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History Table of Contents
1994 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1994
Globalism and Tribalism: The New World Disorder?

The New World Disorder?

MICHAEL IGNATIEFF, Author and Broadcaster

My purpose is just to parse the meaning of these two words; globalism and tribalism, and give you some sense of how they interconnect.

The questions we want to ask ourselves are:

As the world economy integrates, why are so many states and societies fragmenting and fracturing into forms of civil war?

Why do we seem to be coming together simultaneously and falling apart at the same time?

And then questions about identity, which are very troubling and very complex.

As we become more and more the same, as the economy draws us together into a common culture, a common civilization, a common polity, a common set of assumptions, a common set of mental attitudes, why is it that we fight so insistently and so indignantly to preserve the margins of difference that remain?

That is we're becoming simultaneously much more similar to each other and insisting — more and more fratricidally — on the differences that remain. That process was described memorably in Sigmund Freud's work, from which I take the phrase, the narcissism of minor difference.

Freud argued that the smaller the real differences — real being the economic difference, social difference, cultural difference, intellectual difference, historical difference and traditional difference — the smaller those differences become, the more insistently people emphasize the marginal differences that remain.

That's a paradox that in a sense brings together globalism and tribalism.

As the global economy homogenizes us, we insist more and more angrily on holding on to the tiny differences that separate us. And those tiny differences can be sources of fratricide and conflict.

This is not happening in some other part of the wood, as Shakespeare would say. It is happening very close by, as the Chairman reminded us.

You could make an argument, just to be polemical, that at precisely the moment when the salient differences between Quebec society and the rest of Canada are being diminished; that is, as the traditional backwardness — and I don't us that in a pejorative sense — that the economic retardation of Quebec society, as that's being overcome, as the differential between Quebec demography, Quebec educational levels, Quebec economic development has been overcome in the last 50 years, it's precisely in that period that the politics of identity difference have become more and more salient; more and more aggravated.

You could argue, polemically, that at the precise moment Quebec loses its distinctiveness as a society, it insists on its distinctiveness as an identity and that there is a dialectical, ironic relationship between the actual convergence between our two societies and cultures and the way our politics is going. We're coming much closer together in reality and much much further apart in our hearts and souls. And that's worth thinking about and understanding.

And some of that process involves a form of narcissism; that is a deliberate exaggeration at every possible point of what divides us — an insistence that we are, and only are, the tiny differences that divide us.

So these questions are not, as I say, happening somewhere else. They're happening to us and that's why they're so upsetting.

I want to get down to the main business at hand.

The difficulty with globalism is to ask yourself, what's new?

What we have to remember about globalism is that we've lived in a global economy for more than 200 years. Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. It was and still remains the greatest single theorization of a global economy ever attempted. It's the birth of economics as a science, it's the birth of social science and, not co-incidentally, it marks, in a sense, the intellectual birth of the global economy.

You will remember from Adam Smith's account, that he had a theory of that global economy in which poor nations would become rich by exploiting the comparative advantage of cheap labour and rich nations would stay rich by exploiting the comparative advantages of skilled knowledge and technology.

It was a happy story. Everyone gets richer and no one gets poorer. It was a theory of the progressive integration of the world in one giant economic system, which would resemble a ladder in which the poor folks would have a chance by using their comparative advantages to slowly mount the rung of wealth until there would be rough parity in the wealth of nations.

We know the global economy has not corresponded to that model at all, but what we have to ask — if you start from 1776 — if you realize how long we have lived in a global world that's very important, but it's also worth remembering that when Montesquieu's, The Spirit of Law, was published in Bordeaux in 1755, there was an English translation in Glasgow in six months.

That's 200 odd years ago. We've had an international global community — at least within the European and North American world — of writers and intellectuals for over two centuries.

We've lived in a global world for a very long time. The difficulty, analytically, is to understand what is the turn it's taken in our century; what's the turn it's taken since 1945, what's the turn since 1960 and getting much more difficult, what's the turn since 1989?

Where are we now in the global story? And it's not just a question of finding what's out what the latest technological indices are, simply saying it's sped up; it's a lot faster than it was. That's self evident.

There are a couple of new salient realities.

I think one of the things that's very new and is very frightening in a way, but is also extremely good news, is the absolutely explosive development of the developing nations.

