Pat Buchanan has a very interesting article on the topic of tribalism, arguing that it is becoming more important in world affairs. Buchanan’s article is sure to be problematic for those on the Right and the Left who assume that tribalism will eventually be submerged by economic ideologies such as liberal capitalism or Marxist socialism. Indeed, much of modern history can be characterized by the interplay between the economic ideologies, most prominently liberalism and Marxism, and ideologies revolving around tribal identities such as race, ethnicity, or religion. While these various ideologies sometimes overlapped in the past, it can be argued that the line between them is becoming bolder.
For many in the First World, the ethnic and religious movements of the Third Word seem backward and foolish. Generally speaking, the maintenance of the salve of consumerism is the paramount political issue for First World governments. Consumerism and the mass entertainment culture works to dampen virulent forms of identity politics, such as religious or ethnic nationalism. Liberal capitalists argue that the Third World countries should try to emulate the West’s consumer culture as a strategy for ending tribal strife.
Unfortunately for the champions of liberal capitalism, the peoples of the Third World remain “tribal,” as evidenced by the various ethnic and religious conflicts in the developing world today. This harsh reality probably explains why Western journalists are so quick to latch onto any evidence that people like them are really at the helm of the major popular movements in the developing world, hence the obsessive focus on the users of Facebook and Twitter in the Middle East. But when the reality of the “otherness” of the developing world becomes too hard to resist, both conservatives and progressives fall back on the trusty tool of liberal interventionism in order to blast the natives into modernity. Both the Right and the Left are guilty of this violent and arrogant attitude toward the poorer nations, as evidenced by the diversity of the supporters of the war in Iraq.
To be sure, tribalism itself has often resulted in brutal warfare between different groups. Furthermore, loathsome ideologies have grown out of tribal sentiments. Islamic jihadism really is an evil scourge, as evidenced by the massacres perpetrated against Christians and “apostate” Muslims. Additionally, while libertarians and Marxists often like to call each other fascists, the truth is that fascism has far less in common with the economic ideologies of liberalism and Marxism than it has with other forms of extreme nationalism. Fascists were generally more interested in the revival and strengthening of organic communities than with economics. This tendency was reflected in the often muddled and opportunistic economic policies in the actual fascist states such as Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
However, if Buchanan is correct and we must face a future where tribalism is becoming more important, how should we approach it? I believe that there are three main courses of action. First, there must be a concerted effort to promote the essential humanity of the human race and the sacredness of the human person. Humanists, whether secular or religious, must do their best to prevent the dehumanization of people, something that becomes easier when tribalism becomes extreme. Second, institutions that are neither economic nor tribal must be promoted whenever possible. For example, Queen Elizabeth II is the sovereign of people belonging to many different races and religions. She also does not owe her position to an economic “meritocracy” or to some other mechanical process. She is more like the mother of a large and diverse family. Her sovereignty is not the domination of the haughty winners of some Darwinian economic struggle. While monarchy may not be appropriate for every country on the planet, and individual monarchs can definitely have their failings, there are some lessons to be learned from studying the ideas behind monarchism, which are often ignored in the modern world.
Lastly, there is a tradition of romantic nationalism that, if prevented from becoming too extreme, may be able to satisfy the urge for tribal identity among human beings without sliding into hatred for others. Some romantics sought a community of brother nations working together for peace and even included Christian ideas and themes in their work. Other romantic or neo-romantic figures, such as William Morris, were influential in developing strands of socialism that rejected the tendency toward dictatorship and tyranny found in other schools of socialist thought. A return to the better ideals of the romantic movements may be necessary in the face of globalization and the increasing power of rapacious multinational corporations, unresponsive governments, and faceless, undemocratic transnational institutions such as the IMF, the EU, and others listed by Pat Buchanan in his article. With the forces of Enlightenment rationalism reeling under the weight of their own failures and broken promises, there is a need for a different narrative that harnesses organic and tribal feelings in a positive way so as to avoid the pitfalls of fascism and other forms of ethnic or religious extremism.