There are many things one might say about civilization. But there are only two things to be said about tribalism -- or which have to be said before going into the subject in more detail. One is that it has for many years had a remarkable imaginative hold on the human mind. At least since the time of Rousseau, numerous forms of noble savagery have lurked on the fringes of western consciousness as fancied and fanciful alternatives to civilization. The other is that, despite the bewitching appeal it has for so many people, tribalism just won't do. Tribal justice won't do. Tribal ideas of truth and falsehood won't do. While tribal economics, as an alternative to modern economic organization, are little but a recipe for disaster.
All of this has been known for a long time. Even in the 18th Century, as Rousseau was writing, his compatriot Voltaire was poking fun at the sentimentalism of his ideas and ridiculing the notion of a Golden Age in Antiquity. "London is ten thousand times better than Rome was then," he wrote, and the same went for the rest of Europe. "Paris was then only a barbarian city, Amsterdam was a swamp, and Madrid a desert". Those who don't like city life, he suggests, should go off to the Orkney Islands and try life there, where men eat oats and kill for scraps of fish. If romantic urbanites admire the past so much, said Voltaire, let them practice what they preach and go and live there.
Some might think that Voltaire was merely using 18th Century Orkney life as a butt for French mockery, so perhaps it's worth remembering that the High Tory Sam Johnson, visiting the Hebrides a few years later, felt much the same way. Both men were agreed that, if the culture of these violent and benighted islanders were ever to advance, they would have to mend their ways -- knuckle down, buckle up, stop spilling their porridge, and do other improving things.
Whatever their differences, Voltaire and Johnson both believed in progress. And the good news is that, one way or another, large numbers of old-fashioned Orcadians did lift their game, got themselves an education, brushed their hair and joined the modern world. The death toll from fighting over scraps of fish diminished. It may have taken a couple of hundred years, but the important thing is that they found a way, educationally and culturally, of getting from "then and there" to "here and now", across the Big Ditch separating traditional cultures from modernity. And what I am calling an Australian Dilemma is the fact that a choice is going to have to be made about this Ditch. Because the two sides are not reconcilable, and to pretend that a part of the Australian population -- the Antipodeans -- can stay for ever as a publicly funded cultural protectorate on the other side is an increasingly unrealistic option.
Prevailing views in this area of social policy seem deeply contradictory. On the one hand they embrace the Principle of Cultural Autonomy. This dictates that the Antipodeans should be encouraged to look after themselves in their own places, and to control as much as possible of their lives, the state economically underwriting this highly dependent "independent" status. If things don't work out -- well, too bad. At least they've gone wrong under Antipodean control. But on the other hand, the very people who advocate cultural autonomy also favour the Principle of International Intervention, which encourages organisations like the United Nations to poke their noses into Antipodean affairs. Investigative committees are invited to visit Australia and report on what they find. And we all know what they find -- disease, illiteracy, alcoholism and homes with broken windows and barely a stick of useable furniture. The investigative committee then announces its findings to a scandalised world, a Graham Richardson or an Alexander Downer rushes off to Central Australia to register, as loudly as possible, their personal dismay and their determination to do something -- immediately. But the only thing that happens immediately is that they collide head-on with the Principle of Cultural Autonomy, find that taking action would mean interfering in Antipodean "internal affairs",and soon after this everything fizzles out ... until next time.
One must ask: what has the enthusiastic promotion of Antipodean Cultural Autonomy for the last twenty years got to show for itself? Dot paintings are pretty, but they will only take us so far. A small well-paid élite with its own ideological priorities is not so pretty, and under the banner of "my culture, right or wrong (at your expense)" seems to be taking the majority of its constituency nowhere at all. In any case,the vital questions are surely these: Are Antipodean literacy rates higher? Can more Antipodeans do their own accounts? Is their health improved? How do they live, and are their houses better looked after than they were? Because those are the things which visiting inspectors from the United Nations are interested in -- not dot paintings or élite privileges. They want to see what progress has been made in the lives of ordinary Antipodeans since they came here last, and how successful they have been in crossing the Big Ditch.
But first let's take a look at this momentous divide between past and present, and try and see just what it means. The best-known Big Ditch thinker was probably Karl Popper. On one side of the Ditch, said Popper, you had tribalism. On the other you had civilisation. Progress consisted of getting across the Ditch, and the first culture across was that of Athens. Such is the underlying sociology of The Open Society and Its Enemies . You might say it's a rather crude scheme, and perhaps it is. But it served Popper's purpose, which was to point up the sharp contrast between what he called the "closed societies" of tribalism and the "open societies" of the modern world.
Now the first thing to be said about tribal culture is that, in a number of ways, belonging to a tribe is fun. Emotionally, psychologically, socially, it's often a rewarding place to be. We know this from the millions of people who "go for" this side or that, who troop into sporting arenas all over the world to cheer and shout for their teams. And of course sporting events are just a pale shadow of the past. Old-time tribal warfare as it was conducted for thousands of years was huge fun. Clan fought clan, with swinging claymores and stabbing dirks and blood all over the place, and for those participating, whether winners or losers, it gave a sense of solidarity, of social cohesion, incomparably more satisfying than anything available today. Read Homer. Or get a taste of it from the movie Braveheart or from Kenneth Branagh's Henry V .
But for Popper's view of civilisation this presents a problem. Because there's no going back to tribal justice, tribal knowledge, tribal definitions of truth, tribal notions of right and wrong -- not as the working principles of a modern society. Lost innocence cannot be regained. For better or worse, the emotional rewards of such a life have yielded to the cooler benefits of civil government, and there is now a Big Ditch separating representative institutions under the rule of law, accommodating diverse associations and protecting individual liberty, from both the solidary warrior states of antiquity and from tribal groups today.
For a score of reasons Popper obviously felt that the civilisation of Athens was preferable to the more barbarous culture of Sparta. It was from Athens that the best in the West had come. Nevertheless, he warned, for some people the Spartan side of the Ditch might have been a more comfortable place to be. Not only more fun, but more reassuring, more secure. This was because the freedom and responsibility required by life in Athens involved higher levels of psychological strain. "To live in the haven of a tribe", he wrote, "is for many men an emotional necessity". And this was dangerous, since deep yearnings for the lost unity and shelter of tribalism meant that the rational conduct of modern politics would be always at risk. 1
Friedrich von Hayek said something similar. But he went further. In The Three Sources of Human Values he depicts the morality of the traditional world as downright threatening. It is, he argues, the anachronistic social inheritance of aeons of primaeval existence in small bands. (And if you're wondering whether "aeons" is quite the right word, think of the almost unchanging 1,000,000 years of the Old Stone Age.) This meant that for hundreds of thousands of years an ethic had been instilled "which is directly opposed to all that is innovative, creative, progressive in human civilisation .... " In Hayek's words, to be able to build up from nothing a civilisation which countless millions now depend on for their lives, it has been necessary for modern man to "shed many sentiments that were good for the small band, to submit to sacrifices which the discipline of freedom demands but which he hates ...." Collectivism "is thus strictly an atavism , based on primordial emotions." Worse still,it is a futile yearning for the wrong side of the Ditch. 2
Popper had pointed to the connection between communism and fascism and the tribal ethos. He saw both these modern totalitarian political systems as forms of "arrested tribalism". Recently, in 1996, Herbert Giersch alluded to something similar in a discussion of Tribal Morality and Macro Society , where he took up the same themes. "In Germany", he said, "much of the instinctual morality of the tribe was taken up and abused by National Socialism in an esoteric-romantic variant to exploit the readiness of people to submit. `You are nothing, your people is all'... -- these were typical slogans by which the propaganda of the `Thousand Year Reich' tried to transfer tribal morality to macro society." (It might be noted that, in much the same way, today's Antipodean leadership are very much inclined to say to anyone bold enough to dissent from the dominant majority, "But you are nothing. Your culture is all!")