I mean the sense in which the Adam Smith dream of poor nations rising up the ladder of comparative advantage has happened with a vengeance in Singapore, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia, the Bangalore regions of India.

What is shocking and frightening about that is, I think, the Adam Smith model we had in mind is that the world would continue to deliver stable advantage to us and we'd never be presented with the slightly awesome threat of our poor relations getting much much better at what we do than we are ourselves.

When one asks oneself why it is globalism frightens us, I think what frightens us is competition from new competitors — leaner, younger competitors.

Formerly poor relations are fast overtaking us, but it has to be a good thing that poor nations become rich ones — even if it gives us uncomfortable moments.

One of the reasons it frightens us — needless to say — is that the global economy until, perhaps 1945 — perhaps even to 1960 — was also an Imperial economy. The terms of international trade, the terms of our relations with the poorer nations, was dictated by an Imperial hegemony of the great powers.

Much of the history of the 19th century global economy is the story of the struggle of Imperial powers for control of that economy. Now we seem to be in a global economy in which no one is very clearly in control.

There are probably two nations in the world — America and Japan, and possibly Germany, who have enormous leverage in that economy, but nobody controls the game. It's's in that sense that globalism frightens everybody to a degree it didn't in the 19th century, because in the 19th century the argument was that the economy was controlled by Imperial powers that could control the terms of trade.

Now we're faced with a situation where the existing great powers don't feel they control the game and their facing new competitors, who are frighteningly good at things we used to think were our monopoly.

And this takes us to Bill Graham's point about the inevitable linkage between domestic and foreign questions. Every time we talk about employment in the domestic economy, we're now aware that's a question of international trade first and foremost. It's not at all clear how we preserve comparative advantage in economies like Canada.

We feel that the domestic employment crisis is part of an international employment crisis. And it's not clear to us how an international employment crisis can be solved by the existing apparatus that we have in mind, which is the sovereign states of the world. That's one aspect of globalism that frightens us.

The other aspect of globalism that frightens us is that they're coming here.

The ethnic and racial composition of our societies has been transformed since 1945 by global migration and global population flows, particularly since the coming of jet aircraft in the 1960s.

The Toronto I left as a young graduate student in 1969 is not the Toronto I returned to in 1994. It's an infinitely richer, more exciting, more explosive, more combustible place. The old Toronto that I remember that rolled up the sidewalks and was run by Scotch Presbyterian ancestors is a Toronto that has disappeared.

And we're now living in a world in which — as I drive up to Couchiching, my driver says to me in passing, "that apartment block is the largest population of Somalis outside of Somalia."

That is the global world coming home to us. It means that the polities that we've inherited — - the liberal polities that we've grown up in — now have to do justice to provide civic belonging to populations who often don't seem to know the rules of the game, don't even know the language.

That's part of the global challenge.

My view of that is a very optimistic story. Canada's doing it incredibly well and it's doing it incredibly well because of the extraordinary adaptive capacities, courage and determination of those immigrant groups and occasionally acts of virtue by the host communities.

But there's no doubt that we think what frightens us about the global world is it's simply changed the civic composition of our own societies in radical ways. So we ask ourselves: who belongs, who's a stranger, can we trust these people, can we work together, can we make a country together?

Do all the old stories we've told ourselves about Canada work for people who weren't even here 20 years ago?

And we have a very deep sense that the stories we've told ourselves about our country no longer do work for people who've only come here in the last 15 years and we'd better tell ourselves some new stories.

So the very cohesion of our society is affected by the global challenge. But, I want to put a positive gloss on these aspects of globalism. These are problems, problems of competitiveness, problems of the arrival of a multi-ethnic world. But, let's not fool ourselves. Our competitive advantages remain enormous, when seen from the outside.

We have an infallible capacity as a society in Canada to shoot ourselves in the foot, but even when we've done that constantly we remain a society that's enviable from almost every point of view: enviable from an economic point of view — enormous advantages of skill, enormous advantages of education and training, enormous advantages above all in our polity.

We have a very sophisticated polity that provides peace, order and good government in difficult circumstances and has done so for 130 years and that polity is our greatest asset. (If) we throw that away we can forget about anything else.

