Skinny size me: some women dramatise their inner conflict by shedding weight. Photograph: Ben Stockey
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The anorexic statement

Trust me, notice me, feed me: every female body conveys a message. So, when a woman starves herself, what is she saying?

I knew a woman whose job it was to take anorexics to the swimming pool. She was an occupational therapist: eating disorders were her field. She worked at a nearby clinic and we bumped into one another from time to time.

I found myself curious about her work, or more truthfully about her patients, those singular modern-day martyrs to the cause of their own bodies. Without quite knowing why, as I have grown older I have become more interested in – it could even be said, more respectful of – what might be called the anorexic statement. Perhaps it’s because, as the 45-year-old English mother of two children, my body has little power of provocation or utterance; or rather, that what it’s said or tried to say through the years hasn’t seemed to have added up to all that much. Quite what constitutes the anorexic statement I’m not entirely sure. All the same, it has a great power of disruption. It’s a stray spoke under the wheel of things that otherwise have the capacity to hurtle on headlong: family life, fashion, the destiny of the female body. The statement might be: help me. Or it might simply be: stop.

My therapist acquaintance herself had not been allowed to be picky in life, growing up in a family of brothers on a farm in the Australian outback. She knew how to shoot, drive a tractor, ride a horse bareback. She had left that rough home and come to the UK, where every couple of years for the sake of change she moved job and town – Slough, Birmingham, Chelmsford – though her solitude and her line of work did not alter. She neither sought nor seemed to expect much in the way of pleasure. In the evenings she made a sandwich and read a book in her rented room; her main meal was lunch in the canteen at the clinic, where food was plentiful and cheap. This somewhat joyless attitude to nourishment could come as no surprise, given that she spent her days among females who regarded the ingestion of a teaspoonful of peas as a physical and spiritual crisis. Once a week she led them to the poolside, skeletal and pale, for all the world to see. Even at the swimming pool these curious beings detected the threat of penetration, of the outside coming in. They didn’t want to get in the water, not, apparently, because they felt self-conscious or exposed, but for fear that they might swallow some of it without its calorific content having been established.

The easiest thing that could be said about my acquaintance was that she herself was impenetrable. Her choice of career must have sprung from some initial attraction to or sympathy with the anorexic state, but most often what she appeared to feel for her waifish charges was irritation, even anger. Anger is a common response, it seems, to the anorexic statement. At the very least, returning from a day spent on the receiving end of that statement, my acquaintance was hard put to feel – as they say – good about herself. If the anorexic is someone for whom the relationship between female being and female image must, on pain of death, be resolved, it may be that she denies that resolution to those who cross her path. They become the witnesses of her vulnerability; as such, she is more real than they. Like with the ascetic of old, her self-denial is a form of chastisement, yet the extremity of her appearance is confusing. Being female, it seeks attention, but of an unusual kind. It asks to be mothered – yet what if its aim is indeed to challenge the reality of the mother-figure and overpower it, to triumph over her, to consign her to flesh and steal her image? The anorexic is out to prove how little she needs, how little she can survive on; she is out, in a sense, to discredit her nurturers, while at the same time making a public crisis out of her need for nurture. Such vulnerability and such power: it brings the whole female machinery to a halt. My acquaintance had tales of rudeness and tantrums and sulks, of behaviour more commonly read about in childcare manuals (of the kind whose purpose, we are told, is to “test the boundaries”), even of a degree of personal insult which at the very least, I suppose, mothers aren’t paid to tolerate. She had no children of her own. And so, in an admirable interpretation of the social contract, she recognised she had something in that line to give.

Jenefer Shute offers some riveting descriptions of such interactions, between the anorexic inpatient Josie and her carers, in her novel Life-Size. “In the body,” Josie chillingly muses, “as in art, perfection is attained not when there’s nothing left to add, but when there’s nothing left to take away.”

Armed with this credo, she can exercise contempt on everyone around her (“They say I’m sick, but what about them, who feast on corpses?”), in what becomes a radical reliving of her primary experiences of nurture. And it needs to be radicalised: this is the moral value of the anorexic statement, that it asks questions not just of mothers or fathers or fashion editors, but of the whole societal basis for the female image. This time around, Josie can speak her mind. She can criticise the people who care for her; she can re-experience the powerlessness of childhood and know it for what it is. So unpleasant is she to the “freckled cow” who nurses her that she finally gets the reprimand she has apparently been asking for:

“Josephine, I must ask you please not to speak to me like that. I’m not your servant.” And then, unable to contain herself: “And would you please look at me when I talk to you? It really gets on my nerves.” Coldly, victoriously, I remain precisely as I am. She really should have more control.

