Top people are different
Association and distinction in politics and religion
in Cultivating political and public identity

Leaders exemplify the tension between association and distinction, cultivating an identity which draws on a wider community or character, but which is intensified in order to achieve distinction.

Religious leaders claim the ultimate association, but as with all other elements of identity the expression of identity is composed of specific human actions and artefacts, so that the divine, like the secular can speak only with human voices.

Elites cultivate identity both towards their subjects and supporters and for their own enhancement, and whilst this does not distinguish them from other people, the intensity with which they do so does. This cultivation differs between unmobilised and mobilised societies.

The difference between the various identities of a person can be greatest within an elite which has resources of both power and privacy.


Top people are different: association and distinction in politics and religion

Association and distinction in the leadership of religion and politics

In 1521 Martin Luther, appearing before the Diet of Worms, declared that he was bound ‘by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God's word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.’1 It was a statement which illustrated the extreme contradictions involved in the cultivation of identity by both association and distinction. On the one hand, Luther expressed an identity which was as far as possible beyond and above his single person, ‘captive by God's word’. Identity through association and solidarity could hardly go higher or further. But, on the other hand, he asserted his own conscience against the prevailing view of the church of which he was a member and by whose professed faith he also identified himself, claiming possession of a conscience which distinguished him from other members of the collective as a unique individual because of a particular understanding of the collective identity which all shared. While his identity was shaped around solidarity with the deity, Luther was claiming to be an authoritative source of knowledge of what that deity's purposes or identity was. So having established identity through association in two directions, to the Christian church and to God, Luther then established a unique and distinguished position in relation to each. Luther's claim to solidarity with the Word of God was an instance of a recurrent presentation of religious identity where solidarity is both necessarily engaged with and at the same time distinguished within a human community, and a transcendental, divine, or other worldly one. A Dalai Lama is infused with a spiritual personality which survives across generations; a priest in a church which asserts apostolic succession is in a direct line of spiritual descent through the laying on of hands; association and solidarity are asserted with both worldly and other-worldly identities. But since deities never speak save in private and in secret to religious leaders, those leaders will claim special insight into the mind or words of the deity – association coupled with distinction.

Secular identity lacks the ultimate solidarity and immunity from human reasoning of spirituality, but it can still claim a transcendent distinction, rising above but not beyond the egalitarian assertion of association with its subjects or followers. And the grander the practice or claim of leadership, the grander the expression of distinction. When Virginia Woolf chose illustrations of male flamboyance, her selections were from both the secular and the spiritual governing elites. Humanity as a whole might be distinguished by its plumage, but bishops, judges, generals, and monarchs appeared to engage with special intensity in the embellishment, in all possible ways, of the human person. An ordinary soldier might earn and wear a few medals, but a general will wear dozens, and a president scores. The political and social elevation of an elite is enmeshed with the elevated intensity with which its identity at the head of a hierarchy is cultivated. The general wears a uniform to show he is a soldier, but the grandeur of the uniform at the same time insists that he is not like other soldiers and is even more military than they. Clothes are one medium only; methods of transport, the way people speak, and the buildings within which and amongst which they move constantly tell stories about who people are. But whatever identity is cultivated and by whatever means, elites cultivate it publicly most and to the greatest number of observers. That is one of the things that characterises them as elites. They are not the only people who do so, nor do they necessarily do so more successfully or more imaginatively than others. But they will do so more intensively, and in doing so they tell stories about their magnificence, the nature of their authority, their difference from ordinary people, their knowledge and understanding, and their power. As religious leaders claim or assume privileged access to transcendent truths, political leaders will both appeal to and rise above those whom they lead by claiming knowledge of what the followers would themselves know or seek if they were fully informed or properly rational. All government and political leadership will to some degree rely on the arguments put forward in idealist political theory, that government has insights and understanding which will differ from the actual insights and understanding of the governed, but will be, as Bernard Bosanquet put it, ‘the real Will, or the Will as logically implied in intelligences as such’.2

The very solidarity which nurtures identity is at the same time fine-tuned, qualified, or exaggerated in order to cultivate its uniqueness. This paradox is particularly evident in the identification which rulers, leaders, and elites of one kind and another cultivate for themselves, and their complex identification of both contrasts and affinities with the rest of a population. Whilst the cultivation of identity in at least two directions, association and distinction, is to be found in all kinds of circumstances, the leaders of government and religion display an exceptional distance between the two forms, and one which by the scale of the claim to distinction can put the claim to association under strain.

Religious leadership

Whilst identity is cultivated in part by association with all manner of groups and cultures beyond the individual person, religion is potentially the most powerful of these because the collective identification is not only with a group wider than the individual, but with a being, dimension, or level which transcends all humanity and is attributed with absolute authority. When identity is cultivated in terms of or in relation to religion, it makes the greatest possible claims of identity by association. The person or group is enmeshed with a metaphysical person or level, and thus claims an identity as a channel, representative, or agent of that person or level. Cultivation of the same kind takes place with reference to nations, castes, or ethnicities, but the metaphysical claim is the most absolute in what it claims, and as the most removed from human contingency, it is the ultimate pole in the tensions of identity.

Whilst the authority claimed is so great, the elements of identity which are thereby authorised can still seem minute, peripheral, or trivial. When the Celtic and Roman churches were manoeuvring for supremacy in the seventh-century British Isles, one of the contentious issues, attributed with such importance that it divided the two communities, was the manner in which monks tonsured their hair.3 An issue between the old believers and the conventionally Orthodox in seventeenth-century Russia was whether one crossed oneself with two fingers or with three. But this seemingly scarcely visible difference bore the weight of major theological understandings about the Trinity and the nature of Christ.4 In matters of religion, just as in seemingly more secular matters, a ribbon awry can be crucial. Since the authority claimed for such identity is transcendent, the most elaborate constructions and creations are employed to shape an identity as far removed as possible from the mundanely human. Woolf's illustrations of formal male finery included a bishop clothed from head to toe in gilt and embroidery, with so little mere bodily person evident that only the face and hands were unconcealed by stitched splendour. Religion has not been unique in its employment of clothes, rituals, and architecture in the creation and cultivation of identity, but it has been consistent in their use not only across time and place, but across faiths, and has done so in great style.

Whilst the character of religious identity will forever be referred to an external, metaphysical, or divine source, the phenomenon is essentially the same as with all other kinds of social character. Humans cultivate all manner of identities, religious and secular, which provide meaning and justification for their behaviour and are constituted by it. Even when those meanings and justifications appear to be external to the person, and to derive from some divine source, they exist only insofar as that person expresses them. For people to say that they are obliged to act in a certain way because the doctrine of their faith requires them to is another way of saying that they are members of that faith, and that that membership is a part of what constitutes their identity, and, further, that their understanding of what that membership entails, whilst specific to them, has at the same time the ultimate sanction of extra-human authority.

Whatever the nature or existence of divinity, all that can be known is what people do. That may be one way of interpreting the opening sentences of the Gospel According to St John: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’5 All that can be known is what is said, and so ‘the Word was God’ could be inverted to claim that God was the word. The perception of icons in the Orthodox church is similar, where it is understood that there is no necessary connection between the divine and its human representation and where, as Rowan Williams puts it, there are ‘no natural visible symbols of the divine, in political structure or in art’.6 Yet, at the same time, it is the human creation, not the divine infinite, which is accessible to human cognition and perception. Religion may be the word of God, but all its evident or accessible components are the construction of humans – a point made, and causing great offence, in Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Since the divine can only express itself to humans in human form or to human perception, it can only ever be a human experience and communicated by human creation. The charge frequently made against Rushdie's novel was that it insulted the Prophet Mohammed. But there was an additional and perhaps as strong or even stronger reason why the book caused such distress and anger. The angel in the novel who tried to convey divine messages to human leaders found that he was always speaking their words, not his own. The divine was the creation of people, who then claimed unique authority over others on the basis of doctrine and invocation which was presented not as something they had themselves created, but as a set of higher truths of which they were no more than a channel. The authority invoked when it is said that a person is a channel for the divine is immense. But so is the challenge to a person whose identity is cultivated or constructed in this way when the divine authority is questioned. This can explain the fury with which some religious individuals and groups responded both to the publication of Rushdie's book in 1988 and to the award many years later in 2007 of a knighthood to the author in the Queen's birthday honours. If the transcendent or divine can never be directly known, then all statements about it are humanly created metaphors, shorthands, or symbols, and as such have no more, nor less, authority than any other human creation. For those whose identity depends on a different narrative, such a view is corrosive of their public existence.

