How and Why Tribes Are Taking Over

The world is going to hell, and it turns out Jean-Paul Sartre almost got it right. Sartre’s wartime play, “No Exit,” starts like a lame joke: a pacifist, a lesbian and a murderer die and go to hell. But the cruel joke is on them. There are no corporeal flames, only a conscious inferno: the intolerable and inescapable presence of others in life — and death. The pacifist realizes first: “So this is hell… I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the ‘burning marl.’ Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is — other people!”

Sartre, an ardent atheist, believed there was “no exit” from this hell here on earth. More than 70 years later, a plurality of voting Britons and Americans begged to differ. Brexit and the election of Trump have all the markers of our age: social media spats, clashes of civilizations and generations, urban cosmopolitans voting against rural nationalists. But underneath the apparent divisions, a deeper divergence lurks, a mismatch between philosophies of life — actual existential anxieties. When existentialism goes political, hell is not merely other people; hell is also other peoples. Populist leaders — like Recep Erdoğan, Nigel Farage, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump – get it. We cannot stop these pied pipers without first listening to their tune, and grasping its appeal.

On Love and Belonging

In 1941, German-born Jewish thinker Hannah Arendt fled to New York from Vichy, France.. Twenty years later she arrived in Jerusalem to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann. In her book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” she depicts the Nazi officer as a thoughtless groupie, a man who sought refuge from critical thinking by joining social groups whose clichés he mindlessly practiced. The Nazi party just happened to be the deadliest one.

A more accurate subtitle to Arendt’s treatise, and to her lifework, might have been “the evil of banality” (that is, of thoughtlessness), but she preferred the reverse, which was enough for many to level against her the accusation of blaming the Jewish victims. One such accuser was her friend Gershom Scholem, a scholar of Jewish mysticism. In his letter to Arendt, Scholem deplored her “heartless” tone and denounced her for lacking “Ahabath Israel: ‘Love of the Jewish people.’” Arendt replied: “You are quite right… I have never in my life ‘loved’ any people or collective… I indeed love ‘ ‘only’ my friends and the only kind of love I know of and believe in is the love of persons.” Scholem subsequently severed his relations with Arendt.

Arendt’s answer is a staple of late liberal thought. We should love people and loathe peoples. Collectives beget hate, not love, and love, we know, is what it’s all about. And so, as Aretha Franklin once said : “It’s not cool to be Negro or Jewish or Italian or anything else. It’s just cool to be alive, to be around. You don’t have to be black to have soul,” and Franklin knew a thing or two about soul. Still, though universal coolness might work poetically, can we have politics (or even just political philosophy) without particular identities?

Thus begins the liberal journey to square the circle. After using God as scaffolding to construct equal human rights, liberalism turned to imagine politicized people without “a people” and yet with groups in between. It’s almost as dim as it sounds. Just think of Hillary Clinton’s duo of slogans during the 2016 presidential campaign: the official “stronger together” and the popular “love trumps hate.” Who exactly will be “stronger” by being “together” remains opaque, lest it resonate explicitly with “America,” on whose behalf a claim for greatness seems like a fascist call for “hate” against all others — those who “love” people rather than peoples. Ultimately, for liberalism, it is in rational individuals, not the mindless collectives, that we should anchor our search for a healthy, wealthy, happy life.

We can trace this sentiment back to the father of Liberalism, the British philosopher John Locke, who wanted to foster “a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness.” To do so, he urged, our social contract must uphold the individual’s natural rights to “preserve his property, that is, his life, liberty and estate.” Centuries later, British Jewish philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin called this Lockean creed “negative liberty.” It answers the all-important question “Over what area am I master?” with “Over as much area as possible.” Berlin praised this “negative liberty” — individuals’ freedom from society and government obstacles — as the pinnacle of liberalism. Politics should let us get on with individually accumulating fortune, expressing ourselves and becoming happy.

But the Lockean social contract has cracked. Yes, we want to accumulate; but, more important, we also want to belong. American psychologist Abraham Maslow instilled “belonging” at the heart of his famous “hierarchy of human needs.” Belonging is there, in the middle of the five rungs, alongside love — both pursued after survival and safety are achieved, and before ascending higher to seek esteem and self-realization. But even Maslow may have underestimated the power of belonging, which is in fact vital for the fulfillment of all other “human needs”: Throughout our evolution, belonging has helped us survive, feel safe, find love, gain esteem and, finally, search for expression and meaning. Indeed, even Aretha Franklin quickly qualified her universal coolness paradigm: “soul music is music coming out of the Black spirit… A lot of it is based on suffering and sorrow and I don’t know anyone in this country who has had more of those two devils than the Negro.”

Maslow’s hierarchy, even if it slightly downplays belonging, may still reveal much about the evolutionary potency of different types of belonging. When it comes to the fundamental drives for survival and safety, acting fast and effectively in the face of fear is paramount. Fight or flight alone is way too risky. You need people you can instinctively trust: a reflexive, not just reflective, community — a people you can count on, and that can count on you, in times of dire straits. A “tribe.” In “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” Sebastian Junger captures how important and gratifying this sense is for soldiers, and how returning home to “individualized lifestyles” is “deeply brutalizing to the human spirit.”

