Tribalism, Reason, and the Challenges Raised by Global Neoliberal Capitalism

Notes on "Notes on Nationalism"

This is not an ordinary review or even rehash of George Orwell’s 1945 essay, “Notes on Nationalism.” Rather, it is a reflection on and attempt to expand and re-contextualize the ideas expressed there with comments directly relevant to 2018. Orwell’s main points—the varied and ubiquitous nature of irrational groupisms (which he calls “nationalism”) and how they distorted judgment in the context of 1945—serve less as a direct focus than as a springboard to related considerations.

First, I do not use “nationalism” in the broad sense Orwell does. In its place I use the less-specific “tribalism”. Merriam-Webster defines this as “strong in-group loyalty”; its negative characteristic, extreme Othering, or strong out-group aversion, deserves emphasis. Of course, disparaging “nationalism,” or using it to stand in for other contemptible groupisms (as Orwell did) in 1945, can hardly be second-guessed.

Nationalism had to that point certainly demonstrated its capacity as a powerful and destructive form of tribalism—often with an attendant strong out-group aversion. It deserved, and deserves, condemnation for its irrationality and monumental crimes. However, it also deserves criticism for its modernist derivation—or, for what it says about modernism, for the lows to which modernism could be taken in the formation of irrationalist elitist-serving, and, in crucial ways, anti-modern political innovations. (This is one sense in which some postmodernists are right: the successes of irrationalism in the modern era, not its overcoming, is a core problem of the current world, despite the often interested, black-and-white simplifications to the contrary by really existing modernists.)

I will address one “nationalism” (or tribalism) discussed by Orwell, “color feeling,” (without prejudice regarding the other forms he mentioned, which other writers might find entirely worthy of comment) because it relates directly to contemporary political tribalisms collectively known as identity politics, which is problematic and contributes to the politics of the moment across the West. Other than that, I will follow the Orwell’s main idea in my own direction. A consideration of Otto Neurath’s (and Ben Franklin’s) take on rationality (always pertinent to tribalism and Othering) follows the comments on “color feeling.” Then, I take up a related look at the origins of black-and-white thinking. And finally, I will turn to the recent revival of nationalism (of a sort Orwell might have given some positive account); how it relates to what are called globalization and neoliberalism; and the seemingly odd alliance of Democrats and neoconservatives against a version of such nationalism in the US.

Mr. Orwell—writing principally, of course, about the English—calls “color feeling” an altered form of “the old-style contemptuous attitude towards ‘natives’,” putting “a belief in the innate superiority of the colored races” in place of a similar, older belief about one’s own group. Orwell said this attitude of “transferred nationalism” (in this case, reversed but fundamentally unchanged tribalism) “probably resulted more from masochism and sexual frustration than from contact with” what Orwell refers to archaically as “Oriental and Negro nationalist movements”—a reasonable judgment about the sometimes romantic portrayals of Third World national liberation movements during the Cold War.

In Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks, the Antillean revolutionary echoes Orwell, expressing nothing short of contempt for the line of reasoning Orwell called ‘color feeling’. Rather than tribalism and ‘color feeling’, Fanon said the purpose of the politics he envisioned entailed “nothing less than to liberate the black man from himself.”1 He derided then-novel forms of tribalism taken up by others, purportedly with the needs of Third Worlders foremost in their minds. Using as an example “former governors or missionaries,” Fanon said “an individual who loves Blacks is as ‘sick’ as someone who abhors them.” His focus was on liberation, not veneration. Toward the end of the book, Fanon took another shot at the sort of thinking that goes under the title left-wing identity politics today (leading with a passage from Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire about the uselessness of “poetry from the past”): “The discovery that a black civilization existed in the fifteenth century does not earn me a certificate of humanity.” And Fanon’s liberatory thinking extended to everyone. “There is no white world; there is no white ethic—any more than there is a white intelligence. There are from one end of the world to the other men who are searching.” He wanted, as he invited others to seek for themselves with him, to invent himself into the future, not to seek his identity in the past. He considered this very much part of both individual and collective liberation. The importance of these passages, and of Orwell’s comments, are to be found in consideration of the sort of racialized thinking, tribalist thinking, bubbling up today on both the left and right, one feeding off the other.