The dependence of the divine upon the human was graphically instanced shortly after the expression of anger over the June 2007 knighthood. In the summer of the same year in Nepal, a young girl who had been identified as a ‘living god’ was disqualified by older male religious leaders for having visited the United States, and having done so without permission.7 It is usually perceived as an attribute of divinity that it has an authority quite beyond human choice or reason. For divinity to be subject to human reconsideration and recall in this way suggests a different relationship between religious leadership and religious authority from that normally presented by those leaders.

This dependence of the invoked authority on the invoker, of the existence of superhuman beings on the acts of those who say they believe in them, is illustrated fictionally in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, where the dying fairy Tinker Bell is revived by the worldwide reiteration of children's belief in fairies.8 A similar reduction to more mundane scale of an apparently grand claim is briefly observed in a very different work of fiction, Joyce's Ulysses. When Stephen Dedalus takes offence at a remark that he is someone ‘whose mother is beastly dead’, his companion apologises, ‘I didn't mean to offend the memory of your mother,’ to which Dedalus retorts that the offence is not to his mother, but to him.9

Religious reformers generation after generation demand a return to the inner spirit and a stepping back from the reliance on ritual and moral etiquette: rend your heart, not your garments. But the cultivation of religious identity reverts again and again from human spontaneity to human creation, and perhaps even in its most spontaneous forms, can never be anything else. The account of Christianity given by Hegel, of a steady movement from inner zeal to outer conformity, could be repeated for other religions, since inner zeal can only be evidenced by outward behaviour which, to be communicable, has to take a shared form and so is already on its way to being institutionalised and formalised.10 Speaking in tongues is a self-defeating attempt to circumvent this process, but cannot avoid communicating religious style and religious identity. Religious truths are expressed through vestments, architecture, painting, music, sculpture, and all the creative actions of which humans are capable. The expression of divine truth and by association of the identity of the faithful will frequently be acknowledged to be beyond human cognition, so that human actions and human creations are needed as metaphors of an infinite and unknowable identity. So arises the seeming paradox of a truth and an identity which is further removed from human life than any other, but which is nonetheless approached by a fuller and more extravagant use of human creativity than any other more apparently mundane or material arena, both in the immediate garments, words, music, and movements of the faithful and in the artefacts which they produce. That is the logic of the icon lurking within the apparently merely strategic advice of Bishop Jewel in Reformation England, that singing by the laity in and around divine services ‘sadly annoys the mass-priests and the devil. For they perceive that by these means the sacred discourses sink more deeply into the minds of men, and that their kingdom is weakened and shaken at almost every note.’11 Religious dissension seldom remains for very long at the level of theological dispute. It involves rival human identities, which are expressed in human actions and human artefacts. The smallest aspect of dress or deportment, the shape or location of a symbol or token, can carry the weight of major communal antagonisms. In Poland in the autumn of 2010, following the death of the president and ninety-five others in an aeroplane disaster, the most immediate visual token of national mourning was the national flag with a black band across its surface. But the placing of an unassuming wooden cross in front of the presidential palace by a group of Scouts was followed by a prolonged dispute between conservatives and right-wingers, who surrounded it to prevent its removal, and secularists, who argued that religion and politics should be separate in a modern state.12 A few pieces of wood carried the weight of major ideological and theological disputes.

The human expression of divine truths does not rest for long at simple symbols, while the greater the complexity and elaboration of the words, the images, the music, the architecture, the sculpture, the vestments, or the pictures, the more distinctive becomes the role of those who can understand, create, manage, or orchestrate the rich profusion of human creation. The progress from direct and spontaneous religion to culturally embedded religion which Hegel described is also a progress which involves greater and greater distinction of forms of priestly elite to manage, interpret, orchestrate, and explain. The very impossibility of a direct communication of the transcendental source of spiritual identity brings the identity cultivation of religious and secular leaders closer together. For both, the identification of themselves as rising above the level of understanding found amongst their followers and subjects can not only justify normal government, but can sanction the most murderous policies of destruction of both life and culture. The actions of twenty-first-century religious leaders, such as those of Islamic State, stand in a long and destructive tradition in both secular and religious government and attempted government. When a person has identified himself or herself as a channel of divine truth or of human utopia, one road which opens is the physical destruction of all opposition, and all opponents.

Privacy in the self-identification of elites

Much discussion of identity presents it as something that is more received than created, and whilst the recipients of tradition, education, and influence are presented as human, the sources of those shaping elements are given a more shadowy presence. The conservative celebration of tradition and its radical diagnosis share a common vantage point. But even the most passive people, by their passivity, contribute to the contexts within which identities are shaped, while even tradition has to be maintained and transmitted. The poet Kathleen Jamie has chronicled the pressures imposed by older generations on aspiring youth to be ‘no too cliver’ and ‘no above yersel’,13 and such traditionalists are just as much makers of the circumstances within which identity is cultivated as the most passionate actual or aspiring leader. Cultivation within received contexts can be conservative or radical, but it is still a human creation. The most vigorous contributors to this creation are, by virtue of their actions, political and religious leaders.

Elites are not only masters and mistresses of highly visible, and audible, identity cultivation, but exercise creative innovation and entrepreneurship in the identities they craft, modify, or preserve. The relevant coherence can extend beyond the merely or obviously political. Judith Herrin has argued that in Byzantium the success of three female rulers, the empresses Irene, Euphrosyne, and Theodora in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, in a society and a system of rule whose mores and perceptions were structured on male authority and dominance, was assisted by the ubiquitous presence of high-profile and high-prestige female images both in Christian iconography and in pre-Christian statuary. Constantinople was full of statues and images of female gods, female saints such as Helena (the mother of Constantine), the Virgin Mary, and female empresses. ‘This striking visual presence of holy and imperial mothers also drew attention to the essential role of empresses in the construction of imperial dynasties.’14 This context of images was one which, through the promotion of iconography, the empresses could cultivate as well as exploit. At the same time, imperial progressions, visits, and rituals, together with the founding of churches and monasteries, expressed the presence of the empresses: ‘Within the urban space, it was possible to create institutions from shrines to monasteries with peculiarly female interests. These in turn preserved and reproduced the record of women's influence and authority.’15

But whatever rulers and leaders may do to impress their subjects and followers, there is a huge swathe of behaviour which functions principally to impress the elite itself, and to reinforce that impression in mutual support. Elites are not unique in paying attention to this dimension of identity cultivation, and are following broader patterns in beginning with themselves and those with whom they normally come into direct contact. All identity is both for the identified person and for those with whom he or she interacts, and the two dimensions are intertissued. But the elaborateness of the private-identity cultivation of those with the greatest access to and control over material, cultural, political, and spiritual resources exceeds the private cultivation of those lower down the pyramids of status, wealth, and power to an extent which places it in a different world. The very claim to be representative has the consequence of distinction and separation. Lasswell and Fox in their discussion of the role of the built environment comment that for an elite, ‘physical distance and position are likely to be internalised as psychic space. The ruler who is remote and above modifies his self-image accordingly, and perceives himself as aloof and superior to other men.’16 The greater the claim to distinction beyond association, the greater the aloofness and the extent and seclusion of the private upper world. There is a massive swathe of rituals of rule and superiority in all societies, from which ordinary people are excluded not so much by physical restriction as by living in a different social context, and neither being involved nor invited, nor even aware of what it is that they are not part of.

The participants and observers are themselves part either of the elite or of a corresponding privileged or distinguished group or association. The degree to which this exclusive cultivation of identity will outweigh the more public expression of identity can range from the almost entirely private to a presentation of identity which comes as close to identification with the public, and with public expression of that identity, as is consistent with still retaining the distance which makes it possible to talk of an elite at all.

In the National Gallery in London, the Wilton Diptych is a small item amongst hosts of larger, grander works. A portable altarpiece made for Richard II, it consists of two hinged panels painted somewhere towards the end of the fourteenth century. It is small and, by the standards of the time – and the servants available to kings, easily portable. It folds shut, like a laptop. The surfaces visible when it is closed are simple: a coat of arms on one side, a white hart on the other. On the inner surfaces the images are more elaborate and delicately detailed. On the left-hand panel, the kneeling King Richard is supported by John the Baptist, Edward the Confessor, and Saint Edmund, king and martyr. On the other side is the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, supported by a retinue of angels, each of them bearing on their garments the white hart which was the king's symbol.

