Locked at home, people have spent more time on the net. Dismayed by MSM unithink and government data-picking, they have discovered new news sources. In a sense, they’ve built extensions on their bubbles – same architectural style, just more space to move in.
Humans are tribal in their basic nature. For hundreds of thousands of years, we lived in small groups, looking after each other and treating other groups as competition for the best access to resources. Those groups were 20-100 people typically. People would have a strong bond with their family members, a fairly strong bond with other tribe members, and often hostility to others. In spite of political correctness making it fashionable for some to pretend that we’ve left tribalism behind, it’s clear that those same people have retained strong tribal allegiance to their tribe and are hostile to those not in it. In fact, many surveys have shown that those most vocal about loving everyone are more likely to dislike others who aren’t like them than other people, so they haven’t evolved above tribalism, they’ve just become more adept at hypocrisy.
Tribalism transformed into a hybrid of physical and virtual almost 30 years ago for a few, 20 years ago for everyone. The left-right divide has certainly flourished (though it has evolved and lost some of its former class correlation) with people forming stronger allegiance to similar groups in far-away countries than to neighbors who hold differing political views. Thanks to the net, it is easy to get all the news you can consume without ever leaving your comfy media bubble. Market forces have followed the customer, and media has become ever more polarized, reinforcing the trend in a positive feedback loop.
Lockdown has reinforced some of that existing tribalism, and created more dimensions for variation, so identity is evolving. Some of the divisions are becoming very obvious as we start to exit lockdown.
The first obvious split is around the effect of the lockdown on personal financial well-being. Some people have remained in full employment, on full pay, and a few have even become wealthier. A somewhat less fortunate group have been furloughed, and receive 80% of their previous pay, but with less outgoings on travel, catering and office attire have still been very comfortable. By contrast, many other people were made redundant early on as their company owners realized potential losses lay ahead and many others have followed. At the same time, many business owners have had to borrow heavily to pay staff and meet ongoing fixed costs, so have seen their savings badly depleted, debts growing and wealth based on the value of their company greatly reduce. Many other self-employed have received little or no state support, being on too high income to qualify or taking their income as dividends. So, even though all these groups went into the same lockdown, they have experienced it very differently in terms of financial effect. Someone who has lost a great deal through no fault of their own, but because the government effectively closed their business, will exit lockdown with very different attitudes to those who sailed through it having a fully paid holiday in their back garden.
Public v Private Sector
That split correlates very strongly with working in the public or private sector. Just as in the 2008 crash, the public sector has been protected while the private sector takes a huge hit, but nevertheless is already managing to moan loudly about possibly not getting quite as generous pay rises as usual. Public sector unions are already making it hard to return to normal economy by linking returning to work to meeting pay demand and other unrelated conditions. Private sector employees who have kept their job at all will be grateful to have survived, very often noting that many of their colleagues haven’t. The public-private divide was already a major stress-line, but will now be an even stronger foundation for tribal conflict. Loud demands for pay rises for highly insulated public sector employees with secure jobs, higher pay and gold plated pensions will not go down well with people who have been suffering real hardship and whose wealth has been heavily depleted, especially when the main reason given for the lockdown was ‘to protect the NHS’, poster child of the badly managed public sector. With teachers and lecturers similarly playing the virus for every advantage and with local councils increasing taxes to make up holes in their budgets as no private sector company possibly can, this fault line could well become a quake.
For or against lockdown
Another lockdown tribal split is between those who want lockdown to end soon and quickly, many of whom always thought it too extreme a measure to deal with a virus which kills relatively few people, and those who are quite comfortable in lockdown and want it to continue. This split also correlates with the public-private divide, though many who want it to continue work for big companies and can easily work from home. A small number in the continue lockdown camp are simply lazy and are now too used to getting near full pay for doing nothing and now see going back to work as an extra 37.5 hours a week for no extra pay.
Now that we’re seeing lockdown being gradually lifted, tribal divisions are becoming even more pronounced. A lot of people are not only strongly resistant to going back to work, but also fiercely critical of people making the most of lockdown being lifted, especially those going to pubs or to beaches. Much of the criticism seems to hold a degree of snobbery, looking down on the sorts of people who go to the pub or the beach as inferiors with obviously poor characters. It is like a new class war. By contrast, many of those doing these activities just want to get back to some sort of normality and argue (with strong statistical justification) that the incidence of the virus is now so low that there is only a very small risk.
