October 5th, 2010 // 4:00 am @ Oliver DeMille
THERE ARE AT LEAST THREE MAJOR CULTURAL TRADITIONS of the world’s history, which can be described as Warriors, Farmers and Competitors.
Warrior cultures believe in enemies, battles, winners and losers, us versus them, strength, courage, victory, personal skill, honor, resiliency, and a bias toward action—among other things.
They tend to see the world in terms of “our tribe” above all else. Many in history called themselves “the people,” or “the chosen.”
The tribes which became the nations of Norway (Norse), England (Anglos), France (Franks), etc. were from this tradition; other examples are found around the world.
Farmer traditions valued security, hard work, frugality, sexual morality, responsibility, loyalty to community, savings and assets, land ownership, integrity, education, honesty, steadiness, family loyalty, neighborliness, and prosperity defined by abundance of food.
They built communities, simultaneously promoted individual freedom and conformity to community norms, and considered themselves successful when they produced bountiful harvests and saw their children married well (to spouses who embodied the values of the community).
Competitor traditions saw the world as (usually) friendly competition between children at play, youth at courting and adults at work. Even the elderly competed to brag about the best lives, worst pain, most accomplished son, most neglectful daughter, most talented grandchildren, and whatever else came up.
For example: “I have two sons who are doctors and a daughter who is a lawyer,” versus “My grandson is a star quarterback who just won a state championship and his sister just got a scholarship from a national competition she won in Washington, D.C.”
People in such societies like competitive entertainment to escape from the pressures of their competitive schools and jobs.
A lot more could be said about these three major traditions, but the key point here is how they relate to tribes and freedom.
Warrior societies are tribal by nature, and they grow by conquering and colonizing other societies. They see life as a big battle, and raise their children and spend their days in battle mode.
They believe that life is about either conquering or being conquered. They see those with farmer and competitor traditions as victims.
Farmer societies are also tribal, but see the world as a big desert that needs to be turned into a garden. The more people who will adopt their values and join their quest to beautify and expand the garden, the better.
To them, the warriors and competitors are savages and wild outsiders who should be avoided and kept away from their society.
Pitfalls of National Culture
Competitor cultures are National (as opposed to tribal): interested in education for career, working moderate hours in order to enjoy daily entertainments, uninvolved with neighbors unless there is some other relationship to pull them together, and selfish with their free time.
They see the world as a big race, and individuals want to be the winners instead of the losers. In fact, they generally look down on “losers” and avoid them lest losing somehow “rub off” on them.
They see warrior and farmer cultures as quaint and backward, at best, and often with a more critical eye. Clearly, those cultures aren’t winning the race.
Competitor cultures divide their competitions into those that matter and those that don’t. They join tribes for the ones with little at stake, but stay individually focused on the ones that matter most.
Career and money are the competitions that matter more than any others in these cultures. Even family relationships have to take a back seat to most career considerations.
In other words, competitor cultures appear tribal by habit, but are nationalistic when they feel something is really important.
National cultures therefore desperately need the lessons taught by traditional tribal cultures.
But there are also pitfalls and negatives typical to tribal cultures, and we want to learn what they are and avoid them.
The American founders took on a deliberate process of statecraft, weighing the merits and failings of forms, models and ideals from societies throughout history.
I would assert that such a considered approach to our future as a nation and society is called for today. The goal is to adopt the best from national, tribal, warrior, farmer, competitive and other cultures, and at the same time reject their flaws and weaknesses.
With this in mind, let’s discuss what the tribal ideal really is.
With the assumption of local governance under the direction of concerned and involved citizens who were invested in one another’s success and security—basically a tribal council at the community level—the American founders established constitutional forms to create a cooperative and interactive union of states.
We have lost too much of the tribal foundation that was the animating spirit of American culture—the underlying weave of the fabric of freedom—and it is hard to overstate the case for recapturing it.
The Tribal Worldview
Just as there are religious worldviews, secular worldviews, materialistic worldviews, etc., there is an overarching tribal worldview.
Just like there are many views and differences within, say, the religious worldview, there are many different tribal perspectives.
And just as there is an overarching religious worldview (there is a higher power, and I should live in harmony with it/Him), there is also a profound and powerful tribal worldview.
One of the best ways to begin to understand any worldview is to ask, “What is the world, and what is the purpose of life and the universe?”
