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

Tribalism: Recreating Community

DANIEL SALÉE, Vice-Principal and Associate Professor, School of Community and Public Affairs, Concordia University

I am a student of Quebec Nationalism and more generally of the various expressions, political expressions, of national identity.

That the conference organizers asked a student of Quebec nationalism to discuss tribalism, I thought was revealing a bit of a misconception, or preconception, of what nationalism is. That they seemed to equate nationalism and tribalism, even if only indirectly, was almost shocking to me at first.

Because for all that nationalism does imply – closely-knit communities and inward-looking communities – it also implies xenophobia sometimes. It also implies ultra-patriotic sentiments.

I have never really thought of nationalism as tribalism of course. I have never equated the two. I suppose it is for me, as it is for most Westerners, tribalism conjures up the image of pre- modern, unsophisticated, uncivilized, and some what barbaric societies. And as a student of Quebec nationalism, it never occurred to me that nationalism, Quebec nationalism for sure, could be have those qualifiers, or that those qualifiers could be applied to Quebec nationalism.

On the contrary, Quebec nationalism has been a sometimes painful thorn in Canada's side, I think Quebec's nationalism has made Quebec into a modern and dynamic society.

I would even argue that the constant and weighty influence of Quebec nationalism in Canadian politics has contributed in the past three decades to the enhancement of democracy in Canada. Nationalism can be, I think, a very positive force and can be rightfully associated with all that is positive and all that is good in moderninity.

Still, the organizers of this conference seemed to intimate that there might be a connection between tribalism and nationalism. And that intrigued me. I intended to come here and straighten them out; set them straight, really. That was a few months ago.

Today, after several weeks of thinking, of preparing for this conference, of doing some readings, but mostly after being bombarded every day with images of the atrocities being perpetrated in the name of social political objectives, particularly in former Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, I don't know if that I can set anyone straight.

Maybe the organizers are right. Maybe the link that they seem to be drawing between nationalism and tribalism is more real than I like to think.

So, in order to make sense of all of this I have resolved to pull back, at least pull myself back, from the narrow view of my scholarly interest in nationalism, and ponder over the reasons that we think that our so called modern societies are reverting to what many feel, justified sometimes, to perceive as tribalism, to perceive as tribal ways.

More significant than the possible link that one might be bent on drawing between nationalism and tribalism, is the very malaise that the usage of the word tribalism to describe a modern condition does reflect.

I know that for many of us, at least some of us, gathered here this weekend, the roots of the apprehended disorder is not globalism, and we have had an example of this this morning.

I think Mr. Coxe has made that very clear. How can it be we say, what could be possibly wrong with globalism, with a socio- economic process that is aimed at uniting the whole of human kind into one major societal ensemble. Isn't that good? That should be good; we should look at this as a good positive thing.

So, now really the problem has to be tribalism we think; we tell ourselves. I think tribalism is to a large extent is but a metaphor for us. For the revival of ethno-nationalism, for the scores of ongoing civil and international strifes everywhere, that are based on racial, ethnic, cultural hatred ad which we are totally helpless to curb at this stage.

The problem, we think then, is the growing exasperation, towards manifestations of otherness. Why are exasperated at otherness; why are there people that are exasperated at the fact that there are differences in their society and they can't accept that? And we can't accept this otherness, be it racial, cultural, gender-based, or socio-economic, because this exasperation that some people do feel, at otherness, is totally at odds with the liberal virtues of tolerance, compromise and reason, in which basically we all believe.

The reason that we are all here this weekend is precisely because we want to understand this unease that we feel at the rising and widespread tendencies of particularistic and narrowly defined agendas to take over the political process and many of our political and social institutions.

We are really at a loss to understand why so many people seem more than ever unwilling to submit to the universalizing dictates of Western culture and liberal reason. We are really dumbfounded by the energy with which these people are striving to achieve socio-political goals that are really based on limited identities and that really contradict the globalizing, and we like to think, the humanizing drive of the civilizing process.

