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Tribal Nationalism vs Global Unity

Change, discontent and uncertainty are some of the most prominent characteristics of the times. These interconnected terms are routinely used to describe global affairs and are key factors animating the global protest movement as well as the growing tide of nationalism: Both movements arise from the same seed, one is progressive and in harmony with the new, the other is of the past and seeks to obstruct and divide.

These are transitional times, as humanity moves out of one civilization imbued with certain ideals, values and beliefs to a new way of living based on altogether different principles; times of unease and insecurity certainly, but also times of great hope and opportunity.

If humanity is to progress and the natural environment is to survive, fundamental change in the way life is lived is essential, systemic change as well as an accelerated shift in attitudes and values. Many people throughout the world recognize this and are advocating such a shift; those in power – political and corporate – reject such demands and do all they can to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the existing unjust systems. Despite this entrenched resistance, the new cannot be held at bay for much longer: change is coming; the question is when, how and with what impact it will occur, not if.

Widespread uncertainty is in part the result of this sustained intransigence, coupled with the instability within the socio-economic systems, which are in a state of terminal decay; fuelled by the past, they are carcasses – forms without life. The pervading uncertainty is being exploited by the reactionary forces of the world; powerful forces using fear to manipulate people and drum-up what we might call tribal nationalism, as opposed to civic nationalism, in order to assert themselves, and in many countries they appear to be in the ascendency.

The current explosion of tribal nationalism or right-wing populism is a crude response to worries about immigration and national identity, coupled with genuine social injustices including economic hardship and unemployment. Throughout the world right-wing groups with protectionist economic policies and anti-immigration views continue to gain support and in some cases win power. The loudest sign of this regressive trend was the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. His nationalistic, ‘America First’ message fuels intolerance and division and encourages national or self- interest. It casts a shadow of suspicion over foreigners, particularly those that think, live and pray differently, and it is by nature inward looking and brittle.

Strengthened by Trump’s election, far right and ultra conservative politicians in other countries have flourished. Throughout Europe right-wing and far right parties have been empowered: Prime-Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary (who has repeatedly called for an end to ‘liberal democracies’ in Europe); President Recep Erdoğan in Turkey who has attacked the media, centralized power and is pursuing a form of Islamic nationalism; the Law and Justice government in Poland; Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister; The Freedom Party in Austria; Jair Bolsonaro the newly elected President of Brazil and Prime-Minister Narendra Modi of India. And in Russia, according to a series of studies conducted by the Research Council of Norway, “nationalism has been growing since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1990-1991), along with attempts by the regime to commandeer it.

These political parties, and others, have adopted what The Economist states is “a pessimistic view that foreign affairs are often a zero-sum game in which global interests compete with national ones. It is a big change that makes for a more dangerous world.” The Brexit vote (52% voted leave, 48% remain in the 2016 referendum) in the UK was another example of how right-wing politicians manipulated a disgruntled populous by inflaming nationalistic sentiment and intolerance. The vote to leave was in many ways a protest vote – a negative vote – largely against freedom of movement of people from Europe, i.e. against immigration. Duplicitous advocates of leaving the European Union, mainly from the Conservative and UKIP parties, used slogans like ‘taking back control’ and taking ‘our country back’ to win support for their campaign. Consistent with the response in other countries many who were won over by the nationalists agenda and voted to leave where over 60 years of age; young people (those under 30) who will feel the impact of leaving most, commonly see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ and overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the EU.

Civic nationalism and cooperation

Tribal nationalism plays on notions of identity, encouraging allegiance to a national and in some cases racial ideal; national bonds of belonging and personal identity rooted in the nation state are fostered, and in a world in which many people, particularly older individuals, experience a fragmented sense of self and a national feeling of loss, such ideals appear comforting, offering a sense of belonging. But far from creating security this type of nationalism (like all forms of conditioned constructs) isolates and excludes, strengthening false notions of superiority and inferiority, creating an atmosphere of distrust, and establishing a climate in which fear can flourish.

Images of self, which are rooted in any form of ideology (religious, political, racial, etc.), imprison and divide, feeding intolerance and division. All of which is in opposition to the movement and tone of the time, which is towards greater levels of cooperation, tolerance and understanding of others. Within the paradigm of Tribal Nationalism ‘the other’, other nations as well as people from other nations, are seen as a threat, as rivals, and are viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. When outsiders are described in inflammatory terms, such as ‘murderers’, ‘rapists’ and people who ‘infest’ the pristine nation, fear and anger is facilitated, violence legitimized and a process of dehumanization of ‘the other’ set in motion. And, as history shows when this takes place unbridled atrocities are perpetuated.

Civic nationalism on the other hand brings the people of a particular nation together around common values to work for the good of the community. It encourages cooperation, tolerance and sharing and can serve as a stepping stone to global responsibility; collective action in which the skills, gifts and abilities of the individual nations of the world are used for the benefit and enrichment of all, and not just for the nation state. Conversely, tribal nationalism is tied to the old ways of competition and suspicion, it is a dangerous ideology, which is being cynically employed by right-wing politicians, who see widespread public discontent as an opportunity to manipulate the argument and gain power. It is of the past, is detrimental to human development and has no place in our world.

As any child will tell you, beyond national constructs, beyond racial and tribal identities, humanity is one, diverse but part of a single unity. We are moving into a time when this essential fact will be the guiding principle of human affairs.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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