The Magazine

Return of the Tribes

The resistance to globalization runs deep.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By RALPH PETERS
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Globalization is real, but its power to improve the lot of humankind has been madly oversold. Globalization enthralls and binds together a new aristocracy--the golden crust on the human loaf--but the remaining billions, who lack the culture and confidence to benefit from "one world," have begun to erect barricades against the internationalization of their affairs. And, from Peshawar to Paris, those manning the barricades increasingly turn violent over perceived threats to their accustomed patterns of life. If globalization represents a liberal worldview, renewed localism is a manifestation of reactionary fears, resurgent faiths, and the iron grip of tradition. Except in the commercial sphere, bet on the localists to prevail.

When the topic of resistance to globalization arises, an educated American is apt to think of a French farmer-activist trashing a McDonald's, anarchist mummers shattering windows during World Bank powwows, or just the organic farmer with a stall at the local market. But the swelling resistance to globalization is far more powerful and considerably more complex than a few squads of drop-outs aiming rocks at the police in Seattle or Berlin. We are witnessing the return of the tribes--a global phenomenon, but the antithesis of globalization as described in pop bestsellers. The twin tribal identities, ethnic and religious brotherhood, are once again armed and dangerous.

A generation ago, it was unacceptable to use the word tribes. Yet, the tribes themselves won through, insisting on their own identity--whether Xhosa or Zulu, Tikriti or Barzani, or, writ large, French or German. In political terms, globalization peaked between the earnest efforts of the United Nations in the early 1960s and the electoral defeat of the European constitution in 2005 (the French and Dutch votes weren't a rebuff, but an assassination). In Europe, which was to have led the way in transcending nationalism, the European Union will stumble on indefinitely, even making progress in limited spheres, but its philosophical basis is gone. East European laborers and West European farmers alike will continue to exploit the E.U.'s easing of borders and transfers of wealth, but no one believes any longer in a European super-identity destined to supplant one's self-identification as a Dane or Basque.

Far from softening, national and other local identities are hardening again, reverting to ever-narrower blood-and-language relationships that Europe's dreamers assumed would fade away. Who now sees himself as fundamentally Belgian, rather than as a Fleming or Walloon? Catalans deny that they are Spaniards, and the Welsh imagine a national grandeur for themselves. In the last decade, the ineradicable local identities within the former Yugoslavia split apart in a bloodbath, while a mortified Europe looked away for as long as it could. The Yugoslav disaster was written off as an echo from the past--anyway, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars were "not our kind"--but the Balkan wars instead signaled a much broader popular discontent with pseudo-identities concocted by political elites. The collapse of Yugoslavia hinted at the future of Europe: not necessarily the bloodshed, but the tenacity of historical identity.

Even as they grabbed from one another in Brussels, European elites insisted that continental unification was desirable and inevitable. Until the people said no.

Now, in 2006, we see one European state after another enacting protectionist measures to prevent foreign ownership of vital industries (such as yogurt-making). France paused, as hundreds of thousands of its best and brightest protested the creation of new jobs for the less-privileged in a spectacular defense of the ancien régime. And a new German chancellor has called for saving the European project by destroying it--or at least by hewing down the massive bureaucracy in Brussels that alienated the continent. The future of Europe lies not in a cosmopolitan version of the empire of Charlemagne, but in a postmodern version of the feudal fragmentation that succeeded the Frankish empire. Brussels may be the new medieval Rome, its bureaucratic papacy able to pronounce in limited spheres, but there is ever less fear of excommunication.

Elsewhere, the devolution of identity from the state to the clan or cult is more radical, more anxious, and more volatile. In Iraq, religious, ethnic, and tribal identities dictate the composition of the struggling national government--as they do in Lebanon, Canada, Nigeria, and dozens of other countries (we shall not soon see a Baptist prime minister of Israel--or a Muslim Bundeskanzler, despite those who warn of Eurabia). Even in the United States, with our integrative genius, racial, religious, and ethnic identity politics continue to prosper; we are fortunate that we have no single dominant tribe (minorities might disagree).