The left’s tribalism is leading us back to a dark past

The left’s tribalism is leading us back to a dark past. By Daniel Hannan.

Yesterday was the 75th anniversary of Partition, the division of Britain’s largest imperial dominion into India and Pakistan (which, for the following 24 years, included East Pakistan, what is now Bangladesh). …

Men, women and children were tortured, mutilated, raped, burned alive, blinded with acid or chilli powder, boiled in cauldrons, hacked to pieces. Bands of goondas slaughtered patients in their hospital beds, children in their classrooms, worshippers in their mosques, temples and gurdwaras.

Some of the grisliest massacres took place on the trains that carried refugees across the border. The engines would pull in at their destinations with gore dripping from every door, and not a single passenger still breathing. Sometimes, a message would have been chalked on the side of one of the carriages: “A present from India” or “A present from Pakistan”.

I don’t want to dwell on the horror. Nor do I want to write a column about whose fault it was. …

Individualism is the modern miracle, tribalism was the rule in the less civilized past:

No, my focus is a different one, namely the largely unremarked and unacknowledged fact that, when coming to this country, the descendants of the victims and of the perpetrators managed to leave their quarrels at the door. …

This strikes me as a rather beautiful achievement, and one that tends to be taken for granted. India and Pakistan found it hard to get over what had happened. Those two kindred states have fought three-and-a-half wars since, and the 75-year-old border remains one of the most militarised on Earth.

But in Britain, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu populations have settled, often in the same cities, with little tension. …

The single biggest factor is surely that the preponderant ethic in Britain after 1947 was individualism. Our moral code, like our criminal justice system, was based around the idea that we are all personally responsible. We don’t get a special pass because we belong to some special sect or class, and nor can we be held liable for the misdeeds of some ancestor.

This is an utterly counterintuitive notion — counterintuitive in the literal sense that it runs up against instincts and intuitions locked deep in our genome. Human beings evolved in kin-groups. For a million years, the preponderant ethic that governed our relations was “my tribe good, your tribe bad”.

That ethic continued to rule us as we discovered farming, built cities and invented writing. Law-codes, from Hammurabi’s onwards, took caste for granted. Early civilisations were governed by status and tradition rather than by voluntary exchange.

The revolution — and it was truly a revolution, one of the most benign and far-reaching our species has known — was what the Victorian jurist and historian Sir Henry Maine called the move “from status to contract”. Maine, who had spent several years in Punjab, saw how unique it to move beyond collectivism and allow private citizens to reach free-standing arrangements with one another, rather than having their lives circumscribed by rank.

Other philosophers have marvelled at the same phenomenon. The brilliant Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich attributes it to the Western Church’s obsessive prohibition of cousin-marriage, which more or less forced people to find spouses from outside their villages, and so broke the clan system that existed, in various forms, everywhere else on the planet.

Whatever the explanation, it’s an extraordinary phenomenon. Britain, rather than India or Pakistan, is the global outlier.

If we are repelled by the notion of vendetta (that is, of taking revenge on your enemy’s relatives rather than on your enemy) it is only because we have been taught to think that way. The concept of inherited liability, of bloodguilt, went without saying in almost every civilisation. It defines much of the Old Testament and pops up from time to time in the Gospels.

This is what is so dangerous about identity politics. Not that it is absurd, but that it is hideously seductive. Treating people differently because of their colour, blaming someone because a distant progenitor owned a slave-worked plantation, demanding reparations from one category of people to another based on physiognomy — all these things appeal to our inner caveman, but all are incompatible with an open society.

Jesus Christ was the world’s most influential politician, starting us on the road to individualism with the notion that we will all be individually judged in the afterlife.