[Ed. Note: Quas Lacrimas has posted an excellent essay about tribalism as well which dovetails quite nicely with this post. Please take a moment to read it!]
In this post, I’d like to address the phenomenon of tribalism. There can be two general definitions of this term. The first is attitudinal – it refers to the possession by a group of people of a strong ethnic and cultural identity, one which pervades every level and facet of their society, and which serves to separate (often in a hostile sense) the group’s understanding of itself apart from its neighbours. The second definition is more technical and anthropological, referring to a group of people organised along kinship lines and possessing what would generally be referred to as a “primitive” governmental form centered around a chieftain and body of elders who are often thought to be imbued with supernatural authority and prestige (mana or some similar concept). The first definition, of course, is nearly always displayed by the second. It is this second definition which I would like to deal with, however.
Specifically, I’d like to explore the question of how tribalism relates to the collapse of widely spread cultures when they are placed under extreme stresses.
There is always the temptation to view historical and pre-historical (i.e., before written records were available) people-groups which were organised along tribal lines as “primitives” or even “stupid.” This is not necessarily the case, and in many instances is certainly not true. However, tribalism is not a truly optimal or even “natural” form of social organisation, and I believe is forced onto people-groups more out of necessity than anything else.
Before exploring the whys of tribalism’s existence, let’s first note what I believe can be stated as a general truism – Mankind is a social creature who naturally desires to organise himself along communal lines. This is why cities, cultures, civilisations even exist in the first place. Early in the history of Western science, Aristotle expressed this sentiment in his oft-quoted statement that “Man is by nature a political animal” (ὁ ἄνθρωπος φύσει πολιτικὸν ζῷον). This aphorism is usually misunderstood, unfortunately, due to the failure of many to take its cultural context into account. Aristotle was not saying that mankind’s nature is to sit around reading about politicians in the newspaper. He was not talking about “politics” in some sort of demotic or operational sense. Rather, “political” means “of the polis.” The polis, in archaic and classical Greece, was more than just a city-state – it was the very sum of Greek communal existence. Foreigners without poleis were not merely barbarians, they were something less than human beings, they lacked a crucial element of communal existence that made man – capable of speech and reason – different from the animals and able to govern himself rationally. “Political” did not mean “elections” or “scandals,” as it does with us today. Instead, it meant “capable of living with other human beings as a rational creature.” It meant civilisation itself. Tribalism, while perhaps incorrectly called “primitive,” nevertheless is “underdeveloped.” It is in the nature of man to organise himself socially, and even among early and technologically backwards peoples, this organisation was quite often more complex than tribal forms. While modern cities may be populated by socially atomised shells of men, the classical view of the city was that it was vital to genuine humanity.
My point in all of this is that I don’t believe that tribal organisation is a “natural” endpoint for humanity, socially speaking. The reason tribes are tribes is not because they are all too stupid to be capable of anything else, nor because they have achieved an organisation that truly satisfies the human spirit and nature. As the saying goes, “The only morality is civilisation.” The direction of man’s communal association with man is toward more complex forms of social and governing interactions which satisfy man’s inner desire for sociability.
So why are tribal peoples…tribal? My theory is that tribalism arises neither from stupidity or satisfaction, but as a result of either environmental factors such as geography, habitability, etc. which inhibit complexification of social organisation, or else as a result of civilisation-destroying catastrophes which corrode and destroy central authority and the institutions necessary to maintain socially complex systems.
The first – environmental factors – would most likely be useful for explaining why cultures existing in more extreme biomes persist in a tribal state. For example, the Arctic regions inhabited by the Inuit would militate against building complexity into their native (i.e. pre-contact with modern Europeans) societies. The first great civilisations of the river valleys – Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, and China – all began because of the organisation needed to construct and administer large scale irrigation projects for agriculture. Yet, the weather in the Arctic precludes any sort of agriculture, as well as many other activities associated with high civilisation such as monumental architecture and large scale trade. The Inuit remained tribal hunter-gatherers not because they were inherently incapable of high culture, but because their surroundings inhibited them from it. Likewise, the many tribal groups in the Rub’ al-Khali (the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula) were more or less locked into a semi-nomadic transhumant existence by their environment, even as the racially and linguistically quite similar peoples of Yemen and the Hadramaut were developing complex agricultural and commercial cultures along the wadis.
However, I believe that the more common reason for tribalism in history is that of catastrophes – of various types, some fast-acting and others much slower – which essentially “turned the world upside down” for previous high civilisations which were affected by them. I believe that there are many examples of this which can be seen, or at least inferred, from historical study. I’ll detail five of them below.