In his own version of Big Ditch theory Giersch argues against the fatal illusion that the moral rules of the small bands in which mankind lived for hundreds of thousands of years in the Stone Age (this being what he calls the `instinctual morality of the tribe') can be transferred across the Ditch into the modern world. The result of this effort could be seen in the system communism created. Instead of tribal morality being modernised (the hopeful socialist ideal), a fateful attempt was made to tribalise modern industrial organisation, the disastrous consequences of which only ended in 1989. 3
Now, as I'm sure you realise, this is pretty shocking stuff, and it's especially shocking to anthropologists. No self-respecting member of the profession would dream of letting Hayek and company get away with it. Certainly not Marshall Sahlins, who published his well-known book Stone Age Economics in 1974. Before making a trip to Chicago in that year, a colleague begged me to bring him back a copy of what he confidently predicted would become a classic. He was right, and the following will give a taste of what this classic contains:
To which I need perhaps only add that when Sahlins touches occasionally on the profit motive there's usually an outburst of bad language about "theft", "robbery" and "chicane". Indeed, one easily gets the impression that Sahlins' attitude toward modern capitalistic enterprise owes about as much to Proudhon's announcement that "all property is theft" as to anything else. Needless to say, you can forget about any Lockean notions that rights to land embody an ethic of productivity, or a reward for bringing land into cultivation. In Sahlins' view the very "neolithic revolution" itself, the domestication of plants and animals and the introduction of farming, along with the huge increase in food it made possible, was a fatal backward step. Crossing the Ditch, for Sahlins, is synonymous with the Fall of Man.
But on the other hand there's nothing surprising and nothing much wrong with his description of Stone Age economic attitudes. Primitive economics, with its pattern of reciprocities, its enmeshment in the wider social structure, its hostility to accumulation, its rigidly regulated rules of distribution, its come-one, come-all dispersal of domestic resources, is largely what he says it is. Primitive attitudes toward nature, which emotionally fuse the secular and the divine, are just that. All that's surprising is the attitude of the author towards this sort of thing. Marx at least regretted that large numbers of peasants were condemned to what he called "the idiocy of rural life". Sahlins, a modern American professor, unregretfully praises the idiocy of the palaeolithic. And unfortunately, no Voltaire among his colleagues rose up to say: "Well, all right then, go and live there!" Possibly because they were all too busy flying off to conferences which glorified the world before the wheel.
So in each of these areas -- in politics as discussed by Popper; in the domain of social ethics discussed by Hayek and Giersch; in the economics set before us by Sahlins -- profoundly irreconcilable aspects of the tribal and the modern worlds are displayed. Is there anything else?
Indeed there is, says Professor Ernest Gellner, the Big Daddy of Big Ditch thinking, from whom some of these examples have been borrowed. We also have to take into account what passes for "knowledge" in the pre-modern mind; take into account what he calls, with beguiling frankness, "the blatant absurdity" of many primitive beliefs. What Gellner is pointing to here is the uncomfortable fact that 99 per cent of the prehistory of the human mind is the history of error, of grotesque misunderstandings.
Item: The amazing and amazingly widespread notion, thousands of years old, that by poking about in the steaming entrails of a newly slaughtered goat you can foresee the future. (That is, by reading intestinal omens.) Item: The notion that distant stars are interested in the fates of either you or me. Item: The idea that by messing about with the waters of some coastal estuary the fertility of local women will be impaired.
In all these examples,the natural and the social, cold physical facts on the one hand, and warm dollops of wishful thinking on the other, are hopelessly confused -- while at the same time receiving a cultural rationale. A common way of describing knowledge in modern society is to say that knowledge consists of "rationally justified true belief". By contrast, what is misleadingly called "knowledge" in pre-modern societies usually consists of "culturally justified false belief".
The trouble is, says Gellner, that in pre-modern cultures illogicality is woven into the fabric of social life. Professor of Philosophy at the London School of Economics from 1962 to 1984, Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge from 1984 to 1993, he is the author of the least-mentioned and most profoundly ignored books in any modern anthropology curriculum; and in an effort to define the essential differences between the two sides of the Big Ditch, he formulates an interesting sociological law: logical and social coherence are inversely related . Social coherence being the primaeval priority, logical coherence being the priority of modern life. 5
What does this entail? Well, since the essence of traditional societies is solidarity , it is in old-time traditional cultures that, when push comes to shove, facts and truth are always likely to be sacrificed to social needs. We saw this recently. When, in the name of solidarity, some South Australian Antipodeans became committed to the defence of a non-existent `tradition' at Hindmarsh Island, facts and truth were promptly thrown overboard. (The fourteen women known so patronisingly as the `dissidents' were in fact a good deal more than that. They were upholding a radically different view of truth. Not the intimidating kind which says, "what the collective says is true, is true -- or else!", but the kind which involves an independent individual freely deciding, on the basis of available evidence, that this, rather than that, is the case.)