Whether ethnic, national or religious, the tribe runs deep precisely because it meets human needs. Beyond a healthy, happy life, the tribe has also helped us cope with the alienation that’s come with modernity. Few understood this appeal better than the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” begins “The Social Contract.” Civilization spells ownership and inequality, Rousseau argued, destroying our authenticity and the instinctive “self-love” we enjoyed in the blissful state of nature. It is by realigning individual freedom with the will of “the people” — when we do what our tribe wants — that we may hope to regain some of that long-lost authenticity and self-love.

Ultimately, Rousseau might have told Arendt, it is not love for others we find in the bosom of the tribe, but love for oneself. The political implications are immense: We ought to bring the tribe — “we, the people” — back into modern politics, Rousseau declared, but this time, as the master in control of its own affairs.

The idea was explosive, and has exploded numerous regimes. Rousseau showed that politics are not just about adjudicating what we control (Berlin’s “negative liberty;” they are also about determining who is in control (“positive liberty”). Modernity suggests that the political master is neither God nor nature, but humans, often not merely as a collection of, but a collective of, individuals — the coming together of people into a people, the crafting of a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Modern politics thus discovered an eternal yearning — people want peoplehood — and tried to oblige.

Berlin, wary of the implications, warned of the dangers of Rousseau’s path. Like Sartre, Berlin too took his cue from World War II, observing how readily the “general will” turns totalitarian and xenophobic; how “we the people” implies “us and them,” foreshadowing a clash between “us vs. them.” When fears mount, many people turn to “the tribe”; and when the tribe is in the ascendant, other tribes are seen as threats. Violence follows.

The liberal conclusion has since crystalized: Tame the tribe! Turn those perilous peoples into civic, multicultural, cosmopolitan societies, rationally administrated by the state. Globalization, with the European Union as its beloved offspring, should have fostered that vision.

But it is not turning out that way. Liberalism’s advantage — the primacy of the individual — is also its Achilles’ heel: It captures a yearning for independence, but fails to grasp the equally powerful drive to belong. Consequently, in recent years, neoliberalism’s inadvertent repression of that yearning has spurred Rousseau’s revenge: the return of the tribe. And now the tribe is intent on taking over the state that sought to tame it.

Fear, Freedom and Bad Faith

We now hear fear, the voices of people favoring exit over coexistence. “It is worth reminding ourselves,” President Obama said recently, “of how lucky we are to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history.” Statistically lucky, perhaps, but in the minds of many, these “best of times” are the worst. It is thus not the revival of fears but the dying of hopes that should concern us most. Hell appears near when the heavens disappear.

Modern fears reveal what they seek to conceal: existential anxiety. When we stand at the edge of a cliff we are afraid that we might fall, but we become anxious once we realize we may also jump. The fear that our “fortunate” life is at risk veils anxiety about its meaning. We proceed to worry about health, love and making a living — lest we contemplate a more daunting matter: that a healthy, happy life is no guarantee of a meaningful existence. We scare ourselves to death when living loses meaning.

So it is in politics: The more we doubt whether and what “we, the people” truly stand for, the more we turn to fear other peoples. Ultimately, by immersing ourselves in fears we turn to survival instincts we share with all animals — running away from what makes us human: our freedom, the capacity to choose and to justify our choices.

There are but two truly serious choices: to continue your own life or to end it, and to have children or not. “Why breathe?” and “Why breed?” ask us to justify the decision to continue living, once we become aware of the possibility of suicide, and to justify the decision to make new lives, once we recognize we don’t have to. Many shirk this daunting challenge. We substitute “bad faith” for freedom; we opt for the comfort of conforming to “no choice” beliefs: That’s just who we are, what they are and how it’s all going to play out. We reassure ourselves by confidently answering: “Of course we must breathe, surely we must breed. There is no, and there ought to be no, choice in the matter.”

Individualists breed to breathe; they bring children into this world to make their own world meaningful, their private life justifiable. Collectivists breathe to breed; they stay alive in order to make children so that their tribe abides, and thrives. Numbers matter. For individualists considering having children, one or none may suffice. Not so for collectivists; the more the merrier. Demographically, breathing to breed leads to success. The tribe wins again.

Throughout modernity some cultures have certainly favored one stance over the other. Most cultures, however, harbor individualism and collectivism — in both life and death. In the wake of the Holocaust, for example, many Jews turned to parenthood as a source of individual comfort and purpose, vowing, through their survival, to win a posthumous victory over Hitler.

Indeed, the Jewish people are a pristine case of tribalism and its troubles. Anatevka’s fiddler on the roof survived many perils by the sheer power of tradition — the guiding principle of the tribe. Even as modernity is threatening Anatevka, Tevye explains that the strength of the town is tradition, since “every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.” Modernity and the murder of God challenged that rooftop balancing act. Could the tribe survive without God, without a sense of chosenness?

