The new tribalism

Whether it’s the urban-rural divide, the generation gap, or any other cause of division, humans are diving deeper into their own universes and decoupling themselves from one another in favour of new tribal structures.

Our societies are fragmented into tribes which increasingly separate themselves from each other, each tribe residing in its own Parallelwelt. Via social media, especially Facebook, these parallel universes can easily be addressed, and mental or digital filter bubbles preserve the integrity of their respective world views.

The tribe is a powerful entity. An analogue tribe manifests itself in the digital world, and vice versa. But, as Michael Marinaccio put it in November 2016, under the fresh impression of the Trump election: “What happens as our offline lives (led by institutions) take a backseat to online lives (fueled by tribalism)?” And he continues as follows:

What if every single person in the world used one social media platform that allowed them to instantaneously communicate text, photo and video for free all the time; and they used that platform for nearly every thought that popped into their heads. What would be the effect on politics and institutions? The answer is straight-forward to me: offline life and interactions with institutions would largely cease to exist. Instead, fickle tribalism would randomly and wildly fluctuate major policy interests like a broken polygraph needle. The whims of the masses would destroy politics because politicians would no longer be able to keep up in any meaningful way. Lawmakers, reacting to culture, would have to accommodate by also shooting from the tribal hip. It would be total chaos all the time. If this seems like this is already happening, that’s because it is.

Bear in mind: this was written before Trump was sworn into office. Tribalism has taken over.

Human beings always gathered in tribes

When Seth Godin wrote his influential book on tribes a decade ago, he was quite optimistic about all the good things tribes and their leaders could do for us. A mere ten years later the world has flipped to a more pessimistic view. To put things in perspective, let’s keep some of these aspects in mind.

First, human beings always gathered in tribes. In a way, tribes have been living in their own Parallelwelten since time immemorial. Second, the compulsion to create one single, commonly shared world, and corresponding world view, is a quite recent phenomenon. It can be seen as a by-product of 20th-century mass production and mass communication, 21th-century globalisation, and the collapse of the bipolar post-war order after 1989.

Francis Fukuyama captured this moment in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), in which he argued that Western liberal democracy would be the endpoint of history. More than 25 years later, we still haven’t reached this point. Globalisation and digitisation led Thomas L. Friedman to his bestseller The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005). But viewed from a different angle, the world doesn’t look flat at all, but spiky.

Tribalism has taken its toll

This leaves us with the question whether the long-term trend is geared towards globalisation, i.e. one world, or towards tribalisation, i.e. Parallelwelten. And indeed there is data that points to a flattening of globalisation, while tribalisation is on the rise. Shortly after Friedman launched his opus, the globalisation trend started to slow down. Since 2015, it has been flat.

Tribalism has taken its toll.

Like every -ism, tribalism overamplifies something that is not inherently bad. The tribe as organisational principle is powerful and probably part of the human condition. By contrast, tribalism introduces black-and-white, good-vs-evil, exclusive and authoritarian thinking and behaviour into the equation. So why do people resort to tribalism?

Because they have lost confidence in governments, security services, the free market and the banking system, Koert Debeuf argues. These institutions, pillars of globalisation, left too many people behind. When those people are traumatised, the (long-term) line of globalisation breaks down. According to Debeuf, whose reasoning is pretty much in line with Samuel P. Huntington’s work on the clash of civilisations, this breakdown eventually may lead to war.

The world is not flat

Parallelwelten at war – this looks like the main conflict of the 21st century. The world is not flat. At least not yet, as even Thomas L. Friedman himself concedes.

The Parallelwelten of our VUCA world, which is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, are highly (and sometimes strangely) interconnected. Thus, the despair of a Tunisian fruit seller can lead to groundbreaking events like Brexit. Maybe, globalisation and tribalisation aren’t opposites, but rather the two sides of the same coin.

This is an excerpt from a recent essay on Parallelwelten, the main theme of NEXT19. Photo by Lena Bell on Unsplash