Tribalism and the State (Spoiler: The State Always Wins)

During my years out in the desert town of Al Ain in the UAE, I came up against a number of students who were, to say the least, proudly ignorant.  It was fucking annoying as all hell to work with them.  Being thick was a badge of honor for some of them, and learning about anything that challenged their particular worldview was difficult and sometimes even professionally dangerous.

It’d be easy, in other systems, to take a knuckledragger like that and simply fail them.  But I wasn’t allowed to.  In that particular school, the principal valued communal harmony, and failing a student was considered an insult, both to the student and to his wider tribe.  Such a disturbance could cause waves that might actually result in violence.  (My second year, two tribes clashed outside the school in a massive brawl, which was hushed up by the police for fear of stirring up a major dispute).  So I wasn’t allowed to fail them, nor sanction them when friends would support their cheating in class. I tried to come up with clever ways to go around the administration, some of which worked, some of which did not.

Tribalism there made it impossible to implement a modern school system.  If the school was geared solely towards teaching the kids about their local environment and culture, it would have succeed, largely because the kids and parents could understand why they were being taught that stuff.  But to introduce English in an Arabic speaking community struck them as nonsense.  So they didn’t cooperate, and all I could do was try to co-opt some of the kids who had ambition beyond living in their local community the rest of their lives.

Tribalism suits most people by human nature

This isn’t to totally slag off tribalism, saying that it’s useless way of organizing people.  We actually tend to prefer tribalism for a couple of reasons.  First, it’s simple – you’re either in or you’re out.  Second, it’s small.  It’s possible to know most, perhaps even all, of your fellow tribesmen and have a personal relationship.  Problems can be personally redressed.  You needn’t follow chains of command because you merely need to wander down to the local leader’s hut or house and air your grievance.

Even in advanced societies, we still tribalize ourselves – we form sub-cultures, interest groups, fan clubs, etc., which are in essence limited tribal structures.  Because most people can’t maintain strong relationships with more than a few people, and can’t comprehend organizations over a few hundred, tribalism is a suitable way to organize group friendships.

True tribalism creates groups which compete for local monopolies on violence

Remember that fear is a cornerstone of achieving big goals.  The pyramids weren’t built by volunteers, after all.  A monopoly on violence, for those unfamiliar, is when a group can use violence against those who are deemed to break said group’s rules and get away with it.  Your local police have a monopoly on violence – under the correct circumstances, they can kill someone and not only not go to jail but actually be commended by society.

A Dirty Carnival
Figuring out who has dibs on the local Coke machine. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A proper tribe does this.  You needn’t be in the woods to have a tribe with a monopoly on violence.  In the film Gangs of New York, each gang is essentially a tribe (and occasionally referred to as such) that lives by a certain code of honor.  Those who step outside that code can be killed for it.  Additionally, within the code itself, violence can be used under particular circumstances – for instance, when groups challenge one another in massive brawls for control of territory.  It’s still a rough world to live in, but not pure anarchy.  The tribes do not seek total annihilation of one another but submission and domination based upon their local codes of honor.  

A state is pretty much a tribe that’s grown up

States too compete for monopolies on violence.  This is why states get so pissed when another state wanders in and starts killing people.  Such a dynamic undermines their power.  (And it’s a big reason why China and Russia are anti-intervention).

But a state goes a step further.  Rather than establish power relationships based on kinship, they choose wider, more esoteric criteria for selecting membership.  Often, it’s technocratic – can you do a job well?  Can you thump skulls?  Welcome to the police!  Are you a skilled liar?  Welcome to Parliament!

But the two don’t get along very well because, at the end of the day, only one can be allowed to kill and get away with it

Weak states are often plagued by deep bedrocks of tribalism that undermine education, law enforcement, and other essential state functions.  The two are also at cross purposes.  A tribe is attempting to provide security and order for a relatively small, selected group that’s often based on blood lines, ethnicity, or family.  Everyone else can rot in the street for all they care.  A state is trying to do the same on a far wider scale.  If a state picks too many favorites, it weakens itself to irrelevance.

