Tribalism: A Model

Over at Neo-Ciceronian Times, T. Quinctius published a useful piece arguing that tribalism is the fruit of collapse last month. In the course of making that point, he distinguishes between a tribal attitude (i.e., the attitude typical of people who live in tribal societies) and a tribal system.  This distinction between the emotional state of the individual and the form of his society seems right to me, but I want to go further.

A. Identity

“Attitudinal” tribalism needs to be divided into identities and dispositions.  T. Quinctius refers to:

the possession by a group of people of a strong ethnic and cultural identity, one which pervades every level and facet of their society, and which serves to separate (often in a hostile sense) the group’s understanding of itself apart from its neighbors

One element we can identify here is the strength of the identity in question: is it strongly felt, or weak?  Does it contrast very strongly with neighboring and rival attitudes, or does it fade into them?  In this sense we can talk about “tribal” fans of the Red Sox or the Yankees, as opposed to more casual fans.

Another element is the form of the identity: for example, what is the identity’s domain? Does the tribal identity “pervade society” in the sense that it dictates allegiances and habits in many spheres of life, or only in one? (Even rabid Red Sox fans can have any religion, for example, but this is not true of all athletic allegiances.  Ethnically divided cities develop athletic rivalries on ethno-religious lines.  Medieval Byzantium had Iconclast and Iconophile chariot-racing teams.)

A related question is whether the identity is exclusive — may its members affiliate with overlapping or overarching groups with different focus? (For example, some people identify exclusively with their matrilineal clan or their patrilineal clan, while others identify with both.) And if those with some “strong ethnic and cultural identity” do nonetheless have multiple identities, is one of them predominant, either in how members publicly express their affiliation, or in how they resolve disputes between the demands of overlapping identities?

But an overarching question about the form of a (strong) identity is what kind of social system or body it corresponds to — and presumably, the formal structure of this identity (its domain, its exclusivity, its predominance or lack thereof) corresponds to facts about the structure of the group which creates the identity.  In particular, it is uniquely appropriate to describe a man’s identity as tribal when he identifies with his tribe in a tribal society.

Presumably purely tribal societies give rise to the strongest, broadest, most exclusive/ dominant identities.  It is also likely that in societies where identities with these properties are becoming the norm, the society is approaching sociological tribalism.  But this is a hypothesis to be examined and tested, not a general rule to be assumed, and certainly not an inference that should be drawn in every individual case.  (Steering clear of too-convenient verbal conflations like these is the whole point of drawing conceptual distinctions!)

B. Disposition

Actually existing tribal identities are one thing; the psychological traits that dispose people towards tribal attitudes are another.  This is a simple matter of human biodiversity.  If tribal societies are possible, then humans must have traits that allow them to live in tribal societies; if tribal societies are not necessary, we must have traits that allow us to live in non-tribal societies, as well.

There is no reason to assume these are the same traits!  Probably the genes that make us capable of learning Russian and those that make us capable of learning English are the same genes (i.e. genes for the cognitive processes involved in language)…. but the mental demands of any two languages are very similar, differing, like the demands they make on our tongues, merely in how they rearrange the material.

Someone who knew all the customs and taboos of Tribe A might find himself a misfit in Tribe B — not, presumably, because he is incapable of being a good tribesman: only because the sheer effort of learning an entirely new lifestyle is as tedious as learning to decline Russian nouns after a lifetime of speaking fluent English.  On the other hand, some people might simply have no ability to learn and follow these rules, just as the trick of memorizing long epics and astronomical tables disappears in societies which have no need for it. (Witness the persistence of mnemonic-champions in India, where Vedic texts were not written down for the first time until well into the common era.)

We can distinguish, first of all, between traits that increase one’s fitness in a tribal society, traits that increase the fitness of tribal societies, traits that are common in tribal (or recently-tribal) populations, traits that make a society more tribal, traits that stabilize a tribal society, and traits that destabilize non-tribal societies.