Soon after, however, the 68-pound tyrant, having agreed at last to eat something or be force-fed through a tube, makes a revealing request of her nurse: “I want you to feed me,” she says.

My acquaintance found it hard to muster much interest in herself at the day’s end. She rarely went out or saw people: it was as though her work had bled her of confidence. She sought not public interactions but the determined security of her private boundary. In the evenings she changed into loose clothes, shut herself in her room, shut herself into a book. She wanted to be where no one could demand anything of her, like a depleted mother, except with none of the prestige of motherhood. She never kept company with men, and her female world was wholly predicated on an insidious notion, that certain women are there to give attention and others to receive it. Sometimes it seemed that her patients had indeed stolen her image and left her with nothing to trade, nothing to barter with for some share of the world’s interest. They had stolen her image and left her a mere body that could find no reflection or definition for itself. She went back home for a few weeks on holiday and returned browner, more animated, and heavier. All that meat they went in for, meat roasted over a fire and served at every meal. But more to the point, a world in which food was an entitlement and a human bond.

In her own world food had become a weapon: her evening sandwich and her indifference were a kind of savourless pacifism she exercised against it. She spent her days among people who denied themselves food in order to experience, perhaps, power, whose apparent intention to make themselves invisible made them, in fact, visible, who had discovered that by becoming less they became more. And no­where was this clearer than in the fact that they required her as their witness, for disappearing was no fun unless someone noticed you’d gone. But if anyone was disappearing, if anyone was becoming invisible, it was she.

The question of how she had come to be stranded in this place remains difficult to answer, but its source may lie in the very practicality – the tractors, the horses – she had crossed the world to escape. Denied her own experience of femininity, she had perhaps embarked on a kind of pilgrimage to find and serve these notable victims to the riddling perversity of feminine values. She could help them, sit with them while they wept and shrieked over a teaspoonful of peas, she who had never had the temerity to question or refuse anything she had been given; she who was not important enough, as it were, to be anorexic, for the hieratic significance of the anorexic body depends on it having been ascribed a value in the first place. Had she tried to starve herself on the farm where she grew up, she might simply have died: her protest, in any case, would not have been understood. She had taken photographs of this place, on her recent trip home. In order to capture its isolation, she had photographed it from a distance, recording the miles of surrounding scrubland in a sequence of separate frames that she laid one next to another across the table in a long connecting strip. Amid these featureless wastelands she defied me to locate her home, and though my eyes searched and searched the landscape it was true that I could find no evidence of human habitation. She laughed, with an unmistakable and strangely exhilarated pride, and laid her finger over a low brown shape that crouched amid the boulders and bushes that extended all around it, on and on to the white horizon. It was so small her fingertip covered it. “There it is,” she said.

It may seem superfluous for a 45-year-old mother-of-two to say that she does not exult in the life of the body, but let’s just call it a place to begin. At the very least, as a statement, it raises numerous lines of inquiry. One might be: is it obligatory, or even a moral duty, to take pleasure in one’s own physical being? Leaving aside for a moment the question of what definition of pleasure one could possibly arrive at in this particular hall of mirrors, is the value of the physical quest in any way comparable with that of the artistic, the emotional, the spiritual?

I understand the anorexic’s notion of pleasure far better than the hedonist’s. Sometimes it has seemed to me that the second kind of pleasure is consequent on the first, that the life of sensation can be accessed only from a place of perfect self-discipline, rather as strict religious practices were once believed to constitute the narrow path to heaven. The anorexic, like the ascetic before her, publicly posits the immolation of the flesh as a manifestation of a primary physical discontent she is on her way to escaping: she represents a journey whose starting point is disgust. Body is found to be not only intolerable to but weaker than mind – how, then, can its desires and yearnings be taken seriously? The anorexic statement suggests a second body, one that will be painstakingly encroached on and attained; and hence, a second template for desire. This second body will belong to its owner as the first did not: its desires, therefore, will be experienced as not shameful, but true.

