Tribes and Nations

ermadog at ermadog at
Wed Feb 27 03:24:37 MST 2002

Tribal Social Structures
Domnal said:

   This insight also offers an understanding of the nature of
   revolutionary behaviour in small rural villages. That it was
   organised on familial lines, that splits over policy occured
   along family fault-lines, that bad-practices could come about due
   to nepotism and the like, that outsiders are never trusted to the
   second generation. All these things combine with petty localised
   community loyalties to produce potential difficulties (and also
   go some way in explaining the strengths) of the movement on a
   localised scale. I offer this analysis as I feel an understanding
   of this underlying societal structure is of key importance in
   enabling theorists to make realistic criticisms of macro-scale

My Reply:

I would like to thank you for this post. It illustrates well the
dangers of attachment to the parochialism of village life. You
have shown us how community ties (coming together for births,
etc.) can obscure the existence of deeper divisions. You have
also alluded to the hidden decision making process within closed
societies (nepotism, in most cases by the Old Families of the
village.) The ant-democratic nature of politics in village life
is too often ignored by those who like to romanticise the strong
sense of community identity in rustic society. Decision-making
along lines of personal relationships is not democratic,
especially when those relationships are formed by accident of

The danger posed by this type of romanticisation lies in the
potential for reification of kin-based affiliation behaviours.
When tribal, village, or family law lay down the rules for human
behaviour, the illustration of which is the function of myth,
these familial duties become more important than the individuals,
whose worth is judged by the fidelity with which he hews to the
party line. These relationships, because they are based on blood,
are seen as part of the natural world and therefore stand as
Absolutes against the will of the individual.

It is within family that we first learn that we can be bought:
that we first learn obligation. We discover that, because our
families produced us, we are obligated to them from birth. They
give us sustenance and life skills, and we must therefore give
what they have predetermined is owing. Once we are taught to
accept these basic facts of life, we can be coerced or
manipulated into following any authority who knows what buttons to

However, we are not programmable machines. The best laid plans of
the status quo don't always work out. Pre-class societies have
very limited means of controlling their individual members.

Since Marshal Sahlins is a Louis Approved Marxist
Anthropologist(Tm), let's turn to him for some insights. This is
from _Stone Age Economics_, 1972:

Stoneage Economics

   "Instead of unifying society by sacrificing the autonomy of its
   producing groups, the division of labor here, as it is
   principally a division of labor by sex, sacrifices the unity of
   society to the autonomy of its producing groups. Nor is any
   higher cause entertained by the household's access to productive
   resources, or again by the economic priorities codified in
   domestic pooling. Viewed politically, the DMP is a kind of
   natural state. Nothing within this infrastructure of production
   obliges the several household groups to enter into compact and
   cede each one some part of its autonomy. As the domestic economy
   is in effect the tribal economy in miniature, so politically it
   underwrites the condition of primitive society - society without
   a Sovereign. In principle each house retains, as well as its own
   interests, all the powers that are wanted to satisfy them.
   Divided thus into so many units of self-concern, functionally
   uncoordinated, production by the domestic mode has all the
   organization of the so many potatoes in a certain famous sack of

   "That is in essence the primitive structure of production. But of
   course not in appearance. In appearance, primitive society is a
   poor likeness of primordial incoherence. Everywhere the petty
   anarchy of domestic production is counterposed by larger forces
   and greater organization, institutions of social-economic order
   that join one house to another and submit all to a general
   interest. Still, these grand forces of integration are not given
   in the dominant and immediate relations of production. On the
   contrary, precisely as they are negations of domestic anarchy,
   they owe part of their meaning and existence to the disorder they
   would suppress. And if in the end anarchy is banished from the
   surface of things, it is not definitively exiled. It continues, a
   persistent disarray lurking in the background, so long as the
   household remains in charge of production." p. 95

[Note well! Disorder and anarchy of the domestic unit is
*suppressed* by the tribal unity! This tribal unity is a fragile
thing. JC]

   He quotes Carneiro:

   I would like to argue that a factor of greater importance has
   been the ease and frequency of village fissioning for reasons not
   related to subsistence[that is, to techniques of subsistence]...
   In the facility with which the phenomenon occures suggests that
   villages may seldom get a chance to increase in population to the
   point at which they begin to press hard on the carrying capacity
   of the land. The centrifugal forces that cause villages to break
   apart seem to reach a critical point well before this happens.
   What the forces are that lead to village fission falls outside
   the present dicussion. Suffice it to say that many things may
   give rise to factional disputes within a society, and that the
   larger the community the more frequent these disputes are likely
   to be. By the time a village in the Tropical Forest attains a
   population of 500 or 600 the streses and strains within it are
   probably such that an open schism, leading to the hiving off of a
   dissident faction, may easily occur. If internal political
   controls were strong, a large community might succeed in
   remaining intact despite factionalism. But chieftanship was
   notoriously weak among most Amazonian villages, so that the
   political mechanisms for holding a growing community together in
   the face of increasingly strong divisive forces were all but
   lacking (Carneiro, 1968, p. 136).

   "My point is that primitive society is founded on an economic
   disconformity, a segmentary fragility that lends itself to and
   reverberates particular local causes of dispute, and in the
   absence of "mechanisms for holding a growing community together"
   realizes and resolves the crisis by fission." p. 98

The strong sense of community that romantics admire is in fact a
human artifact called religion. It generates both the fears that
inhibit individuals from breaking group solidarity, and the sense
of awe that causes individuals to be greatfull for the benefits
of membership in the group (into which we were born purely by
chance, don't forget.)