What is it for? Kings might well carry around with them maps, treasure, and weapons. In Walerian Borowczyk's 1971 film Blanche, even the rosaries and crucifixes of the monks attending the king were swiftly readjusted to reveal the weapons of his clerical bodyguard.17 But the Wilton Diptych is something else, not a concealed map nor anything to do with the material resources of government. It makes a clear religious and political statement for the king. As Lucy Freeman Sandler put it, the diptych ‘served to focus Richard's own meditation, to re-enact his devotion, whether he was present or not, to proclaim to himself the certainty of his prospective welcome in Heaven, and finally, to reinforce his idea of earthly kingship under heavenly protection.’18

The intricate artistry of the diptych was for Richard alone, and told him, and him alone, who he was as king and successor to kings, saints, and martyrs, and as aspirant to divine protection and blessing. The cultivation of a royal identity sanctified by divine grace was a private and secluded activity which sustained the public work of kingship, but was distinct from it. This was not an eccentricity of a single English king, but a universal feature of rulers and elites of all kinds. A similar function appears to have been served by a small album of paintings on silk of the Yongzheng Emperor in early eighteenth-century China. The pictures were not for public display, but presented the emperor, to himself, in a range of guises and situations of varying fantasy, but each representing an aspect of human worth, skill, dignity, heroism, or authority.19 The degree of the private cultivation of identity, beyond any public gaze, differs from instance to instance, as does its relation with the narrative presented to the world beyond the elite. But it is always present.

The rituals of Negara, the nineteenth-century Balinese state described by Clifford Geertz, provide an example of an exceptionally high degree of solipsistic identity cultivation by a ruling elite. There was in a very real sense more ritual than ruling, and the king's palace was a temple rather than either a residence or an office or useful building. Its arrangement of courtyards, even though it contained public spaces, emphasised the remoteness and sacredness of kingship: ‘It was a theatre state in which the kings and princes were the impresarios, the priests the directors, and the peasants the supporting cast, stage crew, and audience.’ But if the peasants were an audience, they were an audience who sometimes saw little more than the trailers to the main film. Their role as an audience was an incidental consequence of their principal function of auxiliaries in the drama of monarchy. ‘Court ceremonialism was the driving force of court politics; and mass ritual was not a device to shore up the state, but rather the state, even in its final gasp, was a device for the enactment of mass ritual. Power served pomp, not pomp power.’20

That pomp and power infused the entire cycle of life and of death, which could be as elaborately marked as the mortal acts of kings. The peasantry played a necessary part in all of this, and the rituals of kingship defined ruled as well as rulers, and provided narratives for each. But the weight of the drama lay with the elite. The court life of Negara was at least as elaborate as the most extravagantly expansive fictional alternative. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast 21 is a castle and a court whose every moment and movement is devoted to fulfilling escalating traditions of etiquette and ritual; but it is not a phenomenon limited to fictional fantasy, and the real world of the theatre of identity frequently outdoes the most fruitful and vivid imagination.

In imperial China, the emperors’ cycle of rituals was marked both by the elaborateness and by the privacy of those rituals. The most magnificent and extended ritual sacrifice of the year was the sacrifice to Heaven, when the emperor went in procession from the Forbidden City to the Temple of Heaven, but did so along a route entirely masked from public view. The peasantry and the rest of the population beyond the pale of the imperial court were neither menial supporters nor passive spectators. They were excluded by a mixture of permanent architecture – walls and gates – and temporary screens and topiary. They could not be seen, and they could not see. The lesser annual sacrifice, to the God of Agriculture, was similarly attended by officials, servants, and courtiers, but masked and secluded from public view. At the imperial banquet in the Garden of Ten Thousand Trees, when the Qianlong Emperor received submission from the Khalkha Mongols in 1754, even the ten thousand trees were screened off from the privacy of the ceremony.22

The rituals of imperial China were given architectural support in the spatial seclusions of the Forbidden City, an extreme and dramatised example of an unmobilised society, where the mass of the population, though they may be a human resource for government, are not mobilised for war, public service, or public display as they are in most societies with the development of industry and the growth of towns. Societies which are unmobilised, and where the institutions of dominance are authoritarian or closed, are never closed to everyone, and to that extent the question, as with all systems, is one of degree not of kind. The Forbidden City was hardly even closed to the mass of the population of imperial China, since they were not acknowledged. The presidential palaces of Saddam Hussein, by contrast, were closed to the Iraqi population because they were acknowledged, but as subordinate to a leader whose barriers against them defined his situation in relation to theirs.

The identity-savouring and identity-nurturing rituals of imperial China were paralleled again and again in the life of imperial and monarchic courts. The splendours of Louis XIV's Versailles might serve to impress visiting representatives of other regimes, but it was the king himself who was not only at the centre of the drama, but whose identity was cultivated at every moment of every day by it, and who was the principal and most continually present audience for the theatre of royalty. Every aspect of the life of the court, and of the king's central role in it, was choreographed. There was no distinction between business and leisure, each of the activities which might in other contexts be so described and distinguished being orchestrated to exemplify the unique character of aristocracy and, at the same time, the transcendent position of the king within it. Even the masques and ballets had a role for the monarch, who by his participation expressed his superiority in every aspect of life. Norbert Elias, describing this cycle of self-definition, comments that the ‘practice of etiquette is, in other words, an exhibition of court society to itself. Each participant, above all the king, has his prestige and his relative power position confirmed by others … The immense value attached to the demonstration of prestige and the observance of etiquette does not betray an attachment to externals, but to what was vitally important to individual identity.’23 The rituals of the court defined both elite and mass, and did so for the court, but not for the excluded people beyond the walls of the palace, in whose case it was sufficient that the court was aware of their inferiority, an inferiority which justified their not having it displayed to them, since they could be simply ignored. Elias summarises things neatly: ‘It was always with people and their positions relative to each other that they were primarily concerned. In their etiquette, too, they did not come together for etiquette's sake. To enact their existence, to demonstrate their prestige, to distance themselves from lower-ranking people and have this distance recognized by the higher-ranking – all this was purpose enough in itself.’24

What the architecture of Versailles proclaimed within, the magnificence and privacy of the gardens proclaimed without.25 Gardens are one instance of the created environment that can function largely or solely for the benefit of the self-identification of the privileged. The larger the palace, government building, or religious monument in a city, the more evident it is to all and the less it can be enjoyed only for the private satisfaction and reassurance of the privileged. But the larger the garden, the greater the likelihood that it will be shielded from public gaze. The small patch of the ordinary subject or citizen can be viewed from the street, from the train, from the bus. The gardens of the wealthy are not mere estates, but landscapes, and functioning for the exclusive identity cultivation of their owners. Denis Cosgrove has argued that that ‘landscape constitutes a discourse through which identifiable social groups historically have framed themselves and their relations with both the land and with other human groups’.26 But they do so in way different from that of other large human arrangements of the physical environment, since they do so behind gates and fences. Urban landscapes proclaim public identities to all. Horticultural landscapes are the proclamations of an assurance which is largely private.

The etiquette of separation reached an absurdist extreme at the court of Peter the Great in Russia. The bizarre carnivals choreographed by the tsar mocked and inverted the hierarchies of Orthodox Christianity, and created an aristocratic version of Lords of Misrule. The rituals of the Orthodox church and of its patriarchs were paralleled in grotesque form; marriage processions were conducted with riders on pigs, goats, and other animals; and drunkenness solemnly celebrated with mock noble titles.27 It was not only behaviour which marked the court off from the population of Russia, nor behaviour from which they were excluded, but behaviour which could only have been viewed by them with a mixture of incomprehension and outrage. The cultivation of an identity which marked off the elite from the rest could not have been more extreme.

The pomp and circumstance of closed systems may itself be closed, as with Versailles, or it may be populist, as with the papacy of John Paul II or the leadership of Evita Perón. But whichever it is, it will have a distinctive extravagance, and whether the elevation of the ruler is displayed by his or her seclusion from ordinary subjects, or by his or her nobility in descending amongst the masses, the message will still be that the ruler is exceptional. So whilst the Russian and Chinese communist regimes had leaders who adopted some of the appearance of ordinary citizens, with demonstrably plain clothing, the Kremlin and the palaces of empire remained as the palaces of government. Whilst the Forbidden City of imperial China was eroded, modified, and infiltrated by the new regime after 1947, and old walls were demolished, the Forbidden City itself was not destroyed, and China's communist rulers employed a dual strategy of both seeking to emulate and transcend the urban architecture of the old regime, and incorporate its magnificence within the new order.28

In the Soviet Union the practices of the vanguard of the proletariat illustrated how, whatever the claims to represent the people made by rulers, the cultivation of an identity distinct from the mass can persist and flourish within an elite. The protocol governing the reception of new ambassador would not have seemed out of place in Versailles two centuries earlier. The rubric was elaborate and rigid:

The Ambassador, together with the diplomatic personnel from the Embassy and the Soviet officials, enter the hall: the Head of the appropriate geographical Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stands on the right of the Ambassador, on the left is the Head of Protocol Department.