The female form is inherently susceptible to this duality, but the difficulty with the anorexic statement is that once it becomes open to other readings it breaks down. At some point in the journey a line is crossed: the slim body becomes the freakish starved body, and one by one the anorexic’s grounds for superiority are discredited and revoked. She is not beautiful but repellent, not self-disciplined but out of control, not enviable but piteous, and, most disappointing of all, she is publicly courting not freedom and desire but death. Even she may find these things difficult to believe. How to go back, on that journey? How to retrace one’s steps? For in getting where she needed to go the anorexic had to sacrifice the concept of normality. In a manner of speaking she sold her soul. She can never be “normal” about food or flesh again. So, how is she meant to live?

If the anorexic arouses irritation, even anger, it may be this quitting of normality that is to blame, because the female management of normality is a formidable psychical task from which most women don’t feel entitled to walk away. By quitting it she exposes it, she criticises it as a place to live, and moreover she forces each woman who passes her way to choose between denial and recognition of her statement, disgust.

Is it disgusting to be a woman? Menstruation, lactation, childbirth, the sexualisation of the female body – in recognising these things as her destiny, a girl is asked to forget everything that her prepubescent instincts might formerly have suggested to her. In becoming female she must cease to be universal, and relinquish the masculine in herself that permitted her as a child to find the idea of these things disgusting indeed. Likewise that masculine is now embodied for her in men, so the question becomes – do men find women disgusting? The anorexic statement dispenses with that perspective. It returns the woman to the universality of the child, and from that fusion formulates itself: I find myself disgusting.

If it has become a cultural cliché that women want to be thin more than they want to be loved (the three most cherished words these days, so the saying goes, being not “I love you” but “You’ve lost weight”), and moreover that they want to be thin not for men but for one another, the general observer might be tempted to view this as making the case for male innocence (at last!), even male redundancy.

Yet, looked at another way, the male and the preponderance of male values are perhaps more culpable in the incrimination of the female form than ever. An eating disorder epidemic suggests that love and disgust are being jointly marketed, as it were; that wherever the proposition might first have come from, the unacceptability of the female body has been disseminated culturally. Is it possible that disgust has finally got, in the famed male gaze, the upper hand? From whom, after all, has a woman ever wished to hear the words “I love you” but a man?

In Life-Size, Jenefer Shute posits the anorexic state as having two separate sources, one in the female (subjective, mother) and the other in the male (objective, father). Between them they engender in the anorexic subject the confusion between being and image of which one might suppose her to be merely an extreme cultural example. Mother – the female body – is indeed the source of disgust, but it is father – if one can be permitted the leap of seeing father as analogous with male and, indeed, with society – who makes that disgust public and hence catalyses it into shame. Without father, mother might merely have passed her disgust silently on to daughter, where it would have remained as an aspect of her private, interior being. But father brings it to the surface: it is something not just felt but now also seen. These confirmations, in Shute’s narrative, of interior suspicion (am I disgusting?) by outward commentary (yes, you are) are fatal to female self-perception in ways that might seem obvious but are none­theless intractable.

Outside and inside – image and being – are now held to be one: the girl/woman revisits and tests this impossibility by becoming the observer – the male – herself, looking at and remarking on the bodies of other women. Naturally, the discovery that image can be changed is not new: it is and always has been part of becoming a woman, in a sense that, although slenderness has long been a feminine ideal, self-hatred and the compulsion to starve oneself to death have broadly not. The question of disgust returns, accompanied by its shadow, the question of pleasure.

A personal admission: not long ago, in a period of great turmoil, I lost a considerable amount of weight. The first thing to say about this is that I was unaware, inexplicably, that it had happened. That my clothes no longer fitted passed me by: I noticed it only because other people told me so. They appeared shocked: each time I met someone I knew, there it would be, shock, a startled expression on the face. At first, I was startled in turn. They were not seeing who they expected to see; who, then, were they seeing? After a while I got used to it: indeed, I came to expect, almost to require it. A newborn baby needs to be mirrored by another human being in order to grasp that she has an outward surface, that this “self” has an appearance, that her image speaks. Through the shock of others I learned that I, too, had been shocked, that I was no longer the person I once was. My image was speaking, to me as well as to other people, telling me things I did not yet appear to know or realise.

