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Work • Utopia
Utopian Collective Pride
For the average citizen of a developed nation, the World Cup generated a deeply unusual emotion. For a few weeks (depending on the fortunes of one’s team), we were allowed to feel happy, perhaps very happy, about something other than ‘me’.
This is weird, for the whole temper of modern life suggests that there’s only one person who truly counts: you. Your career, your appearance, your spending power, your house, your car, perhaps your kids and your partner too… – but this comprises the sum total of all you’re really meant to be invested in, and to care about.
Until there’s the World Cup – then suddenly you may find you care with extraordinary intensity about the fate of a group of your muscular, tattooed countrymen on a pitch far away, passing a ball between each other with awe-inspiring dexterity. The team’s progress seems to symbolise the destiny of the entire nation, with which you now identify yourself completely. When your team scores, you share a joy with millions of your compatriots, with whom you feel newly close. Your PowerPoint presentation or forthcoming sales conference cease to matter quite so much. And when you lose, it isn’t hyperbole to say you feel heartbroken, as after the collapse of a relationship.
This kind of collective pride is deeply suspect among the intellectual elite, but it has enormous benefits. First and foremost, it takes the pressure off all of us. It lightens the oppressive responsibility we otherwise feel to ensure that our own lives are stellar and heroic. We don’t have to do it all ourselves. We can instead be proud to belong in a very minor way to a noble and inspiring collective enterprise. Rather than being mediocre on our own, we can find greatness in joining a mighty cause. We can find happiness in something in which we have a small stake, but that goes far beyond us. We can transcend our mean-spirited, insatiable egos.
And yet, with all due respect to the World Cup, the collective pride it generates is undermined and complicated by a range of factors. Firstly, the pride doesn’t last long enough. Even if one’s team wins, it’s still an event that happens only every four years. Secondly, the thing we’re being asked to feel proud about is, in the end, like with all sports, not quite serious: not connected to the truly salient issues and dilemmas of mankind. When everything has been said and done, as even the most loyal football supporter should admit, it’s still just kicking a ball around. And thirdly, the Cup doesn’t give us any clues as to where we might go next with our appetite for collective pride. Once the flags have been put away and the thrills and heartbreaks recede, what are we meant to do with the powerful and beautiful longings we got to know in ourselves? Do we really just have to wait almost half a decade for another brief burst?
© Flickr/Gustavo Gomes
The World Cup is valuable in revealing that there’s a big part of us that longs to live more collectively. Yes, we care about ourselves, our emotions, and our careers rather a lot. But this kind of narrow selfishness, so artfully fostered by modern capitalism (you create more anxiety and hence make more money by telling everyone to watch out only for themselves), is deeply exhausting, enervating and in the end unfulfilling. There will, by definition, always be far more ambitions than there are glorious destinies to go around; most dreams won’t come true. How nice it can be, then, to be able to tap into collective achievement and invest ourselves in the best sides of communal life and action.
If our longing for collective pride was taken more seriously, we’d learn to invest more money and energy in things that were owned by everyone, because we’d recognise that this would include us – and could deliver a particularly intense satisfaction unavailable when we have merely feathered our own nest. It may be fun to buy a really nice new sports car (with leather seats and a turbo engine), but there is something properly stirring about being a part owner, along with 65 million others, of the next generation of high speed (200 mph) trains, the Hitachi Javelins, that regularly pull in to London’s St Pancras Station.
And of course it’s interesting to try desperately to fight your way to a promotion at work, but perhaps even more fun to feel that you live in a country which has just managed to build one of the most beautiful, serene and dignified schools in the world, the Marais du Billet school in Lausanne, Switzerland.
To console themselves after their dramatic exit from the World Cup, this kind of school is exactly what the Swiss should now be directing their collective energies towards – for it is in every way the equal, and possibly also surpasses in terms of lasting impact, the goals that Xherdan Shaqiri scored with such elegance against Honduras.
What are the ideal targets for collective pride? The ancient Spartans directed their pride towards their military strength. Their neighbours, the Athenians felt proud of the beauty of the Parthenon, the quality of their playwrights and the wisdom of their philosophers. A really fine society is not one that has outgrown collective pride. It is one where people are proud of genuinely great and admirable things.
As a philosophical thought experiment, let’s imagine the citizens of a future utopian society being asked (when there were no large sporting events unfolding) to list some of the things that they were collectively proudest of in their society:
1. The education system
In this ideal imaginary state, in many towns the state high school is the most beautiful building. The curriculum is focused on psychological development and practical skills; it compensates for, and corrects, the failures of home life. School teaching is a highly regarded profession, very well rewarded and difficult to get into. A residual private system struggles to keep up.
