The 21st Century: Cosmopolitan or Tribal

Are Brexit and Trumpism a Sign of Things to Come?

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Earth’s tribes

Paddy: Whenever he found found himself at a loss of words, Marx once told Engels, he would say of the topic at hand, “vell, y’shee, it’sh dialectical”. It was if this contribution would be enough to elicit enough thoughtful nods that no one would notice as he shambled back up to the bar, and away from the arduous task of drunken philosophizing. (And it is, I’ve tried.)

It’s worth being honest: the issue of contemporary cosmopolitanism and tribalism is tricky, with pitfalls and contradiction peppering the path to insight. And yeah, it is dialectical. There is a trend that Whigs, Marxists, liberals, neoconservatives and reactionaries have all recognised (although not universally celebrated): the passage of time brings with it a gradual liberalising of society and a disintegration of its borders.

The diameter of Peter Singer’s moral circle began life a titchy thing but each successive epoch has made it fatter (just like the Westerner’s waist line). As material realities advanced, producing new technologies and broader outlooks, ethical considerations were dragged from the local to universal. So the story goes: the biological “rule of thumb” that ensures we care for our kin (see Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene), was made to apply to one’s province by markets and fetes, to one’s nation by the printing press and through a postal service, and to – we hope – one’s species with the advent of global communication.

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Singer’s Moral Circle

And so, dialectically, our institutions came to reflect this moral progression. National inclusiveness gave us the welfare state, continental inclusiveness the European Union, species awareness the United Nations (and, less gloriously, racial inclusiveness produced projects like the “Anglosphere”, the African Union and Arab League).

But, even with all this, there has been a reaction which looks, well, primal. Those who rather do without Them of a different god, flag or melanin count, thank you very much. We see this in the anti-establishment movements currently consuming North American and European politics – Le Pen, Trump, Putin, UKIP, the Golden Dawn – fueled by the racialist and religious. Those people for whom every inclusive and internationalist evolution has been a misstep, and not the inevitable consequence of material gain.

And, if you’ve been paying attention, you’d be forgiven for agreeing. Our future, all of ours, looks to be rather more in their control.


Pole: Just for those who might not exactly understand what tribalism is:

…a tendency to sustain divisions and identities of a pre-national, tribal and ethnic groups that are based on the phenomenon of the ‘genetic’ loyalty, which facilitates ‘tribal survival’

(Potulski, J. 2009)

It is undeniable that tribalism is still a feature of life, Homo Sapiens evolved from pack animals and our emotions follow. We instinctively turn to our family and closest neighbours – our “shrewdness” – for support (a group of apes is called a shrewdness, Google it). And it is this primal impulse which causes us to act sympathetically and altruistically back: to be, in a word, social. When seeking friends, it attracts us to the familiar and away from the different, the Other. So tuned is this, that the smallest similarity can be enough to create a connection, while the smallest difference may antagonise.

[Paddy: there has been research that suggests out-groups can actually elicit disgust in people, in much the same way an invasive pathogen might. See Harris and Fiske (2011)]

So surely, if such behaviour is “natural”, why don’t we all behave like chimpanzees in a troop? Because our species has one thing that no other Earthly creature has: Reason. Thanks to this capacity, we no longer live in perpetually warring tribes. We can put our differences to one side and apply our energies elsewhere… well, in a way.

Tribes may have just transmuted into what we call nations, races, social classes and political parties. Just look at the recent events in the US and the UK. Trump, an obvious idiot, was still able to get the Republican hierarchy behind him. Even Ted Cruz, who was booed during the convention for not openly pledging fealty to the new tribal leader, eventually toed the line. Their gut told them that it is better to follow “one of us”, even if he’s heading off the cliff’s edge.

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Following the Brexit vote to “take our country back”, there were a number of xenophobic attacks. In Essex, a man was pummelled to death by a group of teenagers for speaking Polish. Two others were beaten less than 12 hours later, following a vigil for murdered man. In another attack that same day, a father and son were beaten unconscious by strangers in London. These victims were guilty being the wrong ethnicity.

To be more precise: we no longer live in isolated, self-sufficient groups. We have created a global society, interconnected socially, economically and politically. The results of presidential elections in the US affect the world. The collapse of Greek economy causes powerful ripples in the grand pool of the EU. Somewhere in England a Pole and an Irishman can form a friendship. Again, all possible because of Reason. But our tribal inheritance is ever present.


Paddy: Another dialectic: reason and passion.

Reason allows – no, demands – one thing and our instinct is to rebel right back, grasping for the familiar and insular. (As Hume knew – and endorsed due to his Toryism – reason is the slave of the passions.)

It’s trite, but rational action in a internationalist context is our species’ only hope: an effectual United Nations the only prevention to species suicide. (If you know a way in which a single nation can solve the issues of global warming and nuclear catastrophe, please let me know in the comments.) But Freud’s narcissism of small differences, as you explained, precludes just that. Shrewdness, for reasons separate from reason, has attached itself to the nation-state in the 21st century. Perhaps George Bernard Shaw’s observations made in the 20th can help:

A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality, it will think of nothing else but having it set [again]. A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man is of his bones.

He was speaking in particular of Eire, where the threat to national unit was clear and present: it had a flag, a uniform, armed men in the streets. The reaction to British rule is easy to understand: home and away literally had their own team colours. International capital can be just as destructive and ubiquitous – imposing a division of labour that turns man into beast and debtor into slave – but, like so much economic hocus pocus, the guiding hand remains hidden. Fraud and cheap tricks are given a sense of levity by the Veil, and a newspeak diverts. Too big to fail, misselling, economic recovery, balancing the books, reducing the deficit… It’s almost enough to make you forget that we’re living through an era of unprecedented class war.

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US wealth distribution

But, as far-right figureheads know, race and nation are easier to discern than market forces.

Remember that fleeting sub-vocalisation you had upon seeing Mr Patel in his brand new BMW? Do you recall the momentary shame you felt as you went to stow it away? Well, so say Le Pen and Farage, there’s no need for that. Trust your instincts – that niggly little voice was right all along – the shiftless immigrant is to blame for all your inadequacies. So too, you were right to hate that public sector worker for thinking she was entitled to a decent pension and maternity pay, and to fear Johnny-Bloody-Foreigner’s funny foreign ways.

The nation has become a safe haven from those chaotic global forces which rather carry on acting upon unseen. From Nairn,

Nationalism can in [a] sense be pictured as like the old Roman god, Janus, who stood above gateways with one face looking forward and one backwards. Thus does nationalism stand over the passage to modernity, for human society. As human kind is forced through its strait doorway, it must look desperately back into the past, to gather strength wherever it can be found for the ordeal of ‘development’

And it is no coincidence that, as well as honouring the flag (be it Southern Cross or Union), Trump’s supporters also harbour authoritarian fantasies. Dictators, for all their faults, offer consistency; and willing subjects, for all their charms, refuse to see what the sacrifice of the self means for self-preservation.

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Berlin, 1945

European history teaches us that subjugation campaigns against minorities are seldom a contained affair. They’re often dress rehearsals for something far bolder: Spain’s crusaders banished the Jews after it had cleared out the Moors, and then the Inquisition was born; Russian tsars would have their generals “pacify” the steppe before bringing them home to quell urban dissenters; and as the last Reich folded, Hitler damned his “undeserving” German brothers and sisters. Time after time, once the machinery of state had been adapted to cannibalization, and all of Them had been spent, the mob found that all they called for came calling on them.



(Edit: Is it ironical or just farcical that the first significant movement that proclaimed universal virtue and all men brothers – the French Revolution – also gave birth to the modern nation state?)



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