But eventually the question of “normality” returned, as it must in the life of a 45-year-old mother-of-two. Stop, help me, feed me: this may have been my cry, but the truth was there was no one, any more, to answer. There could be no illusion, as an adult; I had left it too late to stage this apotheosis, this defeat of the first body, predicated as it is on the expectation of rescue. I had to draw back from it myself. And this was where the problem arose, because, like the anorexic, I found I could not retrace my steps, could not, as it were, go back to sleep. For years I had lived in my body half-consciously, ignoring it mostly, dismissing its agendas wherever I could, and forever pressing it into the service of mental conceptions that resulted, almost as a by-product, sometimes in its pleasuring and sometimes in its abuse. People were always telling me I should do yoga: this was one of the running jokes I had against my own flesh, for the idea that I would suspend the intellectual adventure of living even for one hour to dwell in the dumb and inarticulate realm of the auto-corporeal was as unappealing as that of spending an evening with someone I disliked. Now, as the weeks passed, instead of shock, my appearance was beginning to elicit milder manifestations of concern. I didn’t know what it meant: had I changed again? Was I no longer fragile and vulnerable? I had no idea. Never before in my life had I dared to be fragile, and all I knew was that I wasn’t ready to leave what I had become. “Have you ever thought of doing yoga?” someone said.

As a teenager I had been tormented by hunger and by an attendant self-disgust, for I saw in other girls a balance, an openness of form, that suggested they had nothing inside of which they need be ashamed. Their bodies were like well-schooled ponies, handsome and obedient, whereas I had a monster inside me whose appeasement was forever disrupting the outward surface of life. It craved so many things it could barely discriminate between them, and so indiscrimination – the failure to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t, what helped and what didn’t, what it needed and what just happened to be there – became its public nature. It wanted, in fact, what it could get, in the light of what it couldn’t.

How thoroughly the tangible and the in­tangible confused themselves in those years. Creativity, the placement of internal material into space, the rendering tangible, became my weapon against that confusion.

When I left my boarding school – the blue serge uniform and the Cambridgeshire drizzle, the plates of stodge that were so predictable and real, the torturing sense of female possi­bilities that were not – I learned to manage the monster, more or less. Like the first Mrs Rochester it had a locked room of its own, from which it sometimes succeeded in breaking free to rend into shreds my fantasies of femininity, but I had set my mind on higher things. By locking up the monster I was making myself at heart unfree: what did I know of freedom in any case? I was accustomed to fantasy and to the safety – albeit uncomfortable – it supplied, and the notion of an integrated self was the most uncomfortable fantasy of all. In a sense, it was the monster: I could neither kill it nor live with it, and so there it remained, caged, bellowing and banging intermittently through the years, creating perhaps the sense of something amiss in those who came close to me, but caged all the same.

Yoga, understandably enough, was out: nothing could have persuaded me to enter that cage armed only with a sun salute. But my sudden emaciation in middle age did bring me into contact with the monster again, for, amid all the other losses, there in the rubble of the desecrated life, I appeared to see it lying dead at my feet. The Jungian notion of the “middle passage”, in which at mid-life all the templates for self expire or fall away, in which with sufficient destruction one has a chance to return to the blankness of birth, might have explained that death well enough to avoid detection: it simply went up in the fire, the horrible secret, along with everything else. And here, after all, was a chance to be free of my own image, the bind in which my body had held me for all these years, because, while wanting more than anything to be feminine, I had only and ever found my own femininity disgusting. This image, knitted together over time by questions and confirmations (Am I disgusting? Yes, you are), was one I was now prepared to sustain: I was poised to make the anorexic statement, to vanish, to let image and being finally become one.

But of course, no such thing occurs: there is no “letting”, no seamless transposition of the flesh. The anorexic body is held in the grip of will alone; its meaning is far from stable. What it says – notice me, feed me, mother me – is not what it means, for such attentions constitute an agonising test of that will, and also threaten to return the body to the dreaded “normality” it has been such ecstasy to escape.

For the first time since my teenage years I found myself tormented again by hunger: the monster had awoken from its slumber, bigger and more ferocious than ever. The route back to normality being blocked, I have had to devise other ways of getting there, or of seeming to. My occupational therapist acquaintance tells me that many of her patients are women of my age, women who have suddenly tried to slip the noose of their female flesh once its story – menstruation, lactation, childbirth – has been told in all its glory and shame.

When I relate this to my female friends they take it humorously, rolling their eyes and laughing, gallantly owning up – oh yes, they say, we know – to monsters of their own. Most of them haven’t delivered themselves into its jaws quite so thoroughly as I have; their dislike of their own bodies is a kind of low-level irritant, a necessary component of the female environment, but to think about it too much would spoil everyone’s fun.

