27th Feb 2024


Tribalisation, or the end of globalisation

  • National Front meeting in Paris. Disintegration of the European Union may be around the corner (Photo: Blandine Le Cain)

What will be the consequences of the attacks on Paris?

The short-term results are well known by now: France and the UK are fighting against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, security is tightened everywhere in Europe and some borders inside the Schengen zone are controlled again.

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  • Tribalisation is a process that almost always includes the creation of enemies (Photo: virgorama)

More important is the landslide victory of National Front in France. This is part of a growing trend of what I call 'tribalisation' that is not only affecting France and Europe, but the entire world.

In my search for answers I stumbled across the "Index of Globalisation" of the KOF Swiss Economic Institute. To my surprise, this Globalisation Index shows an unsettling but clear trend, and this for the first time since 1980 - it shows a decline of globalisation.

Their index is based on facts and figures that differentiate between economic, social and political globalisation. The political stagnation started in 2008. This seems logical as the world saw a major financial and economic crisis with effects on all fronts.

The economic and social stagnation started in 2007, even before the crisis. My assumption is that the cause is therefore not economic but psychological. Important traumatic events have plunged people all over the globe into an identity crisis. Their response is tribalisation: going back to the tribe they know best.

Lost directions

For two decades, the world seemed to be convinced that all indicators pointed in the same direction: more democracy, more economic openness, more human rights, more international cooperation. Not anymore.

The old anti-forces of the liberal order, authoritarian nationalism and religious extremism are back with a vengeance. The most obvious example of the return of authoritarian nationalism is Russia.

The same trend is also clear in most member-states of supra-national Europe, not the least in Hungary and Greece. Religious extremism is on a scary height in the Arab world, and also in parts of Africa, India and Myanmar.

The US and Europe seem to be too tired and powerless to halt this decline. Even though both liberal powers know what they want, both are deeply divided. It looks like both powers are facing a global system failure and have no idea how to deal with it.

Both know that their influence and power is not what it used to be, but they haven't found a new role yet. It's not an exclusive Western problem. The entire world is plunging into an identity crisis.

What is an identity crisis?

An identity crisis or existential crisis is a psychological state of mind of - mostly high-achieving - individuals who feel depressed, angry and lost, and who question the very foundations of their lives.

It usually occurs after a traumatic experience such as an extreme disappointment, a broken relationship, the death of a loved one or a sudden loss of status. These traumas result in a loss of confidence and self-esteem.

In trying to find a way out of this depressive disorder most people tend to go into anchoring: finding a well-known fixation point such as religion, closed social groups or one particular idea or ideology. People are looking for the security and warmth of a group, or what I call a tribe.

In Arabic there is a word for this: qabaleya, or tribalisation. It is the choice to go back to the tribe, its warmth and clear-cut identity.

What's interesting is that psychologists have found that in looking for a way out of an identity crisis people often prefer a negative identity rather than a weak identity.

Societies - just like individuals - can suffer traumatic experiences too. Just like individuals, societies often respond to traumatic experiences with an identity crisis by regressing back into what they know best from the past - what I am describing as tribalisation.

They go back to the tribal (old) ideas and tribal (old) behaviour. These tribal ideas are mostly based on myths of a great past as the only way towards a great future.

Tribalisation is a process that almost always includes the creation of enemies. The fight against external enemies is essential, while internal enemies are the "traitors from within" because they are weakening the tribe in their existential battle.

The events of the 1930s are the most obvious example of this tribalisation process. After the traumatic experiences of the First World War and the crash of Wall Street in 1929, people in Europe felt lost in many ways. The crisis of the 1930s contributed to one of the most destructive tribalisations in world history.

The world's current identity crisis

The world's new wave of tribalisation is a predictable answer to several traumatic experiences and a loss of confidence and status.

There were obvious traumatic events like 9/11, the bombings in Madrid, London, and Istanbul, which created a sense of vulnerability within Western societies.

The military response in Afghanistan and Iraq turned into a failure. Torture centres like Abu Ghraib in Iraq and Guantanamo in Cuba made people question the moral superiority of the West.

A new major traumatic blow to the Western order was the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009. These are not just events. They were serious blasts to the system and to the values in which people believed.

When societies and countries lose direction and face identity crises, they tend to look back. They dig through the old sandbox of ideas and beliefs that seem to have worked in the past.

The extremes of the Arab World

The most obvious example of a regional identity crisis is the Arab World.

The US invasion of Iraq in 1991 lead to the creation of Al Qaeda, and the new invasion in 2003 led to all kinds of violent extremist groups. However, for the large majority of Arabs, this was not the way forward. They chose to revolt against their own dictators in the revolutions of 2011.

Most Arabs feel totally lost now. The ones with the deepest identity crisis see the Islamic State as the last resort, in the Arab World but also in Europe. Others choose the other tribal solution: authoritarian nationalism. This is obvious in Egypt where president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the military are ruling with force.

The old ghosts of Europe

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a victory of the European idea. It proved that people from all over the European continent wanted to become a part of this dream.

In December 2004, the European Union decided that membership negotiations would start with Turkey. 
The old, historic fear of Islam, the religion that twice tried to conquer Europe, woke up again.

One year later, in 2005, the bombings hit the heart of London. Not only the extreme right opposed Turkish membership; German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicolas Sarkozy were both elected on a promise to oppose Turkish accession to the European Union.

It was in this political climate that France and The Netherlands, two founding members of the European Union, rejected the European Constitution in a referendum in 2005.

The most traumatic experience was still to come. In 2008-2009 the financial and economic crisis did hit the European Union hard. The euro and the Eurozone were not prepared for this disaster and almost collapsed. In many hearts and minds, the European dream was broken.

In all following elections anti-European parties and authoritarian nationalist parties became prominent political players. In the European elections in 2009 they obtained only 63 of the 751 seats in the European Parliament, in 2014 that number raised to 99, an increase of more than 50 per cent.

Another system failure in the European construction became blatantly apparent with the crisis in Ukraine. On top of that the current refugee crisis is making things only worse. Tribalisation is hitting again in the heart of Europe. It is further weakening the EU internally and externally. It's hard to say how this is going to end but a disintegration of the European Union may be around the corner.

Not only Europe is tribalising

We see Russia looking back to old ideas of imperial glory as an answer to the trauma of lost status after the fall of the Soviet Union. The invasions in Ukraine, Georgia, and Syria are making this very obvious.

In the United States the division between the Democrats and the Republicans is growing.

It doesn't look like this trend is going to change soon if one follows the presidential election campaign. Some Republican candidates are outright racist and Islamphobic. The attacks in Paris only made this language worse. The fact that candidates gain popularity with it is a clear sign of how the United States is tribalising.

Conclusion: 13 November 2015

The attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 will only accelerate the trend that was already haunting Europe and the rest of the world.

The world has left the path of of globalisation and is taking the trail of tribalisation. The victory of Le Pen is just a start. Unfortunately, history has shown time and again that nothing good will come out of this.

Author bio

Koert Debeuf lives in Cairo where he is political analyst and visiting research fellow, CRIC, Oxford University.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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