be restrained by the state. If need be, the state may even imprison the parents or transfer their children to foster families. Until not long ago, the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from beating or humiliating their children would have been rejected out of hand as ludicrous and unworkable. In most societies parental authority was sacred. Respect of and obedience to one’s parents were among the most hallowed values, and parents could do almost anything they wanted, including killing newborn babies, selling children into slavery and marrying off daughters to men more than twice their age. Today, parental authority is in full retreat. Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child. Mum and Dad are about as likely to get off in the Freudian courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial.

Imagined Communities

Like the nuclear family, the community could not completely disappear from our world without any emotional replacement. Markets and states today provide most of the material needs once provided by communities, but they must also supply tribal bonds.

Markets and states do so by fostering ‘imagined communities’ that contain millions of strangers, and which are tailored to national and commercial needs. An imagined community is a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do. Such communities are not a novel invention. Kingdoms, empires and churches functioned for millennia as imagined communities. In ancient China, tens of millions of people saw themselves as members of a single family, with the emperor as its father. In the Middle Ages, millions of devout Muslims imagined that they were all brothers and sisters in the great community of Islam. Yet throughout history, such imagined communities played second fiddle to intimate communities of several dozen people who knew each other well. The intimate communities fulfilled the emotional needs of their members and were essential for everyone’s survival and welfare. In the last two centuries, the intimate communities have withered, leaving imagined communities to fill in the emotional vacuum.

The two most important examples for the rise of such imagined communities are the nation and the consumer tribe. The nation is the imagined community of the state. The consumer tribe is the imagined community of the market. Both are imagined communities because it is impossible for all customers in a market or for all members of a nation really to know one another the way villagers knew one another in the past. No German can intimately know the other 80 million members of the German nation, or the other 500 million customers inhabiting the European Common Market (which evolved first into the European Community and finally became the European Union).

Consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination. Like money, limited liability companies and human rights, nations and consumer tribes are inter-subjective realities. They exist only in our collective imagination, yet their power is immense. As long as millions of Germans believe in the existence of a German nation, get excited at the sight of German national symbols, retell German national myths, and are willing to sacrifice money, time and limbs for the German nation, Germany will remain one of the strongest powers in the world.

The nation does its best to hide its imagined character. Most nations argue that they are a natural and eternal entity, created in some primordial epoch by mixing the soil of the motherland with the blood of the people. Yet such claims are usually exaggerated. Nations existed in the distant past, but their importance was much smaller than today because the importance of the state was much smaller. A resident of medieval Nuremberg might have felt some loyalty towards the German nation, but she felt far more loyalty towards her family and local community, which took care of most of her needs. Moreover, whatever importance ancient nations may have had, few of them survived. Most existing nations evolved only after the Industrial Revolution.

The Middle East provides ample examples. The Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Iraqi nations are the product of haphazard borders drawn in the sand by French and British diplomats who ignored local history, geography and economy. These diplomats determined in 1918 that the people of Kurdistan, Baghdad and Basra would henceforth be ‘Iraqis’. It was primarily the French who decided who would be Syrian and who Lebanese. Saddam Hussein and Hafez el-Asad tried their best to promote and reinforce their Anglo-French-manufactured national consciousnesses, but their bombastic speeches about the allegedly eternal Iraqi and Syrian nations had a hollow ring.

It goes without saying that nations cannot be created from thin air. Those who worked hard to construct Iraq or Syria made use of real historical, geographical and cultural raw materials – some of which are centuries and millennia old. Saddam Hussein co-opted the heritage of the Abbasid caliphate and the Babylonian Empire, even calling one of his crack armoured units the Hammurabi Division. Yet that does not turn the Iraqi nation into an ancient entity. If I bake a cake from flour, oil and sugar, all of which have been sitting in my pantry for the past two months, it does not mean that the cake itself is two months old.

In recent decades, national communities have been increasingly eclipsed by tribes of customers who do not know one another intimately but share the same consumption habits and interests, and therefore feel part of the same consumer tribe – and define themselves as such. This sounds very strange, but we are surrounded by examples. Madonna fans, for example, constitute a consumer tribe. They define themselves largely by shopping. They buy Madonna concert tickets, CDs, posters, shirts and ring tones, and thereby define who they are. Manchester United fans, vegetarians and environmentalists are other examples. They, too, are defined above all by what they consume. It is the keystone of their identity. A German vegetarian might well prefer to marry a French vegetarian than a German carnivore.

Source: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind