103. Tribal Echoes in Our Era of Globalization

Tribalism may seem to have disappeared, but in ever so many ways it is still very much with us. It is most evident in the popular enthusiasm we show globally for Olympic competitions as well as the primitive vocals of would-be politicians like Donald Trump which frighten some and are instinctively appealing to others. To the millions who are dismayed by the effects of globalization and feel disenfranchised, ignored, forgotten, or jobless, the options are limited. Their immediate hopes rest in their membership in a family, a community, or social groupings like churches — that is, modernized versions of tribal units. Recourse to help from the state is not always available.

We, that is all the 7+ billions of us, are inhabitants of one planet, such that globalization is truly a given. The problem is how can we be global and at the same time tribal, that is, tied to family, community, and nation when all three of the latter have become less stable? The industrial society which started two hundred years ago has been overtaken by the age of molecular transformations, robotics and electronic communications all of which have contributed to the decline of the family, the social institutions of the past and the decline of trust in government. This has led to alienation and higher levels of anxiety for many. The electorate now yearns for an effective, steady and normative order in which to live.

Much of humanity now seeks a greater sense of certainty. Sometimes this is reflected in a search for a charismatic leader who can relieve them of their burdens of responsibility: In sum a throwback to the tribal days when none of the current uncertainties of change existed. The German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies described the tribal community as a convincing focus for our social nature before we gradually evolved over the past 2000 years into the fragile legal, rational, and bureaucratic democracies of the present. Because we have all become “individuals,” our ethnic groupings — and to a certain extent our identities — are vanishing.

Only ten thousand years ago our ancestors were still hunter-gatherers living a nomadic existence. Traditionally, tribesmen sought to avoid the agricultural life and its humiliations, and saw their destiny as pursuing the interest and honor of their kin group. Some two thousand years later the first farms and small settlements arose. The spirit of the tribal wanderer was still fighting within the newly settled and hard working agriculturalists.

Around 4,500 BC the first cities arose along the Euphrates, the Nile, and rivers in China. Accompanying these were the division of labor, wars involving conquest, as well as forms of writing and record keeping by a small elite. The nomadic Israelites became the first to record and transcribe their transformation from a tribal status to that of a nation. In what was to become the first five books of the Bible, much of this historical recording revolved around the persistence of the tribal mind, vacillating between taboo and ethics, between the drumbeats of custom and the first establishment of laws. A large part of this Biblical text focused on kinship and the impositions of sexual taboos about incest, that is sex with our nearest kin.

The shift from nature to culture was intertwined with the struggle to keep incest at bay by laws and taboos. This was to become a basis of our social relations. Injunctions about whom one could and could not marry and one’s obligations to the new in-laws became among the first human rules. To persuade tribespeople that “the other” is not a stranger, but is in fact a relative, remained an important and difficult development in our gradual social evolution. Even today, the Muslim world is still largely wedded to a system of close-cousin marriage. Muslim kids when asked about this will retort: “Of course we marry a cousin. Would you have us marry a stranger? We cannot trust strangers.” An enormous reluctance remains in the Muslim world to help all “non-kin” strangers.

The move away from kinship and into non-kin groupings and organizations took many centuries of evolutionary effort that drew on Christianity, the growth of humanism and the development of commerce, industry and science.1 The continuing antagonism between tribe and state was manifest by the tapping of the support of tribal groups in wars, as the British did with the Scottish clans which they turned into national regiments. Indeed, the United Kingdom remains a political agreement between English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh ‘tribal’ groupings. The Scots, proud of their heritage, are still eager to have greater recognition and acceptance of their strong separatist desires. The systematic efforts of nation states to suppress their internal tribal units go against the aspirations and the need of identity that they, as citizens, also want as human beings.

The primitive soul encompassed all those powers that were invisible and non-material. It flourished with the poetic and verbal mythology that passed on and was embroidered upon from one generation to the next. The primitive soul was enriched in the Greek, the Norse, Hindu, and Chinese mythologies. Poets like Eliot, Pound and Yeats in the 20th century were united in the belief that “modern” man must recapture the mystic voices of antiquity if they are to heal the division in their souls. In today’s globalized world where the word ‘sacred’ is disappearing, we can also consider whether the “soul” is similarly diminished. Urbanite citizens no longer feel the natural order where their ancestors had once been integrated in a green existence. People lose their souls when they lose contact with nature and with themselves. In effect, they become rootless.