Tribes, unfortunately for them, don’t survive the process of modernization

As nations modernize, they gain access to modern military equipment and police methods.  Remember that police and armies are always outnumbered by their citizens.  What keeps them in power is their superior organizational skills and ability to use violence selectively.  In Gangs of New York, the draft riots at the end of the film show the citizens of the city tearing apart the established social hierarchy, killing and looting in the rich portions of the city and refusing to cooperate with the Federal government’s draft orders.  Alas, it does them no good.  When a mob encounters a smaller, but better armed and organized, infantry regiment, they are butchered.  Frankly, it boils down to greater access to resources and greater ability to organize those resources into military and police effectiveness.

In American history, Native American tribes were often defeated or exterminated by relatively small groups of organized soldiers.  Roman history is littered with stories of the Roman state exterminating tribe after tribe; so is Chinese and Japanese history.  Part of the chaos that resulted after colonialism in certain places was because colonial powers did not do enough to combat tribalism in government.  The results were dictators that stole from the state and gave to their tribe (as any good chief should), undermining their effectiveness and, in some cases, destroying their own states.

As economies develop, so too do societies 

You don’t want a traditional tribe running a corporation.  You want people who know what they’re doing.  You can’t afford to choose someone based on their family or ethnic background if you want to remain competitive.  As competitiveness is now international, you can afford even less than before to be so choosy.

Tribalism gets run into the ground as livelihoods are guaranteed not by the protection of some chief or tribe but by the state.  Having the right name, over time, matters less and less – going to the right school eventually becomes the be-all, end-all.

Worldwide corruption.  Less corrupt places have weaker tribal forms in society.

The annihilation of tribalism doesn’t have to be violent

Often, the state merely needs to show itself to be a better provider of services and security than a tribe.  But there can be a vicious cycle.  Should a state come under the control of a tribe, others will see the state not as a neutral guarantor but simply as a larger-than-normal bully at work for a select group of people.   This helps create the instability that we’ve seen in many developing countries.

Still, retaining a traditional tribal structure is incredibly difficult in the face of globalization.  No society has yet found a way to retain traditional cultures while also taking part in a globalized economy.  Remember that pretty much everyone wants globalization’s fruits – medicine, increased access to information and media, food and water security, etc.  But the flipside of such a thing is people must spend years learning the technologies and skills necessary to have access to all this.  As a result, their local culture and way of life is forgotten.  A generation down the line, it goes extinct.  Groups that decide to opt out of globalization get stuck with living in a pre-modern society, with all the freedom that entails – as well as all the nasty bits, like dying young, losing children more often than keeping them, and not necessarily knowing when the next meal might arrive.

The process isn’t necessarily pleasant

Japanese McDonald's fast food as evidence of c...
Not pretty, but it’ll still feed you. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

People are deeply uncomfortable with giving up habits given to them by their parents.  Gangs of New York did a fine job of showing how the guns of the Federal government were used to essentially wipe out a way of life in the streets of America’s largest city.  Afterwards, no question could be raised as to who was in charge.

People end up feeling alienated, hooked on drugs or alcohol, or committing suicide as they no longer feel attached to the community they were raised to believe would always be with them.

But the temptations of modernity make it hard for any tribe to resist the offers of a state.  Over time, one chief who might have resisted dies and is replaced by another, more cooperate one.  Should a tribe make the mistake of challenging a state on the battlefield, they find themselves outmatched rapidly by a state’s superior organizational skills.  No tribe in human history has yet to roll back state power.  Some tribes take them over.  But even in the Dark Ages of Europe, the tribes who overran the Western Roman Empire essentially took over the Roman state for themselves.  They did not devolve Europe back into its pre-Roman, largely Celtic way of life.

Rooting out tribalism is one of the developing world’s great challenges

Of course, places are free to resist globalization and all its costs and benefits.  The problem is, few want to when the plague rolls through the area.

One thought on “Tribalism and the State (Spoiler: The State Always Wins)

  1. Pingback: Hamad Karzai Apparently Wants To Get Shot In A Public Square | Geopolitics Made Super

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