Clearly, we are here this weekend because we fear the consequences of what seems to be the degradation and declining legitimacy of the social, political and economic institutions to which we are accustomed. But, I ask you, what is so great with Western Culture?

True, objectively speaking, when we speak of Western culture, when we think of Western culture, we have to admit that there is much to celebrate about the achievement of capitalism and rational logic, which are the main stay of western culture. The speed of the market economy and the triumph of reason, are largely responsible for the great material and socio-institutional progress that affords us today the luxury, the leisure of well being and of a liberal democratic way of life.

The down side of this though, is that market-based social relations are also responsible for the actual exclusion of ever growing segments of populations everywhere. Exclusion from the social, economic, and cultural mainstream of society. And that is true in most societies; certainly it is true in Western societies.

Anyone familiar with the plight of Third World nations and the history of colonialism and imperialism is aware of the nefarious affects of capitalism on non-Western societies and cultures.

We don't have to go very far to get a sense of this.

In Canada, our own treatment of aboriginal nations, stands as a testimony of the scaring effects of capitalism and Western rationality. We have taken away and plundered their land, leaving them economically resourceless. We have obliterated their cultures, leaving them voiceless and driving them into political insignificance.

Today, as they are painfully trying to rise from the ashes that we have made, we shrug our shoulders in puzzlement. I did not do this. I am not responsible if the Indians are poor and landless today. I have my own problems anyway. And we turn our heels hoping the issue will go away.

Well, it is not going away, and it is not going to, chances are.

As the socio-economic effects of exclusion become increasingly difficult to bear – as the resulting feelings of frustration are exacerbated – the excluded will continue to react, sometimes even violently. And we have seen examples of that even here by forcing the system to open up – our political system, our institutional system – to open up and really include them. They will also question and even attack and destroy, or attempt to destroy, I don't think it has really happened here, but certainly they are questioning the political and cultural foundation of our political system of the Western way of life. For far too many of them, Western culture is the very source of their misery.

So what we see as tribalism today, or what we tend to pinpoint as tribal ways, is nothing but the desperate cry of those who have always been denied a chance at making it and who, in their present circumstances, have very few prospects of ever getting a chance.

Of course the expression of growth tribalism take extreme horrific and mind-boggling forms that no well wishing liberal mind can ever codone.

Ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia and machete massacres in Rhwanda are totally deplorable to say the least. We may take comfort dismissing them as the action of poor uneducated, uncivilized or primitive souls, but this is really small comfort. It does little to alleviate the sheer horror of it.

But, it does turn away our mind from our own manifestation of tribalism in our society. They may not be as physically lethal as a machete strike or a snipers rifle, but socially they are still as harmful. We do engage in processes of exclusions by building institutional systems to make walls, by retreating into small-clustered social worlds.

Our fear of otherness and our desire to be shielded from it, all to often justify actions which are out of character with the tenants of liberal society. Racism, socio-economic discrimination, political intolerance, sexual and physical abuse, are all manifestations sometimes built in the very fabric of our society, built in our institutions. There are manifestations of that tribalism that paradoxically so offends us. Why, then, are we building those walls, you might ask?

You can tell me there is nothing new to that, there is nothing new to that phenomenon. Men have been building walls, social and otherwise, for a long time. But, if we look at the history of humanity we will notice that the walls that have been erected have always been higher, and people more adamant in defending those walls, in times of social and economic restructuring. In times when it seemed, one could no longer take for granted the foundations of cultural and social existence that one was accustomed to.

I believe that we are now experiencing such a time.

Our business and political leaders extol the virtues of globalization; they revel in the great competitive challenges that lie ahead, in the extended market and the promising prospects of economic growth that supposedly globalization seems to entail.

They are rather silent, however, on the actual repercussions of globalization, plant closures and higher unemployment on account of economic rationalization. Displacement of human resources, dislocation of communities, annihilation of peripheral cultures have become all to familiar stories for an ever growing number of people everywhere.

