Wed, Aug 30, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Global retreat to medieval tribalism erodes the modern state

By Hywel Williams  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Modern governments, when they try to justify their existence in historical terms, are apt to propose a rough-and-ready anthropology for human development. First came the tribe -- savage in instinct, ritualistic in religion and run on the basis of a grunting solidarity; humanity's first exercise in collectivism. The nation, which takes its place, is for more refined, literate peoples and can call upon scholars and scribes, chroniclers and preachers, who propose common goals for the nation.

Organized states, with their bureaucracies, sanitation services and taxation policies, like to think that they exist on a higher plane than either the tribe or the nation. Ethics loom large and morality's plans acquire a finer focus. Modern governments are meant to promote the fulfilment of individuals, their happiness and ease of life. Savages have become citizens and can look beyond the narrow ambitions of the tribe.

Nations continue to exist within the modern democratic state. But elections in such societies are won on the basis of economic plans which persuade individuals that their futures will be healthier and more interesting under one dispensation than another. In that calculus, being a better patriot hardly makes an appearance and often the politician draped in the flag is an object of suspicion.

A summer of battles in the Middle East is a reminder of how precarious this genealogy is and how the ancient loyalties still subsist. Hezbollah and Hamas are tribes which have flourished because of the breakdown of state authority in Lebanon and the failure of the Palestinian Authority to exercise any kind of state order. Hands outstretched in collective salute, the members of these tribes are reminiscent of western Europe's last tribal moment, the fascism of the 1930s. In both cases there is the use of religion to promote a tribal solidarity.

Israel itself is no less tribal an affair than its opponents. The secular state and socialist values have long since disappeared from its history. It was always a quixotic idea that the nationalist theory of Zionism could be successfully transplanted from the European political tradition of the 19th century to the Middle East of the 20th century. Israel has simply degenerated into its context.

Within Europe the tribe has become one of the key features of the 21st century. The continent's last great east-to-west movement of the displaced was in the wreckage of the post-1945 world. That Volkerwanderung has returned in the wreckage of the Warsaw Pact. Russia's revival as a great power has been a renaissance, first, in Slavic consciousness. The Russia built by Peter the Great looked to the western tradition of state-building, but the country now run by Russian President Vladimir Putin looks both to its Slavic roots and to its own embodiment as the home of the tribe and people of Rus.

Even the world's last superstate shows features of tribal activity at work in the age of US President George W. Bush. The US' politicized form of evangelicalism is uninterested in the ideals of common democratic purpose. Its religion is that of the tribe at work and at worship -- promoting its own solidarity. Having retreated within its own cultic view of the world, it then imposes its views on others -- as in the case of the presidential ban on stem-cell research.

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