This is a complex question, of course, but it can be answered in simple terms and the early answers are often the most important. By understanding tribal culture at this basic level, we understand a great deal about ourselves.
As I have studied tribal cultures from around the world and throughout history with these questions in mind (What is the world? What is the purpose of life and the universe?), I have categorized recurring themes, forces and societal roles; the labels used here are my own.
In generic tribal thought, the universe is made up of certain vital entities. For example, first come the Obeyers; these do their part in the universe unfailingly. They include suns, moons, planets, rocks, canyons, rivers, mountains, valleys, etc.
Many ancient religious temples and writings are full of these Obeyers. Obeyers set an example to all others, and they are the basic building blocks of everything. Many ancient stories center around references to and morals learned from valleys, rivers, mountains, etc.
Next are the Growers: the trees, grasses, plants, fruits, and so on. They build the universe by growing. Their growth feeds the others, bringing the power of the sun into assimilable form.
Many ancient religions and philosophies are built around the Growers and grower symbols.
The Movers include animals, fish and birds. They move around the world, spreading minerals and seeds from the Obeyers and Growers as they travel.
Many tribes consider some of the Movers, especially birds, to be messengers, teaching us as we interact with them in the world. They also provide food to others, and feed the Growers when they die.
The Movers are a key part of the universe, as are the Growers and Obeyers.
The Fishers are an interesting group. They change the environment by building dams to fish like beavers, or storing nuts like squirrels. Bees and others fit this category. They somehow raise and harvest food, not just wander and search for it.
In some traditions they are called farmers, and in others spiders (which weave webs to capture food). By their fishing, storing, farming, weaving, etc., they benefit the environment and all of life.
People are expected to learn from all of these parts of the universe, and to follow their good examples. Each type of entity is judged by how well it promotes and benefits life, which Obeyers, Growers, Movers and Fishers all do.
Next come the Lovers. Lovers benefit life to the extent that they love. When they don’t love, they hurt life and all the other entities.
The Lovers include all humans and also the spirits (or God, gods, and/or ancestors, depending on the tribe). Humans exist to love.
The Shadow Side
In addition to the good parts of the universe that benefit life, there are those that attack life. These include the Thieves, Murderers, Manipulators and Destroyers.
Thieves take one’s implements of life because they think it will benefit their life. They are mistaken, and cause pain for all by wrongly attacking life.
Murderers take life in order to promote their own life, and in so doing increase total pain. Murderers are seen as worse than Thieves.
Manipulators are an interesting category, often considered to be much worse than thieves and murderers. Manipulators set up systems that steal or kill, but in a way that the thieves and murderers aren’t directly blamed and in fact get away with it more often.
Such systems include anything that skews the natural way things should be, such as class and caste systems, manipulative and deceptive laws and governments, tricky lending and business deals, etc.
In this worldview, the only thing worse than Manipulators are Destroyers. Destroyers are those whose very nature has changed, who no longer are fallen Lovers, but are truly motivated only by hate and pride.
Note that while Movers, Fishers and Humans can be Thieves and Murderers, only humans can become Manipulators or Destroyers.
Since the very purpose of humans in the universe is to bring as much love as possible into the world, it is a colossal tragedy if a Lover becomes a Manipulator or a Destroyer.
By the way, in many traditions only Manipulators become Destroyers.
Now, with all this said, imagine how people in this culture feel about those who set up abusive, forced, corrupt and controlling governments, economies and laws: They are the worst of the worst.
Even those who support, condone or allow such manipulative governments, laws and economies are doing the work of the Destroyers and attacking life and all that is good.
This is one reason that tribal societies so adamantly mistrust most national cultures and people: It seems to many of them that the very basis of national culture is manipulations and exploitative systems.
It is also why it would be so valuable for them to learn the constitutional principles of freedom and how to apply them. But our purpose here is not to admonish the tribal cultures, but to learn from them.
Major Weaknesses of Tribalism
At this point, we should note that while traditional tribal culture does have much to teach us from its idyllic simplicity, it is far from perfect. Studying its pitfalls and common flaws is also instructive.
When tribes are run by small councils of all adult members, these weaknesses can be mitigated.
But when tribes don’t follow the leadership of councils of all adults, they turn against themselves; whatever other form of government they adopt, it becomes corrupt.