Conversely, since the essence of modernity is a respect for facts and truth , modern life is where the ties of social solidarity are often most severely strained. We have also seen an example of this recently. In the reform of the New South Wales Police, despite visible strains in the social fabric, several suicides, and public funerals attended by the best people in town, social solidarity has had to yield to the legal processes by which those in error are brought to book. And innumerable previously closed envelopes have been opened.
One final example, because more than anything else it highlights the difference between the tribal mind and the way we live now. You may have noticed that, despite six months of investigation, the FBI still does not know what caused the crash of that 747 off Long Island last July. "We understand what the families want", said the FBI director recently. "They want answers, and we want those same answers, but we just don't have them, and we are not going to make up some answer for the sake of doing that." In the contrasting circumstances of tribal society, when inexplicable disaster strikes, there is always an answer, it is invariably made up to fit the situation, and its first and sometimes its only priority is to fix the blame. Witches, sorcerers, and the invisible but malign motives of one's enemies are the ever-present and universal agents of misfortune. In all of this, the motive of vengeance is paramount. "Someone's going to pay for this!" is the attitude which overrides all matters of fact. Try telling Saddam Hussein that, although 230 of his closest associates have just been blown away, nothing can be done because unfortunately we just don't know why. The messenger would be only the first to die.
So whatever happened to common sense? Because of course in some areas the tribal mind is realistic enough. If you want to know whether there's a bear in the cave or a croc in the creek, you can trust a palaeolithic hunter where you'd be mad to trust a professor. In matters of life or death, always ask the hunter first. It's when he attempts to explain the unobservable (the mysteries of human fertility) or deal with unaccountable misfortune (why me and not you or him?) that the Stone Age imagination goes hopelessly astray. Again, it is perfectly true that cognitive absurdity is to be found at all levels of social evolution. Sam Johnson believed in clairvoyancy. A famous actress friend of a well-known Australian politican believes in "channelling". It is even possible, judging from the popularity of New Age magazines, that more people in more places now believe more nonsense than ever before. But that misses the point. The argument about the cognitive Big Ditch is not about individual minds. It is about institutions. And what distinguishes the West from the rest is that its political, judicial, and scientific institutions obey rules and procedures designed to circumvent the frailties and follies of individual minds and to get at the facts. Ultimately (i.e. above and beyond the glamorous attractions of a consumer society), that is why life in the West is politically desired, judicially admired, and is a huge and unprecedented scientific success.
Now let's turn to some directly practical matters. What is likely to happen, for example, when tribal attitudes and rules are imported holus-bolus into the machinery of modern administration? Into a world, that is, which rightly assumes that the office and the office-holder are two different things; that appointment should be by merit only; that public funds are not private resources; and that accounting procedures and documentation must accompany all officially authorised tasks?
Of course, we all know what is likely to happen -- chaos. Because, as any reader of Max Weber knows, there is the most radical and irreconcilable contrast between the modern organisation of such matters and the conduct and attitudes prevailing in the pre-modern world. There, in contrast, a man is obliged to favour his relatives (it is a sign of loyalty), is expected to opportunistically use whatever funds come his way for their benefit, is unable to psychologically separate office and incumbency, and, having learnt his accounting and economics in the school of Professor Marshall Sahlins, usually has a lofty disdain for such things.
A tribal take-over of a modern government agency is therefore likely to see a complete inversion of modern administrative values. Nepotism will no longer be seen as a vice. It will be seen as a virtue. The private use of public funds will not be seen as strictly forbidden. It will be obligatory. Under such a regime it is entirely fitting that one's relatives be appointed as "researchers" and "assistants" and "associates" and "facilitators". That is exactly what those relatives expect from any loyal member of the tribe, and they will be very disappointed if they are not appointed to such positions.
Or consider the economic categories of "transaction costs" and "information costs". 6 A concern with reducing these to the minimum is a proper concern of both business and government. But in the pre-modern world transactions, far from being reduced or economised, are enlarged and ritualised, are ornamented with art and ceremony and food and drink, are prolonged as much as is humanly possible, and accompanied by so much social elaboration that, more often than not, the irreducible inner kernel of economic benefit is hard to find. I am not suggesting that anything quite like this either will or must take place in transactions undertaken by agencies staffed by tribesmen. But given the expectations of the troops, a tendency toward this sort of thing is only natural.