Some said no, and either they turned to celebrate the tribe’s demise or they rushed to resuscitate God. Others sought refuge in the nation-state, or else tried to reconfigure the tribe to become the bearer of a universal creed. Each path is a mode of Jewish bad faith, suggesting an essentialist, deterministi, fate to the people. Consequently, the clash between these camps was never easy, and it may become nastier yet. To suggest that “J Street supporters… are far worse than kapos,” as did David Friedman, Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel, is a case in point.

A far friendlier reprimand than Friedman’s comes from Ze’ev Maghen in “John Lennon and the Jews.” Maghen follows in the footsteps of Scholem to reproach Progressive and New Age Judaism for failing to appreciate that the Jews worldwide are, and should always be, a tribe. These naive individualists-universalists seek a world that resembles the lyrics of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” a “beautiful ballad [ that] is in reality a death-march, a requiem mass for the human race.” This is because love is what makes us human, and “no one gets turned on by ‘universal’ love… ‘universal love’ isn’t love at all, because love means preference.”

Perhaps so. I wonder, however, if by being turned on by the preferential love of God we become all too willing to spill blood. After all, it’s in His name. Perhaps religious Zionists could instead consider demonstrating their preferential love for the undivided holy land by following the true mother in the Judgment of Solomon, and be willing to give it all up to someone else rather than chopping the baby in half. Not expecting this, we might still wonder why love itself — whether for people or for peoples — has become, for so many, the hallmark of humanity, and whether love might not be, alongside other, perhaps more distinctively human traits, a means to yet better ends for our species.

No Exit – From Collectives and Coexistence

Recently, in a desperate bid to boost Denmark’s falling birth rate and sustain its generous welfare state, a TV campaign encouraged Danes to have more sex — and make children. “Do it for Mom!” it pleaded repeatedly, then briskly added, “Do it for Denmark!” Either way, this individualist-turn-collectivist call worked quite well. A Danish baby boom is now making new, happy grandmas, as Denmark toughens its already strict immigration laws. If humanity is destined for a clash of civilizations, the delivery room may be a more desirable location than the battlefield. But the strategy of turning wombs into weapons may easily go astray, as the chronicles of numerous ethnic conflicts attest. And it hardly bodes well for the West, and for liberalism.

For many, multiculturalism opened the gates of hell for other peoples to enter. Perhaps so. By embracing negative liberty’s philosophy of “live and let live,” multiculturalism offers no raison d’être (to live for what?). By espousing political correctness, multiculturalism may have tamed power, but it also tarnished passions and persuasions. By professing a higher moral ground, multiculturalism remains ethically confused and confusing. After all, the most ardent multiculturalist would typically favor his own mother or daughter over someone else’s. Why, then, not extend your love for kith and kin to tribe? The seemingly sinister calling of blood, of belonging to what we didn’t choose, also applies to our parents and children. Is family, too, bad faith?

Ultimately, for all its flaws, multiculturalism has no claws. At its heart, sans the presumptuous “ism,” a multicultural perspective is simply a depiction of humanity since time immemorial. Monocultural society is a dangerous delusion. We live with others, whether with other people, other families, other neighborhoods, other religions. There is no exit from coexistence, save death. If we choose life, it’s coexistence, not merely individual existence, we must accept, and try to justify.

The triumph of Brexit and Trump is the lazy eye of a perfect storm. In the name of simplistic (not necessarily achievable) aims, tribal politics joins the hellish idea of “others” with fear that “we” are suffering. People vote with existential angst against the democratic futures of the United Kingdom, the United States, the E.U. and, indeed, the whole project of modernism.

Antony Miall once noted that as far as “the English are concerned, all of life’s greatest problems can be summed up in one word — foreigners.” Their American descendants, too, may live up to the description. Facing foreigners, both Britons and Americans, like the protagonist in the Eagles’ song “Hotel California,” may have been thinking to themselves, “This could be heaven or this could be hell.” As they rush toward the exit, however, they may soon discover that “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!” Hell is other people, but there’s “no exit.”

Still, can we, ought we, choose to stay, willingly embrace coexistence with others? Perhaps it is too much to ask. After all, the tribe got us this far. It is precisely because we feel we belong to our people and fear others that we have managed to deflect and defeat dangers. It is only when we pause to think about the purpose of living, not merely of protecting and propagating life, that coexistence starts to make sense.

But meaningful coexistence is not about toleration or about turning the other cheek; it is about looking deep into each other’s eyes, seeking interpersonal intimacy and intercommunal solidarity. Only by knowing the other can we transcend, if momentarily, the transient individuals that we are, and start living up to our humanity — making humanity our tribe.

Uriel Abulof is a senior lecturer (U.S. associate professor) of politics at Tel Aviv University, and an associate of the Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination at Princeton University. He is the author of [“The Mortality and Morality of Nations” (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and the recent “Living on the Edge: The Existential Uncertainty of Zionism” (Haifa University Press), which won the Bahat Prize for best academic book award. Abulof is the recipient of the 2016 Young Scholar Award from the Association for Israel Studies and the Israel Institute. Contact him at uabulof@princeton.edu

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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