There is some overlap between these six categories, but less than it might at first seem.  For example, are traits that increase individual fitness in a tribal society also traits that are common in such societies?  Not necessarily.

  1. If there are dyscivic tribal traits that increase a tribesman’s fitness but decrease the fitness of his tribe, then these traits will grow common in particular tribes, but such tribes will be small and uncommon overall (they will be weak and prone to collapse).
  2. Even if the traits that increase a tribesman’s fitness are neutral (or beneficial) for his tribe, if they tend to cause the tribe to evolve towards a non-tribal form of organization, tribesmen will be less likely to have them overall (because they will no longer be tribesmen).
  3. And if many tribes evolve into post-tribal forms, then conversely the population of tribes must be regenerated by the collapse of non-tribal societies back into tribalism: if most tribes are the result of recent collapses, then their members will actually exhibit the traits that tribalize societies and/or destabilize non-tribal societies.

Likewise, traits that increase the fitness of tribal societies may not be the same traits that stabilize them.  Witness the history of the Aryans, the Germans, the Turks, the Mongols, the Manchus: pastoral tribes that are too good at what they do conquer their neighbors and lose their tribal form of organization.

Speaking of pastoral societies: there may links between certain ways of life and tribal organization, and thus between disposition-to-way-of-life and disposition-to-tribalism. Some of these correlations may be arbitrary. Almost certainly, lactase persistence improves the fitness of a tribal herdsman, but this tells us nothing about tribes.  On the other hand, if the types of bravery, violence and spontaneity required for successful cattle-rustling are valuable to a pastoral tribe, this isn’t a fact about cows (specifically, how to steal them), but rather about the forms of property and power that the tribal organization exists to safeguard.

I have not mentioned success in a tribal society apart from measures of fitness, stability, and so on. It is clear that one can succeed in a society, in the sense of having high status and a (relatively) happy life, without having children and without being of any benefit to one’s neighbors.  However, if there were some trait which (a) did not spread biologically (i.e., by its “successful” bearers having more children) and (b) did not benefit the rest of the tribe (so that the other tribesmen had no reason to reward it), in what sense could it contribute to success and how could it become common enough to attract the notice of our study of tribes?

Tribes are either highly-selected (i.e., they have been around for a long time) or they are one of Gnon’s crabs.  In either case, there shouldn’t be a concept of social success which is harms both the “successful” tribesman and his society.  (If there is, that would be extremely interesting.)  Modern societies do give us opportunities to succeed by sabotaging both our progeny and our civilization, which is why they degenerate.

Likewise, I have not mentioned traits that dispose us to take on the forms of identities we referred to as “tribal” in the previous section.  The relationship between tribal identities and tribal dispositions is the most important riddle about tribalism.

One extreme hypothesis we could offer about tribal identity is that high disposition towards tribal identities is simply a correlate of low intelligence, and that the relationship between low and the selection pressures most tribes face is as arbitrary as the relationship between lactase persistence and pastoralism.  If this hypothesis were correct, intense tribal identities would be real; dispositions towards tribal identity might be a serious social problem for modern societies in some situations, or a boon in others; but those identities would be little more than an epiphenomenon on the basic drive towards smaller brain-size in tribal environments.

At the other extreme, one might hypothesize that tribal identities are absolutely necessary to tribal life and the full-fledged disposition to form a “tribal” identity proliferates after only a very few generations of tribal selection pressure.  But I suspect the truth is more interesting, and that different aspects of identity-formation are put under selection by different aspects of tribal social structures.

Thus one mechanism might increase asabiyya (in the technical implied by the Bedouin saying “I am against my brother, my brother and I are against my cousin, my cousin and I are against the world”), leading tribesmen to ration out sympathy and solidarity in the geometric ratios that kin selection dictates. Another might increase clannishness, the tendency to draw clear borders between the in-group and the out-group and to match loyalty to the former with suspicion of the latter.  A third might make one hyper-aware of distinctions between proper and improper foods (and preparations of foods) — a trait with sanitary roots that can be re-directed towards subtle cues which identify friends and enemies.