It is however on the question of "information costs" that we come face to face with true irreconcilability. For as Hayek and others have stressed, nothing is more central to the social and economic organisation of a free and open society than the free and open flow of information. The concept of an "information society" has become popular in some quarters, and uniform and equal access to information has become a significant legislative concern. By contrast, the whole emphasis of tribalism is on the control, restriction, and withholding of information. Only specific categories of people are allowed access, and this restriction is inseparable from the wish to preserve distinctions of status, power and prestige. Thus the role of "secret knowledge" possessed only by a chief or priest or elder -- which, translated into plain English, means information strategically doled out or withheld for political purposes.
Seen from this perspective, the three enquiries into the Hindmarsh Island dispute are a dramatic instance of the information costs imposed on a modern economy by the conflict between the requirements of decision-making in open and in closed societies. In terms of information, perhaps never in the history of judicial endeavour has so much been paid, by so many, for so little.
Such however are the typical effects of tribal demands for loyalty, for solidarity -- for social coherence. Of the contrasting world which you and I inhabit Gellner says that "it is the complex and cognitively `progressive' societies ... which possess a high level of logical coherence. All `facts' can be cross-related and fitted into a single logical space." Within this space "there are no special, privileged, insulated facts or realms" -- no secret envelopes, no unapproachable mysteries. That's what living in an open society means.
So what are the policy implications of all this? And why do they involve or imply an Australian Dilemma? Big Ditch theory argues that there is a profound and irreconcilable difference between the beliefs and practices of traditional tribal cultures and the modern world, and that if traditionalists are to take part in that world, individually and collectively -- the participation of all citizens of equal legal status being the foundation of modern democratic life -- then sooner or later they will have to cross the Ditch.
This is something numerous peoples and cultures have achieved over the past two hundred years -- it is certainly something the Orkney Islanders achieved. Of course, they had numerous advantages compared to Australia's Antipodeans. In the year 1770 the Orcadians had been farmers trading wool and hides for centuries, while the Antipodeans were simple hunters and gatherers using wooden and stone tools. Freehold land tenure has existed in the Orkneys for a thousand years. The average Orcadian had known 400 years of Scots preceded by 500 years of Norsemen, and had directly experienced the costs and benefits of state administration, powerful overlords, and the moral and intellectual discipline of the Church. There was nothing equivalent here.
But despite all these immense advantages, consider for a moment a negative hypothesis about how things in the Orkneys might have turned out. Try and imagine how the Orcadians would have managed under the policies advocated in Australia today. Would they have made much progress after 1770 if, instead of being able to respond to various incentives for modernisation, there had been a state-sponsored structure of disincentives to cultural change? If they had been told that their ancient ways were fine -- just fine -- and that their main priority should be to hold fast to their culture and Be Proud? If, whenever somebody tried to introduce improvements, they were warned that this might undermine their True Identity? If, instead of learning to add and subtract and keep their accounts, they were warned against the linear thinking of the dreadful Sassenachs? If, instead of adopting modern health procedures, they indulged a taste for old-time Caledonian Cures? If they were at all times encouraged, despite the visible deterioration of many island communities into lawless sociopathic disarray, to fall back on the slogan, "My culture, right or wrong"?
In Viking days some Orcadians were possibly slaves; and over the succeeding centuries they were several times overrun and slaughtered by invading forces. No doubt this occasioned much temporary misery. But what if this were then treated as a ubiquitous exculpation clause, the Orkney Islanders being urged to indiscriminately invoke these historic misfortunes as an excuse for the delinquency of their bairns, for their love of whisky, for their derelict windowless cottages and Lord knows what else? What progress would the Orcadians have made if the Scottish Parliament had espoused the principle, not that each citizen of the realm was an equal bearer of rights and duties, but that the Orcadians, by virtue of their belonging to a distinct culture, and as historic victims of dispossession, were collectively entitled to a range of rewards and immunities and exemptions with no complementary duties attached? This is mere speculation, of course, but it seems to me that the chances are better than even that in this situation the Big Ditch separating the Orcadians from the modern world would today be as wide as the distance from John o' Groats to Scapa Flow, and the succession of busybodies from the United Nations would never end.
