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.
[ युअल नोआ हरारी की किताब, ''सेपियंस: मानवता का एक संक्षिप्त इतिहास'' से एक टुकड़ा. ]