From tribe to democracy to what?

Mike Berger reviews Sebastian Junger's book 'Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging'

Review. 'Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging' by Sebastian Junger. Published by 4th Estate, Great Britain, 2016 (Paperback version)

To slightly paraphrase Churchill, "... democracy is the worst form of government, except all those others that have been tried”. This dictum has been repeated to the point at which it has become a truism. It is time to look at that issue more carefully, and I propose to do so mainly through the lens of a short, eloquent book by the journalist, Sebastian Junger, entitled 'Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging'.

Junger's thesis is simple. 'the tribe', in the simplest and most primitive meaning of the word, was our evolutionary crucible and is the bedrock of human psychology. His opening chapter speaks to the remarkable phenomenon that as colonial America, slowly and bloodily, was overpowering the stone-age, native American tribes inhabiting the vast hinterland of the North American continent, many European colonists chose to stay with the tribes rather than to return to 'civilisation'.

The opposite almost never happened. According to Junger, the phenomenon of  largely one-way  emigration of Whites into native American tribes was especially prominent during the Pennsylvanian Frontier wars of the 1760's. Many children were captured and raised within the tribe. It was perhaps not surprising, though devastating, that these youngsters were reluctant to leave their new families when peace (actually surrender) terms were discussed at the end of the bloody campaign.

But captured young women also often refused to leave their new husbands; and these feelings were generally reciprocated. Further, as Benjamin Franklin and others pointed out, it was not only captive children who were reluctant to leave tribal life but older captors as well. Many men, especially, voluntarily left Western outposts to join, and sometimes to fight alongside their tribal brothers.

What is to be made of this? One explanation may have been thatEuropean society of the time was not notably attractive, especially for those at the bottom of the pile. For them life was often rough, hierarchical, sometimes violently competitive and governed by inflexible religious strictures.

In contrast, early humans, like the Native-American tribes, lived in relatively small, egalitarian bands in which everything was shared. There was no escaping, night and day, the smells, sights, sounds and judgements of your tribe. They protected you, instructed you and competed with you..They were your family. Your life depended on them and their judgement of your honesty and reputation was your lodestar and destiny.

That reality persisted for hundreds of thousands of years and shaped our deepest psychology. Either through intertribal competition and conflict or due to climatic and other external challenges, those tribes who could not curb the selfish impulses of their members, who could not command powerful allegiance, sometimes to the point of death, who could not provide breathing space for their more talented members to lead where appropriate, eventually succumbed and with them their genes and cultures.

This was not a perfect or pretty process. Indeed, it was raw Darwinian eugenics which ultimately ensured that those genetic variants incompatible with the often harsh, but complex, social and physical selection environment of a given context were either eliminated or substantially reduced within the population profile. Over tens of thousands of years, these processes produced modern humans in all their fascinating genetic and, especially, cultural diversity surrounding a common core of tribal moral instincts; instincts in fierce competition with co-existing basic emotional impulses centred on self and kin.

The study of tribal life has been going on for more than a century and increasingly science has generated important hypothesis linking our prolonged evolutionary history to our emotional and cognitive pre-dispositions; in short, to our more-or-less universal  human nature. Popular but meticulously documented and carefully argued books like 'Moral Tribes' and 'Moral Origins' by Joshua Greene and Christopher Boehm respectively, along with many others, have brought these ideas and their implications to a wider audience.

From another perspective, the goads and constraints of 'civilisation' have long been a source of somewhat wishful speculation about the 'natural' life of humans. David Hume was, to my knowledge, the first prominent philosopher to unambiguously state that Man had always been a 'social' being and thus bound and bounded by societal constraints and demands.