What Orwell derided in 1945, and Fanon in 1952, modern left-wing identity politics embraces enthusiastically. I say left-wing identity politics to distinguish it from right-wing identity politics, which are often expressed in terms of traditional forms of nationalism and racism. Left-wing identity politics are often expressed in non-traditional inverted forms of nationalism and racism, or, sometimes, what Orwell called “transferred nationalism.” I also refer to left-wing identity politics as distinct from identity analysis. Determining how different forms of identity seem to intersect, complicating the detrimental impacts of social hierarchies for some compared to others, may serve an analytical goal. Too often, in the hands of real actors, identity analysis is deployed to justify the social and ideological inversion of social hierarchies as a political goal. (Michael Rectenwald, when he was still a left Marxist, discussed this in a helpful manner.) Embracing identities, rather than seeking liberation from them, is probably just as “sick” today as Fanon considered it sixty-six years ago. Today, of course, in a world increasingly saturated with some form of identitarianism, ‘color feeling’ is fully embraced on the liberal-left as cutting-edge progressivism. Fanon’s idea of liberating “the black man from himself” comes off as entirely, if confusingly, Euro-centric, colonialist, and racist precisely because in today’s terms the two options available, the only two options, are to elevate identity, to “respect” it, or to deride it. The idea of being liberated from identity is not just taboo; it is outlandish. In fact, to challenge the notion of celebrating identities is already in the eyes of some a sign that one has moved to the right (which, in some cases, appears true). How can it not be when so countless ideas and conversations today refer at least implicitly to ideological tribes, and that to apparently leave one is, ipso facto, to join the other? This suggests a species of black-and-white thinking, a matter to which I turn more generally.

Original incentives toward tribalism were probably complex and varied. However, one clear encouragement must be black-and-white thinking (as distinct from thinking that arrives at dialectical conclusions). In a 1999 paper published by the American Psychological Association, the writers declare that Chinese ways of dealing with seeming contradictions result in a dialectical or compromise approach—retaining basic elements of opposing perspectives by seeking a ‘middle way.’ On the other hand, European-American ways, deriving from a lay version of Aristotelian logic, result in a differentiation model that polarizes contradictory perspectives in an effort to determine which fact or position is correct.2

The writers essentially claim that Westerners reason until contradictions are eliminated—observing a sort of law of noncontradiction—while the Chinese feel comfortable considering a more complex final picture. These tendencies apparently arose as cultural adaptations millennia ago. More individualistic pastoral life-ways promoted “a strong stance in communication styles, resulting in stronger polarization.” Rice cultivation, on the other hand, “may have encouraged the expression of moderate statements.”3 The inclination toward black-and-white thinking—what might be called mental tribalism—directly relates to a tendency to create polarized groups.

And how do individuals gravitate to one or the other of these camps? By reasoning, of course; and reasoning is our most advanced form of decision-making. But is the reasoning we think about really a departure from pre-modern modes of decision-making? I’d like to think so. Calling this into question implicitly, Ben Franklin joked: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”

This might be more than a joke. Writing a century later, the Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath looked critically at rationality. Neurath determined4 two basic things in this regard. One, reason is, uncontroversially, one of humanity’s decision-making means. Two, more controversially, reason compares to older forms of decision-making such as religion and magic. Neurath said human beings need to make decisions quickly, often in the moment, and so often rely on limited information, and when faced with gaps in information or reasoning, resort to traditional notions or modes of judgment. He said, echoing Franklin, that many people practice “a pseudo-rationality bent on convincing others of the justice of their choices.” Neurath claimed it was wishful thinking to believe that we could build a “rational home from scratch while inhabiting a contingent lodging.” He used other metaphors to make his case. He saw that rational-aiming men “were seamen on a ship destined to continuously renovate their leaking vessel at sea, in the middle of storms and tempests, with no hope of ever docking the truth.” In a similar vein, Neurath felt that decisions “would never cease to entail a measure of uncertainty and men would always err in the forest of Descartes, without any hope of ever exiting it.”