Modern man is becoming increasingly alienated from the world his predecessors inhabited. We walk alone swiftly communicating with others with flicks of our fingers. Online addiction by millions is eroding the mores which our ancestors spent millennia developing, such as shaking hands, reading the eyes of another, observing the person greeting you. Instead, we are undergoing universal social changes through which mankind will have to pass as technology, communications, and work evolve. We don’t really know where we fit as we advance into an “all encompassing data-processing system,” suggests Yuval Noah Harari. “We are already becoming tiny chips inside a giant system that nobody really understands.”2 Even the most educated find it hard in the age of globalization to accept the unpredictability of change and have trouble trying to cope with it. Indeed, what to do with the rungs of cultural construction of our historical developmental ladder when it is no longer vertical and robots enter? We are facing the threatening globalized confluence of scientific advances in microbiology’s exploration of the brain and in computer technology’s incredible data processing capacity.

Globalization’s sheer trading and economic power drives the world economy in ways which even economists struggle to understand. When advisers to conservative leaders in both the US and the UK in the early 1980s pushed for a global free market in the transfer of capital as well as the free market in goods and services, none truly considered the consequences for the labor market, the increase of immigration, nor the rise of inequality. They failed to recognize that the vast expansion of individual choice would come at the expense of social bonds. They were lured to turn a blind eye to the big multi-national corporations that encouraged global investment both to avoid national taxation and to cut costs by finding cheap “third world” labor. Alas, the anti-globalization groups failed to come up with a set of beliefs that could counter capitalism’s competitive momentum nor could they direct the global economy in a more rational way. For decades those in power descended, in tribal fashion, on the talk shop in Davos every January to celebrate the ever-increasing profitability of the giant multi-national corporations.

We are as unwilling to take a larger, longer perspective on the corporate face of globalization as we are to acknowledge the important role of the tribal in our heritage. We need a new global contract focused on increased regulation of markets as well as international cooperation on both a financial transaction tax and a wealth tax. If inequality continues to rise and increasingly large numbers of the electorate feel left behind, then tribal-like nationalism will increase as the most alluring alternative to globalization. The still vociferous and impressive Gordon Brown, as ex-Prime Minister, did his best to slow down the 2008 economic crisis, saying after Brexit that “if we cannot show how we can make globalization fair and inclusive then our politics will revolve around nationality, race or simply identity.”3

Alas our thinking processes abandoned the old tribal patterns and have become increasingly less imaginative and socially responsive. Tribal people were (and the few remaining are) more confident of their identity than we are of ours, contended David Maybury Lewis in his book and television series.4 Because we have all branded ourselves as “individuals,” we have left the strength of the tribal behind. Re-acquainting ourselves with our tribal heritage could re-ignite some of our lost humanity.

Organizing society into smaller units, each of about 250 members, would be the rational way to advance to more meaningful and enduring human relationships. Past experience tells us that social units or clubs much larger than this tend to split up into various smaller ones or into “sects.” Small community groups would result in the return of familiarity and stability so basic to reducing the social anxiety, tension and isolation that are increasingly prevalent today. The proposition that small is not only beautiful but also economically viable has been blocked by a profit driven economy that has done its utmost to prevent such change from taking place.5

In my book, Dollars or Democracy, I outlined the direction in which we should advance: corporations should be turned into cooperatives and the huge multi-nationals broken up into small cooperative units. The emphasis of the state should also be to encourage and support the formation of smaller social groupings in which the individuals could find their place and identity much as they once did in tribal communities. Short of such vast and radical change, the humanizing remains of the tribal in us will be crushed by ever more ruthless corporations and the determination of national states.


1Even so, some of the footholds of tribalism remain, as in the Mafia. The motto of this inward looking group is: “Never go against the family.” As Robin Fox noted, in the Mafia “Trust is possible only between close relatives and preferably those of the paternal clan.” Robin Fox, The Tribal Imagination, (2011) p.63
2Yuval Noah Harari, “In big data we trust,” The Financial Times Magazine, August 27, 2016, p.14
3Gordon Brown, “Globalization must work for all of Britain,” The Guardian, June 29,2016.
4David Maybury-Lewis, Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World, (1992) p. 279
5See: Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy (2006) p.190

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