How Will "Neotribalism" Harm Women?

New political movements have to be carefully watched.

Posted Oct 08, 2018

“Neotribalism” has surfaced in a major way in American politics. And women need to be wary of this trend. 

In his farewell letter, senator John McCain declared,  “We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.”

When the Cold War ended, some critics predicted a new era of peace and prosperity and the triumph of tolerant liberalism. Instead, we have seen a resurgence of what French sociologist Michel Maffesoli dubbed neotribalism, an   embrace of nostalgia for a simpler time that has the effect of setting various groups against each other. In the U.S., Donald Trump opened his presidential bid with an attack on Mexicans and went on to disparage Muslims, African-Americans and disabled people. His attacks on women have been constant, targeting Senator Elizabeth Warren, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, journalist Megyn Kelly, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Puerto Rico’s Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, to name a few.  

At a time when neotribalism is on the rise, those most often targeted for attack are those that most recently won legal rights. Women are a prime example, which raises an important question: What will be the fate of women in an increasingly tribalized world?  

If nations succeed in rolling back the progressive gains of the past forty years, women could be plunged into a veritable dark age where they will once again be the chattels of men. Is this possible? Maffesoli thinks such retro movements are in fact the wave of the future. He predicted that as the culture and institutions of modernism declined, nations would look to the distant past for inspiration. As a result, the post-modern era would be the era of neotribalism.

Though some people today complain that women have come too far too fast, it should be remembered that even in the U.S. equal rights for women were very slow in coming. Women were not granted the vote until 144 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Today, a woman’s right to abortion may be stripped away, and contraception is under legal attack. Pay equity has hardly budged since JFK signed the Equal Pay Act fifty-five years ago, and not until very recently have powerful men had to pay a price for sexual assault. Donald Trump was elected president despite saying on a TV tape that he liked to grab women’s genitals. Brett Kavanaugh was elevated to the Supreme Court despite what many saw as credible allegations against him of sexual assault. "Boys will be boys" was the message delivered by the recent Senate vote.

As The New York Times noted, “For white men across the Western world, special rights and privileges once came as a birthright. Even those who lacked wealth or power were assured a status above women and minorities. Though they still enjoy preferential status in virtually every realm, from the boardroom to the courthouse, social forces like the Me Too movement are challenging that status. To some, any steps toward equality, however modest, feel like a threat.”

At the same time, many observers see echoes of 1930s' fascism in the virulent growth of a neotribalism. At the Commonwealth Club of California, Madeleine Albright said one of the symptoms of a rise of fascism is “dissatisfied people who feel they aren’t getting the attention they need.” Also typical, she says, is scapegoating, disrespect, propaganda, and an us-versus-them rather than a community viewpoint.

Albright worries about Americans “normalizing what’s happening,” and quoted Mussolini, who supposedly said “if you pluck a chicken one feather at a time no one will notice it.”

Advocates of neotribalism often argue that we evolved in small groups of people who were ethnically and racially similar and who had close ties with one another. These groups shared similar spiritual and family practices. Some posit the existence of a “tribal self” that cannot be happy in modern society in which people are often lonely and isolated from close relatives. Such notions date as far back as the eighteenth century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

For those who argue that tribalism is the natural state of Homo Sapiens, there is a question to be examined: Exactly which tribal eras are we talking about?

For much of our existence, humans were hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands seeking food and trying to avoid large predators. Anthropologists tell us that women in those societies had high status, due in large part to their key role in providing the bulk of the food by gathering and hunting small game. Female deities celebrated fertility and the harvest; women were often in charge of primitive medicine and were spiritual leaders.

But, as historian Gerda Lerner points out in The Creation of Patriarchy, women lost status starting about 4000 BC, with the rise of warrior cultures, more settled agricultural lifestyles, and the creation of private property. Women were no longer partners of men in survival but were their property. They became obedient wives, concubines, or slaves. Tribes increased in size and became empires and then nation states. The patriarchy became entrenched in most societies as males took control of all the institutions of power, including religion and politics. Women had reason to fear these larger “tribes.” It has only been in modern democracies that women won the right to vote, control their bodies, get and hold good jobs, and sue for sex discrimination and harassment.

But modern global economies have winners and losers, a fact that is important to the idea of extending the notion of  “family” to a worldwide context.  A truly globalized family can only emerge if democracies provide an adequate safety net for those who are left behind. Without a social safety net, losers can be vulnerable to demagogues, who seek power by stirring up resentments against certain races, ethnic groups—and women.

The neotribalism to which Donald Trump is leading us is more The Handmaid’s Tale than a gaggle of hunter-gatherers. The truth is that human beings thrive in modern democracies where people can form new, more diverse societies. These can be national; the inscription on U.S. coins, after all, is E Pluribus Unum—From Many, One.  They can even be global, such as the United Nations and the European Union.

But in the U.S, the Trump administration is using the disaffection of some white men to move swiftly against women’s rights. And the European Women’s Lobby reports that on the continent, far-right extremist parties are gaining power. “Very often, the program of these populist parties and movements involve concrete steps against equality between women and men, against human rights. They create conditions for a strong anti-feminist bias, taking action to the detriment of already achieved rights.”

Call it populism, neofascism, or neotribalism—the nostalgia for a past that excluded everybody who was not white, male, and Christian is dangerous.

It is a perilous time for women, who have so much to lose.