Our problems are not economic competitiveness, our problems are retaining the plausibility and efficiency and effectiveness of our polity. We do that, we'll be fine, because as we'll see it's the crisis in polity in the rest of world which is being sapped by tribalism which, it seems to me, is the danger.

Nor, is it the case that globalism is a jungle.

We're not living in an international jungle. The post -1945 world has seen a concerted attempt to replace the old Imperial systems of hegemony with multilateral organizations — all those acronyms that neither you, nor I, fully understand, but we know they're there: GATT, the G-7, the European Union, NAFTA.

These are organizations attempting to bring order to the jungle of the marketplace — to bend the enormous power of the economy to submit to some rules of polity.

In our pessimism we often think, I think, that global economy has simply slipped out of the frame of polity; it slipped out of the control of the sovereignty of each of these nation states and its a kind of rouge beast smashing down the employment structures of all of the developed societies.

I think that view of globalism is much too pessimistic.

In fact, we are in a policed world; a world which — thanks to these multilateral organizations — is not a jungle. It does organize the world, however, to our benefit. And the chief casualties of globalism are not us. We lament in rich countries like our own the tremendous impact of globalism on employment, on the ethnic character of our societies, but the chief casualties are in Africa, Latin America, the former USSR, Eastern and Southern Europe.

What I see out there — and you see it as clearly as I do — is that the world is increasingly divided into two zones.

Zone One, which could almost be called MacWorld, is the high wage, high skill — in economic terms, in political terms, it's a world of stable, mostly liberal democracies and that means that they are multi-ethnic societies that cohere by virtue of strong and effective states that distribute justice, more or less, to those ethnic communities and that's what it's stability resides in. It's stability resides in its capacity to deliver justice regardless of ethnicity and many rich societies in the world are able to do that.

In terms of culture and ethos these are individualistic cultures. That means they are cultures in which people are treated as juridical equals and which identity is not primarily ethnic — ethnicity is a secondary identity. You're primary identity is your identity as an individual. That's what it looks like in Zone One and it's the zone we live in.

And crucially in that part of the world the polity coheres — the state continues to distribute, the state continues to police, and does so according to the juridical norm of treating all individuals as equals.

In Zone Two, you're economically in the low wage, low skill world. Politically your in the world of unstable polities that are, for the most part, ethnic dictatorship. You're often in states that are not states at all, that are collapsing, fragmenting into forms of civil war. In cultural terms you're in the ethnic world; a world in which identity is defined not by individuality, but by ethnicity.

The Zone One is the world of nation states; the world that's benefitted greatly from globalism — from GATT, from the structure of international organizations.

It's Zone Two that worries me.

And above all it seems the key question for the conference is the relationship between Zone One and Two.

I'm not a theorist of the international economy. I'm not a theorist of international trade. What I find very hard to understand now is in what sense the developed world in Zone One needs Africa, needs large parts of Latin America, needs large parts of the former Soviet Union. What seems to me genuinely terrifying about the modern world — and this is the aspect of it that bothers me — is the uncoupling of Zone One and Zone Two. I think there is something new about the re- articulation of the relationship between Zone One and Zone Two.

I did enough reading of Marxist economics in the 1960s and 1970s to hear that articulation constantly expressed as one of systematic and organized underdevelopment: Zone One keeps Zone Two down, Zone Two's chances are systemically limited by what Zone One does.

I have a feeling that what is driving a lot of modern foreign policy is a sense that Zone One can live extremely well without Zone Two. Zone One has no particular reason to be overly concerned from a geo-strategic point of view if Zone Two simply falls apart.

What troubles me is the collapse of the state — Rwanda, Liberia, Somalia, Yugoslavia — the simple collapse of state order. There must be 15 or 20 examples of states simply disintegrating. One of the reasons I think they're disintegrating is that there is no Imperial power in Zone One who has an interest to maintain the state order in Zone Two.

As I said before, the world economy has been organized for two centuries under an Imperial system and that Imperial system has come to an end.

The Cold War prolonged it. From, 1945 through 1960 you could say that the Cold War frozen peace guaranteed the state order created at Yalta. It also guaranteed the state order that was created under the regimes of decolonization between 1945 and 1960. The two great superpowers guaranteed that those states created after 1945 at Yalta and created in decolonization would cohere. After 1989, it's not clear to me who is enforcing the maintenance of those state systems in Zone Two. And not surprisingly, because no one's there to enforce it, they're falling apart.

