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Tribal Justice

Photo Source David Shankbone | CC BY 2.0

“In justice as fairness society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage.”

– John Rawls,  A Theory of Justice, 1971

One wonders if a voltafaccia, an about face, after 2008, one in which the looted and not the financial institutions that did the looting were bailed out would have deflated the conditions that has brought us to the doorstep of autocracy.

One wonders if this response to the collapse would have put the nail in neoliberalism and neoconservatism’s coffin and turned us toward an economics of justice.

That did not happen. Instead of rejecting our economics, we have collapsed into tribalism, into a moshpit of anger, virulent attack, mutual suspicion, downright hatred that is more difficult to define and locate than the point of contention in the War Between the States.

Rather than specify our Monopoly game economics as a cause of immiseration, the precariat class blames particular people — Hillary or Obama or Pelosi, Liberals, Democrats, Socialists, the Federal government, the intelligence community, Coastal elites, political correctness, Leftist professors, The New York Times and so on.

Instead of proceeding to find rational correctives to our economic system after 2008, which clearly showed us that the perfections of an unregulated market were bullshit, we descended into the irrationalities within which the country is drowning.

Trump did not initiate those irrationalities but they nourished him and he does all he can, either to protect and enhance his ego, or, because like the scorpion it is in his nature, to fuel the tribal world we are now in.

The excesses of our free market rule economics has produced, in a fairly short period of time, a severe wealth divide, a state of affairs that reduces us into tribes of Haves vs. Have Nots, or wage earners vs. dividend recipients, or Winners vs. Losers and so on.

Every cogent socialist’s critique of the dangers of capitalism should have been our reading after the 2008 Wall Street looting. That did not happen, as I say, but instead the culprits were not pursued, what happened faded into an ambiguous fog, and entrenched wealth and power went back to business as usual.

Instead of holding a renegade capitalism under serious investigation, and thus giving the victims of that economics some demonstration of justice being pursued, nothing happened.

What was absent then was any rational pursuit as if rational responses to dire events could no longer happen. They were old, over and adios.


In a short period of time, we entered that world in which reason was absent, a world in which statements such as “Our press secretary gave alternative facts to that,” “There is no proof of anything,” “Anything you hear from anyone who is not me is not to be believed,” “Truth isn’t truth,” are taken not as Mad Hatter but as sensible.

Our choices are more irrational than rational; absurdity replaces sense all too often, the impulses of our Reptilian brain too often win, our self-interest is seldom enlightened — and so on. However, it has more often than not been thought that we need to keep all of this in check, rather like Freud’s superego in a constant tussle with the id in order to allow a functional ego to carry on.

We have been intent on recognizing that the movement of civilization is awaynot toward the abyss.

What is fast obscuring all such attempts now has much to do with the collapse in real literacy that is the ability to interpret critically and thus understand reliably. Our educational systems have been pushed out of such knowing by student loan debt, a debt only career oriented education can repay, the kind of education that conceives of algorithms and STEM courses as being able to counter the absurdities and irrationalities of a Trump presidency.

We have easily left reason, reality and sanity behind because our capacity to distinguish these from their polar opposites has been erased. The plunge into the gut knowing of a Reptilian brain funds our replacement of dialectic with resistant proof personal opinion.

The only sociability left is what we form with those who agree and confirm our own opinions. Not in society but in the hyperreal of cyberspace. The tribalism that results replaces society and replaces the ways of knowing slowly developed.

That all societal structures and ways of knowing can indeed vanish if not continuously renewed is something we are now witnessing.

What is most chilling is this atmosphere of tacit acceptance of a reality in which argument with “the other tribe” is not only useless but also treasonous to one’s own tribe, a reality in which the hope of convincing the other tribe of anything with any kind of proof is considered a hopeless venture. All proof does no more than prove how truly wrong the other tribe is.

You cannot counter the primordial instinctual roots of tribalism with any method, dialectic Marxist or post-Marxist or otherwise. We are now in the Age of Trump not on the battle ground of economics because tribalism responds not to class struggle or global warming mitigation or the collapse of a Constitutional democracy or the renewed triumph of nationalism. We are on a different battlefield now, one to which President Trump has moved us.

If you combine an instinctual nihilism with the worst elements of tribalism, you get some idea of this terrain. The idea that this terrain and Trump can be exposed and replaced, damaged and destroyed by focusing on health care or a diversity of membership increase in the House of Representatives partakes of the atmosphere of tribal lunacy that infects us all.

The hope that a tribunal of universal judgment grounded in evidentiary reasoning will remove this President from office partakes of the same atmosphere.


The previous two sections tell a tribal story. I say this not because I do not stand by my interpretation but because I realize it is as far from what John Rawls called the “Original Position” as the opposing tribe’s story.

A recent op-ed piece by David Brooks, “The Rise of the Resentniks” locates quite differently than I have the resentment which led to Trump.

The “Resentniks” arise because they have lost in the meritocratic system. They

rise up to challenge the competition itself and to question its idea of excellence. . . The losers in the meritocratic competition, the permanent outsiders, seize on ethnic nationalism to give themselves a sense of belonging, to explain their failures, to rally the masses and to upend the meritocracy. . .Loyalty to the tribe is more important than professional competence. In fact, a person’s very lack of creativity and talent becomes proof of his continued reliability to the cause, as we have seen in the continued fealty to King Trump.” (The New York Times, Nov. 16, 2018).