And the West globalization is bringing about the final breakdown of the post- war social contract. We have now come to take as normal rates of unemployment in excess of 10%

and we extort the political leaders to stop fending for those that fall by the wayside, it is their problem, they are responsible for it. Outside the advanced capitalist world, globalization is bring marginal economies to irreversible bankruptcy and is reinforcing the process of de-culturalization undertaken under colonialism.

But regardless of the format it takes, the result is the same every where. The steam rolling and homogenizing market forces expanding the process of globalization have triggered a deep-rooted crisis of identity.

The imperatives of the economic restructuring and the often forced adaptation of national economies to the dictates of international markets, are rendering obsolete and irrelevant familiar parameters of social and cultural identities.

As the socio-cultural universe in which people's personal existence is anchored starts to crumble; distrust, suspicion of otherness naturally takes centre stage. In other words, alterity becomes a threat; a menace. People tend to retreat into the world they know; into the world they like, and they try to maintain or recreate this particular world in as pure a form as possible.

That is the pattern followed by ethno-nationalist movements; it is the pattern also followed by religious fundamentalist groups. And it is also a pattern that is found among most groups, or social classes, who stand to lose power, are likely to lose power from a change in their circumstance, or who are likely to lose social and political prominence, or simply lose a way of life to which they want to cling.

So, this recreation of crumbling worlds leads to the tragic search for scapegoats. And those scapegoats are generally religious, ethnic, racial, cultural; that is, they are cultural groups other than our own. They are also the poor, the destitute, women, and all those who are forced to exist at the margins of society. The ugly manifestations of tribalism reflect this tragic search.

What are the prospects, then?

Can we curb tribalism or what we see as tribal ways? Can we realistically hope for the advent of a world where differences will not matter?

To this question I am afraid that I have to answer, no.

For two reasons, actually.

The first one has to do with the nature of our economic system. So long as market capitalism remains the dominant mode of socio-economic organization of our societies, so long as the profit motive and the cash nexus remain the driving forces behind our social interactions, I have little hope. For differences are largely about economics, I think. The politics of recognition on the band wagon of which so many groups want to embark now, is not simply about social recognition and personal dignity, it is also about economic power, it is about economic empowerment, it is also tied to economic power.

Without economic power, without the resources to achieve economic power, there is no recognition and there is no inclusion. The marginal and the excluded and the culturally irrelevant of this world, are there to confirm this all to sad reality.

The second reason why I think I have to answer no that question, is because the liberal democratic paradigm that supports and lends credence to market capitalism is contradictory in its very essence.

On the one hand it calls for the protection and the promotion of individual rights. It calls for the recognitions of singular identities and we like that, it is good, in fact that is why we like the liberal democratic paradigms, that is why we all claim that we are liberals to a certain extend, at least most of us do. We believe in the sanctity and the superiority and the protection of the right. And we believe in the sanctity and the superiority of the liberal ideal to a certain extent.

But on the other hand, this liberal democratic paradigm has materialized itself in an administrative system, an institutional structure that we call the liberal state which seeks formal equality of treatment and fits everyone into an undifferentiated mould. Everyone is the same; everyone is equal, which I suppose is good on the face of it, but people who have lived or experienced systemic inequalities for a long time – when they seem to be treated on the same foot as everyone else – that may not wash too well with them.

And I think the the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the new liberal maniturist bent of our recent governments in this country are perfect illustrations of this paradox. The liberal state ultimately stifles any expression of different individuality that does not correspond exactly to the mould. Because of its inherently ambiguous message, the liberal state exacerbates the alienation of heterogeneous identities and pushes them to retreat into themselves, hence what we call tribalism.

I think the liberal democratic paradigm is largely responsible for the crisis of identity manifest in the emergence of tribalism. I will give you an example.

To me the liberal paradigm, the liberal democratic paradigm, is basically like an invitation to a big banquet or a big party. Everyone is invited, come as you are no problem; everyone can come, there is no particular attire to have, just come as you are, we will all have a good party. But somehow in the end, only those who are wearing a tuxedo make it to the table.