The net effect of all of these dispositions would (presumably) be something like one of the purer versions of tribal identity I sketched out above.  But understanding how they arise permits a more precise understanding of how the dispositions function, which makes our knowledge of them much more useful.

For example, it would certainly clarify which aspects of tribal identity tribes need, and which are epiphenomenal spandrels.  It might also clarify which kinds of diversity among tribes are the result of incomplete evolution, and which are alternative evolutionary paths to the same goal. (If food-taboos are about identifying outsiders, and so are speech taboos, then each tribesman only needs to be hyper-aware of nutritional or verbal shibboleths. And perhaps a tribe as a whole really only needs one or the other.)

But the ultimate reason to study the relationship between disposition and identity in this way is to understand how the same “attitudinal mechanisms” function in non-tribal societies.  Roughly speaking, here is the problem tribalism poses:

  1. Western Civilization is not tribally organized.
  2. Western populations have no (or weak) tribal identities.
  3. (Version 1) The West has been invaded by tribal populations, and/or…
  4. (Version 2) Small tribal subpopulations with the West are exploiting the altruism of their neighbors, and/or…
  5. (Version 3) The progressive diminution of tribal dispositions, by itself, gave irresistible momentum to a vicious circle with dysgenic and dyscivic consequences.
  6. Therefore, the current social equilibrium (sic) in the West is unstable.
  7. If current trends continue Western Civ will suffer social disasters…
  8. And a complete societal collapse is possible.

The upshot of §§3-4 is that the non-tribal majority in a non-tribal society would benefit from acquiring sufficiently tribal traits to resist tribal invaders/parasites.  If you endorse §5 instead, you come to the same conclusion: a non-tribal society can’t afford to lose its tribal traits entirely. Failing this, §7 implies we will be entering a time of turmoil where our non-tribal societies will acquire quasi-tribal features, to which Westerners need to adapt; or, in the worst case scenario (§8), we may be forced to lead our communities into a fully-tribal existence for which neither their heritage nor their education has prepared them.

What §§3-5, §7 and §8 have in common is that they call for social hybrids: populations which are able to balance some of the advantages of modern Western societies with some of the advantages of tribalism.  In The Current Year, there is no sense to smearing on the war paint and dancing a rain-dance as an abjuration to banish feminists, atheists, and antifa. And if we live to see the collapse of the West, the rain-dance still will not bring rain. White cargo-cults that ape primitives are just as futile and absurd as primitive cargo-cults aping the white man.

To hope to forge a reactionary ethos by eyeballing a foreign social organism and copying its superficially striking traits is vain, as sterile as aesthetic admiration for sublime art divorced from any interest in the eternal order to which it is the keyhole. To temper modern realities with tribal virtue, one must first disaggregate this virtue into its functional parts, then determine which of them can be mimicked by modern men, and which can be cultivated over time.

C. Form

Tribal attitudes derive their name, of course, from the tribal societies where they are often found.  And is are the characteristics of this social form?  T. Quinctius defines a tribe as

a group of people organised along kinship lines and possessing what would generally be referred to as a “primitive” governmental form centered around a chieftain and body of elders

The Neo-Ciceronian definition of the tribe admirably captures, I think, the two main connotations the word ‘tribe’ carries: primitivism and kinship.  A tribe is primitive to the extent that the people are technologically backwards, and their political and social rules neither use technology nor govern technology.  It is based around kinship to the extent that whether one belongs to a tribe (and perhaps also one’s position in it, and social relationship to other tribesmen) is primarily a function of birth and genealogy.

