You are here

Op-Ed World Culture & Society

The roots of Western tribalism

Abu Dhabi, UAE

By Sami Mahroum

ABU DHABI – In Hermann Hesse’s novel Journey to the East, the character of H.H., a novice in a religious group known as The League, describes a figurine depicting himself next to the group’s leader, Leo. “It seemed that, in time, all the substance from one image would flow into the other and only one would remain: Leo. He must grow, I must disappear.”

Hesse is describing the sacrifice of an individual self for the sake of a larger cause. But he is also depicting how people create their heroes. Whether it is Vladimir Lenin, Che Guevara, Ruhollah Khomeini, Hugo Chávez, or even Donald Trump, “heroes” are in the eye of the beholder. They are idealized reflections of the self. And as Hesse’s description implies, the heroic image also feeds off of the self, to the point that the individual must disappear.

Tribalism is at the heart of this process. Because mankind has a deep yearning for a sense of belonging and for leadership, humans naturally form groups with established leaders. Some groups are positive manifestations of collaboration and solidarity among individuals. But when groups are based on an ideology or a particular tribe, they can become discriminatory and oppressive toward non-members, especially if a domineering, charismatic leader is in charge.

The emergence of populist and nationalist movements in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other European countries suggests that tribalism is on the rise in the West. Populist movements have set their sights on immigrants and globalization generally. But, as with all forms of tribalism, these movements pose the greatest danger to the individual. Followers are obliged to pay fealty to the tribe and its chief. But because the tribe brooks no dissent, tribal parties tend to degenerate quickly into competing factions.

Explanations of what has led to our new era of tribal politics abound. For many, the root cause is growing economic inequality. While the rich have gotten richer, rural blue-collar workers and the poor have been left to fend for themselves against immigrants, refugees, and the forces of globalization. But even if globalization has benefited some groups and regions more than others, it doesn’t explain today’s tribal politics; if anything, the lack of globalization in certain regions does.

It is worth remembering that most Trump voters were neither poor nor blue collar. But they do largely reside in peripheral regions and smaller cities where the benefits of globalization – though not the costs – have been largely absent. This same urban-rural split is evident in every country that has experienced an uptick in tribal populism in recent years.

Moreover, if globalization, and specifically immigration, are drivers of inequality, then the large cities where refugees, immigrants, and poorer communities share the same space should be sites of political upheaval. And yet in Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, and elsewhere, nationalist and populist parties tend to find their supporters outside of the main cities.

Although globalization and immigration can be political pressure points, the roots of voting behavior today lie in three interrelated developments. First, citizens in the West have gradually become less politically organized and more individualistic. Across all liberal democracies, membership in political parties has long been declining, owing to post-war changes in education, social norms, and popular culture that emphasize critical thinking and self-expression. The result is what the American sociologist David Riesman has called “inner-directed individuals” – “Cartesian” men and women who think for themselves.

This development would have been indisputably positive had it not overlapped with Western economies’ shift, beginning sometime in the mid-1990s, toward technology-driven growth models, which increased demand for so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) skills. As education systems began to focus far less on the humanities, citizens, already less exposed to the political education and guidance offered by traditional political parties, were increasingly cut off from the transmission of humanistic values as well.

The rationale for studying literature, history, and art – to learn empathy, develop our emotional intelligence, and reconcile critical thinking with universal values – has not disappeared with the opportunities to do so. The false assumption that a humanities degree is less valuable than a STEM degree in the twenty-first-century labor market does not bode well for the functioning of liberal democracy.

The third consideration is an extension of the second: the increasing commodification and marketization of higher education in recent decades. As universities vie for accreditation and “me too” status, their programs have increasingly begun to resemble one another. The process of molding “test-ready individuals” recalls a line from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “As for this Petersburg swell, they’re turned out by machinery, all on one pattern, and all precious rubbish.” Likewise, the commodification of knowledge makes today’s graduates more disposable: vulnerable to replacement by the “machinery” that produced them.

Taken together, these three developments help to explain the rise of a new class of voters: highly skilled, highly paid, and poorly educated in the values underpinning liberal democracy. It is not particularly surprising that these voters, bereft of shared traditions of knowledge and understanding, coalesce around tribal identities and the surrender of self to a collective consciousness.

Liberal democracies had supposedly moved beyond “primordial” politics, toward a society of empowered citizens. But citizens’ power – their ability to identify their interests and to act individually and collectively to advance them – requires a set of skills altogether different from those being emphasized today.

Sami Mahroum, Director of the Innovation & Policy Initiative at INSEAD and a member of the WEF Regional Strategy Group for the Middle East and North Africa, is the author of Black Swan Start-ups: Understanding the Rise of Successful Technology Business in Unlikely Places.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.