Reading late last night I happened upon Anthony D. Smith and his “Ethnic Election and National Destiny” paper which is a pretty thoughtful consideration of how peoples tell big stories over centuries and those stories become markers of identity.
Not so exciting as to keep me awake but as I drifted off I thought about these four things points about the core characteristics of missionary nationalism:
1. a belief in the moral superiority of the missionary community, conditional upon fulfilling the covenant and carrying out the mission;
2. confidence in the radical reversal of the community’s hitherto lowly and marginal status in the world through fulfillment of its mission;
3. reinforcement of the strict boundary against outsiders who have no part in the sacred mission;
4. mobilization of the people as a whole: everyone must be drawn into the communal task, so that the energies of the whole people can be engaged.
Now I’m not a sociologist (thankfully) and I reckon Anthony Smith is pretty much on the money when it comes to nations and their destiny myths but what really struck me is that these are the same tenets of belief that operate in large organizations.
As a member of a large organization I see the statement of superiority in every piece of marketing, internal and external, as well as denigration of our competitors. I see endless mission statements that ultimately have their conclusion in the comeuppance of our competitors and something close to world domination for our organization. I see people who are lukewarm (or worse, apathetic or ironic) about the greater destiny and mission being sidelined or pushed away. And I receive many, many emails exhorting me to participate and engage in every aspect of institutional life, to the end of assisting our organization fulfil its mission and destiny.
Institutions are all kinda similar: nations, corporations, statutory bodies, sports clubs etc. Foucault 101 tells us that all institutions use discourse to support their authority and define the sayable and the unsayable, that this is the nature of institutional power.
What floated around behind my eyes as I drifted off to sleep last nights was that this vortex of origin and destination myths, buying into it, is a lot to ask in return for money but that we do it because we too want to be part of a larger collective effort for good. We want a greater good and are prepared to work for it in collaboration with others.
What doesn’t work is that institutional destinies aren’t about the realisation of a destiny, they are about the elongation of the life of the institution. They are simply about being here tomorrow and doing it again. Institutional life is never about the destination only the continuance of the journey, making it last forever.