But how do black-and-white thinking and the primitive nature of really-existing rationality relate to nationalism (not the general sort discussed by Orwell, but the more specific sort)? I already mentioned nationalism’s modernist pedigree. Nationalism proved a useful compromise with, not a transcendence of, pre-modern forms of in-group devotion and out-group demonization. Nationalism sought a new (or, renewed, newly focused) reason to include and exclude on seemingly rational grounds as a means toward overcoming pre-modern social systems. (Or, today, to some extent towards overcoming liberalism, as a degraded or antiquated answer to liberalism’s perceived and actual failures.) Nationalism meshed with a tendency of (particularly, wealth) power in the Enlightenment to oppose it going ‘too far’. A central focus, or manifestation, of this tendency, was the preservation of the state, the Leviathan, towards wealth-defense via wealth-power’s partial and always tense retreat from direct power and behind the rule of law.5 As we have seen, nationalism meant in-group devotion on a mass scale and in a manner suitable to both modernity and the needs of powerful groups. The social contract has served, particularly after the French Revolution, as a license for elite interests with nationalism as the vehicle. But of late, that arrangement changed as some capitalist interests have begun to transcend and lose interest in both the social contract and the nation-state.

In the wake of this, others have found nationalism in the street and picked it up. And what kind of nationalism is on the rebound? Is it the kind that attracted and inspired people in the developing world a half a century or more ago? Is it the sort which provides a framework for people seeking their own way forward against elite models judged harmful? Or is it an uglier form like that which brought much of the world to ruin in Orwell’s day? The answer is probably not simple. It appears to be all of that at once. We have all seen the images of recent marches of right-wing tribalists in Europe and America. The participants often do not shrink from open and clear emulation of the exact hypernationalists Orwell’s England helped to destroy. But as George Friedman, and others, argue, much of what we have seen is not the return of fascism (though there has been some that, at least symbolically), but of a more defensive nationalism not unlike that which found favor with everyone from the liberals of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as Third Worlders eager to stake out their own path to modernization in the 20th. This sort of nationalism is more like “patriotism” of Orwell’s sort. Patriotism, he said, is a “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.” Friedman refers to this type of nationalism in his description of its recent revival:

The nation-state is reasserting itself as the primary vehicle of political life. Multinational institutions like the European Union and multilateral trade treaties are being challenged because they are seen by some as not being in the national interest.

In other words, people are reacting to the steamroller known as neoliberal capitalism and its demolition of the “Chinese walls”, in this case, European and US national borders and sovereignties, standing in its path. This virulent form of capitalism leverages state power—or, certain sectors do—to institute and guarantee its own power and expansion while at the same time discouraging populations from looking to the state to protect itself from the visibly harmful effects of that expansion and power.

In a recent interview, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik explained that globalization has torn societies apart, as evidenced, he said, by increasing inequality, as well as increased “social distance” within societies (between those few who benefit from globalization and the majority who do not), and the final severing of corporate interests from the well-being of the communities where they once resided but have long since transcended. Rodrik added that the nationalist backlash against this has been mostly of the “right-wing ethnonationalist” variety. The reason for this, he claimed, is the “left has been missing in action and that the center-left and the social democrats [the New Democrats in the US, and New Labour in the UK] have essentially been complicit in many of these changes since the 1990s.” It should be no surprise that many people would react to this in the manner most familiar to them, with Orwell’s patriotism, if of a more right-wing sort for the reason Rodrik stated.