There's no Imperial policeman to enforce, essentially, the multi-ethnic bargains that kept those state orders together. They are now left to sort themselves out according to the bitter arbitrage of war and civil war. And that, it seems to me, is the key inter-relationship between globalism and tribalism;

this weird way in which the developed global economy has severed its linkages to this tribal Zone Two.

I have a strong feeling that the old neo-Marxist models that gave us institutional connections between Zone One and Two is gone. We've entered into a new phase, perhaps because of the tremendous salience of the knowledge industries, in which we need the Third World for less and less.

And because we need the Third World for less and less, it's more and more a matter of equanimity to us, although it affects our consciences needless to say, that large numbers of these states are simply disintegrating.

I put forward this idea — not because I know it to be true — but because I think it must be debated. What are the institutional linkages that connect the developed world to the state orders of the Third World? Because if its only humanitarian concern, we can be sure they will go to the wall.

That's the thing that concerns me.

What bothers me particularly about a situation like Rwanda is that it is in the end only the embattled liberal conscience of people like you in this room that forces people to act. I would hope that the international order depends on something more than the simple flicker of our humanitarian conscience.

It ought to depend on institutionalized linkages, commitments between states to the integrity of these states, institutionalized institution building by these states to guarantee their survival.

What we have now is an international fire service. We go out when these states fall apart and we go in to make the sight on our TV screens slightly more supportable.

This international humanitarian conscience, which links Zone One and Zone Two, is a very noble and fine thing, but when we stop congratulating ourselves we're aware of the extreme fragility of the institutional tissue that connects us with that world.

I've said something about globalism,

Tribalism is a synonym for atavism, violence and subrational behaviour of all kinds.

That's the way we use it, we use as a condemnatory epithet and we should be very careful when we do so. We think it means a kind of preference for the call of blood over a preference for rational allegiance.

Citizens in a community are not a tribe. They've made a rational choice of allegiance. A tribe is a group of people who, by reasons of blood, want to be ruled by their own. We emphasize the kind of subrational character of the phenomenon that we see beyond the rational global order.

I think it's a very dangerous thing to regard what's going on out there as an explosion of tribal irrationality.

I think it's important that we understand, first of all, that many of these tribal identities are not ancient, atavistic, immemorial entities.

The anthropologists that I know — the anthropologists of African tribalism — point out that African tribes were constituted by Imperial administration. The linguistic identities of many tribes were constituted by European ethnographers and linguists.

One of the things that has gone wrong in the Third World is that these tribes have shaken off those European identities. They've shaken off the frame in which the were put, the boundaries for example of those old states, and are trying to find their own arrangement of the map to suit their own identities.

So, it's not a return to ancient, immemorial, primitive tribal identities. In some cases, it's an attempt to throw off imposed identities, imposed tribal belonging in the name of other belongings and that's in no sense irrational. It's simply an attempt to define yourself in your own terms.

Just as we know that in Canada the tribal identities of aboriginal peoples are not atavistic, ancient immemorial things. What's exciting and extraordinary about the explosion of native peoples identities in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s is the extraordinary inventiveness, novelty and political creativity.

On the basis of some ancient loyalties and some ancient identities, many of them lost, many of them stolen and taken away, aboriginal peoples — First Nation peoples — have by very conscious and very creative approach to their heritage have asserted a rediscovered and recreated a tribal identity on the basis of the new.

And one has to put as much emphasis on the novelty, on the innovation, on the ground breaking character of this process, as seeing it as a simple return to some ancestral past, because the tragedy as we all know of the First Nation peoples — and I'm certainly not in a position to speak of anybody else's tragedy — but the tragedy self evidently is there was nothing to go back to in many cases. It had to be made anew.

And the greatness of this experiment, the greatness of this achievement has been its novelty, it's innovation. That's the positive tribalism, the tribalism I think in many ways has enriched, although it's infinitely complicated the Canadian polity, it has also enriched it. It's enriched it because people will not be spoken for by other people.

