Once in a while some Socialist Worker people set up a stall outside my local Tesco to shout slogans at the progressive middle-class folk who make up much of the local demographic. One of the phrases I’ve heard them use is ‘Refugees welcome! Tories out!’ which is great and everything, except – what if the refugees are Tories? But then there are Sacred Groups and Out Groups, and each has their role to play in the modern morality play that is leftist politics.
Ideological tribalism is the subject of a new book by Yale’s Amy Chua, who argues that politics has replaced national or religious identity as a source of division. Chua has written about this subject before; although she is best known for the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mum, before that she wrote World on Fire, about how market dominant minorities are always vulnerable to less privileged majorities – something I think we’re going to be reminded of in the near future.
America, she writes, is a society in which ‘membership is open to individuals from all different backgrounds — ethnic, religious, racial, cultural’, something that is almost given as a good thing in polite society, and yet she warns against ignoring the role tribalism plays in our lives. The prevailing political idea behind America today is that nationality is not defined by ancestry, religion or any of the ways in which group membership has traditionally been demarcated; ‘this is who we are’, as Obama, among others, defined it. This is a recent phenomenon, mostly dating back to the 1960s, and certainly would have baffled the founding fathers. And yet as traditional forms of tribalism have been made déclassé, so political polarisation has gone off the scale, with America’s two parties now absolutely miles apart, both the country’s left and right utterly demented in their own different, adorable way.
Compare this with how journalist Bill Bishop recalled the mid-20th century United States, perhaps the happiest and most civilised society in human history:
‘Concerned about electoral torpor and meaningless political debate, the American Political Science Association in 1946 appointed a committee to examine the role of parties in the American system. Four years later, the committee published a lengthy (and alarmed) report calling for the return of ideologically distinct and powerful political parties. Parties ought to stand for distinct sets of politics, the political scientists urged. Voters should be presented with clear choices.’
Be careful what you wish for, chaps. And the parties only reflect wider social divides, with studies now suggesting that, in the US, at least, prejudice based on politics is even stronger than the racial variety.
So could it be that as countries suppress traditional in and out groups these new ideological ones simply take their place? The same thing has certainly happened in Britain, which is why it’s simply impossible to reason with anyone who has entrenched opinions about Brexit, on either side. People with the FBPE hashtag (‘follow back, Pro-European Union’) are akin to a religious community, which makes rational sense, since a progressive in the UK does indeed have more in common with a fellow believer in Germany or Oregon than they do with a neighbour who supports Ukip. Indeed, many would object to a family member marrying the latter.
The optimistic, Whiggish view of history was that globalisation would reduce tribalism but it’s almost certainly innate, and so, as religion and national identity have faded, ideology has replaced them. The SWP people can make sense of their slogan because they believe, as ethnic minorities, that refugees will automatically become members of their tribe, the internationalists, even if their cultural attitudes might not be entirely attuned to the 21st century western progressive left; it’s why minorities who don’t do so are treated with special vitriol.
We were all taught at school that in-groups and out-groups are necessarily poisonous things that lead to man’s inhumanity to man. Yet maybe the sort of ideological tribalism which is now so common, and which carries almost nothing in the way of social taboo or stigma, will be more dangerous in the 21st century than the ethnic or religious variety.
Strangely enough, I’ve recently been reading about another bunch of guys who were on the Wrong Side of History – the pagans. Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom describes how religious identity came to replace older civic attachments in the Middle East – sectarian identities that are still relevant today.
‘Large Christian groups, Chalcedonians quite as much as Monophysites, were prepared to forget their ancient loyalties to their cities. Religion provided them with a more certain, more deeply felt basis of communal identity. Even when they lived in villages and cities where their own church predominated – as was often the case in strongly Monophysite regions, such as Egypt – they saw themselves above all else as a religious community. They were fellow-believers. They were no longer fellow citizens.’
Alas, that sort of seems to be the direction we are heading in right now, with older bonds of citizenship replaced by communities of like-minded people. We are no longer fellow citizens, we are fellow-believers.