The New Tribalism

Us and them
And after all we’re only ordinary men
— Pink Floyd

Any half competent student of 20th century history can tell you about the earthshaking power of tribalism. It is a massive force in the human world.

We see tribalism everywhere. We see it in babies’ implicit racial biases. We hear it chanted in school yards. We build group identities through the fashions we wear, the music we listen to, the books we read, the websites we visit, the tweets we retweet, the friendship networks we build. On a larger scale, we hear it chanted in sports stadiums, and at the Olympic games. We see it expressed through tanks and soldiers and nuclear missile launchers marching to war. We hear it in the war cries of terrorist groups, and religious or nationalist extremists — the people who demand wars and walls, and the people who promise to exterminate the people with the other skin colour, or religious belief, or socioeconomic status.

Ingroup and outgroup. The ones like us, and the other ones. Us and them.

There are two ways to look at tribalism. One is that it is a huge waste of energy, or in basic economic terms a vast opportunity cost. Every spear thrown at a rival tribe by a caveman is an expenditure of energy that could have been expended doing something more productive, like building a bridge, or cultivating crops, or hunting game. As President Eisenhower put it: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

The other view is that competition fosters innovation, growth, and development. Rivals can be viewed as powerful motivating factors. Sure, it might in one sense be a waste of resources to build spears to fling at rival tribes, but the fear of the outgroup outcompeting you can motivate people to do productive things instead of lying about doing nothing. For instance, during the Great Depression, the threat of Nazi Germany motivated Britain and America to rebuild their ailing economies.

Both of these phenomena can be real, and it is silly to deny the existence of either one. Tribalism is not necessarily good, nor is it evil. It is not necessarily a destroyer, nor is it a creator. It all depends what you do with it.

Like anything else, tribalism ebbs and flows. Right now, it is not just flowing but gushing like a broken fire hydrant. Donald Trump, and Vladimir Putin, and Marine Le Pen have burst onto the global stage like a rampaging bull. They and their allies promise tribalism. Lashings and lashings of tribalism. No more a world run for the so-called globalists — the globehopping banks, the TED talkers, the gay marriage-endorsing judiciaries, the global citizens, the Harvard-educated thinkpiece writers, the free-trade endorsing Oxford-academics, and the Clinton Global Initiative. Instead, a world run nation by nation, with border walls, and import tariffs, and identity checks for anyone who looks or sounds a bit foreign.

But the trouble with narrow tribalism is that very, very many issues are global in both their causes, and their effects. The human impact upon the environment is global. Resource depletion — whether precious metals, or energy resources, or fish stocks — is global. Migration is global. Tax avoidance by large corporations and high-net worth individuals is global. Terrorism is global. Poverty is global. Trade is global.

Now, I’m not saying that the local issues that have motivated the tribalists don’t matter. Job migration and deindustrailization, for example, are serious problems. People suffering from the effects of factory closures in the American Midwest or the North of England deserve help. But any solution to these problems needs to be globally competitive. Keeping open factories that are uncompetitive will simply stagnate economies, and spike inflation. Look at the mess that is Latin America.

The bigger point is that it’s impossible to tackle all of the global issues without engaging globally. One country can enact all the anti-pollution laws it likes, but if its neighbours over the border are still polluting at a very high rate, pollution will still happen. Of course, at the most basic level, everything is local. Change starts with a single person doing a single thing in a single location. But without joined up thinking and coordinated doing, a local solution to a global problem means nothing. It is no solution at all.

The new tribalists are dismissive of almost all of this. They have nothing to say on the subject of bringing different countries and diverse peoples together to solve the very many global challenges that face our species.

But it’s bigger than this. On the global issues, it’s not that the new tribalists want local solutions instead of global ones. I’m all for unbureaucratic, small-scale solutions where possible. The trouble is that on many global issues the new tribalists seem to have very little to say at all. Some — like Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage — might pay lip service to notions such as the economic gains from free trade. But time and again their stance is simply to build walls, retrench borders, withdraw from economic unions, keep foreign people out, and hope that “foreign problems” go away.

For instance, none of the new tribalists seem to have nothing to say about minimizing the damage from human-induced environmental degradation. Trump does not even recognize the fact that man-made climate change is a thing. Instead, he tells absurd lies about it being a Chinese conspiracy to reduce American industrial output.

The new tribalists have very little to say about reducing poverty, or eliminating scarcity. Indeed, under Trumpism, the poor — including the poor who voted for him — are destined to lose their healthcare, and very many will lose their subsidized incomes. Trump’s budget redistributes from the American poor to the American rich.

The new tribalists have very little to say about eradicating disease, or protecting endangered species or habitats, or resource depletion, or ending tax avoidance, or even fostering global trade.

Indeed, about the only global issue that the new tribalists care to address is security and terrorism. Their approach is a blunt one. As Donald Trump put it: “bomb the shit out of them.”

Of course, that is not necessarily a bad approach. Bombing the shit out of ISIS might just defeat them. Or it might just provoke much worse terrorism in the future. We’ll have to see. But at least Trump has an approach to this issue. On virtually every other global issue it’s like Trump and his allies are saying “no, ISIS doesn’t exist, it’s just a Chinese conspiracy to get us to send troops to the middle east!”

Burying our heads in the sand and retreating into primitive America First tribalism won’t solve these problems. Some of them might go away anyway, thanks to private firms and technologists and charities who know better, and think beyond narrow tribalism, and invest in solutions. For instance, in response to climate change, private firms might develop renewable energy and carbon capture and storage technologies that becomes so cheap as to solve the problem.

But that is still global thinking. The new tribalists aren’t going to be the ones who develop these solutions. It will be the other folks. The folks who are terrified of the new tribalism. The folks who see it and hear it for what it is — millions and millions of people plugging their fingers in their ears and shouting “la la la la la I can’t hear you! It was better in the olden days, wasn’t it?”

Does that seem like the kind of tribalism that brings people together to solve big problems? Or does it seem like the petty, messy tribalism that leads to people wasting their time and resources chucking spears?

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