Monday, 31 July 2017


When I talk to people about inter-party hatred in the western English-speaking world the idea of tribalism comes up a lot. People are easily persuaded to act in favour of an in-group and against an out-group. It is very, very easy to get people to distinguish those things. Take a room full of people, give half of them blue shirts and half green shirts and you'll immediately see divisions.

When we talk about tribalism we are always invoking images of inter-tribal warfare and slaughter. People from one tribe hate other tribe. People from one clan hate the other clan. People from one racial group hate the other racial group. But, of course, there's another side of tribalism.

I think it's fairly safe to say that for most of human history tribes have coexisted peacefully and gotten along just fine. There always seems to be a war going on somewhere, but most of the world is not in a state of war most of the time. Neighbouring tribes fought. They also cooperated. They also intermarried. Tribes behave in self-interested ways but also in altruistic ways. I'm not going to say that tribes are no more or less evil than the people who compose them, but they aren't orders of magnitude off in either direction.

So I don't think the "tribalism" explanation is much of an explanation at all. It doesn't say why these two tribes are at war right now. I'm instead thinking about why it makes sense for people to act the way they act instead of relying on a model of human behaviour that predicts what we already know to be going on and fails to explain what is or was happening in other places or times.

"Tribalism" strikes me as an extension of "self-interest".
It's the guiding principle of what has gone wrong. Whether I call it neo-liberalism, neo-conservativism, Thatcherism, Reaganism, or whatever else, the world has been riding a big wave since the late 70s or early 80s. What I'm going to call it is technocracy. It's the idea that the system can run itself without political wrangling - without people getting in the way.

Built around the incoherent assertions of an 18th century philosopher, the idea is that the world is too complex to understand or control, and the best results arise from allowing each person to act according to their own interests. From that interaction we generate the best way to organize things, without having anyone in power planning them.

The hypocrisy of this idea would be transparent if we weren't living inside it. That people self-organize according to their own chosen behaviours is a bland and unavoidable fact that is true in every system of government. The rise of the idea that we should dismantle a democratic consensus in order to replace political decision-making with economist decision-making is exactly the kind of radical take over that a real "things can run themselves" philosophy ought to be against. "Small government" parties are bent on radical social restructuring.

But the big wave caught us all, not just the "small government" proponents. When financial crises hit, everyone from "right wing" and "left wing" political parties are turning to the same experts for advice: economists from a very specific school, legal experts who act like the powers of corporations are immutable, bankers, CEOs of successful companies. When people say this is terrible, what they hear back is that the experts know better than they do.

This is all very appealing. Science tells us how to make things better for everyone, and we smugly tell people who don't understand science that how great everything is and that they don't know what they are talking about. But that smugness is justified by the idea that the experts who run everything do know what they are talking about, and it turns out they don't.

The big experiment is a failure. The more a country adheres to the technocracy, the more median wages stagnate, the slower infant mortality falls, the slower life expectancy rises. In America indicators of well-being have actually started to reverse themselves and get worse instead of just getting better more slowly.

So the trouble became increasingly hard to ignore, but the experts kept saying that things were actually going well. The governments listened to those experts to figure out how to run things regardless of the political stripe of the governments.

So maybe there is an alternate explanation for our hyper-partisan politics. It's not that tribalism is inherently baked into human nature, it's that in reality politics has been largely just sport for a few decades now. You weren't going to get much of a different result if you voted for one person or another, so it's just the green shirts against the blue shirts.

I want to stop to say there have been huge differences between the green shirts and the blue shirts. But what we've chosen has basically been a choice between the pet projects of the leaders. If one leader has a pet project of saving the environment and another has a pet project of protecting human rights and another has a pet project of starting a foreign war, then that is a choice that matters.

But the overall way that society was structured and the way the government evaluated which laws to make and which programs to implement wasn't going to change by voting Republican vs. Democrat, Liberal vs. Conservative, Labour vs. Conservative. Technocracy is antithetical to democracy, and democracy has been greatly diminished.

We feel like we want to cheer this on precisely because we think people are stupid, tribal, selfish things. But we are stupid, tribal, selfish things that largely cooperate with other people and other tribes to generate incredible outcomes. We ought to stop being so dismissive of one another.

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