Our Future: Tribal or Cosmopolitan?

Whenever he found found himself at a loss of words, Marx once wrote to Engels, he would say of the topic at hand, “vell, y’see, 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 Marxists, Whigs, neoconservatives and reactionaries have all recognised: 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 (much 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 it goes: the biological “rule of thumb” that ensures we care for our kin, was extended to one’s province through the cementing influence of 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 rapid global communication.

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 – fuelled by, and fuelling the racialist and religious. Those people for whom every inclusive and internationalist evolution has been an historical misstep. Nothing inevitable about it.

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.

Beset by the Innate

To understand why, two definitions. First: tribalism, according to Potulski, is,

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’

And “out-groups”,

a group that is distinct from one’s own and so usually an object of hostility or dislike

In many ways we’re constrained by our tribal prehistory. Our social instincts were honed during an age when hunter-gathering filled in for humanity’s true calling: spreadsheets and pig pens. I’m cautious of employing evolutionary psychology as evidence – it being a field that relies heavily on what Kipling termed “just so” stories. But its practitioners have done a good job explaining why humanity’s tendency to create cosy networks of interdependence – what in other species we call a shrewdness – rests alongside a nasty habit to find or invent out-groups. This space isn’t reserved for pop science, so I’ll limit myself to a gross simplification and signpost to further reading.

In brief: the smallest similarity can be enough to spark association (vital for forming tribes), while the slightest difference can form the foundation of antagonism (maintaining and forwarding the interests of that tribe). Those who have read Freud or enjoyed The Life of Brian will appreciate the potency of this second, the so-called “narcissism of small differences”.

(There has been some striking research that suggests that “out-groups” can actually elicit disgust in people, in much the same way an invasive pathogen might. This is how ingrained the impulse to exclude can be, and it’s often language that will show it. Nazi propagandists knew the implicit biases to exploit, going to great lengths to connect Jews, Slavs and the mentally infirm with rats in the shared imagination. For contemporary examples, try listening to how some in your circle will refer to those without homes.)

If we’re bound to perceive the world in these polarising terms of Us and Them, then the Left really is at a loss (which is probably exactly what some leading evolutionary psychologists would like us to believe). But, with that said, historical and moral advances are real: the obscenities of racism, religious insanity and slavery still persist, but time has tempered all three. We are, after-all, also endowed with reason and it allows – and, in its way politely demands – something better. But is that enough?


It’s trite, but rational action in a internationalist framework 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 looming nuclear catastrophe: please tell us!)

Shrewdness however, 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 Éire, 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 was easily understood: 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 there, 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 distracts the mind. 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.

But, as far-right figureheads know, race and nation are easier to discern than market forces. And, as Hume noted, reason is all too often subject to the passions. (Tellingly, this Tory genius decided that this ought to be the case.)

Remember that fleeting sub-vocalisation you had upon seeing Mr Patel in his brand new BMW? Do you recall how, for decency’s sake, you stowed it away? Well, so say Trump, Le Pen and Farage, there’s no need for that. Trust your instincts: that initial, niggly little feeling was right all along. The shiftless immigrant is to blame, the public sector worker who thinks they’re entitled to a pension and maternity pay ain’t much better, and worst of all is Johnny-Bloody-Foreigner with his funny foreign ways.

The nation becomes a safe haven from those chaotic global forces which rather carry on acting upon untroubled and undiscovered. 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.

European history teaches us that subjugation campaigns against minorities are seldom a contained affair. They’re often dress rehearsals for something far bolder: Spanish crusaders banished the Jews after they had cleared out the Moors, and then the Inquisition was born; Russian tsars would have their generals “pacify” the Asian 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 had called for came calling on them.