Networked Tribalism

“The tribal form, at its best, embodies high ideals about how a society should be organized and how people should treat each other”[1]. The tribe is the ur-form of the human socius, becoming the building blocks of further governmental assemblages as human societies increased in complexity and scale to encompass different forms of order, from kingdoms and empires to feudal suzerainties to constitutional states and liberal democracies. However, as systems evolved and concatenated, the tribal form remained as an essential presence amongst more complex elements. The language of governance still holds sway to notions of fraternity, affinity and the centrality of councils for discussion and dissemination. While the modes for these forms have been largely de-ethnicised and scaled away from kinship groups toward complex levels of decision-making, the notion remains of maintaining common bonds around bordered and segmented spatio-temporal series.

The scalar increases in social forms have not eliminated the tribal identity, the ur-form that conflagrates and segregates different people and different identity constructions. In the postmodern world, its existence is consistently maintained as systematicity ebbs and flows. We can see it ideationally as I mentioned before, in harking back to fraternity and bonds. We can see it practically in the modes and circuits of modern governance. At present, tribalism of one kind or another makes headlines almost every day. “Many concern hot spots in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, where societies still have explicit tribes and clans. And many of the stories are quite dark in tone: the intertwining of security forces, not to mention job opportunities, with tribal and clan structures in places such as Palestine, Iraq, and Somalia; “blood feuds” in the Balkans and the Caucuses; and “honor killings” of Muslim women who defy arranged marriages, or of men and women who leave Islam and convert to another religion”[2].

These societies’ maintenance of clannish governance and ethnic/kinship networks is the past in the present regarding many non-Western state/governance forms. However Western states have equally tribal formations within their political-economic structures regarding more transitory cultures surrounding non-kinship values. The so-called culture wars are defined by universalist sets of groups attempting to gain traction for their tribe within existing institutions, transforming them from the inside. As David Chapman elucidates, the two sides of the culture wars (red and blue; left and right; hippie and traditionalist; whatever else) can be seen as monist and dualist groupings[3]. Monism tends toward the denial of and desire to dissolve borders and distinctions amongst human sets. This is more commonly seen as the driving force of leftist or liberal politics. Dualism is focused upon the maintenance and sharpening of boundaries, thus being in affinity with conservative or rightist politics. These are tribes, formed through common bonds and rituals which preserve ideological contiguity and expand their power networks outwards tendrilly.

A comparable term to tribalism would be clientelism, which can really be seen as the political form for tribalism’s tendency i.e. expansion of its power by co-opting and integrating similar formations into wider political circuits. Clientelism is characterised (through the annoyingly overused phrase) by having skin in the game. By having people you know within certain governmental apparatuses, one increases their family/community prestige, potential wealth and the ability to circumvent frustrating bureaucratic costs. While it is certainly characterisable as corruption, in situations where corruption is endemic, having people you know is the only way to actually get things to work in organisational settings. Such situations explain the prevalence of ethnic voting blocs in Western countries, where quasi-diasporic populations vote for political parties on the basis of tribal considerations[4]. In multi-ethnic societies with competing powerbases, this ability to increase prestige and intra-community power allows for the expansion of wealth and political clout. This is the same across Iraq, Lebanon or the UK.

Effectively where resources and infrastructure are scarce and politics desire the accumulation of voting blocs, tribalism of this kind becomes something of an inevitability. This can be described as something of a processual development. In regards to a leftist paradigm, leftist tribes develop victim narratives for particular racial or gendered dynamics. This allows for the recruitment of low-status individuals (those of collective ethnic or gender identities with much higher issues of mental illness or societal dysfunction) into political organisations where they are promised higher-status positions[5]. You “get 2020 rhetoric frozen as the state religion: women are sacred, can’t even joke about them, Islam is peace, transsexuals get to retroactively change their birth certificates. It’s not okay to be white. White men get to run the country but they must parrot all this stuff 5 times a day, facing at the Great Zimbabwe”. This narrative is the height of the tribalism we can see in the West today. It is the attempt at constructing universalisms out of minoritarian political advantages, entrenching power and expanding one’s circuits of influence and prestige, and thus increasing the client base. Why else have diversity industries and HR departments designed specifically for the dissemination of this ideology[6] except for the network effects of tribal power plays. Executives and entrepreneurs are intelligent enough to recognise and capture nascent markets where the base are in search of clientelistic support. Tribalism isn’t just found in the political and cultural fields, but in the “shopping mall” where products are marketed through symbols and semiotics that engender a “sense of meaning, belonging, and even mystery”[7]. This is a mode of politics that infects all areas as it is the ur-position, that which human social relations originally cohered around.

