Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Power of the Tribe

I have been thinking about “tribal identity.” It is everywhere in a myriad of manifestations. It still flourishes in most of the world that is not yet “modern,” where it is probably the most powerful of social bonding forces, trumping even national identity, often to the chagrin of the world’s lofty politicians. And it exists in the world’s advanced societies in interesting transformations – often overlapping with religious choices, but, subtly, not exactly the same thing. Universalist intellectuals (many libertarians among them) don’t like it one bit. They intellectualize about how dysfunctional such irrational affiliations are. Their ideal society would have only individuals, their families and friends – no tribes with their atavistic rites and prejudices.

But anyone who has read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s infidel  can see the enormous power of “the tribe” as a social organizing entity, a vital form of social capital, an emergent institution, not so easily banished, and certainly not without dangerous unintended consequences as a result of trying. Anyone who knows anything about social-network theory will recognize the many different forms of tribal affiliation and sentiment as strong bonding ties (as opposed to weak ties) very much akin to “family ties.” It seems to me they can be understood as “extended” family ties, weaker than immediate family ties, but nevertheless, very powerful. They have evolved and morphed from old, sometimes forgotten, practices that now manifest in the form of “traditions.”

From the perspective of social analysis in the service of individual freedom, these tribal ties can be seen as variously destructive and dangerous, neutral, and immensely helpful, depending on the details. As extended, sometimes world-wide, coordinating devices, they are remarkable; allowing individuals to navigate in otherwise strange societies with the indispensable help of their fellow tribal members with whom they share “meanings.” As informal mutual-aid societies (sometimes providing just emotional support and companionship), they are unsurpassed. They provide echoes of familiar sounds (language, music), smells and tastes (foods), and practices (rituals for life-cycle events like births, deaths, weddings).  And they continue to do this long after they have lost their connections with ancient founding myths. Like elements of physical capital, they get spontaneously reformed into unintended combinations to suit the times. They embody ancient wisdoms that form part of the tacit knowledge of our present social life. (I realize that Hayek said something similar about religion).

Of course, some very destructive “wisdoms” can and do linger – like those that rest on the racial superiority of the tribe – the hangovers of the zero-sum societies in which they originally emerged and flourished – societies in which predatory power was necessary for survival and in which pluralism was unknown. At times these impulses have surfaced in the religions of modern societies, as with Christianity during its predatory, inquisition phase. And, of course, Islam, has a very complicated tribal aspect to its makeup, much of it potentially violent and destructive, totally inimical to the tenets of civil societies based on individual rights and freedoms. In many cases, disparate tribal impulses within Islam are vying for legitimacy – the strong ties of mutual-aid that could form the launchpad for success in modern complex societies pitted against the anguished impulse to totally reject and work for the destruction of everything that the “poisonous, corrupting” modern secular societies stand for.

This “war” will never be won by military conquest or suppression. Nor will it be won by denying the force of tribal ties and attempting to “educate” them out of society. It will only be won if tribal members who embrace the creative elements of their extended network ultimately win out over those who embrace the destructive ones. Foreign and domestic policies should be fashioned with this in mind.

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