The Pathos of Politics (3) Tribes


Foraging clans were nomadic extended families, comparable to other primates in their social organization. Tribes did not arise until the emergence of settlements.

Foraging clans had nothing resembling modern economic exchange, nor even modern individualism. The almost universal practice of eating together derives from the hoary practice of sharing food.

Many of the moral rules for nascent tribal society were not directed at transgressions against private property, but against not sharing. Facing the prospect of perpetual scarcity, failure to share can affect a group’s survival prospects; hence, early societies were egalitarian.

Like other apes, humans are often exogamous and patrilocal. Besides engendering genetic diversity, it also encourages intergroup exchange.

Exogamy also mitigates conflict by establishing family bonds between groups. Into historical times, disputes over resources or territory have been smoothed over through the exchange of nubile females, including, at the top rungs of the sociopolitical ladder, the practice of strategic marriage alliances among European royalty.

The origin of political stratification lay with the evolution of agrarian society. Rather than communal plots, family-oriented groups worked fields separately, cooperating only necessary. This territoriality furthered the concept of private property and took materialism as a moral value to a new level.

Individualism versus communalism was not just a major distinction between foragers and agrarians. Groups were more or less interdependent depending upon the predominate cereal crop.

A collective culture grew along with the crops where rice was the primary grain. Before mechanization, growing rice took twice as many hours as wheat. To deploy labor efficiently, especially during planting and harvesting, rice-growing societies developed cooperative labor exchanges.

The history of social and political development in southeast Asia and Japan, where rice was the staple cereal, testify to the political inclination toward consensus born from collective work in the fields.

Cultures which relied upon wheat and other grains that could be independently grown led to cultural individualism. This was clear in the Fertile Crescent, where concocted religious creeds became the brittle glue of tribal association among its flinty peoples, given to this day to ceaseless conflict rather than cooperation.

The social impact of agriculture was enormous. Depending upon climate, the population density of foraging societies was 0.1–1 person per km2. The invention of farming facilitated population densities of 40–60 people per km2.

Proximity begat interdependence on a much larger scale, furthered by labor specialization, which facilitated technological innovations. This gyre engendered structured social organization, oriented toward dealing with transgressions against material moral values. Polity evolved via property regimes.

Governance became even more important when tribes were conquered, and survivors absorbed. Rules of conduct are especially needed in reducing conflicts among groups with their own culture and norms. Government cut its teeth on post-conflict social management.

Under the tutelage of the state, human beings learned for the first time how to bow, grovel, kneel, and kowtow. In many ways the rise of the state was descent of the world from freedom to slavery. ~ American anthropologist Marin Harris

A state is an abiding political institution represented by a government. A nation is a political territory with which residents may feel identification (nationalism). As modern states try to promote and tap into nationalist fervor, the term nation-state is commonly used to emphasize the twining.

When tribal-level societies evolve into state-level societies, tribalism does not simply disappear; quite the contrary. In China, India, the Middle East, and elsewhere, state institutions were mere veneer over tribal ones; both existing in uneasy balance. Even today, ethnically diverse societies function according to tribal norms, with institutions favoring the dominant tribe. The United States is exemplary.

China was the first civilization to invent the modern state, but it has never succeeded in suppressing the power of tribes at the cultural and societal levels. The dynastic history of China is one of ceaseless tribal conflict.

The same may be said of every state. Complex clan structures remain the main social locus for most people, and strongly shape interactions with modern political institutions. Institutions themselves take on a tribal cast.