When this happens, various problems arise. The problems that follow are the normal for tribes that are not led by councils of all adults.
Tribal culture generally gives a great deal of economic power to tribal leaders.
Interestingly, most tribes distribute political power well between the executive (who gets power only in the face of external challenges and only for the duration of the challenge), the judicial (often a shaman and in many cultures left to families⎯both of which are usually independent of the executive and legislative), and run by the legislative (sometimes councils of elders, sometimes the combined adults of the tribe, sometimes both).
Of course, there are tribes that fail to follow these models, but the freest tribes use these basic systems.
Still, even with political freedoms, few historical tribes have economic freedoms.
The trust of the chief, the head elder (male or female) or the shaman is often absolute.
And, indeed, such leaders often adopt a sort of royal mentality where they believe that what is good for the leader’s finances is good for the whole tribe. In this form, nobody sees undue control of everyone’s finances and ownership as a negative.
But often, it creates the loss of political freedom—including parental choices, like who should marry whom—and a strict caste system with no economic or social mobility.
Many tribes face long-term poverty for most members of the tribe. Such poverty never persists in a truly free-enterprise model, which includes both freedom and opportunity.
Often tribal leaders see this as a threat to their power and, by extension, the tribe’s security and viability.
Emerging tribes with a charismatic leader who seeks control over individuals’ and families’ finances are cultish, and history is littered with the tragedies that such arrangements can lead to.
If a tribe wants to sell things, that’s great. But trying to pool resources or give up control of personal property should of course be met with serious suspicion.
This discussion also exposes a national-culture flaw: the idea that in learning from other cultures we should not judge their systems, traditions and behaviors.
Perhaps this is true when the goal is to maintain purity and academic objectivity in anthropological studies, but it certainly not true when our purpose is to learn and apply the best of tribal (and national) cultures to the tribally-nationalistic-globally-connected societies of the future.
If some calamity changes the world drastically, the same lessons will need to be applied in the new local societies that will be forged.
We need to measure the parts of each culture by how well they promote and support an environment of freedom, prosperity and happiness for all.
In a small group, political power is often swayed by personalities, likes and dislikes, trysts and history, baggage and personal weaknesses. Nothing can keep this from happening, and in a free system and voluntary tribes it doesn’t matter much.
In a local or official tribal system where the government has actual power over life, death, imprisonment, finances, etc., systems should always be established that keep this from happening.
By “systems” I mean written constitutions with separation of powers, checks and balances well-structured.
Most tribes are aristocracies. This is a problem, because the class system is usually established by those in power and dominated by certain families.
In a local structure, or any model where the tribe or community is non-voluntary and/or actually has government power, the solution to this is to establish a legislature of all adults in the tribe.
As the tribe grows in size and geographical scope, local councils representing perhaps no more than 150 households continue to govern themselves, and may send representatives to a regional council to manage affairs of mutual interest to the coalition of local councils.
Tribes often flounder economically and fail to grow because the people become too socially conformist. When tribes demand sameness on many levels and in nearly every aspect of life, they shut down creativity, leadership, wisdom and progress.
This is natural to any group, and in national cultures it is often called “groupthink.”
It is important for any group to continue learning, thinking, risking and trying.
Of course, certain violent and anti-social behaviors from rape to murder and so on cannot be tolerated. But stopping criminal behavior is far different from scripting people’s lives and socially enforced hyper-conformity.
This also translates to a socially-enforced closed-mindedness with respect to new ideas and a lack of tolerance for diversity, which lead to a stagnation of creativity and a tendency toward thought-policing.
Lack of Diversity
These conspire to cause narrowness of thinking, along with many of the other problems listed above. On the one hand, the whole point of tribe is joining together based on commonalities.
But the thing which makes tribes flourish is truly caring about each other, connecting, bonding. And connections based on both commonality (such as the shared value of freedom of choice) and diversity (such as the shared value of freedom of conscience) weave a much stronger fabric than one based on sameness.
The New Tribes of the 21st Century would do well, of course, to avoid these pitfalls. As stated, nearly all of these go away when a tribal society is governed by small councils of all adults in the tribe. If the tribe is too large for everyone to have a voice, smaller sub-councils are needed.
Historical tribes do have their weaknesses, but these also have much to teach us. Our generation of citizens needs to understand the good and the bad from the great tribes, nations and societies of history.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.