Simultaneously, the Chairman of the Praesidium of the Supreme Soviet enters through the opposite door in the hall; on his right is the Secretary of the Praesidium; on his left the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Ambassador stops one or two paces short of the centre of the hall, opposite the Chairman of the Praesidium, and greets him with a slight bow. The Head of the Protocol Department presents the Ambassador to the Chairman of the Praesidium.29

The transition from mobilisation of the masses under the tutelage of an elite to mobilisation with democracy, or democratic aspirations, has not dulled the cultivation of elite exclusiveness, and from an early date the leaders of the new state of America made sure that, however representative they were, they were also different. When George Washington, establishing his role as President of the United States, received local dignitaries with his hat in one hand and the other hand resting on his sword, to prevent them getting above themselves by attempting to shake the president by the hand, he was making a very clear claim.30 However much he might represent them, speak for them, fight for them, and care for them, he was both like and not like them. The president was set apart from the multitude.

Even the most apparently practical matters of comfort and convenience can, at the same time that they ease the strains of a life in office, underline the privileged character of the office bearer. When President John F. Kennedy of the United States visited the United Kingdom in 1963, a memo from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's private secretary, Philip de Zulueta, a few weeks before the presidential arrival on 29 June, reports that one of the president's aides had accepted the offer of Macmillan's own room at Birch Grove, and would place his valet next door. However, it seems that the prime minister failed to take account of the presidential preference for a double rather than a single bed. Mr Zulueta reported that ‘The only complicated arrangement for the house is that the President likes a double bed and brings his own mattress and pillows (I suppose it is for his back). They [the White House] will let us know and the Foreign Office will get one.’

Further documents reveal that Whitehall was clearly taken aback by the extent of the preparation for the president's arrival at Gatwick Airport. A Rolls-Royce was to be provided for the president's use, along with a helicopter, an ambulance, and an unspecified quantity of blood matching his type at the nearby East Grinstead hospital. The communications centre to be set up at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, twenty-five miles from Birch Grove, was to include 150 telephone lines for the press corps; 50 secure lines including permanent connections between the White House, the president's Boeing 707, the helicopter pad next to the Red Lion pub; and 5 to the president's bedroom.31 Louis XIV could hardly have had sleeping arrangements more elaborate.

The relative privacy of the identity cultivation of elites does not make their members any less sensitive when they feel their status is not being properly sustained. This can occur in any manner of settings. A diplomat at a formal banquet in Australia turned his plate upside down in protest when he felt he was not sufficiently grandly placed at table. But, commented Lord Carrington who was high commissioner in Australia at the time, ‘he was extremely greedy so he only did it for the first course’.32

Leaders and followers, rulers and subjects

Despite the immediate attention which is paid to the cultivation and maintenance of identity, even the most insulated elites make some demands of the mass of the population, both to express their own distinction and to nurture it by contrast with a subordinate identity amongst the rest of the population, though the extent to which they do so, and the manner in which they do so, change as rule moves from unmobilised to mobilised populations. A part of the identity of an elite is the identification of others – the led, the ruled, the followers – all those who are not part of the privileged group. To identify oneself as part of an elite is to describe others who are not so privileged, for if one's character were shared by everyone, elites would dissolve in universality. The creation of identity is, for leaders and other elites, an identification which is both self-relating and contrasted with a different identity for the mass of people. To depict a distinct governing identity is, even if only by contrast, to identify a distinct governed one. Uncontested inferiority sustains distinction, but it does so in different ways and with different degrees of attention by elites to the mass of the population. Even when a sense of distinction does not draw strength from popular acceptance or acknowledgment, it can be threatened by aspects of popular identities, a threat which will be countered both by more vigorous cultivation of elite identities, and by elite cultivation of the identities of subordinates.

Whilst all government and all leadership involve hierarchies of identity, the relation between rulers and ruled, and the character of the ruled, differs sharply between mobilised and unmobilised societies. The manner of elite-identity cultivation and the extent to which others are recruited in its promotion differ as part of the presence, extent, and nature of mobilisation. The distinction between mobilised and unmobilised societies is one of two major distinctions when considering the cultivation of elite identity, the second being the distinction within mobilised societies between democracies and various kinds of elite rule without democracy. The first distinction is between the extent of public as opposed to private identity, the second is between a passive and dominated and an active and assertive public identity. All democracies are mobilised societies, but not all mobilised societies are democracies, though the portfolio of possible features of mobilised societies is sometimes listed as flaws uniquely of democracy, as in Michael Mann's The Dark Side of Democracy.33 The first feature of the modern world is not that people become democratic citizens, but that they become a direct concern of government, which deals directly with them and sees them as the foundation of both the resources and the identity of the state. Democracy may follow, but it has generally had to be wrested from the hands of those currently enjoying power. Modern societies are mobilised societies in which the mass of the population becomes possessed of a greater public identity. But this identity is not necessarily a freer or more diverse one.

In unmobilised societies, the inhabitants lack not only the identity of citizens, but even that of subjects. People are human resources, on a level with all the other resources, animal, vegetable, and mineral, at a government's disposal. Premodern governments did not mobilise the inhabitants of their territories, and dominated rather than ruled them. Thomas Bisson has argued that terms suggesting rule or government are inappropriate for societies which were simply coerced.34 The privileged made occasional demands on the people for taxes or foot soldiers, and even the taxes and the foot soldiers could be garnered indirectly. The population was occasionally raided rather than regularly ruled. In such societies, dominating elites contribute to the identity of the mass of the population only by neglect. In such systems, it can be misleading to speak of the mass of the population as subjects, since their distance from the ruler is so great that they do not have even that restricted but at the same time identifying status. If they are ruled, it is by those far lower down the hierarchy than the king. Before populations were mobilised, the ordinary inhabitants of a territory were not only not citizens, they were hardly subjects. Feudal and other forms of rule which took cognisance only, or predominantly, of a proportionately small ruling class, also had only that class as their subjects. The lower orders were resources under the control of these political contractors, not themselves directly part of the polity. In such a society it would not necessarily cause friction or the apprehension of difficulty if the ruling elite were culturally or linguistically distinct from the mass of the population. They frequently were. A difference between mobilised and unmobilised societies is that in the latter the rulers may well tell ordinary people what they may not be, but will not try to control or positively to cultivate what they are. The populace may be kept in its place in unmobilised societies, but that requires little more than keeping them out the elite's place.

The distance from the ordinary life of the population of elite identity and its cultivation has been universal in unmobilised societies. There are two ways in which this distance is expressed: one where the seclusion of the rituals of rule constructs the separation of rulers and ruled and the qualitative superiority and difference of rulers, the other where the very representativeness or superior representativeness of the leader is both displayed to and elevated above the mass. In either case, there can be both separation from and (rare and symbolic) contact with, ordinary inhabitants. The ritual application of the royal touch to cure the king's evil by monarchs such as Louis XIV is a dramatised breach of the normal barrier which separates and insulates rulers from ordinary inhabitants, a secular epiphany. Suzanne Cawsey's account of the kings of Aragon from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries is of rulers who, whilst they did not necessarily present themselves to the ordinary inhabitants of the territories that they ruled, frequently and effectively did so in verbal and visual persuasion to those who were most immediately their subjects, and on whom they relied for taxes and soldiers.35 The difference between the use and character of the Forbidden City in unmobilised China and that under communism is that in the former it was forbidden to the mass of the population because they were outside the entire world of government; it was alien to them and they to it.36 In a mobilised China the ordinary population might not be excluded, but the even greater magnificence of the city under revolutionary transformation not only proclaimed the triumph of socialism, but provided a setting for the distinguished performance of leadership.

Rule in an unmobilised society needs to assert its identity to itself and to others, but the range of those others will be, in the normal course of the ruler's activity, limited to the wider circles of the governing elite and if the identity cultivation goes beyond this, it will be sporadic. Mobilised societies, by contrast, cultivate the identities of both elites and masses, which they take a first step in doing by putting their armies into uniform, though armies are wearing the livery of the state as servants of government, not the livery of subjects. If they are mobilised autocracies, they move on to putting everyone else in uniform as well, distinguishing organised nations by colour and insignia, plumes and braid. In mobilised societies, even if the masses are being used as infantry, unless they are directly in battle, they are clothed and plumed, not camouflaged, since as important as their role as coercers is their demonstrative expressive role as auxiliaries to the splendours and dominance of their rulers. There is every reason not to hide them with the cover of Burnham Wood or its subsequent forms of camouflage in combat dress, which fades warriors into grass and shadow. Just as an aristocracy proclaims its splendour through the livery of its servants, so the emerging mobilising state proclaims it through the livery of its troops.

