Tribalism re-emerges in the post-truth world

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 24, 2016
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban speaks during the Serbian-Hungarian business forum in Nis, Serbia. Djordje Savic /EPA

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban speaks during the Serbian-Hungarian business forum in Nis, Serbia. Djordje Savic /EPA

At a time when the idea of a more closely linked world appears to be going out of fashion, here’s the paradox: a global conversation is underway among nationalists. Each country’s anti-globalists are cheering on those in another. Brexiteers are ecstatic about Donald Trump’s America First ideas. The US president-elect has already described his xenophobic appeal to American voters as “Brexit plus plus plus”. On Tuesday, he urged the British prime minister to appoint Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage as British ambassador to Washington. France’s far-right presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen is chanting vive la revolution, in jubilant anticipation that the US and UK are leading the battle against “elites … (who) have acted like carnivores”. Hungary’s anti-immigrant prime minister Viktor Orban is newly joyful about this “wonderful world”, which is seeing a “return to real democracy”. The Netherlands’ far-right leader Geert Wilders is celebrating the West’s “patriotic spring”.

If this is a new nationalism, it is strikingly international.

And yet, everyone is talking about the new nationalism sweeping the western world, the so-called cosmopolitan elites supposedly in pained panicky whispers, the media alert to a “trend” story of global proportions. Every anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-trade deal political viewpoint in every country is being rolled into one big narrative — that nationalism is the new world order.

Is it really? Are we seeing a nationalist surge or a more primitive inflamed tribalism — a new hunkering down within one’s own social group? Is it this that is driving political choices at the ballot box?

In his essay Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell wrote that the “emotion” it arouses “does not always attach itself to what is called a nation — that is, a single race or a geographical area.” It can attach itself to a church or a class, instead, he said, “or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other”.

Orwell’s essay was published in May 1945, a month of enormous significance for the devastating conflict that had raged for six years among nations of the world.

Orwell’s essay was the first draft of history at a point when it was possible to note — if not to fully analyse — the terrible consequences of tribalism, which led nations to the deadliest conflict in history.

“The mistake was made of pinning this emotion to Hitler,” Orwell wrote, “… there is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind.”

Fast forward to America today and consider one US writer’s reflections from the relatively early days of the presidential primaries. Fourteen months ago he wrote: “He [Mr Trump] channels primitive and incoherent tribal emotions that stretch way back into our species’ history, before America, before modern conceptions of race and nationality, before any of that stuff.”

Tribal emotions are a powerful influence, as Orwell indicated. They enable a people to see itself in opposition to everyone else, joined by an unseen connective tissue that loosely includes cultural values and traditional customs. That is what Ms Le Pen is talking about when she tells voters “yes to France.” That is what Mr Trump means by “making America great again”.

The question, of course, is where a global tribalism in nationalist garb takes the world? For all the dismal sense of a world retreating into itself, the reality is that Americans won’t want to buy, say, US-made mattresses at three times the price of Chinese-made products. They want their culture unadulterated but the goods on supermarket shelves to be as cheap as possible. Those are contradictory aspirations and the dissonance is likely to become evident when supporters of the new nationalism/tribalism demand low prices just as loudly as they chant “America First” and “yes to France”.

The resulting discontent is likely to be as universal as the anti-globalism political movements, which are being helped by the momentum of others beyond their borders. The anti-globalist agenda is just as global as world trade deals.

For the moment though, the new tribalism may mean a painful if momentary return to what Friedrich Nietzsche in 1881 described as an unjustified pride in superior moral status. It saw “longing for knowledge as a danger, peace as a danger, compassion as a danger”, and it was an “epoch when being pitied was looked upon as an insult … and every kind of change as immoral and pregnant with ruin!”.

This can help explain the current attempts to project cultural strength, the widespread mockery of experts — political and economic — the backlash against elder statesmen and liberal tree-huggers who have travelled widely in spirit at least if not physically. It also underlines the cyclical nature of events.

If, as Albert Einstein said, nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind, perhaps the rise anew of tribalism underlines that we are destined to be infantile for a long time.