Pre-class societies solve the problem of real and actual disunity
by means of the fissioning process mentioned above. Class
societies restrict the movement of individuals so that they are
forced to live with irresolvable conflict, lurking beneath an
apparently idyllic surface. Religion serves to elevate what would
otherwise be naturally arising emotional bonds to stand reified
above society as a whole, where they are safeguarded by fictive
dead ancestors operating in an imagined spirit world.

Throughout the period of the Enlightenment, and well into the
20th. C., romanticists and folklorists mined the cultural remains
of what Engels called "the ancient bunk" still extant in the
villages and remote corners of Europe. This is a testament not so
much to the strength of community spirit as to failure of various
ruling classes to incorporate the needs of the toiling masses
into their own cultural projects.

We know that the early Christianization of Europe had such little
impact on rural Europeans that the non-Christians were referred
to by a term - "pagan" - that means "rustic" (in a disparaging
sense, such as "yokel"). We see that centuries after conversion,
kings still counted their descendance from pre-Christian deities
and retained Druid counsellors at court. Tribal ways lingered on
for centuries. In England, the Anglo-Saxon customs of frankpledge
and hue-and-cry were fostered by the newly conquering Normans as
a means of social control. The ancient Celtic funerary custom of
holding boisterous wakes for the dead lingered on till well into
the 14th. C. (and in Ireland, into the 20th. C.)

With the advent of the great Celtic Revival, we can see that an
impressive amount of this old culture has been preserved. (Who
knew there were so many precursors to the Great Pipes? And such a
wide range of musical styles?) And in a documentary last year, I
saw the last two remaining singers of a 3,000 year Punic dialect.
They had no idea what the words meant, had no one to ask for the
meaning, and had no one to pass them on to. Has any of these
people preserved their ancient tribal "spirit of egalitarianism",
which Louis Proyect asserts *must* have existed?

The strongest case for preservation of European tribal culture
can be made in Ireland. There are a number of historical reasons
for this, starting with the failure of Rome to conquer the
island. We know from the Roman historians that Ceasar adopted a
deliberate policy of destruction of the Druids caste. He
recognized that they were the only social element that had the
potential to act as a unifying principle for the Celtic tribes.
Without an organizing principle, the tribes were never able to
present a unified opposition to the Roman army. (Except
sporadically, as with Vercingetorix).

The Roman Empire collapsed before any serious attempt was made to
conquer Ireland. Thus, the Druids were able to put up stiff
competition when the Christian missionaries came calling
centuries later. A tremendous outpouring of culture was recorded
when these latter introduced secular writing methods to the
Celtic laity. (For religious reasons, the sacred knowledge of the
Druids was never committed to writing) This was a seminal event
in the establishment of modern Irish culture, giving us a written
record against which to compare the oral tradition.(See my post
from last summer "On the Reliability of Oral History".) According
to Crossan, the oral tradition died out during his lifetime. I
suspect that what Donal is seeing is the customary habit of small
lineage groups, unchanged for millenia.

The situation was very different in most of North America. Here,
once again, I turn to a Louis Approved Marxist Anthropologist(Tm)
for advice. This is what Anthony Wallace has to say about the
Iroquois (from _ The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca Nation_:

   The tribes, or nations, had only an uncertain coherence in
   political matters, and readily split into factions, which might
   even remove geographically from one another and beome permanent
   subdivisions. The Seneca, in particular, were divided into two
   groups: an eastern, pro-British group, and a western, pro-French
   group (the Geneseo Seneca). The Seneca national council met only
   occasionally, in the great council house at Canacadea or at
   another of the nations' towns as circumstances at the time might
   dictate. The membership of these tribal councils seems to have
   been simply the sum of all the chiefs of the village councils.
   [Here follows some discussion of consensus decision-making.] ...
   Some of the tribal (i.e. village) chiefs and council speakers
   were chosen as perennial liasion men for dealings between
   colonial officials, like Sir William Johnson, and their village,
   factional, tribal, or even the Nations constituencies. They were
   in this role sometimes referred to as "chiefs to do business,"
   and most of the practical work of administration of policy and
   formulation and communication of issues was handled by these men
   rather than by the councils themselves. They were often better
   known to the whites than the hereditary, or sachem, chiefs.
   Still, the tribe was essentially not a political organization but
   a group of villages that spoke the same language.

I will not comment on the consensus decision-making - we all hear
enough about that when Louis lambastes the anti-globalization
anarchists with their affection for consensus. I will, however,
comment on an obvious difference between the aboriginal societies
and that of the Celts, with their great Druidic colleges. There
is simply no evidence that any of the North American tribes had
reached this level of development.

The caste societies of the Pacific Northwest lacked even the
rudimentary government sketched out above for the Iroquois. The
closest comparison with the Druids would be the council
memorizer, who memorized resolutions of previous councils.

The point in all this, in case you're wondering, is that
collective identity based on accident of birth must of necessity
suppress division within the group. Pre-class societies handle
irreconcilable differences through the process of fission; class
societies handle them through conscious suppression of emotion.

Collective identity based on free and open decision making, can
only evolve under conditions of socialism.

Community spirit is a motherhood and apple pie issue; and, as
with patriotism, it hides a multitude of sins.


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