That's the fundamentally democratic impulse behind the First Nations movement and all Canadians who are democrats recognize the democratic impulse: we will not be spoken for by other people.

That insistence on the right to speak in your own name is not confined to aboriginal First Nation people, it is a characteristic of all movements of identity in the modern world and provided it's a movement that can live within a civic polity.

And provided it can do so peaceably, provided it can do so without taking up arms, provided it can do so without violence, is something that any modern polity that calls itself decent must not only be prepared to accommodate, but to welcome.

So, in that sense, that kind of tribalism is fantastically positive.

The negative tribalism that is much discussed is the tribalism that I spent a lot of my time looking at, which is the tribalism of a place like Yugoslavia. And there what you apparently see is a kind of frenzied resurgence of a kind atavistic set of historical prejudices held down by a Communist dictatorship and then surging up to tear asunder a state order that seemed viable only a few years before.

What strikes me on the contrary, is again how rationale — how tragically rationale — a tribalistic response is to the disintegration of a state. Once the Titoist order, which was a corrupt and undemocratic Communist order, an order whose legitimacy depended on the personal charisma of one man and was, therefore, always vulnerable to overthrow.

Once you have a state order that's that perilously poised in terms of its legitimacy, once that order has essentially exploited the ethnicities of all the constituent members of that society and turned it into a source of pork barrel and corruption — with each ethnicity played off against the other, so that the Communist regime can maintain in power — it's has to collapse with the death of that dictator and with the collapse of the Communist system.

It's in that situation that people run for cover; they run to the cover and protection of their own tribal group — not because they feel ancestral loyalty to it, but because they make the following fault experiment:

"If there is no policeman at the police station who will protect me; if the police, when I go to ask for protection, ask me what ethnic group I come from, where do I go to be protected?"

You go the protection of your ethnic group. It's a perfectly rational response to a situation of fear; a situation of fear which Canadians have difficulty understanding, because we live underneath the great arch of a state order that continues to function. It doesn't function wonderfully well, but it does function.

If you walk into the Metro Toronto police they do not ask you your ethnicity, race or religion before they try to recover your stolen car radio. We live in an order in which — with great failings and great exceptions — we can count on the legitimacy of that state order.

Once that state order disintegrates, as it does in Yugoslavia, it is rational for people to turn to the protection of their ethnic group. And then when you have elites bent on using that reflex of fear for their own political advantage, you begin to have the logic of that kind of end game. It's an end game which has a connection with globalism in the sense that many of these societies where the state order is disintegrating are poor societies; they are societies at the edge of the global division of labour, societies with very insecure place in the division of labour.

For instance, Rwanda is a place fantastically dependent on the international coffee price. When the coffee price plunged in 1972, about 100,000 people were massacred very soon.

When you have very unstable state orders that cannot provide protection for all juridical subjects and you have scarce resources, you have a recipe for inter-ethnic competition and violence — in competition with those state resources. The result is an accelerating spiral in which the state becomes ever more incapable of containing the violence that started.

That's the scenario I see.

I see a global world order split into two zones. I see a kind of MacWorld that we live in, and I see a tribal order in which the key problem is the fragmentation of the state — the collapse of the state, the incapacity of the state to guarantee peace between ethnic groups.

The question finally, as in all conferences of this sort end with one asking, what does one do, what should we do, what can we do?

I think one of the phenomenon that make this subject very sombre is that since 1989 we have done a lot of things. We've intervened in all kinds of ways and many of our interventions seem to have made the situation worse.

It really isn't clear when you spend time in Yugoslavia, whether this vast international operation costing billions of dollars isn't either exacerbating and prolonging the war by injecting resources into an area, by injecting fuel into an area so that the fire keeps on burning, or whether it isn't also as a massive exercise, a sop to our trouble conscience, an alternative to effective action.

When you haven't delivered air strikes, when you haven't delivered credible threats, then what you do is you hurl money, hospitals, you drop assistance from the air — you shower the place with ineffectual Western second best.

I suppose we've learned one simple thing, which is if you don't get in early and you don't deliver credible threats early, you're in very serious trouble.

There are policymakers in this room who are intelligent enough to say, but when do you know when to intervene? When's the moment that you've got to go?