I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun, either, though for now I have spoiled my own. It did seem, for a while, as though the death-state of physical denial might contain the possibility of transcendence, the chance to step out of my self-disgust and make true contact at last: contact of my “real”, my second, self with the outer world. That I felt this had always been denied me, that in the negotiation between being and image all, for me, had been lost, was a stark kind of truth to face up to. Passing other women in the street these days, I seem to hear their bodies speaking. A lot of what they say is unclear to me, or at the very least so foreign that it takes me a moment to translate it. For instance: I accept myself. Or: respect me. The ones I like best are the ones that say, trust me. What I will never be able to hear unequivocally, whether whispered or shrieked, is: desire me. Notice me, feed me, mother me. Passing by the anorexic girl, stepping lightly and silently in the shadows, I hear her message and in a way I salute her for it. Other bodies have other messages, but for this one I have ears.

Rachel Cusk is most recently the author of “Aftermath: on Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Picture: Ralph Steadman
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The age of disorder: why technology is the greatest threat to humankind

Disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity – and no nation can fight on its own.

Though human beings are social animals, for millions of years they lived in small, intimate communities numbering no more than a few dozen people. Even today, as the evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar has shown, most human beings find it impossible properly to know more than 150 individuals, irrespective of how many Face­book “friends” they boast. Human beings easily develop loyalty to small, intimate groups such as a tribe, an infantry company or a family business, but it is hardly natural for them to be loyal to millions of strangers. Such mass loyalties have appeared only in the past few thousand years as a means of solving practical problems that no single tribe could solve by itself. Ancient Egypt was created to help human beings gain control of the River Nile, and ancient China coalesced to help the people restrain the turbulent Yellow River.

Nations solved some problems and created new ones. In particular, big nations led to big wars. Yet people were willing to pay the price in blood, because nations provided them with unprecedented levels of security and prosperity. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the nationalist deal still looked very attractive. Nationalism was leading to horrendous conflicts on an unprecedented scale, but modern nation states also built systems of health care, education and welfare. National health services made Passchendaele and Verdun seem worthwhile.

Yet the invention of nuclear weapons sharply tilted the balance of the deal. After Hiroshima, people no longer feared that nationalism would lead to mere war: they began to fear it would lead to nuclear war. Total annihilation has a way of ­sharpening people’s minds, and thanks in no small measure to the atomic bomb, the impossible happened and the nationalist genie was squeezed at least halfway back into its bottle. Just as the ancient villagers of the Yellow River Basin redirected some of their loyalty from local clans to a much bigger nation that restrained the dangerous river, so in the nuclear age a global community gradually developed over and above the various nations because only such a community could restrain the nuclear demon.

In the 1964 US presidential campaign, Lyndon B Johnson aired the “Daisy” advertisement, one of the most successful pieces of propaganda in the annals of television. The advert opens with a little girl picking and counting the petals of a daisy, but when she reaches ten, a metallic male voice takes over, counting back from ten to zero as in a missile launch countdown. Upon it reaching zero, the bright flash of a nuclear explosion fills the screen, and Candidate Johnson addresses the American public: “These are the stakes – to make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other. Or we must die.” We often associate the slogan “Make love, not war” with the late-1960s counterculture, but already in 1964 it was accepted wisdom, even among hard-nosed politicians such as Johnson.

During the Cold War, nationalism took a back seat to a more global approach to international politics, and when the Cold War ended, globalisation seemed to be the irresistible wave of the future. It was expected that humankind would leave nationalistic politics behind, as a relic of more primitive times that might appeal at most to the ill-informed inhabitants of a few under­developed countries. Events in 2016 proved, however, that nationalism still has a powerful hold even on the citizens of Europe and the United States, not to mention Russia, India and China. Alienated by the impersonal forces of global capitalism, and fearing for the fate of national systems of health, education and welfare, people all over the world seek reassurance and meaning in the bosom of the nation.

Yet the question raised by Johnson in the Daisy advertisement is even more pertinent today than it was in 1964. Will we make a world in which all human beings can live together, or will we all go into the dark? Can Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their like save the world by appealing to our national sentiments, or is the current nationalist spate a form of escapism from the intractable global problems we face?