The source of the foregoing collection of sedulously cultivated grievances, delusions of grandeur, fantasies of political autonomy, and demands to be treated both as equal and more than equal (while at the same time being exempt from the standards applied to everyone else) is of course the doctrine of "multiculturalism" in word and deed. Central to this doctrine is the denial that a Ditch exists -- or if it does exist,that anyone should be urged to cross it. And it is both illuminating in itself, and a striking comment on the paralysis of Australian thinking on this matter, to note how far the views of a representative collection of American left-liberals, once sympathetic to such doctrines, have now changed.
Their thoughts can be studied in the 1994 book Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition . After fifty pages of beating about the philosophical bush, Charles Taylor concludes that, while an ecumenical view of cultural variation is morally admirable, acknowledging the equal worth of all cultures is just not on. 7
Commenting on Taylor, Michael Walzer asserts that, since immigrant minorities voluntarily chose to leave their old cultures when they came to America, they should now accept the rules of their adopted country, adding that it is incompatible with the liberal idea of individual rights that we should "treat our minorities as endangered species in need of official sponsorship and protection." 8
And then there is the interesting case of K. Anthony Appiah, formerly of Ghana, now of Harvard University, and a famous name in progressive circles. Professor Appiah knows very well how he got across to the Harvard side of the Ditch, so he is naturally loth to give too much educational authority to provincial tribal cultures on the other side: "as children develop and come to have identities whose autonomy we should respect", he writes, they may reasonably expect the state to protect them from cultural and familial backwardness. 9
In conclusion, Steven C. Rockefeller argues that the mere survival of this or that culture should not be regarded as an ultimate goal in itself:
In brief, the only proper ultimate goal in a democracy is the survival of civilization itself.
It would be nice to think that sensible reconsideration along these lines would eventually be found on the Australian Left as well. But I am disinclined to hold my breath until it does. As it is, with the ideal of equality and integration replaced by preference and separation, and a once-large reservoir of public goodwill now souring into resentment and despair, Gellner's words on the damaging effects of aggressive ethnic nationalism within the modern industrial state seem more apposite. He is commenting on the fact that much romantic nationalist fervour is born from a reaction against the requirements of industrial modernity, and that this reaction tends to freeze or petrify all that is most backward in traditional life.
"Equality of status and a continuous, shared culture", he writes, "seems a precondition for the functioning of a complex, occupationally mobile, technically advanced society. Hence it does not easily tolerate cultural fissures within itself, especially if they correlate with inequality which thereby becomes frozen, aggravated, visible and offensive." 11
It seems to me that the net effect of over twenty years of the anthropologically aided and abetted policy of "my culture, right or wrong" has been precisely to reinforce among the Antipodeans an "inequality which thereby becomes frozen, aggravated, visible and offensive." This seems quite well to describe the situation we are in. Surely there has to be a better way.
|1||. Popper, Karl, The Open Society and Its Enemies [Fifth Edition (revised)], Routledge, 1996, Vol. 2, p.98.|
|2||. Hayek, F.A., The Three Sources of Human Values, The London School of Economics and Political Science, London, 1978. (See Gellner 1988, p.26Ä27.)|
|3||. Giersch, Herbert, Economic Morality as a Competitive Asset , in Markets, Morals and Community, Occasional Paper No. 59, The Centre for Independent Studies, 1996, p.23.|
|4||. Sahlins, Marshall, Stone Age Economics , London, 1974, pp.11,13,17. (In Gellner 1988, p.32).|
|5||. Gellner, Ernest, Plough, Sword and Book. Collins Harvill, 1988, p.61.|
|6||. See Giersch 1996, p.31.|
|7||. Taylor, Charles, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition , Princeton University Press, 1994, pp.64,69.|
|8||. Walzer, Michael, Comment , in Taylor, 1994, p.103.|
|9||. Appiah, K. Anthony, Identity, Authenticity, Survival , in Taylor, 1994, p.159.|
|10||. Rockefeller, Steven C., Comment , in Taylor, 1994, p.92.|
|11||. Gellner, Ernest, Spectacles and Predicaments, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p.273.|