The first is an example which would formerly have been considered to fall into the category of tribes remaining tribal because of geographical factors, but which recent archaeological evidence suggests is not the case. This would be the tribes (or at least some of them) of the Amazon jungles, especially the Mato Grosso region of western Brazil. Long considered to be one of the most primitive regions on the planet, one could easily make the argument that these tribes were such because of the extreme conditions found in the South American jungles. While lush and verdant, these jungles are really rather inhospitable from the standpoint of human habitability – the jungle itself is extremely dense, is rife with parasites and other disease-carriers, and is full of poisonous plants and animals of all kinds. Yet, archaeologists now know that there was an advanced urban culture in this region which supported large-scale root agriculture, build roads, bridges, and palisades, and dammed rivers for the purpose of fish farming – evidently the rumours told to the early Spanish conquistadores of cities in the jungle were more than just myth. This culture lasted for nearly a millennium until it went into terminal decline around 1550 AD, the jungle reclaiming it thoroughly until satellite imaging recently rediscovered it.
What happened? We’re not sure, but the best theory seems to be that diseases brought by Europeans terminated this Mato Grosso culture, destroying enough of its population that urban existence could no longer be sustained. The result of this was a turn to tribalism, a less complex form more easily sustained by the post-plague population. The descendants of this culture are the Kuikuro people, a Carib-speaking tribe living in the region, and probably also other tribes living in the greater area around the Matto Grosso. In the case of the Mato Grosso city culture, the shock of disease against which they had no immunity destroyed their population, and concomitantly their ability to maintain more complex forms of civilisation.
The second example would be that of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, centered around its capital of “Great Zimbabwe,” designated as such so as to distinguish it from the 200 or so smaller “zimbabwes” that have been scattered around present-day Rhodesia and Mozambique. Great Zimbabwe, at its peak, housed almost 20,000 people and was the nucleus of a widespread Iron Age culture in southern Africa, and this Bantu culture flourished from the 11th-16th centuries AD before collapsing. It is thought that the decline of Zimbabwean culture was due to the exhaustion of key natural resources which kept them from sustaining their urban culture. The result, if the later state of the peoples in the area is any indicator, was a conversion to the tribal structures more typically associated with sub-Saharan Africa. The direct descendants of the Zimbabwean culture are thought to be the various tribes in the area speaking Shona, a Bantu language group with over 8 million speakers now (post Western medicine and agriculture, of course). Once again, though, we see that when conditions changed – the loss of key resource supports for the urban culture – the shock to the system led to a radical decomplexification of the society involved.
Next we have the case of the Germanic peoples who existed in various tribal configurations during the Iron Age (i.e. the Roman period, as well as during and after the Völkerwanderung). These peoples were obviously not “stupid” – they were, in fact, high IQ populations who adapted themselves to the remains of Roman civilisation quite well. So how is it that despite inhabiting a temperate climate amenable to intensive cereal cultivation (which they practiced), they were organised into tribes rather than building their own civilization? Well, it appears likely that they did build one – we know of it as the “Gotlandic Bronze Age,” and it existed from roughly the 12th-6th centuries BC around the coastal regions of Scandinavia and the Baltic basin. There is archaeological evidence from this period for the existence of high culture, advanced and widespread trade networks, and so forth. It is theorized that this culture collapsed due to climate change (real change, not the “anthropogenic global warming” nonsense being peddled today) as northern Europe entered a period of cooler, wetter weather than no longer supported the dense agriculture evidenced during this period. As we can easily understand, less food means they would have been unable to sustain the population density suggested by the material evidences, which would have lead to civilizational collapse into lower density tribal configurations. The descendants of this civilisation were most likely the Germanic tribes which the Romans encountered.
The fourth example would be the Mississippian culture in North America, which many may know of as the “mound builders.” Again, this culture was widespread all over the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys and evidenced advanced urban centres and evolved trade networks. The Mississippi culture flourished from around 1000-1500 AD, when it went into decline and more or less fell apart. Again, climate change (the end of the Medieval Warm Period) seems to have destroyed the agricultural base, and the peoples sharing this culture reverted to a lower density tribal, hunter-gatherer organization. These were the peoples that white settlers encountered in the 16th-18th centuries along much of the Atlantic seaboard and as they moved into the Cumberland valley.
The final example is that of Central Asia. Today, we think of Central Asia as basically a wasteland inhabited by primitive tribes upon whom modern civilization has (barely) been imposed. However, Central Asia was historically home to a succession of several reasonably advanced civilisations, from the Greco-Bactrians and the Kushans to the Tocharians to the Turks and onward. Central Asia was a vital part of the Silk Road trade routes and was home to many large and advanced cities during the early Islamic period, such as Merv, Samarqand, Balkh, Bukhara, and so forth. So what happened to this region?