However, we should take one step beyond primitivism and kinship.  Many societies have tribes, tribes with a primitive organizational structure based on kinship, but are still not tribal societies.  The classical Greek poleis had tribes (phylai).  Rome’s tribus gave us the word ‘tribe’ itself.  To this day the United States, Canada, and Britain have tribes, but neither are their societies tribal nor their tribesmen primitive.

The characteristic feature shared by tribal societies is that they are segmentary.  That is to say, nuclear families within an extended family stick together in one multi-generational family.  Sometimes they live in a single household or hamlet.  Usually either the matriline or the patriline is favored, but this is not necessary; and where cousin marriage is common, it may be a distinction without a difference. Multiple lineages descended from one recent ancestor continue to cooperate together as a clan. The leadership of the clan may descend on the clan’s oldest living patriarch, or it may be passed down along the eldest branch of the clan; but the clan may also simply improvise when need arises, choosing a member with the appropriate charisma, or simply deferring to the clan’s most powerful lineage(s).

This compounding of segments (many nuclear families make a lineage; many lineages make a clan) can continue indefinitely.  Depending on how large the clans have gotten (and whether clans mostly live together, or are scattered amongst each other), there may be additional levels of kin-groupings between clan and the tribe, grouping clans according to their genealogical affinities. However, to have a simple model of tribal societies, we only need to distinguish between five segmentary levels: family > lineage > clan > tribe > phratry.

A tribe is a collection of clan-segments that occupy the same territory. A phratry is a collection of neighboring or allied tribes; when they are not fighting each other, they band together to wage war on other phratries. But beyond the temporary appointment of a commander for the duration of a phratries wars, each of its tribal segments is autonomous and self-governing.

(The Greek word “phratry” means brotherhood.  Every Greek phratry claimed that the founding patriarchs of each of its member-tribes had all been brothers — usually, the sons of a suitably illustrious demi-god. Typically phratries, tribes, and clans claim to be genealogical descendants of a common ancestor, and transmit elaborate genealogies to this effect. Assume the kinship in question is fictional at the phratry-level and actual at the clan-level.)

The clan coordinates family life.  Most people interact constantly with their own branch of their clan.  Clans are usually the major determinant of blood relationship. Typically marriage within the clan is taboo and marriage between clans is acceptable, regardless of the actual degree of consanguinity.  In some tribes lineage plays this role instead, so that marriages within the clan — e.g. a parallel-cousin marriage between a man’s son and his brother’s daughter — are considered acceptable.

Clans resolve disputes between their members, and they may attempt to arbitrate disputes between tribesmen from different clans, as well.  Clan dispute-resolution is:

  1. Concentric: each subsegment of the clan is part of a larger grouping of subsegments that will join it in disputes with “outsiders” from other parts of the clan, or from the tribe at large.
  2. Flat: the outcome depends largely on the number of kinsmen each party to the dispute can call on, so each kinsman is roughly equally important.

Multiple clans with rival interests cannot inhabit the same territory and expect to resolve their own disputes both (a) by themselves and (b) peacefully. The tribe needs central mechanisms to govern its members, or else disputes between its clans will eventually cause it to fission into two tribes. (In fact, a segmentary tribal society is uniquely suited to that outcome.)

Besides making rulings that resolve intractable inter-clan disputes, the clans need a tribal government to pass sentence where all parties agree an injury has been done and the the guilty must be punished, to uphold laws and traditions peculiar to the tribe itself, and finally to make final decisions on matters of common interest to the entire tribe — mainly, disputes with other tribes and especially matters of war and peace.

The two main mechanisms tribes have are chiefs and elders.  Leadership of the tribe is often at least partially heritable (like leadership of a lineage or clan), but the hereditary role is much more precarious at the tribal level: either the hereditary tribal leader is a symbolic figurehead whose real power varies depending on his ability to wield it, or else kinship to a deceased leader is just one factor (although possibly an important one) in choosing his successors.