The romantic idea of 'man in nature' is a strong attractor. In the South African context, Laurens van der Post lauded the San people (the Bushmen) as a long-suffering race who had much to teach their conquerors, black and white, about living in spiritual and physical harmony with nature. Christopher Boehm, in a more robust portrayal, portrayed them as an unusually contentious people who nevertheless conformed to the sharing and enforced egalitarianism of tribal life. But the theme, that somewhere within the apparent savagery and sometimes cruelty of 'primitive' tribes lies a deeper social wisdom, is an enduring image

Junger himself is not a naive romanticist. He is aware of the cruelty which accompanied pervasive conflict within the native American tribal context. But he emphasises early that such horrific events took place within a remarkably supportive and, in many ways, free and unconstrained social environment which bred powerful intra-tribal emotional bonds.  

In the remainder of his book he sensitively explores in documented detail the observation that war and other forms of massive, external disaster, evokes the latent tribal instincts of otherwise socially atomised modern peoples. In so doing, he argues, these extreme situations often offer the unaccustomed psychological bonus of communal bonding and are remembered with a degree of nostalgia by the fortunate survivors

Despite the brevity of his book, he ranges widely through the London Blitz and blanket bombing of German cities in WW2, the Balkan war of the late 20th century, the bloody conflict in Afghanistan and the on-going threat to Israeli security. He includes natural catastrophes like the collapse which immediately killed 74 men in Springhill Mine in Nova Scotia and trapped many more. This scenario is very familiar to South Africans, and Junger describes these and other events in a powerful succession of human stories centred on real events.

He uses these anecdotes as an effective device to drive his narrative and to provide the content for his argument that that modern society, notably the West, has lost the communal bonds necessary for social health and indeed national integrity.

Junger, like so many of us, is alternately depressed and enraged at the flagrant self-enrichment and self-aggrandisement of modern business and political elites, the clumsy American response to war veterans which encourages a fundamentally parasitic 'victim' mentality, the inability of our societies to punish behaviours which undermine the communal social fabric and our failure to provide idealistic youth with meaningful outlets for their energy.

This theme is not new and 'Tribe' was not intended as an academic treatise. Despite the persuasive power of Junger's writing even sympathetic critics can certainly find grounds for caution. For instance, along with hordes of 'humanity gurus' and even some within the sciences, he grossly underestimates the rapidity and possible implications of genetic (and cultural) change in the context of very different selection environments, mitigated possibly by migration.

Indeed, almost all the territory he covers is contested, tabooed and extraordinarily complex. It is absurd to expect a short book intended for an intelligent and thoughtful but general audience to achieve academic rigour. It is a 'cri de coeur' and an invitation to some serious introspection on the nature and sources of the deep malaise into which modern democracies seem to have fallen.

A good place to start is simply to remind ourselves how democracy came to be and what it has brought in its wake.

Viewing democracy, in the broadest sense, as an evolved cultural-political compromise between freedom and order, it, ideally, permits expression of human individuality and potential within the 'safe space' provided by the internalised constraints of shared democratic norms, the regulatory influence of formal democratic institutions, a shared national identity and the ultimate power of the state to enforce the rules on 'defectors'.  

The democratic state also serves as a defence against external enemies. Within a broadly democratic regional or world order, such threats may potentially fade to insignificance owing to the material and intangible benefits following in the wake of democracy and the resultant lack of incentive to conquest.

Such, broadly speaking, has been the enviable state of Europe, of 'the West' more broadly and parts of Asia for more-or-less seven decades following WW2. In response, this period has seen the explosive blossoming of technological innovation and the arts, improvements in health and lifespan, high levels of physical security and unparalleled access to information and knowledge. 

A truly golden age for those able to partake fully of its riches and the fantasy world of those trapped in loops of violence, poverty and overall deprivation.

But, the small clouds marring the spotless sunshine of the Western democratic order have grown into ominous thunderheads. We need not spend much time on what everyone knows - that significant segments of the world have not participated in the democratic transition or shared in its benefits and, hence, suffer privations as severe as our species has ever encountered. Nor do we need much reminding that such regions have frequently become incubators of radical and violent political movements drawing on the same primal tribal instincts which, under suitable conditions, underpin human social health.

Simultaneously and ironically, such atavistic groups draw on the technological-cultural innovations of the West in order to attack it while rejecting the values which made these achievements possible.