This is exactly what is happening in this country I think. We are telling aboriginal nations for example, yes you are different, we will even make sure that you can live you difference. We will entrench your difference in the Constitution; no problem, we like that, we like you, we respect your difference. We want you to live and we want you to express this difference.

What, you want land? You want self government? you want self determination? No, you can't have that, I am sorry. Because, if we give you that it will jeopardize the integrity of the Canadian state, not to mention the economic interests of those who benefit from what used to be your land.

Guided by our well wishing liberalism, we build up the expectations of groups and individuals living outside the mainstream of society. We bring them to think that they can also sit at the table. But they never do really do they.

And after that we are completely befuddled, because they make a scene, because we will not fulfil the promises that we have made.

We have yet to understand that if one tells someone you are different; if you tell that someone, you are different, you have to expect that they will want resources, they will want institutions, they will want the means to live fully this identity to express this identities with all that they need to express it, according to their own criteria, according to their own vision of world; to their own cultural vision of the world as well.

If we are not prepared to grant them that, we better brace ourselves for some rough times. The promise of recognition cannot be an empty promise.

Our problem with tribalism essentially stems from the fact that as good liberals we are used to thinking in terms of universal categories. In terms of uniform, absolute, homogeneous and we like to think in terms of superior and value neutral objectives:.the state, democracy, equality, economic rationality, administrative efficiency.

We also used to conceive of our political community in terms of centralized, hierarchical and unitary exercise of power. And most of all we cannot understand why anyone in their right mind would not think like that, would not think like us.

French anthropologist Pierre Clastres, wrote in a seminal book, about 15 years, a book titled, Society Against the State. He wrote the following about the power of the Indian Chief:

"The Chief has no authority at his disposal, no power of coercion, no means of giving an order. The Chief is not a commander. The people of the tribe are under no obligation to obey. The oldest chronicles leave no room for doubt on this score. If there is something completely alien to an Indian, it is the idea of giving an order or having to obey except under very special circumstances, such as prevailed under a martial expedition".

Clasp is not alone among anthropologist who have noticed this phenomenon of chiefs without power. Most of them conclude that this indicates the inferiority of primitive governance. Rather than celebrating communities capable of living happily for millennia, without using coercive power would denigrate these governments, calling them embryonic, calling them poorly developed, and we decried that most Indians did not advance sufficiently to develop states.

I don't want to glorify or romantize primitive culture, and I don't to imply either that we should all go back to the state of nature. But, I submit to you that there might be much more than we think in primitive cultures that could help us solve our current predicament.

Tribalism per se is not the problem, or what we think is tribalism. The problem is our deeply-entrenched inability to be fully and genuinely attentive to expressions of individuality that may clash with our own.

To get over this inability would need a new economic ethic and a new ethic of social relations.

Unfortunately I do not see the signs of this new ethic anywhere. This new economic ethic would have to start with putting an end to, for example, our obsession with growth, economic growth and profitability. This new ethic of social relations that I am talking about would have to start minimally with principles of solidarity and reciprocity.

But for it to work, those must be more than catchy phases or pius intentions. Such principles must become entrenched in our everyday life. They must be guiding; the guiding and defining parameters, the guiding and defining principles of our institutions.

I found it very interesting when I was reading this, because in Gabra society a sense of obligation of fellow nomads is inscribed in the very pattern of social relations.

A Gabra is bound to give to someone who has fallen by the wayside. He is bound to give to a poor person. They say a poor man shames us all; that is a saying that they have. If someone is falling on hard times, they feel a natural duty to help that person because the presence of a poor and destitute person makes them look bad, makes all of them look bad, the whole of society look bad.

And those who do not buy into that particular way of thinking eventually end up as social or moral reprobate within their community.

I would conclude by saying that so long as we are not prepared to be truly ashamed by our patterns of socio- economic and cultural exclusion, the tribalism that we fear so much is not going to disappear. And we will have to suffer the dreadful consequences of it.