Monday, October 17, 2005

the loyalty card

as fidelity to marriage, so patriotism to nationality - similar applications - different only in scale - of the same notion of 'loyalty' - one of those human behaviours that seems to hover in the misty hinterland between instinct and reason.

easier to consider what they mean by considering their converses: infidelity and treachery. the marriage-partner and the family suffers from the unfaithful spouse : the nation suffers from the traitor.

'suffer' - in both cases - has come to acquire an emotional significance that belies its original, more pragmatic usage - the loss of material integrity that accrues from the breach of the civil contract. 'loyalty' is required of the spouse and the citizen in return for the protections that the states of marriage and citizenship afford - protections from the predations of the unmarried, in the first case, and foreigners, in the other - the two primary perceived threats to the stability of the body politic.

unfortunately, neither the twenty-first century family nor the twenty-first century nation bears much more than a superficial resemblance to the ancestral type which formulated these quaint notions. the idea that marriage vows are sacred has largely been replaced with the idea that they are something akin to the 'I Agree' window you click on whenever you download a new piece of software: a necessary ritual wrapped in a less-then-binding legal document that no-one considers to be more serious than a playground promise made with your fingers crossed behind your back. similarly, the tabloid treacheries of a Guy Fawkes or a Kim Philby are meaningless in a post-Cold-War environment: in a globally internetted age, when you or I can as easily download a hi-res satellite image of any corner of the earth's surface as a pirate copy of The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, the idea of there being any military secrets anymore is purely notional. and anyway, who cares if 'they' can access the plans for 'our' latest hybrid stealth weapon - if they really want it all they have to do is ask - and we'll sell it to them! that's how capitalism - the definitive cultural environment - works. 'they' just have to have the moolah.

in such a world, loyalty is an irrelevance, since the global exchanges of capital (in a system predicated on the strange notion - unique amongst the laws that govern the physical universe - that there are no limits to growth, and that a finite resource - in our case, our planet - can be exploited as if it were infinite) navigate by a set of maps which owe more to the markets than Mercator, wherein the territorial boundaries extend around freshly opening markets (think cigarettes, think cars - think China) with the accommodating elasticity of a well-teased sphincter.

loyalty, instead, has become a tool of compliance, a faithful standby in the creaking armoury of political manipulations, whereby we - the ants who connive in our ant-dom because we are proud to be ants - can be brought to fiscal heel when the markets dip.

we're so used to being loyal that we actually need it - the being-loyal state - and seem not to be able to imagine life without it. why else - what possible other rational explanation can there be for such behaviour - do we devote so much of our time and energy, when we're not actually at war, to its surrogate, our surrogate nation, our 'team', whether that team centres on a ball, a puck, or a shop? (the supermarket, with its creche, its coffee bar, its instant access to everything we need, has, after all, long since displaced the church as the spiritual heart of all western communities.) the great thing about the being-loyal state is that, once you've entered into it, you don't have to ask any more questions - you just go with the flow, man.

never in human history has unquestioning obedience been so painless.

obviously, a nation whose leaders require of its citizens that they connive, unquestioningly, in immoral activities that further the interests of the very very rich at the expense of the very very poor (something that the US administration does as a matter of course but which - the further we advance into a twenty-first century threatened by total immersion in neo-con ideology - our own beloved leaders are doing their damnedest to emulate) is a morally bankrupt nation that has forfeited the right to loyalty. but it is precisely then - precisely now - in its deepest crisis of moral forfeiture, that the loyalty card becomes the ace in the political pack.

'my country - right or wrong' is such a deeply despicable sentiment, the desperate mantra of the desperately loyal, the sine qua non of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and the Patriot Act, and yet soon - without a shadow of a doubt - to be adopted into the English canon in the face of the unanimous opposition of the law lords themselves.

the sad thing, of course, is that, underneath all this manipulative flag-saluting rubbish lies deeply buried a sense - gut-sensed in all but the totally de-sensitised - of a parallel universe in which 'loyalty' - like its distant cousin, 'honour' - have a meaning and a utility beyond the cynical - something more appropriate to grownup men and women than to dogs; a meaning circumscribed by the universally experienced discomfort at lying and being lied to, and the pleasure at being trusted and confided in. it is perfectly possible - indeed, it's become commonplace - to exhort loyalty through lies in this universe, but, in that other one, loyalty, having, like respect, been earned, is commanded through no greater coercion than the tacit mutual recognition of its reciprocating benefits, benefits which have evolved far, far beyond the primitive protections described above.

even in this universe, though, there are a lucky few who experience this kind of loyalty - of friends, lovers, and family - as a form of benign social cement. these lucky, lucky few feel no sense of obligation to those who are loyal to them, because that loyalty is freely shared, never interrogated, and certainly never employed either to manipulate or to trade.

far more frequent is the experience of either having to demonstrate one's loyalty to a system one despises - or risk being fired, or worse - or, in the course of being reminded, incidentally, that one's participation as a consumer is the only social criterion that really matters, having one's loyalty bought - literally - by a credit card company, a supermarket, or by one's partner in a pre-nuptial agreement. and bought loyalty - as every deposed dictator can testify - is an ephemeral event, stamp-validated only up to the next coup.

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