Relatedly, Marine Le Pen’s economic program could have been written by Bernie Sander’s economic advisor, Stephanie Kelton. James Petras writes (on May Day 2017, no less!) that Le Pen supported a “Keynesian demand-driven industrial revitalization,” increased taxes “on banks and financial transactions” and fines for “capital flight”, as well as “direct state intervention to prevent factories from relocating to low wage EU economies and firing French workers”, among other policies. In other words, she intended to do for France what the New Deal did in part for the US (and what many hoped Sanders would do again): help the population and discipline capitalists—as distinct from the neoliberal model in which the population is disciplined and the capitalists are helped.  But, of course, we all know Le Pen was the grubby, far-right throwback while her finely-coiffed and ultimately successful political opponent, Emmanuel Macron, was the champion progressiste facing down dark nostalgias (represented by the likes of Le Pen) on the shining path to a splendid neoliberal future. Except, as it turns out, and as was clear at the time, Macron the non-nationalist/non-fascist is the very champagne-soaked ultra-neoliberal, austerity-enforcing, NATO and EU fanatic Petras claimed him to be. In other words, he is not precisely an alternative to fascism, but is certainly an enemy of French patriotism of the Orwell kind.

Neurath’s view of economics is relevant here. He avoided the Austrian tribe. He considered economics a ‘felicitology’—a study of relative happiness. He said man should be happy, not rational. It is not difficult to infer here that the supposed “rationality” of capitalist economic decisions is often no more than “a pseudo-rationality bent on convincing others of the justice of [a capitalist’s] choices.” Or, as lexicographer L.A. Rollins once put it, the invisible hand of the market is a “spook to which cowardly capitalists attribute responsibility for their actions.” Religion and magic, indeed.

But there is another angle regarding nationalism today over which Orwell might have bounded into the political breach. In the strange world of Trumpian America (strange both because of Trump and because of his mainstream opponents), the attendant rise of the so-called alt-right (old nationalism in a new bottle), and the threat that American empire might retreat, we find seemingly odd bedfellows aroused: Democratic Party-aligned liberals and progressives snuggling up with neoconservatives for a shared aversion to Trump. We know what bothers the Democrats; their star candidate (an adherent of the globalist neoliberal capitalism causing the widespread dislocation and alienation) lost. As for the neoconservatives, they hate Donald Trump not because he is race-baiting hero of the alt-right, but because, as James Carden put it, they are afraid “they could be frozen out of the corridors of power” for the duration of the Trump Administration.  (Of course, the appointment of John Bolton, also co-author or supporter of various neoconservative campaigns of deceit, as National Security Advisor, demonstrates the risk might be ephemeral.) Consummating this marriage, arguably, MSNBC host Joy Reid referred to neocon hawk Max Boot as one of her new besties; Ellen DeGeneres opened her couch to war criminal and dupe of neocons, George W. Bush; and the aforesaid Max Boot sent a love-letter to identitarian liberals confessing his “white privilege.”

In this Democratic-neoconservative fight against Trump, neoconservative Eliot Cohen, incidentally, and quite exasperatingly, leveraged the very Orwell essay mentioned here. In what he calls a modest plea for patriotic history, he cites Orwell’s idea of patriotism. He focuses on the idea that patriotism is “a devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” Cohen seems to like the passage for its apparent utility towards spreading dedication to American Exceptionalism. Cohen fails to note that Orwell called his sort of patriotism “defensive,” not expansive or imperialist, as it can only be in the hands of neoconservatives.

To further encourage an understanding of the disturbing nature of this coalition, a review of neoconservative behavior might help. They are quite a tribe and their resumé cannot but astonish. This group of fanatics engineered the greatest and most dangerous American propaganda operations of the late twentieth-early twenty-first centuries, which led to: the derailment of détente with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, disruption of arms control treaties and the creation of a new arms race in the 80s and 90s, and the war of aggression against Iraq in 2003.6 The neoconservatives have also called for war on behalf of Israel (against Iraq and, arguably, ongoingly against others, like Iran and Syria). They highlighted the supposed need—not too long before 9/11—for a “new Pearl Harbor” to justify ramped-up US war spending and belligerence.7

If these Team B8 narratives—all, essentially, lies—were anything, they were cases of men wielding “pseudo-rationality bent on convincing others of the justice of their choices.” Choices based on untruths and which caused incalculable harm. These are the people with whom the Democrats have found common cause—because of Trump. Of course, beyond surface politics, it is not that strange that Democrats and neoconservatives might find some points of agreement. During the Cold War Democrats, like Republicans, more than once found exaggerated stories of foreign threats useful.

