A Tribal World

Is our internationalism hiding a new tribalism?

In 2016, it's all the rage to be post-borders, beyond tribes, a global citizen rather than a blinkered inhabitant of an old-fashioned, closed-off community. Among the new clerisy — those self-styled guardians of right-thinking, who are pro-EU, sniffy about national borders, and made positively nauseous by the sight of the St George’s flag — there’s nothing naffer than being tribal, than feeling like you belong to one community more than another. In fact in their minds, communities, especially local ones, aren’t only lame — they’re potentially dangerous, fostering narrow-minded thinking and in some cases even racist attitudes.

Modern-day commentary drips with contempt for community life and national sentiment and sporting or cultural tribes. Writing in the Guardian a few years back, Lynsey Hanley, author of the new book Respectable: The Experience of Class, came off like one of those Nietzsche-worshipping British snobs catalogued by John Carey in his book The Intellectuals and the Masses. She sneered at certain working-class communities as “paranoid, suspicious, mistrustful, misogynist and racist”. These shut-off worlds can come to be riddled with “social conservatism”, she said, where eventually the inhabitants “silently or violently [reject] anyone who is different or who expresses a different opinion to that of the crowd”.

Or consider the churn of ugly commentary about poor communities in Britain, whose values are different to Hampstead’s. Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, journalists ventured into working-class parts of South-East London with the same trepidation that colonial-era hacks set foot in exotic Africa. “INTO HELL”, said a front-page headline in the Daily Mirror, in a report that described this bit of the city as “E-reg Escort land” where there’s “racism seeping from every pore”. The media disgust for football fans who pronounce the word England with three syllables and who prefer tabloids to the Guardian also speaks to the tribe-phobia of the new elites. Whether it’s leftish snobs wringing their hands over the strange habits of Essex men and women, or right-wing snobs wondering what Muslim communities get up to, the fear of seemingly faraway communities, of contained or self-defined groups, is palpable.


"The new discomfort with community is driven by a desire among the middle-class political classes to distinguish themselves from the rabble."


This agitation with localism presents itself as a high-minded strike for cosmopolitanism, for a brave new internationalism that says people coming together is better than people doing their own thing. But it’s nothing of the sort. Far from being fuelled by a genuine sense of cross-border or cross-community solidarity, the new discomfort with community life and cultural grouping is driven by a separatism of its own, by a desire among the largely middle-class media and political classes to distinguish themselves from the rabble. That’s the great irony here: in the very process of looking with horror at those community or cultural groups that are apparently “paranoid and suspicious” and hostile to “anyone who is different or who expresses a different opinion”, the new clerisy is engaging in some moral distancing of its own: it is ostentatiously separating itself from Them, the unenlightened; it is defining itself against others, The Other, whose opinions and differences it cannot understand. Its hostility to the alleged club mentality of various groups is driven by a club mentality of its own — the club mentality of a bourgeois layer of society that imagines itself better than all others and seizes every opportunity to prove it.

It is a profoundly phoney internationalism. It is an internationalism, not of peoples, but of elites — of elites who are sick of, or at least wary of, their peoples. This is fundamentally what the European Union represents: not a genuine effort to foster internationalism in place of nationalism, but a forum in which the upper echelons of European societies, their politicians, NGOs, experts and campaigners for social reform, can gather and do the business of politics and society far away from the madding mobs of their own nations. This isn’t internationalism, it’s escapism, and escapism motored by elitism and disdain for ordinary people. The EU is the greatest act of tribalism of the 21st century so far — the tribalism of elites who feel utterly disconnected from, and distrustful of, their masses.

My hero is Thomas Paine, who was a genuine internationalist. “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion”, he said. His internationalism was motored by a belief in all mankind’s capacity for moral autonomy, for freedom, for rethinking how politics and society are organised and conducted. “All mankind are my brethren” — that’s the key part. Today’s pseudo-internationalists, these cliques of experts and post-borders campaigners, hold the opposite view — that mankind is a problematic creature, given to paranoia and violence, and thus we need vast, Byzantine structures like the EU to keep him in check. Witness how the EU is discussed almost as a lid on European peoples’ vile human passions, with many EU supporters suggesting the continent would be plunged once more into war and hatred if the EU were to be dissolved. What is driving the new anti-tribalism, the new anti-nationalism, is not faith in mankind, but, ironically, fear and hatred for mankind. Right now, anti-tribalism is the ugliest tribalism of all.

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kyoung21b 28 December 2016

Nice to know that Mr. O'Neil is a proud member of the anti-tribalist tribe (I.e. what is this article about ?).

Alyson King 8 November 2016

The larger the group the more diversity evolves. Tribes maraud. Communities are inter-dependent. Interest groups are pegged to the wider community, to share their value, and benefit from the rest that the community shares for its mutual benefit. Greed is a risk that must be recognised and managed for the survival of the organism itself