Flags & Borders in a Revolutionary World

Posted on 02/04/2011 by

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As the revolution ramped up in Libya, the people gathered around a symbol which identified them as not being supporters of the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The symbol was the flag of the monarchy which Gaddafi overthrew, and was subsequently adopted by the Transitional National Council as their official flag.

In the context of the post-Soviet, globalisation epoch, this move presents a fascinating chance to analyse what is the presently received symbology of flags, and where that symbology might be evolving. What place does symbols such as flags have in the world of today?

This question necessitates talking about what borders mean as well, because flags are by definition intrinsically linked to the idea of a ‘country’: a specifically defined physical territory in the world, which is distinct from what is around it. In other words, flags symbolise the coalesced ownership — or sovereignty — of the territory bounded by said borders.

Governments are typically very ephemerally linked to flags: every new government in, say, the UK or the USA does not necessitate a new flag. Rather, a flag is an evocation of the historical; the idea that there is a unifying thread going back in time which gives a country its character and traditions.

And now for a detour into Modernism, which I despise, so stay with me. To put it very simply, Modernism is the concept which says the past is not only dead, but should be completely discarded, forgotten, and replaced with purely ‘modern’ notions. Ayn Rand, for example, was a proponent of this, such as her desire to see tall buildings ‘unafraid of being tall’; (or, more likely, expressing awkwardly embarrassing penile worship, but I’ll leave that aside.)

In practice, Modernism is on the surface nonfunctional: we are all still speaking historical languages, for instance, and not Esperanto. Books, even Ayn Rand’s, still have covers on the outside, pages on the inside and binding to hold them all together, much like those from centuries ago. History is still very much a part of our lives.

However, it is beneath the surface where Modernism has become quite powerful, via the hotly-contested process of globalisation. Seas of ink has been spilt over the nature and existence of this process, so allow me to add my own: Globalisation is the process of creating a global consumerist culture, via the unchecked spread of multinational corporations, the increasing hyper-complexity of mass-production, and the stability demands of the corporate planning cycle.

Another way to describe globalisation is that it homogenises: it is more efficient for corporate capitalism to have everyone consume as much of the same stuff as possible, rather than having to produce more varieties of different stuff. This is a twist on the old Soviet model of having one factory to produce shoes: globalisation is trying to convince everyone to want the same shoes, made by a global corporate process involving hundreds of factories, (same make the laces, others the soles, et cetera.)

This is not to suggest that globalisation will result in the infamous One World Government; quite the opposite, in fact. Multinational corporations require the existence of multiple governments, for the simple reason that it is easier to oppress people in one country and have headquarters in another. Royal Dutch Shell would find it difficult to exploit the Nigerian oil fields if Nigeria weren’t its own country, but rather part of a centralised world-state.

The reason why Moderism and globalisation are so closely intertwined is fairly simple. In the rejection of the past, only everything modern becomes the only standard by which other things are judged. In this way, Moderism is the orthodoxy of the global consumerist culture: the newest things are axiomatically 1) the best things that exist, and 2) are better than older things prima facie. For example, a newer computer is always going to be better than an older computer; a newer car is better than an older car; a newer nuclear reactor is better than an old reactor; et cetera. The ‘side-effect’ is endless consumption, as everything old is discarded and replaced with the latest and greatest.

This quasi-religious dogma has a very curious relationship with flags, and other similar symbols of a country’s collective identity. Such symbols represent a connection with a past to which Modernism denies validity. They also serve as a touchstone for a personal identity outside of the globalisation culture, as they give one the sense of a lineage to which one is heir.

Tension between the systemic push for globalised consumer culture, and the need to maintain the concept of separate countries, puts flags and other symbols in a peculiar position. On one had they need to exist, otherwise Shell would find itself without a Nigeria to exploit and a Switzerland for banking the profits. On the other, they are impediments to homogenisation and corporate economic centralisation.

Enter Muammar Gaddafi with his pure green flag, the epitome of a Modernist flag. It serves the function of a flag, but removed any sense of historical lineage; it is, in essence, the permanently blank of the present without past or future. A field of pure green represents the country of Libya unsullied by historical context.

From this perspective, the choice — whether conscious or accidental — of the royal Libyan flag by the Revolution is a powerful statement. To reiterate from above, a flag is more than just a government, it is a thread of history, the ethic of an entire country. The statement of the flag is therefore that Libya is going to be a completely different place than it is now. It will have history, but it will be something new as well.

It is therefore the rejection of the Modernist homogenisation for the older, vibrant traditions of historic ties from pre-Gaddafi Libya. The fundamental importance of this choice cannot be overestimated, in my opinion. It represents not just a delineation of the Revolution from Gaddafi’s regime, but a delineation of the Libyan people from of the globalising consumerist culture.

How deep this rejection will go into the collective psyche of the Libyan people is difficult to say, but I posit the changes will be very striking. As seen in Egypt and Tunisia, Libyans have decided to either die or be free; that represents such an overturning of life, it is inconceivable that people will not become very different on the other side of the Revolution.

I suspect such internal changes will be very much for the better in Libya, but not so much for the global economy. Combining the Libyan Revolution with other such movements in the Middle East, there is a very good chance, in my mind, that the oil supply in the region will end up in the hands of those people who put their countries first, and not the designs of a multinational corporation.

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Posted in: Analysis