In any event, the anti-Trump alliance of Democrats and neoconservatives really serves to preserve and extend an extremist version of American Exceptionalism and imperial reach in the face of just the merest threat that it might be reined in. And this belligerent and greatly expansive version of tribalism, this Democratic-Neoconservative nationalism, is not being called that. In fact, it is not being called anything at all because it is mostly unrecognized or ignored.

So, what might this hodge-podge of facts and observations tell us about the subject at hand, tribalism, or what we might do about it? First, we might ask, do we construct opposites and categories less to understand than to sort and comfort? Do we know the difference? Have we missed the discontinuities as we gawk through the lens of continuity? For instance, why do new tribes, like the megatribe of Democratic-Neoconservative (trans)nationalism, arise? Why does old-style nationalism come into focus so readily while new formations seem entirely undetectable? Does our tendency to create polarized categories of ideas and people derive from a meaningfully rational process? Or, does it relate more directly to older—what we might consider primitive and irrational—social and intellectual modes?

Evaluating our reasoning processes along the lines of Neurath, we might find their similarity to religion and magic. We might begin to recognize this shortfall and exercise the ability to continually re-orient ourselves toward more genuinely rational modes of thinking. Stepping outside our tribalisms, outside our polarized manners of thinking, we may find that we have not confronted the present, nor much of anything, in a fully clear-eyed manner. Critically evaluating our cultural tendency to observe the law of noncontradiction, allowing instead for dialectical conclusions, might help to break up the mental and social reasoning processes that lead to polarization and tribalism. Instead of alternating between different tribalisms or formulating new ones (in the mistaken belief we have escaped them), we might find a way out of them entirely and know it when we do.

Instead of vacillating between capitalism and Marxism (absolute support for private property vs. absolute opposition to it), for instance, we might find a renewed interest in such nuanced political philosophies as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s Mutualism or anarchism—both much closer than anything else to fulfilling basic Enlightenment ideals. Instead of alternating between internationalism and nationalism in the ongoing confrontation with neoliberal capitalism (and certain other forms of tribalism), perhaps we can find or devise structures suitable to popular power and liberation while retaining the ability to prevent their distortion to the benefit of elite interests.

  1. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008). []
  2. Kaiping Peng and Richard E. Nisbett, “Culture, Dialectics, and Reasoning about Contradiction,” American Psychologist, September 1999. []
  3. Michael Minkov, “Nations With More Dialectical Selves Exhibit Lower Polarization in Life Quality Judgments and Social Opinions,” Cross-Cultural Research 43, no. 3 (August 19, 2009). []
  4. Neurath mostly wrote in German. These paraphrases come from Monika Poettinger, “The Uses of Rationality: Otto Neurath,” Paper presented at the 21st Annual ESHET Conference, University of Antwerp (Antwerp Belgium), May 18-20, 2017. []
  5. See Jeffrey A. Winters, Oligarchy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012). []
  6. Gordon R. Mitchell, “Team B Intelligence Coups,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 92, no. 2, May 2006, 144-173. []
  7. Richard Perle, et al. “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” The Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies – Jerusalem, Washington, 1996 and The Project for a New American Century, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century,” The Project for a New American Century, Washington, DC, September 2000. []
  8. Team B refers to secondary intelligence analysis groups first initiated in 1975 during the Ford Administration. Effectively, such groups, controlled by neoconservatives from early on, serve to disrupt the flow of quality intelligence to policymakers (particularly the kind that lead to moderate policies) in favor of distorted, hawkish analyses. []
Ron Leighton earned a BA in history at California State University, Fullerton. Read other articles by Ron.