***

Let’s start with nuclear war. When the Daisy advert aired, two years after the Cuban missile crisis, nuclear annihilation was a palpable threat. Pundits and laypeople alike feared that humankind did not have the wisdom to avert destruction, and that it was only a matter of time before the Cold War turned scorching hot. In fact, humankind successfully rose to the nuclear challenge. Americans, Soviets, Europeans and Chinese changed the way geopolitics had been conducted for millennia, so that the Cold War ended with little bloodshed, and a new internationalist world order fostered an era of unprecedented peace. Not only was nuclear war averted, but war of all kinds declined. Since 1945, surprisingly few borders have been redrawn through naked aggression, and most countries have ceased to use war as a standard political tool. In 2016, despite wars in Syria, Ukraine and other hot spots, fewer people died from human violence than from obesity, car accidents or suicide. This may well have been the greatest political and moral achievement of our times.

Unfortunately, we are so used to this achievement that we take it for granted. This is partly why people allow themselves to play with fire, and that includes not only the latest Russian adventures in eastern Europe and the Middle East, but also the choices made by European and American voters.

The Brexit debate in Britain revolved mainly around questions of economics and immigration, while the EU’s vital contribution to European and global peace has largely been ignored. After centuries of terrible bloodshed, the French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony – only to have the British public throw a wrench into the miracle machine. Meanwhile, Donald Trump mixes calls for US isolationism with plans to strengthen the country’s nuclear arsenal and reignite a nuclear arms race, thereby threatening to undo the hard-won gains of the past decades and bring us back to the brink of nuclear annihilation.

It was extremely difficult to construct the internationalist regime that prevented nuclear war and safeguarded global peace. No doubt we need to adapt this regime to changing conditions in the world: for example, by relying less on the United States and giving a greater role to non-Western powers such as China and India. But abandoning this regime altogether and reverting to nationalist power politics would be an ­irresponsible gamble.

True, in the past, countries played the ­nationalist politics game without destroying human civilisation. But that was in the pre-Hiroshima era. Since then, nuclear weapons have raised the stakes and changed the fundamental nature of war and politics. No matter whom American voters elect to the presidency, the atom bomb is still there and E still equals MC². As long as human beings know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival will depend on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation. Zealous nationalists should ask themselves whether their nation by itself, without a robust system of international co-operation, can protect the world – or even itself – from nuclear destruction.

On top of nuclear war, in the coming decades humankind will face a new threat to its existence that hardly registered on the political radar in 1964: climate change. If we continue with our present course it is likely that global warming, ocean acidification and ecological degradation will result in unprecedented economic, political and social problems, and might well destroy the foundations of human prosperity. What is the nationalist answer to climate change? How can any nation, however powerful, stop global warming on its own? Will the US build a wall against rising oceans?

When it comes to climate, countries are not sovereign, but are at the mercy of actions taken by governments on the other side of the planet. As long as 200 governments pursue 200 different ecological strategies, shaped by their unique needs and interests, none is likely to succeed. With present-day technology, any serious measures to stop global warming are likely to slow down economic growth. Such a policy carries an unbearable political price if it is undertaken by a single country while others continue with business as usual. Any US administration that deliberately slowed down economic growth for environmental reasons would be bound to lose the next election; a Chinese administration that does so courts revolution tomorrow morning. In a nationalist and xenophobic world no government will sacrifice itself for the greater good of humanity, as Trump’s actions show.

***

Indeed, nationalism is even more dangerous in the context of climate change than that of nuclear war. An atomic bomb is such an obvious and immediate threat that even the most ardent nationalist cannot ignore it. Global warming, by contrast, is a much more vague and protracted menace. Hence, whenever environmental considerations demand some painful sacrifice, nationalists will be tempted to put the national interest first, reassuring themselves that we can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. Alternatively, as in the case of Trump, they may simply deny the problem. It isn’t a coincidence that scepticism about climate change is usually the preserve of nationalist politicians. They have no answer to the problem, and so they prefer to believe it does not exist.

The same dynamics are likely to spoil any nationalist antidote to the third large threat to human existence in the 21st century: technological disruption. New technologies, particularly in the fields of bioengineering and artificial intelligence, will soon give humankind unprecedented, godlike powers. Whereas previously human beings learned to produce food, weapons and vehicles, in the coming decades our main products will probably be bodies, brains and minds. However, it is extremely difficult to foresee the potential impact of such technologies. They open the door to an entire supermarket of doomsday scenarios.

