The tribal imagination

Keith Hudson

When in difficulty, human cultures, however enlarged, are predisposed to default to institutions (or classes) which in turn are predisposed to default to tribes, which in turn so easily default to cliques, which in turn default . . . to single leaders. The last are the equivalent of the fathers and providers of the original family-sized groups in which we and our predecessors lived, and in which our genes have been shaped, for millions of years. The default tends always in an anti-evolutionary direction towards the earlier basics. “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”. The Tolstoyan view of history.

So, if cultures are unfortunate in their immediate past histories, they produce the Stalins, Hitlers and Mao Zedongs of the human world. Monsters. Sometimes, if the nominal leaders are not so monstrous but still powerful then the default condition is a little higher, at the clique level. This is why President Bush needed three or four others (but only three or four others) in order to manipulate America into invading Iraq — an illegal act if there ever was one. When the nominal leader is neither monstrous nor powerful — and really hardly knows what he’s doing — then the reverse default is a clique that can be well-nigh invisible and works in mysterious ways.

Thus President Obama’s financial policy is actually that of a clique centred around top nerds in the US Treasury and also friends in the banking world. Not so much a clique in this case as almost a tribe, almost at a higher notch. Whether this bunch, this almost-tribe, can continue succeeding in mystifying the other tribe in Congress is a moot point. But then, the latter tribe is actually in a further default condition already — two tribes which spend most of their energy performing war-dances around each other.

Thus human behaviour is a ratchet which works both ways. With a gentle following wind, it can proceed very slowly in one direction towards culture, but this takes generations. If met with storms, then the ratchet clicks very rapidly in the default direction. Whether a nation is formally a selected bureaucracy as in China, or an elected democracy as in America, matters little. It is where it is on the ratchet that’s important.

I’ve simplified, of course. There are many components of a culture — fertility, science, art, sports, industry, entertainment, etc. — and they’re not necessarily correlated. But some specific state of politics, some specific position on the ratchet, applies in all of them. In the fertility department, for example, the Western cultures are right at the family end. In fact, less than that, because singlehood is a growing phenomenon and, also, families are no longer able to sustain themselves — neither looking after their old people humanely enough nor producing enough children.

Perhaps one day when the default system is taught to children at school as a rendered down account of anthropology, behavioural psychology and evolutionary genetics — but essentially simple withall — then perhaps we can govern ourselves and our activities just a little better than now without today’s much practised manipulation by a few on the one hand or the punter-like credulity of the masses on the other. Perhaps we’ll really begin to know ourselves, as Socrates used to say, and for cultures to know more truly how they ought to operate.

The book that’s inspired today’s outburst? The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind by Robin Fox

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