2. The elegance of the cities
It’s not just that there are a few standout famous buildings. Citizens are proud of the diffuse, general beauty of their urban environments. In this utopia, it’s normal for a very ordinary street to look exceptionally charming: you don’t have to pay a premium. Citizens are especially proud of the fact that you don’t have to be rich to live in a beautiful neighbourhood. It’s easy to get around because the transport system is not just quick and safe – it’s pleasant. The stations are treated as public architecture. There’s a lot of censorship over public advertising and signage.
© Flickr/Jens Schott Knudsen
3. Low divorce rate
It’s entirely straightforward to get divorced. But people tend not to – because of the collective investment in the stages leading up to marriage and because of the sophisticated support provided by the state when things get tricky. The Ministry of Human Relationships (MHR) has a powerful voice at the cabinet table. No government would ever contemplate cutting back its budget.
4. The honours system
Public honours are taken very seriously, but what’s really notable is what they’re given for: the encouragement of maturity, the display of wisdom, the promotion of beauty and the alignment of profit with the meeting of higher needs. Getting an honour is a major focus of ambition for leading entrepreneurs, business and media figures.
5. Celebrity culture
It’s a country obsessed with celebrities. Much of the media is devoted to tracking what they do, what they think, where they go on holiday, the clothes they wear, the ups and downs of their relationships. Celebrity interviews are considered the most prestigious jobs in journalism. One of the top celebrities is a part-time waiter in a cafe and is widely regarded as the most well-balanced person in the country. His attitude to shoes, travel (he loves going camping near the lakes) and relationships have been highly influential. Another public hero is the woman who designs road signs. She is deeply admired for her courageous free-style dancing and her attempts to deal with her bad temper.
6. The prestige of the careers advisory service, the marriage bureau
Since finding the right things to do with your life – and finding the right person to live with – are the most consequential tasks of a lifetime, it makes sense to give them the greatest attention, guidance and support. The most promising people are recruited into these services so that the maximum level of collective intelligence can be directed at getting these parts of life to go as well as possible. Tourists often marvel at the scale and beauty of the ministry headquarters.
7. The therapeutic national galleries
The public collection of art has been reorganised in the service of wisdom and maturity. Instead of arranging the galleries chronologically, the works are grouped (and interpreted) around key themes like anxiety, cheerfulness, facing death etc.
8. The cloud festival
An annual event which takes place early in the evening on 2nd October. Everyone takes time (usually around fifteen minutes) to contemplate the sky. There’s quite a bit of build up; celebrities discuss their favourite kinds of clouds and why these mean so much to them and what they are hoping to see this year. The elderly reminisce about the spectacular 1981 cumulonimbus. Young people are earnestly instructed on appropriate behaviour and how to cultivate the correct inward attitude.
9. The world’s highest per-capita consumption of elderflower cordial
It’s not illegal, or even particularly frowned upon, to drink alcohol. But they drink so much elderflower (and other cordials) because on the whole they are very keen on keeping cheerful and focused.
10. People often forget the name of the prime minister
Good government is not dependent upon which particular elected representative is in charge. Mostly, the issues which affect everyone’s life are linked to policies which are developed and applied over many years. Elections tend not to be about the personality of party leaders, but more about refining the direction in which the state is travelling.
© Rex/Kino International/Everett
11. What’s on broadcast TV
There are very popular programmes about the amateur conversationalist of the year (it was won by a tax accountant last year); the search for the nation’s best argument-calmer-down; there are mesmerising documentaries about people knitting; the regulation of TV has passed away from a telecoms operator to where it should always have been: the health department that also deals with smoking and the sugar content of biscuits.
Other things people might be proud of:
– the richest person in the country is a psychoanalyst
– they have opened the world’s most beautiful suspension bridge
– there are no three star michelin restaurants
– the commissioner of police is transgender
– the proportion of GDP spent on overseas travel is the lowest in the OECD
– there are no crossword puzzles in the largest circulation newspaper
– on average the heads of primary schools earn more than dentists
– there is a national reputation for being tactful
– health insurance plans cover treatment for addiction to internet pornography
[Please send us your additions to the list]
We’ve been so sensitive about what can go wrong around various kinds of collective pride that thoughtful, serious people tend to feel very uncomfortable with the very idea of group activities and causes. The rallies in Nuremberg evoke the constant fear that every expression of collective pride will morph into intense collective aggression and insanity.
Another reason for suspicion is that moments of collective pride seem retrospective, celebrating something good that already exists, whereas in truth, when there are still so many problems around, we are more focused on aspirations.
This is entirely understandable. But collective pride remains a very important factor in the construction of good societies. Pride in genuinely good things creates a powerful – and hugely welcome – sense of belonging. It assuages loneliness and provides benign motivation. In a secular, complex and specialised world, we need to feel that we are not just stray individuals dependent for our esteem on our own achievements, but also that we are members of a wider entity that we admire and for which we are prepared to work and make sacrifices – an entity which, to put it romantically, we feel ready to love.