Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Blog

An Existentialist Perspective on Tribal Politics

Brendan Canavan


- [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang Bestanddeelnummer 917-9600

| 6 mins read

In international politics we are seeing a wave of tribalism. From an existentialist perspective, this reductive movement offers simplistic solutions, derogations of responsibility, and assertions of ego. Together these offer comforting but false distractions dangerous to the individual and to society. In order to move forward we need to take responsibility for how and who we represent ourselves, not hide ourselves amongst similar others.

Tribalism, referring to quasi-archaic values such as a local sense of identification, religiosity and group narcissism, is assertive in various forms worldwide. Strongmen have long used tribalism to propagate their rule. In contemporary international politics, our latest crop of autocratic figureheads are no different.

There are new plays on old themes, such as spirituality, or micro-nationalism. I’ve researched backpackers committing to photogenic self-discovery, where Buddhist stupas and beachside mojitos are equally important. Out shopping around my home region I see collections for ‘Yorkshire Cancer Research’, the county’s dedicated cancer charity; one of a swathe of nonsensically localised brands launched in the last few years to capitalise on the trend of reasserted identity.

Political authenticity in the age of tribalism

Tapping into this tendency, the authentic political leader is having a moment. Trump is the most visible example. But Duterte in the Philipines or Modi in India are equally outspoken heads of state who, though divisive, appeal to enough of their respective electorates to win elections. Their frequently aggressive and often vulgar political rhetoric is seen by many as refreshingly to the point. They espouse the emotional venting of populism, not the patient dialogue of pluralism. Meanwhile, the Momentum movement in the UK can also be seen as a tribe, albeit from a leftist perspective.

All of these tribal movements have in common a heightened sense of identity based on being either ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ the group. By committing to a particular way of being in and seeing the world, this identity becomes inflexible. Presumably the cancer sufferers (never mind economies of scale) outside of Yorkshire are less important. Political authenticity in the contemporary sense seems to boil down to the ability to identify the outsider and to be united by a perceived sameness.

However, the answers tribalism offers are false. Russia is sclerotic because of rampant internal corruption not external conspiracy. It was the bureaucracy of the UK which was complicit in the Grenfell fire and Windrush immigration disasters, not that of Brussels. But such answers, to varying degrees of absurdity, are influential. Tribes have existed as long as humans have, but how to explain their re-assertiveness?

A comforting denial

Existentialism posits that what makes humans unique is their awareness of their mortality. Unlike other species, we know we are going to die. We live a life that is random, alienated, meaningless, and finite, and deep down we know this. This is a huge burden to bear, and in order to cope we immerse ourselves in distracting routines, myths, and socialising. Religions espouse an afterlife for example, directly assuaging, or attempting to, our knowledge of certain death.

Tribalism offers comforting denial. If you belong to a group you displace your mortality, for the tribe will live on after you have snuffed it. Scottish Nationalists and Catalans wrap themselves in the differences between themselves and their neighbours in order that, besides paying less tax, they are distinctive and special. Followers are part of a movement that has, so it claims, significance, direction, and longevity.

Being member of a group also massages one’s ego. In his famous essay ‘The Anti-Semite and the Jew’ Sartre outlines racism as a strategy individuals adopt to deny their own mediocrity. By identifying Jews as not belonging, the anti-Semite takes ownership of what is being denied to the other.

Lastly, in a group you derogate responsibility. Decisions are made collectively so the individual becomes subsumed into the crowd. I only have but a tiny piece of responsibility for any implications of decisions the group makes. If Britain leaving the EU turns out to be a disaster, I am merely amongst millions of others to take blame.

Beyond tribalism

Though such avoidance strategies might help us to temporarily forget our existential angst, they are ultimately unfulfilling. When we give up our burden of responsibility to others, we give up also our freedom. Instead, existentialism urges the individual to show bravery in facing up to difficult choices and take responsibility for own actions. It is only by doing this that each of us can pursue our own independent destiny and live authentically. We are not determined by our being, but by our actions. We have to accept our beginning and choose our end.

In stripping away treasured sources of identity, existentialism can seem nihilistic and offensive. But it is potentially a very egalitarian philosophy. Sartre believed that each of us is the lone author of our decisions. We are nothing else but that which we make of ourselves; the totality of our actions and nothing more.

All this is not to say that tribes are not important, and that suggest that the religious should be abandoning their faith or left wingers abandoning their political identity in order to embrace existentialism. However, it is to say that tribes are limited. Our political actions need to be owned. Be honest about political decisions. Take ownership of them. To rely on the tribe, and the spokespeople therein, to think and act for us, means giving up ourselves, our independence, and our humanity.