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Tribal Yearnings

The enemies of the open society today

Funny word, “tribe”. Karl Popper used it a lot but you don’t hear it much today. Around 1960 the feeling arose in progressive circles that it was denigratory, and it fell into disuse, probably in relation to developments in Africa and the winning of independence by many African states. (See Terminological Note below.)

Yet there is now an aggressive effort to redefine the Native Hawaiian population as a “tribe”. Whether the Akaka Bill with its attempt to break up Hawaii by introducing positive apartheid for “natives” will founder on the floor of the Senate, or will lead to political independence and Hawaii’s secession from the Union, remains to be seen. Suffice to say that to many people it looks like a new and spectacular demand for special privileges in the name of race-based ethnic separatism.

What privileges? There is to be a special autonomous Native Hawaiian Governing Entity alongside existing governmental structures. How much autonomy it will have is unclear, but it raises the prospect that anyone having “one drop” of native blood will not have to pay state or federal taxes. At the same time, while avoiding the obligations of their fellow citizens, Native Hawaiians will continue to enjoy all the benefits of national defense, public health, education and welfare.

A critical commentary by Senator Jon Kyl describes the Akaka Bill as authorizing race-based government for Native Hawaiians “by shoehorning the Native Hawaiian population, wherever located, into the federal Indian law system and calling the resulting government a ‘tribe’”. He then points out that the Supreme Court has held that “Congress cannot simply create an Indian tribe. Only those groups of people who have long operated as an Indian tribe, live as a separate and distinct community (geographically and culturally), and have a pre-existing political structure can be recognized as a tribe. Native Hawaiians do not satisfy any of these criteria.”

Yet Hawaii’s Governor Linda Lingle, the legislature, and congressional delegation, all support the bill, and this despite the jurisdictional chaos and heightened social tensions that its passage is more than likely to bring about. There appears to be widespread sentiment that those able to claim any Polynesian descent whatever, being related by blood to the original occupants of this island territory, deserve special compensatory status apart from and above its other inhabitants. DNA will no doubt be used to establish that the one drop of blood required is present.

Tribalism in ‘the open society’

The attempt, in 2005, to redefine a heterogeneous people of mixed ancestry in the middle of the Pacific as a “tribe”, let alone an Indian tribe, a people moreover who have known little but modern American institutions for at least a hundred years, might seem surprising. But one man who would not have found it surprising is the author of The Open Society and Its Enemies, for the persistence of tribal yearnings in the midst of the modern world was the underlying theme of Karl Popper’s important 1945 book.

The words ‘tribe’, ‘tribal’, and ‘tribalistic’ occur forty-two times in the chapter that presents his main argument—Chapter 10—and his discussion of related matters continues in voluminous footnotes at the end of the book.

Popper’s main purpose in writing The Open Society was to try and explain the whole political, intellectual, and emotional phenomenon of Nazism. What Hitler represented was “arrested tribalism”, and the more Popper thought about the matter the more he saw an atavistic yearning for the past—closed, pre-rational, taboo-ridden, undemocratic, militaristic, and fearful of liberty—as something deeply menacing.

“Arrested tribalism” in political life was the same as “arrested development” in the life of an individual; it indicated a failure to grow, adapt, and deal maturely with a changing world. Change, as Heraclitus said long ago, is something we just have to put up with, like it or not: but the Nazis wanted to turn back the clock. And in order to understand the phenomenon of Nazism historically, it was also necessary to understand the deep roots it had in the past, and to see it in terms of a persistent reaction against social change that has been continually with us since the conflict of Athens and Sparta in classical Greece.

The shock of the new

As Popper told the historical story, in the 5th and 6th centuries BC the tribal world of the old-time Greeks was breaking down. Everywhere there was change and decay—or change that looked like decay. And it is the anxiety and distress felt by men and women in this situation that leads them to try and freeze all change and return to the tribal past. He thought Plato’s thinking exemplified this. Disturbed by the way Socrates had shaken the world’s foundations, suffering personally “under the political instability and insecurity of his time”, Plato recommended in The Republic and The Laws “the arrest of change and the return to tribalism.” According to Plato “all social change is corruption or decay or degeneration.”

In Greece old ways of life were dissolving, old legends were disbelieved, old authorities were treated with contempt, and it was the fear of these trends getting out of hand that drove Sparta to “attempt to retain and to arrest tribalism by force.” In the account presented in The Open Society Sparta was seen as a proto-totalitarian state in antiquity. But perhaps the most succinct statement of Popper’s argument appears on his opening page where the unending historic conflict between ‘tribalism’ and ‘civilization’ is set forth. His book, he wrote,

sketches some of the difficulties faced by our civilization—a civilization which might be perhaps described as aiming at humaneness and reasonableness, at equality and freedom; a civilization which is still in its infancy, as it were, and which continues to grow in spite of the fact that it has been so often betrayed by so many of the intellectual leaders of mankind.

It attempts to show that this civilization has not yet fully recovered from the shock of its birth—the transition from the tribal or ‘closed society’, with its submission to magical forces, to the ‘open society’ which sets free the critical powers of man.

It attempts to show that the shock of this transition is one of the factors that have made possible the rise of those reactionary movements which have tried, and still try, to overthrow civilization and to return to tribalism. And it suggests that what we call nowadays totalitarianism belongs to a tradition which is just as old or just as young as our civilization itself.