The arrival of democracy is one aspect only of the arrival or mobilisation of the people; the people can appear and be mobilised before democracy appears. Hobbes's Leviathan has as an illustration on its title page of the sovereign as composed of his subjects, and they are the masses not simply the magnates (though they are entirely adult and entirely male). In unmobilised societies, the mass of a population is largely excluded from the regular attention of government, or from systematic involvement in the business of the state or of its rulers. Mobilised societies, by contrast, involve their population regularly and systematically in the public affairs of the state: as taxpayers, as soldiers, or as industrial and agricultural human resources. Mobilised societies include democracies, but also most other modern societies, from totalitarian regimes to theocracies. And whilst collective public identities vary by place and time, a broad distinction can be made both between the public identities of populations of mobilised and unmobilised societies, and between the identities of the rulers of the two types of society.

Mobilised nations are an accommodation between the authority of government and the redescription of subjects as the people, the nation. The population are constructed, choreographed, dressed in a way which is a part of the choreographing of the system, which presents them as members of a nation whose identity depends not on autonomous citizens or democratic action, but on membership, mobilisation, and orchestration. And as soon as the nation is described, it is also prescribed, and the prescriber, not the nation, is taking control. There may not be an exact point at which a totality of inhabitants of a territory becomes a mobilised populace, or at which the places where a mobilised populace lives become a territory, but the ends of the scale are clear enough.

Mobilisation, and democratisation as its further stage, places identity problems for government in a way which is not present, or not present in the same way, in unmobilised societies. If the mass of the population are part of a nation, then their common identity becomes relevant in a new way. Pre-mobilised societies impose cultural or religious uniformity on the governed majority, but mobilised societies have a new dimension of need, since a mobilised population is public, visible, and active. In responding to this situation governments can seek to cultivate a common identity; or exclude, expel, or kill those who do not fit the chosen image; or accept an identity which is political but contains cultural, religious, ethnic, or other diversities – a choice described by Liah Greenfeld as ‘civic nationalism’37. The most extreme instance of the second is the ethnic cleansing of which the actions of the Nazi regime in the middle of the twentieth century were the most ruthlessly pursued. Client regimes, such as the Vichy regime in France, provided constitutional euphemisms for exclusion, removing 110,000 Algerian Jews from the category ‘citizen’ to the category ‘subject’.38

There is no simple binary distinction, however, between mobilised and unmobilised societies any more than there is between religious and secular leadership and governance. There are instances of societies which would certainly be thought of as both premodern and unmobilised, where substantial sections of a population were either driven out or killed by a new ruling group in order to achieve homogeneity not merely within the elite, but across the whole population of the conquered or governed territory. There may be a material dimension to this, but there may also be one of identity, most clearly in the case of religious identity. This might, however, be more likely when the new arrivals were not simply a ruling caste who sought to remove cultural disparity, but a new community who sought land and capital. The study of medieval ethnic cleansing by Len Scales is both of rulers or conquerors purging newly acquired territories, or the territories to which they have succeeded by killing or expulsion, and of dissident groups, either popular or elite, objecting to what were seen as foreigners either capturing too much trade or unduly influencing rulers or universities.39 If that is the case, then the conflict is not directly over identity, but over possession, with identity used as an exclusionary mark to gain or increase property or influence, and to limit by exclusion the numbers who might share in it. There is thus a difference between an attempt to sustain distinction or solidarity by enforcing a particular identity, and using or creating an identity in order to reduce the numbers of people who enjoy some material benefit. But in this case too, identity is the language of solidarity and conflict, whether an elite or an aspirant elite seeks to consolidate its own security by distancing itself from the mass of the population or by incorporating the mass of the population to its own cultural, linguistic, or most commonly religious identity. This form of identity cultivation of the population by its rulers is the major exception to the otherwise broad indifference of rulers and elites in unmobilised societies to the identity of populations within their territories. It is an instance which illustrates the limitation of both the idealised distinction between mobilised and unmobilised societies and that between religious and secular leadership. Religious orthodoxy has been enforced by secular leaders in both mobilised and unmobilised societies, and more frequently in the latter than in the former, suggesting that even the most culturally insulated identities can be unsettled if the religious practices beyond the boundaries of their estate are uncongenial or unfamiliar.

The understanding of actual instances and societies will be further removed from these ideal types in that whilst extremes of mobilisation or its absence will occur, much social life will be found at some point in between the two poles, whilst the degree of mobilisation will not be uniform across all forms of social life. People may be mobilised for war but not for religion, or vice versa. Medieval society, which might appear as unmobilised, was characterised by a high level of organisation of the religious practices of its members, whilst leaving their economic activities largely unattended, and their political ones non-existent in times of stability. Elizabeth I of England, who said that she did not wish to make windows into men's souls, was perhaps departing less radically from previous practice than appears. She insisted on public conformity to a prayer book and a liturgy that were imposed on all by secular law. What mattered was conformist behaviour.

The terms ‘mobilised’ and ‘unmobilised’ have only a limited usefulness, since they refer to degrees of involvement and exclusion which are neither neat nor uniform. Other terms, and other ways of talking of the character of a society, can be equally illuminating: the distinction between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ societies; the extent, character, scope, and power of elites; the extent of open or public politics; the existence or extent of a public sphere or of civil society; the degree of visibility or public participation or activity of the mass of the population or of those outside obvious elites or dominant groups. Even so, it is still useful to employ the distinction, not in order to fit entire societies into tight taxonomic boxes, but to consider the various features found, in different forms and with different intensities, in particular instances.

A major difference between unmobilised and mobilised populations and societies lies in the relation between the identity of elites and identity of the rest of the population. Whatever the differences in power, prestige, or material prosperity in mobilised societies, the identity of the mass of the population is an essential part of the identity of the elite. Under all other systems, the feathers of the people matter only insofar as they do not challenge those of their rulers.

Tom Nairn in his examination of the monarchy suggests that there is an organic coherence, which he calls Ukania, to the whole social and political system of the United Kingdom, so that the monarchic tip shapes and sustains the vernacular iceberg.40 Coherence may be too strong a term, but whatever the dissonances and tensions, each social or political stratum is in part defined by the others. But though all forms of elite-identity cultivation involve a related cultivation of the identity of the rest of the population, there is a major difference between the character of this relationship in mobilised and unmobilised societies.

The trick is for an elite in a mobilised society to be neither too close to nor too distant from the identity of ordinary people. This is different from saying either that subjects reflect the character of rulers, or that rulers reflect the character of subjects. Rather it is saying that there is a symbiotic relation between the two, such that it is possible to learn a lot about the one from studying the other, and that the character of each is a matter not of autonomous identity, but of relationship. A polity is a holistic arrangement or phenomenon, and each part or dimension is as it is partly in relation to the other parts. This is the A sharp/B flat phenomenon, whereby a musical note gains meaning not in isolation, but in relation to the other notes with which it is associated. It is also an application, to a polity, of the concept of legitimation as a feature of a relationship, rather than as a one-way transfer of consent. And if it is a relationship – of law making and enforcing, and compliance, or of political activity and response – then each party to the relationship has a social identity that arises from that relationship, and that would not exist without it.

Any such judgment must be cautious and qualified. Whole societies are neither simple nor uniform. On the other hand, even in the most variegated societies, the elements take some of their character from each other. A religious sect in a secular society will differ from a sect with apparently similar theological doctrine in a religious society, a monarchist movement in a republic from one in a constitutional monarchy.

Mobilised and democratic societies are not without elites

Even unmobilised society calls for some attention from elites, both to their own appearance in the face of the population and, particularly in the character of religion, to ensuring that the population provides a congenial background to the lives of the privileged. The mobilisation of populations which accompanied both democratic and autocratic government was celebrated, in the democratic case, by a rhetoric of representation. Nor did autocracies of one kind or another renounce the powerful justification of claiming to speak for the people. In a democratic or mobilised system there is identification with the masses. But even in such systems, there is a degree of difference. The elite presents itself as representative rather than separate and different, but nonetheless representative in a distinctive way. There remains a distance between identity as association and identity as distinction. Whilst an elite might present itself to itself and to others as representing the qualities of the rest of society, it must also present that representativeness as concentrated, elevated, or in some sense different from mere reproduction of the normal or the vernacular. Were that not the case, the elite would dissolve in the mass.

There is a paradox in that the more an identity is cultivated which is different from that of the majority, the less able an elite may be to understand and hence to dominate that majority. At the same time, the dominated, whilst they will acquiesce in being dominated by those whose identity appears to be like their own but more so, are less likely to acquiesce to domination by those who appear alien. That is one of the reasons why colonialism is unstable. The key to both acquiescence and revolt is identification, as it is to electoral success.