If and when artificial intelligence (AI) surpasses human intelligence, it may be given control of weapon systems and crucial decisions, with potentially calamitous consequences. In addition, as AI outperforms human beings in ever more tasks, it might push billions of us out of the job market, creating a new “useless class” of people, devoid of both economic value and political power. Meanwhile, given enough biometric data and enough computing power, external algorithms could know us better than we know ourselves, and then governments and corporations could predict our decisions, mani­pulate our emotions and gain absolute control over our lives.

On the bioengineering front, breakthroughs in genetics, nanotechnology and direct brain/computer interfaces could unleash deadly new epidemics or disturb our internal mental balance. In past centuries we have gained control of the world outside us and reshaped the planet, but because we didn’t understand the complexity of the global ecology, the changes we made inadvertently disrupted the entire ecological system. In the coming century we will gain control of the world inside us and reshape our bodies and brains, but because we don’t understand the complexity of our own minds, the changes we will make might disrupt our mental system. In addition, bioengineering might for the first time in history translate economic inequality into biological inequality, creating an upper caste of enhanced superhumans, and relegating the poor to the dustbin of evolution.

What is the nationalist answer to these menaces? As in the case of global warming, so, too, with technological disruption: the nation state is the wrong framework to address the threat. Given that research and development are not the monopoly of any one country, even a superpower such as the US or China cannot restrict them by itself. If the US government forbids the genetic engineering of human embryos, it won’t prevent North Korean scientists from doing such work. And if the resulting developments confer on North Korea some crucial economic or military advantage, the US will be tempted to break its own ban. Particularly in a xenophobic, dog-eat-dog world, if even a single country chooses to pursue a high-risk, high-gain technological path, other countries will be forced to do the same, because nobody can afford to remain behind. In order to avoid such a race to the bottom, humankind will probably need some kind of global identity and loyalty.

Whereas nuclear war and climate change threaten only the physical survival of humankind, disruptive technologies might change the very nature of humanity, and are therefore entangled with human beings’ deepest ethical and religious beliefs. Although everyone agrees that we should avoid nuclear war and ecological meltdown, people have widely differing opinions about using bioengineering and AI to upgrade human beings and to create new life forms. If we fail to cobble together globally accepted ethical guidelines, it will be open season for Dr Frankenstein.

When it comes to formulating such ethical guidelines, nationalism suffers above all from a failure of the imagination. Nationalists think in terms of territorial conflicts lasting centuries, whereas the technological revolutions of the 21st century should be understood in cosmic terms. Ever since its appearance on Earth, four billion years ago, life has been governed by the laws of natural selection. During those aeons, whether you were a virus or a dinosaur, you evolved according to the principles of natural selection. No matter what strange shapes life took, it remained confined to the organic realm. Whether a cactus or a whale, you were made of organic compounds. Now science might replace natural selection with intelligent design, and might even start creating non-organic life forms. After four billion years of organic life shaped by natural selection, science is ushering in an era of inorganic life shaped by intelligent design. What has Israeli, Russian or French nationalism got to say about this? In order to make wise choices about the future of life we need to go way beyond the nationalist viewpoint and look at things from a much wider perspective.

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The nationalist wave sweeping across the world cannot turn the clock back to 1939 or 1914. Technology has changed everything by creating a set of global threats to human existence that no nation can fight on its own. A common enemy is the best catalyst for forging a common identity, and humankind now has three such enemies – nuclear war, climate change and disruptive technology. If, despite these threats, we choose to privilege our particular national loyalties above everything else, the results may be far worse than in 1914 and 1939.

A much better path is the one outlined in the EU’s constitution, which states that “while remaining proud of their own national identities and history, the peoples of Europe are determined to transcend their former divisions and, united ever more closely, to forge a common destiny”. There is still plenty of room in the world for the kind of patriotism that celebrates the uniqueness of my nation and stresses my special obligations towards it. Yet, if we want to survive and flourish, humankind has little choice but to complement such local loyalties with substantial obligations towards a global community.

In previous centuries national identities were forged because human beings faced problems and discovered opportunities that went far beyond the scope of ­local tribes, and which only countrywide co-operation could hope to handle. In the 21st century, nations find themselves in the same situation as the old tribes.

We need a new global identity, because national institutions are incapable of managing a set of unprecedented global challenges. We now have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics. This mismatch prevents the political system from countering our main problems effectively.

To have effective politics, we must either de-globalise the ecology, the economy and the march of science, or we must globalise our politics. As it is impossible to ­de-globalise the ecology and the march of science, and as the cost of de-globalising the economy will probably be ruinous, the only solution is to globalise politics.

Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His latest book is “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?