Chapman sees these countercultural and tribal modes as a result of the failure of systematicity, a conception that demands “society operate according to a structure of justification, built from chains of reasons”[8]. Here systems are coherent wholes whose parts function as essential components. Thus constitutional formations logically separate and hierarchise governmental powers into distinct entities with spelt out types of communication and legal instantiation. One knows one’s place in the system, as it is clearly laid out diagrammatically. However, actual modes of politics coalesce around power in its abstract vagueness. Separation of powers are a convenient fiction as political power and with it the ability to increase one’s and one’s group’s power and prestige are fundamental drivers of human action. Politics in this sense exists within and outside clearly separated governmental structures, as groups and social movements develop narratives and client lists that desire particular juridical/political means and ends.

The systematic mode then has fundamentally failed, as social movements of either the left or the right have fallen away from their universalist distinctions. The left are both monist and dualist. Monist in the sense that they are happy to accept all degenerate ideologies and alternative lifestyles, blurring the lines between civility and stupidity in the aim of increasing tribal power. Dualist in the sense of clearly presenting their enemy as the border they cannot go beyond. The right have maintained an internal dualism, developing their own progressive narratives that endlessly celebrate capitalism and believe anything opposing this Whiggishness is beyond the pale. Their monism is clear in the way they allow culture to go leftward so long as economics remain liberalised. They conserve nothing more than lobbying positions for business firms and political PR agencies. Neither have been able to develop the infrastructure for the settled populations of Western countries to cohere a sense of identity and community, thus leading to increasing fragmentation[9] and cultural[10] ambivalence[11].

“The bad part is that the systematic mode is profoundly psychologically unnatural. For many people it seems dehumanizing, alienating, incomprehensible, senseless, meaningless, and utterly immoral”[12]. The tribe then is a fundamental unifying form for human social relations and governmental development, and is not going to go away no matter the levels of material progress and constitutionality amongst governments. It is a major part of the way leftist orthodoxy functions today, infecting multiple institutions and structures through the progression of victim narratives and nonsensical policies like multi-culturalism and rights discourse. All these do is increase the number of groups and increase the tribality as ethnic enclaves gain seats at the table as denizens or refugees, demanding particularistic rights and structures. Settled Anglo-Saxon or Christian identities have not coped with this, either giving into demands[13] or slowly ebbing out of the cultural background[14]. Particularly in democracies where power is fragmented and lobbying and clientelism are a major part of the way systems actually cohere and work, the tribal format is a template for any sort of political success. Tribalism then is a lived reality, an ever-existing element of the socius as people desire strong social links formed through ritualism and in-group dynamics that express particular characteristics[15]. As Erving Goffman described with language, the act of communication amongst persons presents opportunities for the individual to present oneself how they’d like to be seen and spoken of[16]. This desire to be aggrandised through their self-presentation leads conversations into collective ritual forms where rules and boundaries are set regarding conversational content surrounding how one wants to come across, further leading to group identity construction as group dynamics coalesce desires (for aggrandisement, preservation, progeny, etc.) into actualisable collective action. The act to construct and maintain groupings are strong in this sense.

Further, the lack of systematicity means that the continual tribal constructions that are being based around foreign or degenerate ideologies/cultures are themselves incoherent and messy[17]. Not being based around ethnicity or kinship (in the case of dualist movements) means ritual embalmment is difficult as what unites these groups are incoherent hotchpotches of desires for greater freedom, greater rights and more spaces for their own flourishing/preservation. The disunity of the left and its ability to factionalise is legendary. Just take a look at how many socialist and communist parties one can find in America or Britain. Equally, look at the splits between radical feminists and trans activists as rights discourses hit buffers regarding who gets what and how it is meted out. Its is suddenly being realised that rights to space for identity construction are themselves scarce. In terms of the ethnic enclaves within modern Western countries, these tend to have much greater coherence when it comes to tribal organisation and stabilisation. The innate religiosity of migrant communities allows for infrastructure and rituals which maintain group identity. However even here stability begins to crack as identity becomes fractious. Second generation immigrants are expressing more liberal values[18] regarding tolerance toward minority populations[19]. Of course this may not mean much as they are then simply integrated into the more general leftist tribal circuits, becoming the tokenistic faces of woke capital and woke politics. But it does represent a fragmentary disposition that could lead to greater in-group conflict as different value structures (those of the first and second generations) come into contact and vie for particular forms of political patronage. Such a scenario and its potential dissolutionary impact has been painted here[20].