NHS Worship and #blacklivesmatter
Another tribe is the NHS worshippers, a peculiarly British phenomenon, engaging in the tribal ritual of going outside to clap in unison. Their elevation of the NHS is pseudo-religious and strongly resistant to new information showing that more than half of the UK’s deaths can be attributed to NHS failings. This has some similarities with the tribalism around the Black Lives Matter that surfaced four years ago and recently resurfaced. Last time around, people outside the tribe would often insist instead that all lives matter. This time, the antagonism has increased, but with more social media use now, it has become all-out hashtag warfare – #whitelivesmatter, #whitelivesdontmatter, #bluelivesmatter, #allblacklivesmatter and even #nolivesmatter, each with their own distinct tribal identities. That is rather similar to the non-NHS worshippers pointing out that supermarket shelf packers, checkout assistants, bus-drivers and many other workers are equally important to nurses and doctors for the survival of the nation.
Even before lockdown started to lift, anti-racist protesters in the #blacklivesmatter tribe started to demonstrate, right across the West, acting as an attractor for the usual far left anti-capitalists, but also creating a quite new trend of pulling down statues and demanding ‘decolonization’. As expected, some small opposition gathered from right wing groups, but what was more surprising was the lack of opposition from the large but very silent majority. It seemed to be accepted that this was as much a symptom of lockdown fever as support for anything in particular, but amplified by a significant degree of self-radicalization with people gazing at screens all day looking at propaganda from their bubbles.
COVID Victim-hood & Immunity Passports
Some people have lost loved ones, others have suffered tremendously themselves, others suffered varying degrees of symptoms, some were infected but had no symptoms, and most were not affected directly at all. Shared suffering can often be a factor in bonding, so COVID status will be a tribal factor.
Add to that immunity passports, certificates that someone carries COVID antibodies, and therefore the holder can access various places and activities closed to non holders. Holders and non-holders will have very different privileges and that is certain to cause tribal tensions.
Personal and Business Growth
Many people have used to lockdown situation to take courses, learn new skills, start new businesses, read lots of books or otherwise self-actualizing. Others have taken the opportunity to take stock of where they are in life, to better figure out who they are, what they want, and who they want to be with. Many of us have just carried on and tried to cope as best we can, not expecting any more than getting through it in one piece. When we get back to anything like normality, there will inevitably be some readjustment in social pecking orders in the many tribes to which we all simultaneously belong. Some people will have joined new tribes, some will change tribes, some will change employer, or even change friends.
Business tribes will also see changes in pecking order. Some companies will have done rather better than others, sometimes by pure luck or local circumstances, or by having different client bases, sometimes by better management. Status in business peer groups will inevitably change as a result.
Political tribal piggybacking
Many people have used to opportunity of the crisis to push various political views. There have been quite a few, and some have tribal-style behaviours and allegiances. One that sprung up almost immediately after lockdown was mentioned was UBI (Universal Basic Income). In the weeks following, this has been overtaken in magnitude by the demands of environmentalists, often insisting for no reason in particular other than opportunism, that any solution to the virus or rebuilding after emerging from lockdown must also include sustainability and carbon reduction. In some cities, such as London, there are extremely rapid moves afoot to embed climate activist solutions before the opportunity evaporates. A good many even more tangential demands to migrate to non-growth systems or even to socialism have been piggybacked too. Authoritarianism has flourished, with many rules and personal tracking systems put in place superficially to control the spread of the virus, but with strong suspicion that they will be left in place ‘to control crime’ long after the virus is history. Privacy groups have fought against these systems but have been losing. Nonetheless, the freedom/privacy/rights tribe will fight afterwards with the many who favor an authoritarian society.
It remains to be seen how strong these new facets of tribal behavior remain as the lockdown moves into memory, and how they will interact. As with most things during the current crisis, things are changing too fast and too deeply to make accurate predictions yet. All we can really do at this stage is to spot some of the various factors that will interact.
Global tribalism – a newer, colder war
With increasing discussion about the origins of the virus, two opposing viewpoints exist, with those who believe the virus originated in a research lab (whether accidentally or deliberately) dismissed as stupid conspiracy theorists by those who want to believe it originated in a wet market. There seems remarkably little tolerance of a middle ground where it might have originated in either but more evidence is needed. However, what started off as a simple discussion about its origins has evolved into a new cold war. What was the USA versus Russia now has China as its new focus, with Russia reduced to a secondary role. This new even colder war divides the world into a more united West v a more united East. Although unconnected, the virus has caused Chinese telecoms involvement in the UK to be cancelled, general suspicion of 5G, and a greatly increased trade war. The level of distrust of China has greatly increased, though those who list the lab origin as conspiracy theory seem strongly to want to exonerate China generally from any blame, using the tried and tested racism slur where they can squeeze it in.