Beyond Tribalism: Why Democracy and
Equality Need Nation-State Protection

by Lorna Salzman

John Papworth is founder of 4th World Review and an Anglican priest long active in the movement for local self-government. For many years I agreed with his analysis and that of his followers, and with the larger bioregional movement, but no longer. Since my first encounter with him at the 1984 bioregional conference in the Ozarks (where I benefitted from his superb knowledge of Shakespeare's plays), much water has flowed over the dam. We saw N.Ireland's "troubles", Basque terrorism in Spain, violent ethnic conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Rwanda, Congo and Sudan, and of course the Hamas-led violence against innocent Israelis.

Some of the victims and complainants in these struggles undoubtedly had reasons for their "resistance struggle". But I believe that most of the impetus for these struggles was internally generated and exacerbated by unscrupulous political and religious leaders for their own agenda, not for freedom or democracy. The chant about foreign imperialism, which Papworth picks up below, still rings as a stirring call to action for the radical left and especially for the haters of America, despite the fact that for the past decades, it has been capitalism in the guise of corporate globalization that now rules the roost....and, it should be stressed, with the assistance of local elites in foreign countries now co-=opted into the global capitalist economy.

But the main argument against Papworth's naive vision of "Reappraisal", of a return to tribal governance, is that the population in these areas and regions is NO LONGER HOMOGENOUS, ethnically, socially, religiously or culturally. With the advent of international trade, commerce, tourism and economic investment, there are few localities in the world that do not contain non-native residents. Aboriginal Australia might be one, some remote Amazonian and Borneo tribes might be others. Only those localities completely isolated from the modern economy, from modern communications and technology, are likely to fit the description that Papworth gives.

For example, in the former Yugoslavia, the media tried to portray areas like Bosnia and Macedonia as being uniformly Muslim. But closer reading showed clearly that within these regions and communities, there were non-Muslims who were neighbors and who readily intermarried with each other and conducted commerce on a daily basis. The same was true in Rwanda of Hutus and Tutsis. And the same is true today, nearly everywhere. It is therefore impossible to believe, as Papworth does, that returning governance to small ethnic communities is a solution. Who would protect these minorities if local skirmishes and conflicts broke out? No one, because these minorities would have little representation or influence. To believe that they would be fully protected by a legal and security system dominated by an ethnic majority is to believe in the tooth fairy.

Many of those in the human rights community have in fact acknowledged these dangers, but their proposed solution is still purely speculative: an international body superseding nation-state sovereignty that would, with luck, protect minorities from oppression and discrimination, not to mention genocide. Some on the left like Michael Berube support this idea, pointing to the failure (to date) of effective sanctions against countries who oppress or slaughter their own citizens. It is true that most sanctions to date have been circumvented, but it is also true that most of these sanctions have been ineffective because they were designed as such, and because of the liberal illusion that foreign pressure and diplomacy would "surely" persuade the perpetrators of injustice to mend their ways. Such was the belief of Pres.Obama when he sent Scott Motian as his personal delegate to Pres. Bashir of Sudan; such was his belief as he announced that if the Darfur independence referendum were held without restraint, Sudan would be removed from the U.S. list of terrorist nations. This may be diplomacy but it is hardly principled, moral or realistic. And in fact there are rebel troops in southern Sudan still murdering innocent people.

The fact is that, under present conditions and foreseeable ones, given past experience that has not been contradicted, the nation-state (providing it is a democratic constitutional one) is the only entity that is able to protect minorities within its borders. Where there is universal enfranchisement not imprisoned by some absurd notion of racial or ethnic identity, there will be counterbalancing forces that will tend to keep ethnic conflicts and discrimination under control. In fact, this is the strength of western secular democracy and its pluralistic nature, underpinned by a legitimate legal system that recognizes individual, not group rights. In our contentious condition today, where climate change and its many manifestations are fast becoming decisive with regard to access to land, water and natural resources, we cannot take the risk of turning power over to localities and tribes who no longer have the attributes and goals necessary to protect minorities OR resources. The authors of our Constitution were, in the end, wise to distinguish between the powers that could be safely allocated to the states and towns, and those needed by a central government to prevent abuses. Where would this country be had there been no federal government to enforce the civil rights of blacks? Or prevent discrimination against women and gays? How easily we forget.


© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.