Tribes: How Race, Religion, and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.
by Joel Kotkin.
Random House. 360 pp. $24.00.

Joel Kotkin, a journalist based in Los Angeles, has previously written on American relations with Asia and on the California economy. In the present book he seeks to paint a broad picture of the noneconomic realities affecting the international economy. But while Tribes makes some interesting and valid points, it falls considerably short of the promise implied in its subtitle.

Contrary to widely held beliefs, Kotkin argues, ours is not an age of increasing universalism. Rather, various particularities—of nationality, ethnicity, and religion—are experiencing impressive revivals. Nor, despite what many people believe, is ours simply an age of nationalism, of nation-states competing for political and economic power. Rather, important entities both below and above the level of the nation-state are playing a role in the emerging global economy.

There are aspects of this situation that Kotkin does not go into in any detail. They include the resurgence of classical forms of nationalism seeking to establish new nation-states; the growing importance of regionalism (including regions that transcend national boundaries); and the capacity of global corporations to bypass the controls of national governments. Instead, he concentrates on what he calls “global tribes.” These are groups with the following characteristics: a strong collective identity, ethnically based, with correspondingly strong bonds of solidarity; a global network based on trust; and a cosmopolitan culture, open to new knowledge and to change.

Kotkin believes that one cannot understand the contemporary world economy without grasping the role of these global tribes. His book discusses five of them, while acknowledging that there are more and that still others may arise in the future. The five are the Jews, the British, the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indians. Some of them (notably the Jews) have long histories as global tribes; others (like the Indians) have only recently emerged in this role.

Kotkin writes well, and his book is full of vignettes that help give human color to his argument. We are introduced to life in the diamond center of Ramat Gan in Israel, one hub of an international and primarily Jewish network in the diamond trade. We meet Denny Ko, a business consultant, and hear him talk about his vision of a Chinese economic empire spanning the Pacific Rim. And we see how Gulu Lalvani, a member of the newly visible Indian “tribe,” uses his ethnic ties in Asia to develop his London-based firm of consumer electronics.

The people in these vignettes, like most of the individuals Kotkin describes throughout the book, are presented as appealing figures—intelligent, imaginative, open-minded, and evidently enamored of what they do for a living. In that sense, Kotkin’s book gives us the “other side” of tribalism, a term usually associated pejoratively with ugly prejudices and uglier deeds. Although he acknowledges the bad side of tribalism, which he associates with racism, Kotkin’s overall evaluation of his global tribes is a positive one.



There are obviously valid points in all this, but there are also very big weaknesses. To begin with, Kotkin’s list of five global tribes puts into one single category a number of entities with very different histories and very different economic roles. One might agree that Jews have indeed formed a paradigmatic global tribe, with the characteristics Kotkin enumerates. But do they still? With the exception of the diamond business and a few other businesses, their day as a global tribe in Kotkin’s sense would seem to have passed. Today, the overseas Chinese come closer to being a true example of the type.

In the case of the Indians, it is not the group as a whole but only certain subgroups who meet Kot-kin’s criteria. Some of these (like the Gujeratis) are defined by ethnicity; some (such as the Marwaris) by caste; some (Jains and Parsees) by religion. As for the British and Japanese, it is doubtful that they belong to the type at all. British economic hegemony was based on empire, not on ethnic loyalties. The Japanese certainly are marked by ethnic identity, but the role they play in the international economy is a function of highly modern organizations far different from the “tribal” networks of the Jewish diamond trade or of international Chinese businesses.

More importantly, though, Kotkin’s argument confuses three issues which, though related, need to be kept quite distinct: the alleged decline of the nation-state as an economic actor; the economic importance of international networks based on ethnic or religious identity; and the economic relevance of culture. Of the three, Kotkin does justice only to the second. Concerning the first he is on shaky empirical ground: in some ways and in some places (like Western Europe) nation-states do indeed play less of a role than formerly, but in other places (like Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union) we are witnessing a renascence of nation-states, sometimes with economically very irrational effects. Culture, finally, need not be “tribally” based: the two most dynamic cultural movements in the world today, Pentecostal Protestantism and neotraditionalist Islam, dramatically transcend ethnic boundaries and yet have very important socioeconomic consequences.

Put simply, both in his list of global tribes and in his arguments about their importance, Kotkin keeps mixing apples and oranges. Though his book has some value in drawing attention to a number of valid issues often ignored by professional analysts of the international economy, it falls far short of an adequate discussion of these issues.

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