The chief of a tribe is de facto its warlord. He leads the tribe because in the event that the tribe comes to blows over an issue, he would lead the biggest, baddest faction of brawlers.  Each of his lieutenants, in turn, owes his influence over the chief to the respect of warriors who would follow his lead if he shifted his support to another potential leader.

When a chief passes judgment, his posse is there, waiting for him to exercise his posse comitatus to crack down on any resistance. When a chief decides on war, the size and enthusiasm of the raiding party that follows him into battle is the test of his authority to make such a decision.

(Modern leftists, in their limitless Manichaeanism, see tribal assemblies as a salutary lesson in proto-democracy. Far from it! A tribal assembly is more akin to a military parade than a parliament. It is a show of force, not a meeting of the minds.)

Other decisions are left to the tribe’s elders. Tribes defer to elders on a range of important questions. Elders are the sole living authorities on the ancestral traditions which each new generation of the tribe must learn from their parents and grandparents. Moreover, the elders’ breadth of experience inspires deference; they have seen and done more than anyone else in the tribe.  These years of experience are no small matter in preliterate societies where seeing and doing are the only source of information.

In particular, the very old can speak with authority on rare situations which occur so infrequently that they create threshold problems for tribal memory. In Collapse, Jared Diamond gives the example of a powerful typhoon that knocked down all the tall trees on a Polynesian island (an important food-source for the islanders) for the first time in sixty or seventy years.  If I recall the anecdote correctly, only one woman on the island was old enough to remember the earlier crisis and transmit what her generation learned from that struggle.

There are a number of other qualifications that elders bring to tribal decision-making, but perhaps that is better left for a supplementary discussion of tribal roles elsewhere. Suffice to say that the elderly do well at certain kinds of decisions, and the respect they are owed by the younger members of their own clans and lineages makes it hard for anyone to question the wisdom of their decisions.

Whether age alone suffices to make an old man an elder will vary from tribe to tribe; just as the measure of a chief is whether anyone follows him, men whose opinions attract the necessary deference will be treated as elders earlier than others. A near-universal trend in post-tribal commonwealths is for men to be inducted into the nascent ‘senate’ at younger and younger ages, on the strength of their reputation for judgment and learning.  (And then later: power, influence, and charisma.)

To sum up, while the tribe’s kinship networks are flat and concentric, its government is

  1. Resilient: officials acquire authority only in recognition of the exact sort of power that would give them equivalent authority in the absence of any government — and thus, the collapse of one part of the tribal government has little effect on the rest of it.
  2. Hierarchical: members of the tribe who can command other members to carry out their sentences have the power of life and death over other members of the tribe, and because tribal political dissent barely differs from civil war there is a very real chance they will use it.
  3. Polycentric: tribes have multiple levels at which disputes can be be resolved, multiple powers which can claim final jurisdiction over disputes at the tribal level, and multiple latent factions which can try to influence each ruling.

If you think in depth about the structural aspects of tribalism I have highlighted, you will probably notice a passing resemblance between the basic template for tribal government and the sorts of hypothetical dispute-resolution mechanisms anarchists (and in particular, anarcho-capitalists) love. This is no coincidence. Rather than solving the problem of violence, tribal societies organize it. They do not make their members’ rights sufficiently unambiguous and predictable to prevent violence, but they do make the paths by which conflicts escalate to violence unambiguous and predictable!

Of course, just as the resilient instability of segmentary tribes allows them to collapse into semi-contained violence, so it also allows them to “collapse” into elective monarchy, oligarchy, or aristocracy (depending on whether it is the tribe’s chief, the heads of its most powerful clans, or its elders who usurp power from the other centers of authority).  The legal force of tribal and clan affiliations may persist for centuries, and vestiges of tribal institutions and traditions may survive long after they lose their meaning.

But once a single ruler or ruling body is established, the new regime not only expands its reach into every sphere of tribal life: it starves these spheres of meaning. The unique features of tribalism, bereft of purpose, wither and eventually disappear.  The long march from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft has begun.


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