One can say in retrospect that had that been done, we would have taken a mighty step towards the preservation of the state orders of these societies. We might have prevented the spread of tribal disorder by the credible use of force in time. The problem is at the time there were all kinds of credible reasons not to do so, there were all kinds of credible voices that said if you escalate at that level that suddenly the risks are incalculable.

Now, in 1994, it's obvious what we should have done. I don't like as a marginalized intellectual to give advice to policymakers that is smart after the event, because policymakers have to be smart before the event.

The final thing I think I'd say is I'm struck by, again in Yugoslavia, the tremendous attachment we've given quite rightly to peace keeping and emergency humanitarian assistance. But the real drama in all the these tribal zones — Zone Two — is building viable polities, building viable institutional orders that provide justice regardless of ethnic origin.

If you can get that going in these societies and sustain it — and you have to sustain it for a generation so that you can change people's expectations of the states in which they, that it seems to me is the policy goal we want.

It's quite a humble policy goal.

It means sending RCMP constables, people with experience of administering and enforcing justice in multi-ethnic communities, to police stations in small towns and getting people to learn the culture of liberal virtue to put it at its fruitiest and most exalted and most surprising given what we think we know about RCMP officers.

But I've seen RCMP officers do this in towns in which there are Croatians and Serbs and quietly, patiently explaining, "you will have no society at all unless you can come to this police station and get justice done regardless of your ethnic origin. You have to choose what kind of society you want. I can help you build that society, but you have to believe in it."

It's that kind of patient, very concrete, very detailed institution building, which is the only light I see in the darkness.

Building institutions of justice in these societies it seems to me where policy has to go. The problem is the fires are still burning and the fires are not out.


I don't quite agree with the Zone One and Zone Two idea. I think...what we have now is a replacement of labour by capital, not the continuing exploitation of labour. The mobility of capital is such today — and the mobility of technology is such, that's it's going to go wherever it gets the best reception and that means that it will leave Toronto, London and the United States. I think we're getting an emergence of a new capital and technically- sophisticated class system in the world, but an underprivileged class distributed throughout the world — not just in what was traditionally called the Third World. Could you to respond?

Because capital is replacing labour at such an astonishing rate and because the resource demands of these new technologies are diminishing, my hypothesis is that the traditional dependence of the developed world on the resources and labour of the Third World is being re-articulated in ways that are increasingly disadvantageous to the Zone Two world. We know from Canada's dramatic and persistent difficulties in equalizing economic development across even as wealthy a society as our own that there are real questions about whether we can sustain any kinds of economic development in certain zones of our country, for example. It's also clear the whole debate on the underclass within our society is a debate on as to whether there is a kind of Zone Two kind of population who simply are always excluded from the ladder of comparative advantage, the ladders of upward mobility that occur in the Zone One


You've mentioned some of the group pressures prevailing in Canada right now, particularly the Aboriginal, or First Nations movement. Can you expand on the recognition pressures in Canada, the group rights demands made by Aboriginals, as well as the Quebecois, and by non-territorial, social and cultural groups, who are saying cultures are incommensurable. I see this as a threat, obviously to liberal conceptions of citizenship, where we are equal jurisdictionally before the state. And I'm wondering in your discussion on Aboriginals before what basically degree of differentiation in terms of citizenship can Canadian society support without so diluting the bonds of citizenship that we no longer we're a part of the same moral and political community?

That's a counter thesis, which says the centre cannot hold beyond a certain point. There's a recognition of the politics of difference which, when taken too far, simply means we have nothing in common. My own view of this is that's alarmist talk. There is a centre to hold and it's quite concrete. It's a question of which laws ultimately prevail. It seems to I'd be resistant if we get down to cases to forms of Aboriginal self-determination which abrogated to them the right to try individuals within their community for serious crimes and misdemeanours, because I think you might then get into a situation of double forms of justice operating within the same society. At that point, I think citizenship would fray to breaking point. We haven't reached that point. We have accorded forms of self determination to Aboriginal First Nations peoples which stops somewhere short of that on the grounds that there ought to be normative rules and procedures for all citizens regardless of their ethnicity. And I think Canadians as a practical matter can make that distinction between the areas of self-determination that can be legitimately delegated to communities; those particularly in the justice area which simply have to remain in the polity, or we don't have a polity at all.