Different systems will have different degrees of separation between leaders and led, different identities, and leadership identity sustained by different mixes of distinctiveness and representation. The degree of similarity, or of difference, between elite and mass will be a feature of the political system and, accordingly, as it differs between affinity and distance, so will the rest of the system between open, mobilised, democratic, and closed, authoritarian.

But whatever the system, an identity is in the first place that of a person or group, and one which functions to tell them, rather than others, who they are. That narrative is confirmed in the recognition of others, but nonetheless it starts with a subject, not with an observer. Once there is more than one person, personal identity, whilst it is cultivated by its subject, is entangled with the recognition, rejection, or indifference of others. Robinson Crusoe had an identity which was both confirmed and changed by the arrival of Friday. But he was not without an identity even when he was alone, and even when that solitude was ended, identity began with its subject and whilst it was affected by the presence of another, was not created by it.

This superiority is no less important if the justification is super-representativeness, and no more important if the justification is a great breach of identity between rulers and the rest of the population. In either case, rulers need to know and to celebrate their special identity. If the wider population is to have a clear role in public life, the maintenance of the distinction of elites needs special effort. Once there is a public presence of layers of the population beyond an elite, elites begin to take a new responsibility for the identity of those from whom they continue to distinguish themselves. Even if the masses are only an audience for superior persons, attention needs paying to them.

Elites cultivate their own identity, but they cultivate also that of the rest of humanity, and in each case they are energetic and resourceful. Because government, politics, and religion as societies become more mobilised involve, potentially, entire populations, the actions and identities of their elites cannot be insulated from the public presentation of the identity of everyone else, and are a part of public life to an extent which marks them off from other fragmentary, particular, or local cultures of identity.

The scenery which people, whether rulers, politicians, or some individual or group amongst the variety of less powerful subjects, construct, is a part both of how they live and of how they aspire to live. The formal order of the New Town in eighteenth-century Edinburgh was a calm and deliberate alternative to the disorder of the old town, just as Bentham's panopticon prison or proposed school was an image and expression of order, hierarchy, and deliberate rational regulation.41 And in each case, the identity was being cultivated, or being attempted to be cultivated, by a small group for a larger swathe of the population.

The character of this cultivation will differ according to whether the population is mobilised, and according to the identity which the elite cultivates for itself. In a mobilised society, whilst the elite will still distinguish itself from the mass, there is a degree of homogeneity between the culture which the elite cultivates for itself and that which it seeks to achieve for the masses. A nationalist elite will seek linguistic and cultural homogeneity, a theocratic elite uniformity of dogma and religious practice. Each of these forms of identity can make absolute demands on the masses, the theocratic particularly so since theocratic rule not only claims divine justification, the ultimate unquestionable absolute, but seeks the application on earth and to all peoples of the divine will. But here too there will be differences between mobilised and unmobilised societies. The elite of an unmobilised society will be content with, will indeed seek, a level or mode of compliance from the masses which distinguishes it sharply from the culture of the elite: the masses must comply with the religion of the elite, but need not, indeed should not, engage with it with the sophistication, active participation, or understanding which characterises elite devotion and theological understanding. Latin will remain the secular and religious language of the distinctive few, mass will be performed behind a rood screen, the conversions of humanity will simply be the conversion of kings.

Harold Lasswell and Merritt Fox contrast autocratic separation, the Forbidden City or the Kremlin under both tsars and communism, with popular government in the United States:

The sharpest contrast to despotism and autocracy is a well-established popular government. The official meets the citizen on a common level and the chief of state lives with an insignificant physical barrier separating him from his fellows. The White House in Washington expresses the basic relationship that connects the transitory holder of the presidential office and the rank and file of the nation. The White House is neither remote nor exalted; it has the approachability of a private home.42

But the White House is clearly far more ‘exalted’ than the average American home, and significantly less approachable. The citizens of the United States may visit and be impressed by the White House once or even several times in a lifetime, but the president can be impressed by it, and what it says about the incumbent of the presidential office, every day. As Murray Edelman puts it:

That a man meets with his aides in the Oval Office of the White House reminds him and them and the public to whom the meeting is reported of his status and authority as President, just as it exalts the status of the aides and defines the mass public as nonparticipants who never enter the Office.43

Whatever message of solidarity or equality the stage of the White House may present to ordinary citizens, to the president and his aides it presents a message of political superiority and spatial exclusion.

Both superior and inferior identities are necessary for there to be an elite at all, since each defines the other. When the first fails, the elite collapses inwardly, abdicates, or dissolves. There are many accounts of the revolutions which took place in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe from 1989. But one crucial aspect in the collapse of managerial communism was not an assault from without, but a loss of meaning and justification within. Rulers ceased to believe in themselves as rulers. One part of the disappearance of the regimes in Romania, East Germany, Poland, or Czechoslovakia was abdication by elites which no long saw themselves as marked off from their subject populations by unique insight or skill.

When the second, the identification of a mass of ordinary and subordinate, less privileged, or less talented humanity, fails, the elite is merely play-acting, since the defining others have evaporated. It is an internal instance of the crisis of identity which occurs when an enemy vanishes just as surely as when a people vanish.

A king in exile is not even half a king. The paradox of the private world of identity cultivation is that whilst it appears self-sufficient and closed within a private world, if the public world beyond is no longer there, then the private world can no longer be defined by its seclusion from it, and descends into mere fantasy. It is a fantasy performed whenever a regime collapses and its former leaders survive, in exile, privacy, or peregrination from hotel to hotel. But it is a fantasy which can be desperately sustained. R. K. Narayan recalls an evening in New York: ‘Other guests for the dinner were an ex-Maharaja from India, whom everyone deliberately “highnesses” much to his delight. Royalty in exile is generally very exacting.’44 Royal weddings are forever attended by self-proclaimed monarchs not only from monarchies which no longer exist, but from countries which no longer exist. When Prince William and Kate Middleton were married in Westminster Abbey in 2011, the guests included King Michael of Yugoslavia.

Two messages and two audiences; avoiding indifference

The published and expressed identity of an elite has two audiences, the ruler and the ruled, the elite and the subordinate. The identification of elites is partly a matter of identifying themselves to themselves, partly of identifying themselves to those whom they govern. Elites cultivate an identity which both gives meaning and justification to themselves and enables them to distinguish, both for themselves and others, their difference from the mass of humanity. Plutarch observed of Pompey that he ‘sought to surround his presence with majesty and pomp, believing that he should keep his dignity free from contact and familiarity with the masses.’45 But in so doing he was cultivating an identity not only for the included, but for the excluded.

Because the identity of elites involves a dominant relation with the mass of their fellow humans, whilst the cultivation of identity is powerfully pursued in a solipsistic manner, the recognition of an elite by others has an importance which is absent from the identity cultivation of ordinary humanity. Public indifference in open or mobilised societies is disastrous for an elite, for whom the one thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

So there are two audiences, and two messages: the audience of the mass outside the elite, and of the elite, and a message about the identity of the insiders, and another, complementary, message about the identity of the outsiders. Each message is relayed to both audiences, but in different tones and with different intensities.

The environments which polities construct for themselves will differ between ones with a ruling class and ones with a ruling person, the former having many statues of great men and some women, the latter having either lots of statues of the same person, for instance Atatürk or Louis XIV, or lots of statues of idealised representative persons, workers, peasants, and soldiers in their heroic Soviet apotheoses. By the end of the Napoleonic wars, St Paul's Cathedral was filling up with the memorial statues of generals and admirals.46

Conscripting others as supporting casts of identity; religion and politics as coercive identity cultivation

Identities are cultivated and expressed across the whole range of human creativity: speech, manufacture, consumption, movement. But because identity is constructed and cultivated not just in the external presentation of the person, but in that person's social and material setting, it is not only buildings and artefacts which are created and colonised. Other people can be seen not as the bearers of autonomous identity, but as human resources for the cultivation and creation of someone else's identity. This can take the form of an apparently benign concern for the life of others. George Bernard Shaw's analysis of philanthropy and reform described just this when he wrote that:

the poverty of those we rob prevents our having the good life for which we sacrifice them. Rich men or aristocrats with a developed sense of life – men like Ruskin and William Morris and Kropotkin – have enormous social appetites and very fastidious personal ones. They are not content with handsome houses: they want handsome cities. They are not content with bediamoned wives and blooming daughters: they complain because the charwoman is badly dressed.47

But this desire to make the world a congenial context for one's own character can equally take the form of an attempt to compel others to have an identity either like one's own, in order to give one support, or subordinate to one's own in order to enhance one's own sense of esteem, distinctiveness, and superiority.

