Collective Identity in Global Crisis: Dream comes true or great delusion?

Peng Shiqing
March 29, 2020


After the end of the Cold War, the rise of globalization brought the concept of the world-state to the attention of academia again. As a pioneer of combining sociological theory with international political theory, Alexander Winter put forward the idea that a global collective identity will eventually be formed. In Winter’s later research, his preference full of liberal fantasy has been further strengthened, and he believes that the formation of global collective identity will lead to the establishment of the world-state. One has no reason to deny the progressive factors of that era, the flourishing global market, the cooperation among countries to solve transnational problems, and that the idea of peace and development have become a shared theme all over the world. However, at the same time, one is not in a position to ignore the long-standing potential danger, which is the arrogance of hegemonic states.

Progressive scholars tell us that if countries can be recognized and identified by other countries, the formation of global collective identity is highly possible. Indeed, let us imagine that if all countries can be content with the status quo and accept their position in the world system. For example, Japan does not challenge the status of high-end American goods internationally; France never imagines the establishment of a European army; Russia strongly supports the democratic revolution in Syria, and developing countries and underdeveloped countries are willing to accept the large financial aids given by IMF with strings attached. Can the formation of global collective identity be expected? Because these behaviors can help a country obtain recognition from the international community, at least by the western world led by the US. When countries recognize and identify with each other, it is possible to cooperate and share risks.

However, in the world full of arrogance, does global recognition and identification really exist? The answer is no, not even within the western world. To impose a worldwide liberal order through institutions seems to be a nice approach, but nowadays, highly homogeneous states—such as those in the European Union—still clash, not to mention those with different regimes and cultures. Carl Schmitt opposes the idea of a world-state based on liberalism in large part because he realizes that although liberalism ostensibly advocates liberal and pluralistic values, it actually has a deep-rooted tendency to eliminate differences between groups. When politicians and some scholars talk about the global goal of eliminating differences in political systems and ideologies, they underestimate the strength of people’s self-identification as well as states. In fact, solidarity and cooperation among States, and even the formation of collective identity—if possible—has always been premised on respect for differences, instead of classifying states, civilizations, religious or ethnic groups according to differences. Arrogance and prejudice can only lead to the disintegration of states, especially when there is a severe global crisis.

One can see arrogant state behavior, and the US, led by Trump and his team are leading examples. Secretary of State Pompeo is a typical representative. At the recent Munich security conference, Pompeo titled his speech West is Winning and said that the “free nations are simply more successful than any other model that’s been tried in the history of civilization”. He credited the success of Japan and South Korea to the Western regimes, and also believes that the West, which has defeated the financial crisis and terrorism, “is now facing an increasingly aggressive Chinese Communist Party”Perhaps, to a certain degree, of course, any impractical descriptions and exaggerated praises made by Pompeo to maintain the alliance are understandable because, without virtual and preset opponents, an alliance will lose its meaning of existence and expansion. 

Today, however, our world is facing the threat of Covid-19; people are losing their lives in the US, Italy, Spain, Iran, and across most nations. Canada and Australia have officially announced to drop out of the Tokyo Olympics, which was subsequently postponed, and Germany is competing with its neighbors for medical supplies. In this context, arrogance and nationalism will destroy the last glimmer of hope for the formation of a collective identity and will bring grave disaster to the nations of the world.

In fact, China has made contributions to contain the epidemic. If a global collective identity is established successfully, then a situation of mutual understanding and support among countries will emerge, so other countries can respond to the epidemic quickly on the basis of understanding China’s suffering. One doesn’t need to elaborate on China’s outstanding work in response to the epidemic caused by Covid-19, because those achievements are world-known. Two months ago, the streets of nearly every Chinese city were flooded with the sirens of ambulances, every hospital became a battlefield for doctors and patients fighting against death, and Chinese followed strict quarantine requirements to stop the spread of the virus in the oldest yet most effective way. During the two months, all of China’s provinces sent medical teams to support Wuhan city, and each province chose a city in Hubei province for one-to-one medical care and assistance. Finally, the majority of critically ill patients were reborn, once silent streets are thriving again, and there are no new cases in China. But unfortunately, the tragedies that once happened in China are occurring in other countries in succession two months later.

It is no time for arrogance but of cooperation. Positive sentiments towards inner groups and prejudices against external groups are the answers given by European social psychology. Inter-group categorization, inter-group comparison, and scapegoating are all ways of maintaining a group and making it superior to other groups. This is not something that human beings can overcome in a short time with subjective initiative. Beijing suffered, even as it gave early warning of what was to come. Some countries refuse to share the same feeling. When a country gives everything it has to struggle with crises, the efforts should be appreciated. In this time of the global epidemic, the world should come together to deal with it rather than looking for a scapegoat.

In the face of the global crisis, it should be a clear choice for us, that is, whether one should struggle for recognition, fight for leadership, have too much arrogance and discrimination, or unite all humanity against an enemy that has taken many lives? The answer is clear.

The world thought that it had rational and truly independent individuals when the enlightenment in the 18th century ‘liberated people from the hands of God’, but in the meantine, other Gods have been created that continue to imprison us. When one treat other civilizations in the most arrogant way, when one talk about reason in the most irrational way, when one maintain institutions in the way that will ultimately destroy itself, when one defend freedom in the way that will ultimately restrict it, one will once again confine itself to a “shutter island”. As such, a famous line from a famous Chinese science fiction could not be more apt: weakness and ignorance are not barriers to survival, but arrogance is.

*** The Author is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from the China University of Political Science and Law, Beijing, China and can be reached via email at ***