A Brave New World of Neo-Tribes and Crumbling Civilisations

Globalisation and information technology promised a brave new world. A world where people and goods could flow freely, where ideas could propagate across borders without censorship, where democracy would be universally embraced and autocracies crumble, leading to a glorious end of history.

Then reality reared its ugly head.

Malaysian politicians and government officials are emphasising the role of Islam, and therefore the dominant Malay-Muslim group, in society. In the United States, controversial shootings are invariably framed as privileged dominant group vs minority — white on black, man on women.  Over in the Middle East, the Islamic State is killing and enslaving everyone who does not subscribe to their brand of Islam.

The promise of globalisation has failed.

Globalisation eroded the boundaries and identity markers of the traditional nation-state, by bringing in people and ideas from overseas without necessarily reinforcing existing norms and demographics. People, being social creatures, tend to seek out identity markers to place themselves as part of a wider social group. Without the identity marker of a nation-state, and without an influential supranational force pushing for an identity marker that transcends the nation-state, people will turn to other ever-smaller identity markers: race, religion, language, ideology. Markers that can be easily verified with sight or a few questions.

This neo-tribalism paints the world in very stark terms: us and them. This in turn leads to a markedly different ethical paradigm, in which morality is defined not by what one does but by who one does something to and how that someone is affected. Whatever is good for us is helpful and must be encouraged, whatever is bad to them should be encouraged on general principles, whatever is good for them is aiding and abetting the enemy, whatever is bad for us is outright treason. Such a paradigm inevitably leads to the justification and implementation of barbarism and coercion.

In the field of SFF, Sarah A. Hoyt expounds on how leftists only condemn uncivilised behaviour if it is targeted at them, and Larry Correia’s Internet Arguing Checklist seems to accurately describe how self-identified leftists attempt to hijack civilised discourse. Malaysian authorities arrested Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee for posting a tasteless photo of the couple eating pork during Ramadan, justifying it as a defence of Islam. Various Islamist terrorist organisations wish to create caliphates through violence.

Compounding this is that the nation-state is either too weak to prevent this, or else complicit in fostering neo-tribalism. By privileging Islam in political discourse in Malaysia, the government is undermining the previous Malaysian identity of a multiracial multireligious state, and instituting an identity that favours Malay Muslims. In Sweden, the police have surrendered control of 55 areas to criminal gangs, in ghettoes predominantly composed of Muslim immigrants from the Third World. Russia annexed a portion of the Ukraine with historic links to the Russian Empire without major resistance, while in Syria dozens of armed groups are battling for control of the nation in the name of secularism, Islam, the old government or other less-savoury motives.

Civilisation promises advanced human social development. It is marked by complex urban development, communication, politics, and the social contract between the state and the citizen. As communication and urban development change, demographics and memes change, and with them politics change. The social contract, promising prosperity and protection in exchange for allegiance and labour, is being undermined. In its place, neo-tribalism, in which there is only the in-group and the out-group, is emerging.

Singapore has been spared the worst of the rise of neo-tribalism, but I think it is inevitable. Historically Singapore has relied on migrant labour to perform low-status labour-intensive jobs, such as construction and sanitation. Currently, the government is promoting immigration to address the declining birth rate. These policies create dichotomies between Singaporeans and foreigners, wealthier local inhabitants and poor migrant workers, and local-born citizens and new citizens. This is compounded by the fact that Singapore does not have a strong national identity or established cultural markers, allowing migrants to have greater influence in society and potentially achieve greater success than locals.

Already the signs of neo-tribalism are emerging here. The participants in the Little India riot were almost exclusively migrant workers from South Asia, and migrant workers have long been discriminated against by unscrupulous employers. People who wanted to organise a celebration of the Filipino Independence Day were hounded online until they called off the event. Singaporeans, especially Singaporean men, constantly wonder whether they will lose their jobs to foreigners who do not need to serve National Service and may negotiate for lower salaries. I think it is safe to say some people are afraid that some new citizens are not here to assimilate themselves into society; these new citizens want to enjoy all the benefits of Singaporean society while keeping themselves separate from the locals, becoming de facto colonisers and settlers.

The role of the nation-state is fading. Technology empowers individuals and private organisations to propagate memes and achieve objectives without relying on the state, and sometimes to the detriment of the state. The nation-state may not go extinct, but I think its relevance will diminish as people identify themselves using markers other than the traditional nation-state, or at least place greater importance on their tribe than wider society.

I don’t what this means for Singapore. But I can say that is very easy for neo-tribalists to fracture a multiethnic society like Singapore. When people start identifying themselves as Malay Muslims, Singaporean Chinese, or other as national/racial/religious groups instead of Singaporean, they are more likely to push for policies and actions that favour their in-group instead of society. These will exacerbate differences and produce faultlines, and in a small country like this, people cannot simply migrate to another part of the country. People of different ideologies and identities will constantly rub up against each other. Singapore saw the results of such thinking in the 1960s, when racial and religious riots were commonplace. I can’t say for certain it won’t happen again, but we live in a brave new world of cutting edge technology and ancient identities.

I don’t know if it’s possible to stop the tide of neo-tribalism. I don’t know if it’s worth preserving the old nation-state system. I do know that neo-tribalism, taken to the extreme, will erode the foundations of civilisation. I also know that civilisation today is preferable to barbarism, and what peoples of older times would call civilisation. To preserve and evolve civilisation, I think people need to start thinking about how to peacefully bring different peoples together, how to talk to each other instead of at each other, to work from and expand common ground instead of sundering societies through emphasising differences.

That means nothing less than discarding narrow neo-tribalism, and embracing the precepts of civilisation.