We have social instincts that enable us to cooperate in small intimate groups. But when the group grows too large, its social order is undermined and the group splits. Gossip has helped us to form larger and more stable groups and sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively, about more than 150 human beings. So how did we manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions?
With the creation of an imagined order, a large number of people can cooperate by believing in common myths. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. It’s easy to feel superior to our ancestors who cemented their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits and dancing around campfires at night. What we fail to realise is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis. But how does the imagined order affect our lives?
The imagined order and the material world.
It’s easy to remember to close the front door after you leave your house. You do it often yourself, you see others do it frequently and you have been taught that you don’t want unwanted visitors in your house or to freeze in the winter. In the same way you have learnt to close your front door, from the moment you were born, you have been educated about the imagined order. Fairy tales, songs, etiquette, political propaganda, architecture, recipes and fashions. Today we believe in equality so we see young rich people wearing baggy clothes with tears in the fabric, spending many nights in East London. It’s also worth noting that jeans were originally working-class attire.
In the Middle Ages, there were stronger beliefs in class divisions, a young nobleman would not dress up like a peasant because it was more ‘edgy’. You can learn a surprising amount about yourself by observing how you interact with the physical world. What does your bedroom look like? What movies do you watch? What clothes do you wear? All of these choices are derived from the imagined order.
The imagined order and our desires.
The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt weighs an estimated 5.9 million tonnes and is thought to have taken 20 years of hard labour to build. The toolkit of an ancient Egyptian consisted of just copper, stone and wood. We theorise that 800 tonnes of stone was dragged up ramps everyday. When completed around 2560 BC, the Great Pyramid stood at 146.5 metres and it would remain the tallest human structure for 3,800 years. All of this effort, time and resources to create something so magnificent yet it’s only purpose was to house the dead. Pyramids were the things rich people in ancient Egypt did with their money. Today we would question the meaning behind the pyramids and probably deem them unnecessary, meaningless or just a grand display of ego. But before we condemn the elite of ancient Egypt, we must realise that most people today dedicate their lives to building pyramids.
Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If something is wrong in your life then you probably need to buy a product (a car, new shoes, an expensive watch) or a service (Netflix, a spa day, meal at a fancy restaurant). Trouble is luxuries tend to become necessities and once we get used to them, we take them for granted. We begin to rely on them. Finally we reach a point where we can’t live without them.
We become trapped by the very things that we believe will give us freedom from the suffering that accompanies our lives. Before email, it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp the envelope, and take it to the mailbox. Now you can send messages instantly across the world but is your life now more relaxed? Sadly not, people only wrote letters when they had something important to relate and mistakes were costly in those days so people considered carefully what they wanted to say. Today we are bombarded with notifications, demanding immediate action. We thought we were saving time; instead we are living a hyper-accelerated life and we feel more anxious and agitated because of it.
We don’t want a pyramid anymore, instead we want a gleaming penthouse with an enviable view. Many ancient Egyptians dedicated their lives to building pyramids, today many Westerners dedicate their lives to be able to afford a penthouse. Only the names, shapes and sizes of these pyramids change throughout history. Perhaps then we should question the myths that make us desire the pyramid in the first place.
The imagined order is inter-subjective.
When an idea exists within the subjective consciousness of many individuals, it is an intersubjective phenomenon. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods and nations. If I stopped believing in the pound sterling, it wouldn’t matter. The Bank of England, the government and millions of people around the world still believe in it.
In 1992, a hedge fund manager named George Soros used the might of the global financial market to place a bet against the Bank of England. Soros believed that the pound was overvalued and on the 16th September 1992 he was proved correct. Headlines reported that Soros has ‘broke the Bank of England’ yet all of the profits from the bet was denominated in pound sterling. In fact, the Bank of England was far from broken, at most Soros was able to make the Bank of England adjust their strategy and the exchange rate fluctuated and then settled as economics would predict. Everyone still believed in the pound sterling including Soros.
In order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order. Soros believed in capitalism and the free market which are more powerful imagined orders than sovereign nations and their central banks. It’s important to note that central banks are simply the churches of capitalism. There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run towards freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.
We all have to believe in something, all I ask is that you question the impact that stories have on your life. For some, religion makes them a more honest, respectful and diligent individual, for others it makes them fly planes into skyscrapers. You can’t control the imagined order but you can control how aware you are of it and you can scrutinise your values and beliefs to lead to better outcomes for yourself and humanity.
Primary Source: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Featured Image Credit: Francisca Borzea (@franimation)