Given the relative strengths of the democratic domain and most of the rest there should be no contest. But, to quote Junger himself (pg.125) talking of the USA, "People speak (of each other) with incredible contempt... It's a level of contempt that is usually reserved for enemies in wartime, except that now it's applied to our fellow citizens." And, further on he remarks, "The United States is so powerful that the only country capable of destroying her might be the United States herself".

These bitter and despairing comments ring familiar to South African ears and can be applied, perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, to other Western and developing democracies. It suggests that the institutions of democracy have been emptied of their essential content, a shared, over-arching national identity which transcends differences in class, wealth, national origins, education, history and existential reality.

I would like to suggest that this terrain has been prepared, at least in part, by the corruption of the deepening post-war concern for universal human rights. The 'human rights movement' set in motion many worthwhile formal and informal initiatives which have had a beneficial effect on individuals and many segments of society excluded, for various reasons, from incorporation into the immense benefits of the democratic order.

But the pristine ideals of the pioneers have undergone transformations in the hurly-burly of the political world which now threaten to undermine the democratic project itself. One such has been termed 'concept creep'.

In a seminal paper (Psychological Inquiry 2016, 27, 1, 1-17) accompanied by extensive commentary, Nick Haslam summarised the core idea in the following words " Concepts that refer to the negative aspects of human experience and behavior have expanded their meanings so that they now encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before."

In one form of 'creep', ideas initially applied to harmful psychological issues have expanded into the political domain to serve ideological and political ends. Take, for example, Professor Rebecca Moore Howard, of Syracuse University who defines her primary research interest as focussed on "the writing produced by students and the pedagogies that encourage the work of the already privileged while discouraging the work of the already marginalized."

One product of that work is the following passage "But the discourse of plagiarism regulates not only textuality but sexuality. Embedded in the discursive construction of plagiarism are metaphors of gender, weakness, collaboration, disease, adultery, rape, and property that communicate a fear of violating sexual as well as textual boundaries."

Creep has become further entwined with a 'deification' process whereby concepts, which were initially empirical and provisional - and thus subject to robust criticism and modification - have subsequently been transformed through political activism into secular-religious doctrines, immutable and sacred. The upshot has been an obsessive search for the 'victims' of Western democracy (now cast as the Satan of the modern world). The list so generated is curiously selective and is subject to the contingencies of partisan political currents and special interests.  

An intolerant and all-encompassing morality has been thereby created.  Any questioning its doctrines and supportive narratives are met with a chorus of 'slurs' designed to close down debate and to exert a moral hegemony over permissible ideas within society.

The totalitarian impulse which supports this weaponised transformation should not be underestimated. The echoes of past ages of religious intolerance are unmistakeable in the pervasive social media storms, the shouting down of speakers one doesn't morally approve of, the multiple  boycott movements and the physical and psychological intimidation of opponents across the USA and other democratic states.

History, in all its complex, lived reality and contingency is stripped down to the 'moral' elements which best serve aspirant 'victims', thus providing them with the sense of outrage, unity and motivation for redress which fuels an aggressive and narrow tribal identity. Victimhood also provides an effective shield from critical introspection and outside judgement. The consequence of these processes in the USA, for example, has been a clear polarisation of the American body politic and disruption of the core national identity.

In South Africa we have seen the calculated use of history and multiple forms of existing  inequality to bludgeon the White community along with any other dissidents into submission, and to inflame the passions of the Black underclass. The perks to be derived from such bottom-of-the-barrel politics by the current ruling elite are short term but the long term consequences of this cynical exploitation is to perpetuate the low trust, zero-sum politics which is destroying the fabric and future of the country.   

I started with a Churchillian quote and would like to end with another,  "What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?"

In this spirit, our most pressing challenge is to re-vitalise the idea of democracy so as to restore its relevance to our fundamental psychological needs while simultaneously meeting the challenge of material inequality and an ever-expanding technology and global interconnectedness. The tools and insights are within our grasp though success will not come easily.

Failure of imagination and nerve, on the other hand, will probably mean extinction for some but definitely misery for many more.