The end of the Cold War may have brought the demise of history’s single most pervasive threat to liberty, but it has also reopened a debate about our identity as human beings and economic animals that is far more ancient and enduring. The argument turns on the issue of whether the differences between peoples–particularly religious and ethnic differences–represent a positive force for the future development of the world.
For generations, thinkers across a broad ideological spectrum from Karl Marx to Auguste Comte and H. G. Wells have predicted that economic and scientific progress would soon liberate mankind from all religious and tribal constraints. In contemporary times, social scientists such as Daniel Bell have predicted that a "continuous decline" in ethnic and religious identity was all but inevitable. "The ethos of science," noted Bell, "is the emerging ethos of the postindustrial society."
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, some analysts see tribalism as the new threat to liberalism, others as the expression of basic human urges superior to any universal concept of humanity–in both cases positing a fundamental division between individual freedom and ethnic identity. Yet although some of the most notable outbreaks of the new tribalism have been highly destructive, it would be dangerous to dismiss as essentially evil and essentially antiindividualist the whole notion of ethnic or religious identity. The freedom to explore one’s historic or racial past has, in fact, been one of the great blessings–despite the excesses–of the post Soviet reality. From Moscow to Mongolia, among Jews, Muslims, Latvians, and a host of other repressed minorities, there is a new flowering of cultural diversity and individualism where once stood only the monotony of the ersatz Soviet identity.
In fact, ethnic loyalties are not only compatible with but essential to an international order based on individual liberty and the free flow of goods and ideas between nations. Throughout history, many of the most notable contributions in the spread of culture, technology, and commerce have come from precisely those transnational groups who have had the most intense sense of particularist identity and connection to their mythic past. These groups–or global tribes–have thrived by coalescing two principles that have been separated in classical liberal thought: an intrinsic "tribal" sense of a unique identity and the ability to adapt to a cosmopolitan global economy.
Far from being narrow provincials, these dispersed ethnic groups–often in the form of remarkable extended families– have played critical roles in the development of both market-based economics and free thought, exercising a disproportionate influence on the growth patterns of nations, cities, and regions. In this sense, global tribes should be cast as the historical protagonists on the world economic stage, carrying with them the incubus of individualism and creativity from one part of the world to another.
This is not to suggest the essential moral or racial superiority of any ethnic group. In fact, global tribes have developed largely through intimate contact with other civilizations. Global tribes such as the British or Japanese have been known as imitators par excellence. And the Jews, British, and Indians, far from being pure examples of a particular genetic stock, are among the most racially diverse of peoples.
Although their emergence can be traced to capitalism’s earliest dawn, the story of global tribes is, if nothing else, a phenomenon of modern times. As we move into an ever-intergrated world economy and the conventional barriers of nation-states and regions collapse under the weight of global economic forces, these ethnic networks seem ideally positioned to shape the economic destiny of mankind. They will not do so by surrendering ethnic identity but by employing their historically conditioned values and beliefs to cope successfully with change. These values–in particular, the willingness to be different, a reliance on communal selfhelp, and an openness to innovation and international opportunities–are, in fact, the qualities that foster success for individuals as well as communities in an increasingly competitive world.
Since antiquity, the Jews have epitomized the global tribe. Against the consolidating might of Hellenism and the Roman empire, amid the rise of Christianity and Islam, the Jews maintained what the philosopher Martin Buber called "the vocation of uniqueness," the willingness to be different from the surrounding society. Members of a small and isolated community, they developed a culture that stressed individual achievement and self employment. As the old rabbinic maxim had it: "Skin a carcass on the streets, rather than be dependent on other people."
Forbidden to own land in most of Europe, Jewish entrepreneurs in the Middle Ages instead relied on their own human capital–an international ethnic network and a command of languages as varied as Latin, Persian, Arabic, and early French and Spanish–to become traders throughout the known world. As capitalism began to develop in the later Middle Ages, the far flung, itinerant Jewish merchants, coin dealers, and money lenders found unprecedented opportunities.
As the American Jewish historian Ellis Rivkin has noted: "The fate of the Jew and of Judaism came to hinge on the triumph of the capitalist revolution and on its success in shaping a form of society which reliably augmented wealth, profitably liquidated poverty, and by the demands of its very nature educated the individual for freedom." From Spain to Italy to Amsterdam to London, Jews moved wherever commerce and religious tolerance flourished.
Even today Jews everywhere show an exceedingly high proclivity to start, own, and operate their own enterprises. And they gravitate toward those fields–such as apparel, entertainment, and precious metal dealing–where dependence on the state or on dominant institutions is weakest and the benefits of the individual entrepreneur’s sechel (street smarts) the greatest.
"The primary reason people [got into the garment business] was every refugee wanted his own business, and this was a business you could go into for very little cash," recalls Bernie Brown, whose Russian immigrant family in 1938 founded Koret of California, still one of the top manufacturers of women’s sportswear in Los Angeles. "You have contractors, shippers who can do the business. You don’t need big machines or a load of money and a big office. As long as you have fabric and you have something worthwhile to sell, you can do it."
Like the Jews, Britain’s Protestant dissenters created a unique culture that stressed both individual achievement and their differences from the mainstream. Generally outside the world of inherited wealth, the British Calvinists–as well as such later groups as Quakers and Methodists–developed attitudes closely attuned to entrepreneurial capitalism. These Nonconformists scorned ecclesiastical hierarchy, affirming "the priesthood of all believers." Rejecting the very idea, implicit in Catholicism or the Anglican Church, of society as "an organism with different grades," they were by nature contemptuous of the aristocratic notions of noblesse oblige and "knowing one’s place." They were extraordinarily motivated, by both religion and temperament, to strike out on their own.
Looking for the secret of British success, Alexis de Tocqueville fixed firmly on the culture of individualism as the key element. He noted the Anglo American’s capacity of "relying on himself and [being] unaware of any obstacle except the limits of his powers, acting without constraint....I am in no hurry to inquire whether nature has scooped out ports for him, and given him coal and iron. The reason for his commercial prosperity is not there at all: it is in himself."
In recent decades other groups, most notably from Asia, have displayed these basic individualist tendencies on a global scale. Even the Japanese, often thought to epitomize the extremely hierarchical Asiatic stereotype, have built their country’s economic success largely on the work of determined individuals. Father Maurice Bairy of Tokyo’s Sophia University, a leading scholar of Japanese economic and social life, suggests that Japanese society operates like a wheel. At the center, conformist instincts are strong and things change only slowly. Near the edge of the wheel, however, lie the innovators, eccentrics, and entrepreneurs–the marginal forces who nevertheless force change.