Only a particularly talentless politician has to resort to an “enemy” to create a group identity.
And a politician should not be creating your identity in the first place.
The enemy is not the essence of politics.
The enemy is an identity-substitute available for talentless politicians.
And why do politicians need to provide a group identity in the first place?
Because they are not very good at their jobs of serving the public. And even if they were good at it, the public wouldn’t be grateful for it. Not forever.
So political leaders have resorted to group identities to cement together the people they were meant to serve, in order to underpin their rule with something irrational, something that cannot be questioned, a collectivist identity that intellectually disarms its critics and makes its defenders vile and aggressive in their misguided sens of righteousness when they are defending the group identity.
And if a political leader cannot give you a positive identity – not that it’s his job – he will give you a negative one. An enemy.
It is easy to see the enemy as the essence of politics, but that’s an insult to our intellect. An enemy is merely a distraction from what really matters in politics:
The essence of politics is who gets what.
And closely linked to that – who gets to tell others what to do.
Anyone who claims otherwise is trying to distract you.
Redistribution is the whole reason why humans come together to handle common issues – and each other. Whoever holds power – an individual or a group, elected or otherwise – gets to decide who does what and who gets what – and gets to enforce it by force:
- How much to take away…
- …from whom?
- Whom to give it to.
Bossing people around is just a proxy to resource distribution. If you want to understand the mechanics of resource distribution, you must also understand that resources are more diverse than just money and assets – and their distribution can be more indirect than just legally endowing them to certain actors.
1) Resources are more diverse than just money.
As any influencer can attest, attention is a resource, for instance. Under certain circumstances it can be monetized – the ultimate proof that it was all about resources in the first place. Fear, respect, deference, time, information, prestige and status – to name just a few – are also resources.
2) One of the most blunt instrument of distributing resources is politics – when money and assets (and positions, status, privileges) are distributed directly.
The mechanism of politics has been developed for this purpose in the first place. Boss around others, try to exert influence over others, taking from others, and trying to give it to self. (The wholesome an virtue-laden ideologies that justify this take-and-give have all come later.) No wonder that the field of politics attracts the flesh flies of humanity, the ones who want to be around the great, unguarded pot of public resources to influence their flow.
But only an amateur would do that without a holy smokescreen, so everyone is eager to cloak their efforts by yapping about God’s will, the protector-king, the public interest, about safety or security. And since we have bought into the rhetoric of the social contract, we readily swallow these justifications in whole and let anyone intellectually disarm us by referring to the holy trinity of political distraction (public interest, safety and security).
But politics is still about who gets what.
And the shadiest justification of them all is the common enemy.
Politics = Who gets what
Enemy = Distraction from it
Religion has also used the same tools before ideology came to dominate resource distribution. A intellectually enslaving dogma of give-and-guilt has been used as distraction while resources kept flowing in the general direction of those who put that dogma to use. The mechanics are not new by any chance – only the supporting group identity changes from time to time. And the most vicious group identities are the ones that rest on a common enemy.
Identity-substitutes are not uncommon.
Politicians searching for group identities to keep themselves in power usually resort to some sort of group belonging to create a tribal support for themselves that is beyond rationality and that places them beyond criticism. They use 1) your functions for society (class and reproductive functions), as well as 2) sex, race or ethnicity to create in-groups. Those identities are used to justify their rule and let them take charge of redistribution, while everyone is preoccupied with aligning to or attacking their own roles and functions in society. People are preoccupied with keeping each others in line and punish the dissenters – while their resources are somehow always end up flowing in the general direction of the identity-giver.
But politicians who work hard to create positive group identities are inhibited – amateurs, really.
When the unscrupulous autocrats arrive, they will go straight to The Enemy. If there isn’t any, they will make one. If there still isn’t, they make one up. (Think The Dragon.)
A negative identity (i.e. we all hate/fear this dragon) works as well as a positive one, even better. Better, because positive identities are hard to maintain. Ultimately, it is the vassals who decide whether they want to adopt the identities offered, and they are not sufficiently scared to prevent them from contemplating the merit of said identities.
A negative identity, an enemy, is infinitely easier to maintain. It also scares the victims (the non-politicians) into unquestioning obedience, and the rulers don’t even have to do things well in order to justify their rule. The threat justifies declining living conditions, after all, so the ruler can steal twice as much out of the public pot, without providing anything in return. They can tax harder, take away more, give back less (if any), and completely skip the arduous task of trying to design policies that benefit the population. It can’t be done, after all.
It is easy to see, but people will always be susceptible to negative identities – as long as they are dependent on their rulers to provide them with identities. That is, as long as they fail to develop and identity of their own.
In a way, the single most expensive thing you ever buy with your resources is an identity that substitutes for one of your own, individual identity. Your belongings, your functions, your group identities all make you pay, they are all designed to dictate to you whom to give up your resources for. Time, attention, money, deference, obedience, respect, etc.
You will pay dearly for not creating yourself. But don’t expect a leader or your group to suggest you that you should. If anything, you will be highly discouraged from doing so because letting you choose who you are means letting you choose, whom you serve, voluntarily, and with what conditions. It lets you set your goals that may not benefit the people who want to put you to use for their own benefit. It might not serve your group – or at least that’s what they think.
Ultimately, it should not be a politician (or the state) who tells you who you are or what to want. It should be you. But don’t expect anyone to tell you that. It is not in their interest, and there’s a vicious circle of offering political group identity for individuals – who then keep needing one because they were not told to develop one of their own.
The job of a public servant (because politicians are supposedly that) is policy – not identity.
But that’s not shiny or spectacular enough. Certainly not if they want to get reelected.
If they serve the public interest right, politicians become invisible. A quietly humming background of an enabling state mechanism is not enough to win the inane popularity contest of elections.
If a public servant does his job well and seamlessly serves the public, he will be punished.
If the state works well, you don’t even notice. There is no problem to overcome, voters don’t learn the politicians’ names, they won’t get reelected. It is literally thankless work. Would you take milkshaking to get this job? Would you talk to thousands of people on your campaign to get a thankless service job? Would you accept that the ungrateful crowds voted you out because they didn’t see the hard work you put into staying invisible in the background?
What are you, a mother or something?
No. Bring in the dragons!
Why would your rulers do you the favor of staying in the background and doing their jobs if it weren’t for the opportunity to make their mark on resource distribution? Why would they refrain from flashy gimmicks like manufacturing and pointing out enemies, if the public is so hungry for group identities and dragons to hate/blame/fear in the first place?
The essence of what they are doing up there should be policy. But instead they are enthusiastically redistributing. And to distract from it, they do indeed present enemies and dragons.