The Mongols, that’s what. When the Mongols arrived in the region around 1220 AD during their westward march, most of the region was controlled by the Persian Khwarizmian Empire, which made the mistake of insulting and then fighting the Mongols. The Mongols – who were never very keen on urban civilisation to begin with – took this provocation as an excuse to essentially deculturate the entire area, basically destroying everything (see figure to the right). They wiped out civilization in this region so thoroughly that the remaining survivors fell back into tribalism, and stayed that way for centuries until the Russians and the British came, bringing modern technical civilization to them.
As such, tribalism is not always (or even mostly) the result of “stupid people who just haven’t figured civilization out yet.” Rather, it is often a rational response to literally earth-shaking events which wipe out previous high civilization and the ability of a region to sustain high-density populations.
So let’s now bring ourselves back up to the present day. What lesson may we learn from this history and theory? It’s common to hear about the imminent collapse of American or Western civilisation. Certainly, things don’t seem to be going too well for us at the present moment. But would it be possible for our civilisation, or at least a substantial subsection of the cultures comprising it in aggregate, to sustain such a shock as to cause a reversion of Western man back to tribalism?
The short answer to that is, “Of course it’s possible. Anything is possible.”
The somewhat longer answer is that it would be possible, but something awfully terrible would have to happen.
The shocks which the high civilisations of Europe and East Asia sustained over the past millennium – for example the Black Plague starting in Europe in the 1350s and the periodic civil wars and overthrows of dynasties in China which were usually accompanied by terrible famines – were not enough to topple those civilisations into tribalism. Even the fall of the western Roman Empire, in and of itself, was not enough to cause the Romans themselves to revert to tribalism. The basic infrastructures of civilisation still remained in place. The Black Plague wiped out 40% of Europe’s population, and even this wasn’t enough to shatter the culture (though it did psychologically derange it for at least a century afterward). Indeed, many would argue that the Plague helped to pave the way for modernity by undermining the foundation of the medieval system of land-labour tenure.
I find it unlikely that the sorts of assaults we’re seeing right now – even the influx of Muslim barbarians into Europe – is going to be enough to finish off Western civilisation. There may be some territorial rearrangements as a result of it, but I just don’t see the Muslims successfully terminating the West, even given our feckless, traitorous “leadership.” Even if they were able to conquer the West, we wouldn’t see a reversion to tribalism, but merely the imposition of Muslim barbarism and the slow decay of modern technical civilisation under the hands of those genetically and intellectually unable to sustain it.
So, what would lead to a “simplification” of the West? It’d have to be something massive which our technology couldn’t deal with. Even a severe climactic change probably wouldn’t do it, as we have the technology to maintain an agricultural infrastructure even in the face of a shifting environment. No, to cause a reversion to tribalism would probably require something on the scale of a nuclear war. The troubles experienced by the cultures I discussed above were, for their time and technology, as destructive as such a war would be today. The complete destruction of at least a large portion of our urban centres is what we’d be talking about here.
Again, most of us acknowledge that the West is sick. Many think it’s going to collapse, or at least undergo a drastic “reorganisation.” Some even think to help the process along (accelerationism) so that the Great Reset will make everything right. But short of that nuclear war, it’s doubtful we’ll see America or Europe fall apart so thoroughly that technical civilisation could not be sustained. I can easily see the collapse of the USA into a number of successor states (non-ideal, but not out of the realm of possibility by any means). I can even see that the collapse of central authority would lead to the rise of local strongmen who would eventually become a new aristocratic class within these successor states, much as happened when the western Empire fell. But a decay into tribalism? Not likely.
Those of us in neoreaction are (supposed to be) preparing ourselves to become worthy, accept power, and rule. In a sense, that means we’re anticipating the falling away of the present democratic, hedonistic, chaotic, unsustainable system of modernism in the West. We may not be actively hoping for it, or at least for it to be as disruptive as it will probably be, but it means we’re preparing for it. Many in the broader alt-Right seem to hope for the return of tribalism, of one cultural archetype or another, not realising what that would really entail. But we should be hoping for the orderly transition of power between the old and the new orders. If we really value the framework of order and stability provided by traditional and aristocratic society, then our efforts to see these ideals realised will involve the exertion of our influence toward the end of guiding the process toward the eventual end of that orderly transition, not simply “smashing the system” and seeing what results.