Whilst Shaw's fastidious reformer can seek to raise everyone else to his own culture, an aristocratic class can insist that only its own members may dress in a distinctive way. In pre-revolutionary France, only nobles with the right to be present at court might have red heels on their shoes.48 In Renaissance Florence, sumptuary laws restricted the clothing of the lower orders and marked social difference with the visible distinctions of vestments.49 The attempt to keep people in their place could operate within the ranks of the more fortunate just as readily as between them and the masses. Tudor sumptuary legislation could discriminate between students of law and others above the level of the common people as readily as it could mark the appropriate territories of gentry and populace.50 Too many buttons could be a transgression of the social order resisted and suppressed by the force of the law.51 One of the earliest contentions in the Estates General which met in France in 1789 was over the distinctive seating and dress of the different estates.52 In less formal or overtly prescribed ways, differences of dress, speech, and manner are used in a range of political and governmental assemblies to marginalise newcomers, or women, or members of ethnic minorities.53 Quentin Bell has observed the class dimension of clothing, though class is not the only invidious distinction:

the history of fashionable dress is tied to the competition between classes, in the first place the emulation of the aristocracy by the bourgeoisie and then the more extended competition which results from the ability of the proletariat to compete with the middle classes … while many political events leave fashion unaffected, those which alter the class structure do influence the course of fashion … the schism between masculine and feminine dress takes its place naturally as part of the same process.

Class and social status are joined by gender and age as identities to which distinctive clothing contributed.54

The point has been made precisely in relation to clothing. Thorstein Veblen in The Theory of the Leisure Class introduced the term ‘vicarious consumption’ to describe those whose flamboyant expression of their own wealth was conducted not through their own person but through their economic dependents. Quentin Bell's application of this observation in On Human Finery half a century later illustrated the point with the egregious abundance of useless and impeding clothing for dependent wives and children, and of archaic finery for servants.

But what each of these alternatives, of demanding that others be like oneself or demanding that they be different from and inferior to oneself, illustrates is the construction and cultivation of identity by constructing and cultivating a dramatic setting for oneself which is composed not only of material constructions and creations, but of other people. It might seem that a cultivated identity which depends upon others being identified as inferior is more oppressive of those others than one which depends on their being identified as the same. But each treatment of people as the supporting cast of identity subordinates them, and denies them their own autonomous creation and cultivation of their identity. To be compelled to shape one's identity in support of that of someone else is a denial of autonomy. In its most extreme form, this subordination of others can involve their killing. So called ‘honour’ murders are justified either because the victim refuses to adopt a subordinate identity or because he or she refuses to adopt an identical identity. Women are killed because they refuse to act as part of the patriarchal identity of fathers, just as they or men can be killed because they do not accept the religious practices of the killer.

This is the paradox of identification through the construction and cultivation of human and material environments. By treating the external world – human and material – as a theatre for the enactment of an individual's drama, the individuality of others can be denied. Others may be coerced to play a part in a drama not of their creation, or destroyed if they undermine the dramas of others, who may invoke their own ‘honour’ to justify the destruction of artefacts and the murder of people.

The enrolment, or conscription, of other people in support of one's own identification occurs with particularly authoritative justification in the case of religion. To say that a person's church requires them to act in a certain way is a different kind of statement from saying that it requires anybody else to act in that way. The second is an attempt to press-gang others as extras in the dramatic construction of self, a self which, whilst it appears to be justified by divine external authority, is itself the only location or evidence of such authority. But whilst religion may be the form most absolutely invoked for this mobilisation of others as auxiliaries in someone else's identity, political causes can make claims almost as loud and intemperate. The obliteration of one person's autonomy in the service of someone else requires the most grandiose justifications.

The salience of religious identity and of the cultivation by both religious and secular leaders of congenial and conformist settings for their own sense of identity has neither been wholly absent nor uniformly dominant. It may have had a more sustained presence in unmobilised societies as a form of ensuring that the population was quiet and orderly. But it has been a major element in public life from the end of the twentieth century.

Religious identity can be expressed and constituted in part by clothes, both to the wearer and to others. The argument at the start of the twenty-first century about headscarves in France and in Turkey, and about the jilbab and niqab in the United Kingdom, is about who people are, both for themselves and for others. It may be religious faith which expresses some particular obligation, but the form of the compliance with that obligation is social, not private or spiritual. And as with other socially constructed identities, distinctions construct an identity for each person which is not autonomous or separate, but comprehensible only in relation to the identities of others. The use of and argument about the clothes worn by female Muslims illustrates the extreme flexibility of material or evident components of identity. The same clothing can have very different significance for both wearers and audiences in mobilised and unmobilised societies, democracies and autocracies. Controversies and practices around clothing can involve the persuasion or coercion by leaders for whom the appearance of their followers or subjects becomes an important component or supporting environment for the cultivation of their own identity. It illustrates too that the distinction between political and religious leadership is an ideal type, and that religious practices can be a part of the coercive rule of government as readily as of the voluntary or socially sustained activity of subjects or citizens.

There are many ways, whose meaning is part of the circumstances in which they are used, of cultivating the distinctiveness of identity, and flamboyance is one way only. When the world is decked in finery, ascetic simplicity can be a way of standing apart from the masses. Religious dress may in its plainness, lack of adornment, and subdued colours proclaim the equality of all believers, the inequality asserted by the authority of the ascetic or the idiosyncratic choice of individuals, and in its variety proclaim hierarchy, gender division and subordination, a denial of oppressive gendered stereotypes, an assertion of individual choice or gradations of holiness, or a repudiation of extravagance which is, by its very evident severity, extravagant. It may be an assertion of religion or a secular assertion of identity.

Coerced identity is more a feature of religious than of secular leadership. This may be in part another aspect of the difference between political and religious proselytising. Religious faith has been seen by those who possess it as a desirable dimension of life which should be communicated to, and if necessary imposed on, as many people as possible. That is not uniformly the case with political faiths, and democracy, for instance, is more frequently regarded as a good, like material sources, which its possessors have no burning desire to share with others, and which they may actively prevent or hinder others from enjoying if it is not consistent with their own perceived well-being.

This feature of religious faith co-exists with a distinction which can allow religious elites to dismiss or exclude much of a population from the fullness of religious experience, either as laity restricted on the concealing side of a rood screen, or as beyond the finer points of theological understanding. Such a faith will seek external compliance, and see secular law as an appropriate way of achieving it. Bede's record of the progress of Christianity in the British Isles is a record of the conversion of kings and lords – the rest of the population was assumed to follow.

The manner of presentation to the crowd indicates something of the rulers’ conception of his or her subjects. But, in addition, it is not just formal legitimation claims that constitute the legitimation activities of rulers. Everything they do can have a legitimating dimension. Messages about legitimating identities are being conveyed all the time. Plumage is an indicator of some part of self-image, some conception of legitimating narratives. It is not an infallible indicator of all aspects of a regime or government, but it is to be seen both as something which will be in a coherent relationship with other aspects, and also a contributory dimension of the whole. Ferdinand Mount has argued eloquently for the importance of the most visible and audible aspects of government: ‘The myths and rituals which a regime has allowed or, more usually, encouraged to grow up around itself often reveal something very significant about the real nature of that regime – the essentially populist, good-humoured, consensual nature of Macmillan's Toryism, the aristocratic, activist liberalism of the Kennedys, the autocracy of de Gaulle.’55 And they are not simply clues to some underlying or undeclared reality. They are a substantial part of that reality. George W. Bush was a president who enjoyed dressing up as if he were a fighter pilot in ways which did not involve his actually going to war. This was not a clue to the identity of the president, it was part of that identity.

Two bodies: the person and the personage

Religion is one human activity where the tensions of identification are most evident. The other is government and politics. The distance in religion between the human and the divine, supernatural, or metaphysical is paralleled in the secular world by the distance between the public identity and the biological person, what Kantorowicz has termed the political body and the natural body.56 In both cases it is the material, visible, tangible, and audible actions and artefacts which constitute identity, in the case of religion of the faithful in the absence of any possible direct manifestation of the divine or the supernatural, in the case of government, of rulers, presidents, leaders, and princes, despite the mere corporeal presence around which identity clusters. The deep social gap which separates the naked ape from the created person has frequently been used for comic effect. The distinction between the public person and the private bearer of the public identity is visually caught in Thackeray's cartoon of Louis XIV. The reference of the cartoon is to Hyacinthe Rigaud's grand formal portrait of the king, heavy with royal regalia and posed before a setting of theatrical grandeur. A carved column is draped with a huge and heavy red and gilt curtain, whilst the king's spreading robe, embossed with gold fleurs-de-lys, comes to rest on a stool bearing his crown. A massive sword hangs from his side, and from amongst all this material display Louis gazes with tolerant condescension (figure 5) Thackeray's visual comment consists of three drawings – one of a set of robes; one of a small, bald, and elderly man; and the third of the two combined to create Louis – with the caption: ‘You see at once, that majesty is made out of the wig, the high-heeled shoes, and cloak … Thus do barbers and cobblers make the gods we worship’ (figure 6).