Thus if the tribe is a reality of political organisation, the ability for settled populations to grow their own identities and infrastructure will come from the development of tribal dynamics that can cohere communities onto particular tracks. Such nascent developments of this kind can already be seen in the Brexit and Trump campaigns, where forms of networked tribalism developed combining different constituencies into political forms that supported forms of nationalism, cultural preservation and opposition to liberal orthodoxy. These networks developed through social media platforms that circumvented the traditional party platforms and allowed for the dissemination of communication among more varied constituencies. “Parties and their leaders are no longer the primary source of power, money, or information in politics today. Instead, political power structures are flattening while resources flow horizontally between nodes in a political network. Each node’s power rests on particular individuals who happen to be nested within weak organizations. That is to say, individual members are becoming empowered while the surrounding institutions are weakened and decaying, and outside organizations have more influence over politics than ever before. It is through these individuals and their affinity groups — tribes — that politics gets done today”[21]. Thought leaders and influencers thus gain importance on similar levels to  campaign managers and staff. The closed Facebook groups and Twitter feeds led to conversations that moved beyond mainstream narratives, for good or bad. And coalitions formed between rural middle class constituents and Northern working class constituents in the case of Brexit[22], and small business owners and rust-belt workers in the case of Trump. New technologies combined with older political narratives of identity to form these campaigns and lead them to victory. Such networks are dispersed and lack spatial scale, relying upon the adherence of varying ideological currents under one rubric. Thus Brexit structured different ideological concerns surrounding immigration, the NHS and cultural/generational decay under an overarching narrative. Trump did the same thing with MAGA, combining concerns surrounding economic uncertainty, a lack of American values and concerns around border security.

These networked tribes thus exist on a postmodern topology, as past and future combine and contrast. The modern affectations of social media and targeted online campaigns combined with nationalist rhetoric that harked back to the industrial greatness of mid-20th century America or the unique island sovereignty of the UK. In the case of the left, the narratives of 20th century industrial leftist economism combine with 21st century identity politics. In the case of ethnic minorities, the patronage sought through leftist parties combine with the growing liberality of second generation migrants. What this mash-up shows is incoherence. An incoherence of model, structure and identity. Networked tribalism is thus an unstable set of groups and institutions that has already shown its potential in shaking up the liberal order. The real question becomes whether this form can be a coherent method for subversion and a new identity construction in the face of multi-culturalism and the increasing orthodoxy of nonsense politics and rights discourse. In some cases it allows for greater communication and the ability to subvert mainstream narratives which in traditional media organisations and platforms are beyond criticism. While greater skepticism can have its downsides (degenerating into moronic conspiracies) it also greatly increases the scrutiny upon settled institutions which push particular narratives under the guise of orthodoxy and normality. In this sense it increases conversational output, cohering new identities and reimagining old ones for new purposes, as well as developing tribal forms that can claim their own political power and infrastructure, either in existing frameworks or through the building of new ones in situations of exodus. There is great potentiality for the construction of newborn Dasein in decentralised pockets of online and spatial activity[23].

Equally, this networked form could degenerate into the Gilets Jaunes or the Arab Spring movements, riots replacing rhetoric and diminution over dialogue. Brexit and Trump, by shaking up the liberal order, have produced tribal monsters of their own as liberal, centrist and leftist narratives regroup. In this sense, cooperation is subsumed under greater low-level conflict. While there is certainly no chance of full Balkanisation, there is a good chance of it leading “to a patchwork of increasingly autonomous local governments—on the order of counties or municipalities—and widespread low-level political violence”[24]. An archipelago of post-universalist political cultures may border and segment[25], thus increasing conversation and conflict along multiple lines as universalisms clash with these archipelagic structures and with each other. Only time will tell whether networked tribalism simply reproduces the incoherence of modern tribal politics, fragmenting and dissolving institutions for the sake of narratives and clientelism. Or whether it will develop into more potent, stable forms of statecraft that can map onto the postmodern topology of technological acceleration, identitarian patchworking and cultural nostalgia.
















[16] Manual DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society







[23] Of course there is no chance of returning to some idyllic feudal past. Rather, a networked society of identity construction that is tribalistic in nature, in effect a networked tribalism that rejects the petty vagaries of universalism in favour of particularism that is both geographic and beyond spatiality, producing decentralised nations of leaders and Dasein with their own conceptions of alter-modernity, producing a multitude of socio-political realities and regulation. It is neither the nation or the state in the classical sense, but an advanced neo-medievalism of overlapping juries and tribes. In the current world, the internet presents itself as one such structure for identity construction amongst the de-containerisation of nation-states, where the social relations of technology can coalesce around an organic understanding of one’s place in the world, borne of national and communitarian circumstances that can have geographic and non-geographic facets.



9 thoughts on “Networked Tribalism

  1. This is quite the opposite of the truth. Only objective morality, where each person is considered a tribe unto themself, can result in a successful advanced society. Then each person is free to pursue an understanding of a topic of interest to them using only objective logic and observation. They.can then interdependently trade that information with other autonomous individuals. Groupthinking, bandwagoning tribals that massacre other tribes and individuals are the bane of intelligent civilized society.


    • This is easily the most naive nonsense I’ve ever heard. If humans could achieve this ideal we wouldn’t be human. But congratulations you did make me laugh.


    • Also I should point out your first sentence is both utopian and contradictory. Objective morality, if it is discoverable, hasn’t been close to being discovered yet and judging by modern ethico-political dynamics won’t be soon.

      If every person is a tribe unto themself, whatever on earth this means, they thus have incentives and knowledge-distribution issues that require subjective interpretation of objective moral systems, bringing into question the actor-structure relations you see as simple cause and effect movements..

      For someone so smart you aren’t half stupid.


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