I stand beyond no “veil of ignorance,” walled off from knowing anything about myself in this hypothetical place where I neither have a conception of the good or a theory of justice.

I carry my biases into my argument, namely that I cannot conceive within either a Trumpian “blood-and-soil nationalism” or a globalized semio-capitalism the possibility of an inequality which is just because it make the lives of the worst off better.

I cannot see myself behind a “veil of ignorance” deciding a fairness, and therefore a justice, emerging from either tribe.

The story Brooks tells is further than my own from the Original Position established when one considers behind a “veil of ignorance.” I say further because he a priori accepts a conception of the good, which he calls an “idea of excellence”, tied to his theory of justice, which is “meritocratic competition.”

What he cannot see is that the worst off have not become better off by the inequalities resulting from his meritocratic competition and therefore he cannot see that he is not supporting any just fairness in his “idea of excellence.”

I say Brooks’ story is more tribalist and biased than my own tribalist and biased account because there is greater space to empathize with the worst off within a story that mounts no god of excellence or the Good but is aimed at deconstructing a story that does.

A sense of justice directed at achieving and exercising fairness is far different from one that puts this sense in the invisible hand of the market whose stochastic dispensations have nothing to do with justice as fairness and therefore hold the concept meaningless.

Tribalism nullifies any conception of justice as fairness as well as placing us in a situation in which the possession of facts does not resolve arguments because the road to the discovery of fact is held to be corrupted by the opposing tribe.

If your tribe loses at the polls, it is because the other tribe has cheated. There is no transparency to the truth or falsehood revealed by evidence because the evidence has always already been corrupted. But what has been foundationally corrupted is a common acceptance of ways of reaching truth clearly distinct from tribal pathways.

What tribalism does is drop a veil of ignorance on what a tribe outside you personally knows while retaining all the biases of your tribe. This sort of “Original Bias” position totally replaces Rawls’ Original Position, the position out of which we pursue self-interest rationally but are ignorant of who we are and therefore unwilling to endorse an unfairness that may unknowingly affect us.

If we were in Rawls’ Original Position:

We would not see justice as fairness in allowing the invisible hand of the market to rule;

Or see justice in a tax cut that makes the lives of the least well off worst;

Or see justice in denying anthropogenic climate change threatening not only the worst off but also all human survival;

Or any justice in denying equal pays for equal work;

Or any justice in allowing skin color to deny each person “an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.”


The counter that is left to us must work toward the dissolution of tribal antipathies by developing and increasing empathy.

However, brought to a tribal state we cannot see our enemy as anything but an enemy. We erase “The Other” and leave ourselves to fill in the blank with what we fear and hate the most.

Brought to a tribal state we are unable to free ourselves of our biases and antipathies, unable to project an Original Position in which we wish to pursue self-interest but our selfhood is unknown to us.

Caught within a tribalistic way of knowing and being we cannot find an exit. And we also cannot see un-tribalistically what has brought us to this state.

We have a story of resentment, of envy, of suspicion that the present order is unfair, all of this attributed to having lost in the meritocratic system, of a failure of competition to instill a commonly held moral sense, and of a resulting slide into a loyalty to the tribe and a rejection of “the idea of excellence.”

We also have a story in which an economic system, championed by both political parties, has created a grand canyon of a wealth divide, in which the advances of cybertech, robotics and AI have hollowed out a rural heartland while advancing urban coastal centers, and in which a politics driven by the idea that winners rule has not legislated polices in which improving the lives of the worst off is a priority.

So, we are already deep within tribalism quite far from any manifestation of justice developed in reference to Rawls’ Original Position. That sad situation is made worse by the fact that the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, has had great political success in fueling a tribalism that works in fueling his own narcissism and megalomania.

There is very little in history comparable to the plight in which this 242 year old Republic finds itself. But we have numerous examples of a force majeure suddenly interrupting not just contractual obligations but a whole order of things, whether civil or tribal.

Based on President Trump’s modus operandus it would seem probable that if his own high self-regard is brought to heel by Mueller’s investigations, he would at once announce some threat to national security requiring military action. Beyond his delusion that his demeanor mirrors Churchill in severe dignity, he may harbor the illusion that he can become, like Churchill, a great wartime leader. Delusions of such head toward war that would bring the tribes together under his leadership.

Another force majeure, real and not delusional, is the financial devastation that global warming will increasingly bring to the planet. Tribes would be brought together in a mission of saving a habitable planet for humans. Or, if we are all really Trumps at heart, we would fight to preserve our own life at the cost of others.

Lastly, what another financial collapse even greater than 2008 would mean in terms of the present tribalism I draw back from speculating. What we can know now is that another effort to bail out the financial domain while leaving the un-invested tribes to assume personal responsibility for actions Wall Street has excluded them from, would position warfare here on native soil and not elsewhere.

More articles by:

Joseph Natoli has published books and articles, on and off line, on literature and literary theory, philosophy, postmodernity, politics, education, psychology, cultural studies, popular culture, including film, TV, music, sports, and food and farming. His most recent book is Travels of a New Gulliver.

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