The relation between biological and social persons was recognised by politicians as different as Joseph Stalin and Arthur Balfour. When Stalin's adopted son replied to a reprimand over exploiting his father's name that he was a Stalin too, Stalin is reported to have replied: ‘You're not Stalin and I'm not Stalin. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, no not even me.’57 Discussing his career possibilities with Margot Asquith, Balfour observed, with rather more qualifications than Stalin, ‘I do not think you quite realize what a small fraction of what we call personality can really be said to depend upon the person. Personality, as you use the word, really means the power of striking the popular imagination: and this is in every case as much due to favourable accident as to inherent capacities.’58 But the significance of these apparent breaches between bald king and regalia, private Stalin and public Stalin, and house-party Balfour and parliamentary Balfour, is not that the first is ‘real’ whilst the second is a mask or a mere display. Either there are two identities, or there are levels of identity, or different degrees or intensities of identity. One is no more, and no less, real than the other. There may have been moments when King Louis, not the cartoon image but the monarch, was without his regalia. But they were the smaller part of his life. Whatever the human individual did, whether with or without regalia, as a person he existed in exactly the same way as any other person, through what he wore, where he wore it, and how he acted. That the clothing, the scenery, and the actions were not everywhere the same does not alter their constituting role in who the person was, whether that identity was single or plural. So with Stalin, the public father of the nation might have differed from the private father or the domestically located ruler, but they were all real cultivated people. In no case did the mere physical organism to which the name Louis or Stalin attached constitute the whole or only person.

Thackeray's cartoon makes a point which was well appreciated by those who celebrated and maintained monarchy in medieval Europe, and was recognised in funerary and monumental art. The clothes might express the king, but they expressed at the same time something that was more than the mortal body who wore them. The king, as Kantorowicz put it, had two bodies, one political and one natural, and each real and each an existence of which the mundane world needed to take account.59 Nor were secular rulers the only ones with more than one identity; the church's rulers could be equally segmented, and the distinction was expressed in the ritual and statuary of funerals, where the separation of the mortal body from the continuing role of public person was portrayed by two effigies: one corruptible and passing, the other formal and continuing. The tomb in Canterbury Cathedral of Archbishop Chichele contains two life-sized carved figures, the first of the prelate in full episcopal regalia, the second of an emaciated cadaver (figure 7). They are two identities born by a single biological person, the dead priest and the living, because having lived, bishop. When Frederick William I of Prussia is reported as having replied to the cleric telling him that naked we come into this world and naked we depart from it that no, he would die in his uniform, he was missing the point of kingship. Even if the king did indeed die in his uniform, there was, at the point of death, a separation. The mortal king was entombed, the uniform continued, and the museums of royal Europe were endowed with the clothing which expressed the continuation of the office of monarch long after the death of any particular incumbent. Politics, like religion, is frequently conducted by metonymy, and crown imperial can, like the Stalin who is distinct from the natural Stalin, both hover about and transcend a mere temporary person.

The gap between the ordinary human and the extraordinary role is potentially greatest in hierarchies, whether secular and sacred. The king's two bodies, like the prelate’s, were a feature of circumstances where the mantle of sovereignty was almost too heavy for an ordinary mortal to bear. In monarchies and empires, as in papacies, new names indicate the several dimensions of identity of new incumbents, a more comprehensive expression of a perception which still, in the United Kingdom, gives the sovereign an official birthday which is different from and unrelated to the chronological birthday of the incumbent. But what the Chichele tomb expresses is the understanding that both bodies are real.

Tension between association and distinction in open societies

The tension between representativeness and superiority appears in every aspect of governing identity. It is most striking in language, as language is the most active medium of recognition. A governing elite may seek to impose or cultivate a language on those whom it dominates to characterise them as its special subjects, or to reserve a language for its own particular use in order to characterise its difference from ordinary people. It is language, as W. J. M. Mackenzie has pointed out, which is the fundamental and essential characteristic and condition of collective identity.60 Whichever it is, the cultivation of the identity of the elite has as a necessary aspect a narrative about the identity of the mass of ordinary people. If the elite bans or persecutes the use of the language of a group or caste or community whom it wishes to assimilate under its control or influence, it uses language as a missionary tool. If the elite, conversely, sets itself apart from the mass by its use of cultivated French, or ecclesiastical Latin, or European English, then language becomes a mark of both superiority and subordination. The Norman French who seized power in England in 1066 felt no desire or need to amend their language or culture to that of those whom they now ruled, or to transform the language or culture of their subjects. The practice of the British Empire in India, by contrast, illustrates a very different, if complex and uncertain, relation between a ruling and a ruled culture.

In mobilised societies rulers must be sufficiently like those whom they govern not to appear alien, but unlike them sufficiently to be justified in being in command. They need, in order to maintain their position, to create a public identity with which the mass of people can associate or which they can accept as at one and the same time familiar and superior, unless that mass is so unmobilised as to be of no significance. Ernest Jones observed that a ruler ‘just as a hero, can strike the imagination of the world in one of two ways. Either he presents some feature, or performs some deed, so far beyond the range of average people as to appear to be a creature belonging to another world … Or, on the contrary, he may capture the imagination by presenting to us, as it were on a screen, a magnified and idealised picture of the most homely and familiar attributes.’61 One way of claiming the distinction which marks a person or group off from the mass is precisely to claim that, whilst representative of everyone else, they are by the intensity of their representative character, special, and above the crowd. This paradoxical claim can arise in all kinds of mobilised regime, not only those with claims to be democratic. Adolf Hitler is reported as having said of the daunting vistas of the Reich Chancellery, ‘I stand here as representative of the German people. And whenever I receive anyone in the Chancellery, it is not the private individual Adolf Hitler who receives him, but the Leader of the German nation – and therefore it is not I who receive him, but Germany through me.’62 The apparent obliteration of the self as a mere representative is at the same time the elevation of the self as embodying the whole people. Not just l’état, but nation and folk as well, c’est moi. Hitler's remark would have resonated with Vitruvius who, dedicating his treatise on architecture to Augustus, praised his patron by whose beneficence ‘the majesty of the Empire’ had been ‘expressed through the eminent dignity of its public buildings’.63

The intense identity culture at the top of social, political, and religious hierarchies presents in dramatic form the tensions present in all identity cultivation. This is particularly so in mobilised societies where the need to create solidarity with the population conflicts with the desire to cultivate an exceptional identity. In the case of government and rulers, this tension is not only a feature of identity dissonance, but a potential source of governmental failure. The greater the uniqueness of a ruling elite and its heightened sense of worth, the greater the potential for a fatal rupture of the relations necessary for effective government.


1 Henry Bettenson (ed.), Documents of the Christian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 282.
2 Bernard Bosanquet, The Philosophical Theory of the State (London: Macmillan, 1965), pp. 216–17.
3 Bede, A History of the English Church and People, translated by Leo Sherley-Price (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1955), p. 189.
4 Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Allen Lane, 2009), p. 540.
5 The Bible, Authorized King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), John, 1:1.
6 Rowan Williams, ‘The Formation of Christendom’, New Left Review, 170 (July–August 1988), 122.
7 Michael Savage, ‘“Living goddess” has deity stripped after US trip’, Independent, 4 July 2007, pp. 28–9.
8 J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 173.
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10 Charles Taylor, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 63–4.
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20 Clifford Geertz, Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), p. 13.
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27 Zitser, The Transfigured Kingdom.
28 Geremie Barmé, The Forbidden City (London: Profile Books, 2008).
29 Thomas M. Franck, The Power of Legitimacy Among Nations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 107–8.
30 James Morone, ‘The Triumph of Plunder’, London Review of Books, 26:18 (2004).
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32 Chris Bowlby, ‘Ambassador, you are really spoiling us’, BBC News, 10 October 2006, (accessed 8 November 2016).
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38 Patrick Weil, How to Be French: Nationality in the Making since 1789, translated by Catherine Porter (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), p. 87.
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52 Wrigley, The Politics of Appearance, pp. 59–62.
53 N. Puwar, Space Invaders (London: Berg, 2004).
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56 Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957).
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61 McKibbin, Classes and Cultures, pp. 13–14.
62 Goodsell, Social Meaning, p. 4.
63 Beacham, Power into Pageantry, p. 130.


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