Popper’s terminology

But what exactly did Popper mean by “tribalism”? While the term contained a lot of what anthropologists study under the rubric of culture, and a lot of what most of us mean if or when we use the term, it also contained much more. It was in fact half of a global dichotomy—with “tribalism” on the one side and “civilization” on the other—and was therefore very loose and inclusive.

If civilization “set forth the critical powers of man”, tribalism included whatever opposed this development. At its most general it contained everything from taboo to hereditary chieftainship, from human sacrifice to the divine right of kings, from sorcery to papal infallibility.

As a philosopher Popper naturally placed great emphasis on the life of the mind: the closed society is primarily unacceptable because it submits man’s reason to “magical forces”. Yet this intellectual submission is part of an inescapable pattern of social and political subordination too.

In his account of Heraclitus, a philosopher whose motto was “everything is in flux, and nothing is at rest”, Popper claims that the very idea of ubiquitous change was “revolutionary”. At the time, hardly anyone thought of culture in this way, especially given “the stability and rigidity of social life in a tribal aristocracy.” Where hierarchic settings of this sort prevailed, everything “is determined by social and religious taboos; everybody has his assigned place within the whole of the social structure; everyone feels that his place is the proper, the ‘natural’ place, assigned to him by the forces which rule the world; everyone ‘knows his place’”.

It might be useful to point out that this exactly fits every Polynesian culture ever known, including that of old-time Honolulu. Before the retribalization of Hawaii gets much further its advocates should perhaps take a look where they’re heading. But joking aside, the fact is that an intense conservatism regulated and controlled an entire hierarchic social order, just as Popper said it did, and because of this social change took place very slowly—and rarely as a result of rational discussion. True, change did sometimes occur, but “the comparatively infrequent changes have the character of religious conversions or revulsions, or of the introduction of new magical taboos.”

He thought there was something of this quasi-religious character to be seen in the rise of Nazism and Communism too. Both grew from the same socio-psychological roots as the political theorising of men like Plato over two thousand years ago—the “strain of civilization”, a generalised anxiety about the drift of events, a feeling that cultural breakdown is imminent, that familiar things are disintegrating, that everything known and valued is about to collapse and we won’t be able to stop it.

“I suppose that what I call the ‘strain of civilization’”, Popper wrote in a footnote, “is similar to the phenomenon which Freud had in mind when writing Civilization and its Discontents.” Thinking about the intellectual attraction of Nazism and Communism he asked:

Why do all these social philosophies support the revolt against civilization? And what is the secret of their popularity? Why do they attract and seduce so many intellectuals? I am inclined to think that the reason is that they give expression to a deep-felt dissatisfaction with a world which does not, and cannot, live up to our moral ideals and to our dreams of perfection… the revolt against civilization may be… a reaction against the strain of our civilization and its demand for personal responsibility.

Personal responsibility

Personal responsibility was important. Whereas individual responsibility in a world of individuals is central to modern ethics, the blurry environment of old-time communal life provided a thousand excuses for evading responsibility. Sometimes this took the form of hiding behind the mysteries of causation. In the traditional Polynesian world, for example, there was no clear place for personal responsibility when things went wrong—culpable acts could always be explained away by sorcery, witchcraft, or fate. At other times group solidarity was invoked. A malefactor would be shielded by his family, his clan, his tribe, his confederation, always on the solidary basis that as “one of us” he could do no wrong.

At the ethical center of both tribalism and totalitarianism was the ideal of unity, of conformity, of groupthink carried to a point where the interests of the individual barely existed. In his discussion of “totalitarian justice” Popper pointed out that for both Plato and modern totalitarians there was only one ultimate standard—the interest of the state. “Everything that furthers it is good and virtuous and just; everything that threatens it is bad and wicked and unjust. Actions that further it are moral; actions that endanger it immoral… This is the collectivist, the tribal, the totalitarian theory of morality: ‘Good is what is in the interest of my group; or my tribe; or my state.”

This so-called morality would be enforced by state officials, which was another way of saying that a citizen’s conduct would be more a matter for the police than a matter of conscience. Those who advocated such a program “apparently do not see that this would be the end of the individual’s moral responsibility, and that it would not improve but destroy morality. It would replace personal responsibility by tribalistic taboos and by the totalitarian irresponsibility of the individual.”

In contrast to both tribalism and totalitarianism, in free societies modern men and women are held personally accountable for their acts—while sorcery is regarded as deeply implausible. As Popper put it, “In our own way of life there is, between the laws of the state on the one hand and the taboos we observe on the other, an ever-widening field of personal decisions, with its problems and responsibilities; and we know the importance of this field”. Throughout his book, he added,

the magical or tribal or collectivist society will also be called the closed society, and the society in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions, the open society.

Uncompromising on assimilation

Is there anything to be said for tribes and tribalism? Popper’s deep suspicion of the entire collectivist project meant that he could rarely think of anything to be said in their favor. This does not mean that he was entirely untouched, at least intellectually speaking, by the emotional plight of those distressed by the break-up of the communal world. He wrote with sympathy of those affected by “the strain of civilization” induced by the inner conflicts those still drawn to collective life had to endure.

In Volume 2 he wrote that a fact “which raises grave political and institutional problems is that to live in the haven of a tribe, or of a ‘community’ approaching a tribe is for many men an emotional necessity (especially for young people who… seem to have to pass through a tribal or ‘American Indian’ stage).” Grownups however should put such childish things behind them and become critical rationalists in a rationally critical world. To the dismay and disgust of many Jews his assimilationist creed was entirely uncompromising with regard to Judaism too.

“Aside from the early Greeks,” writes Malachi Hacohen in his biography, Popper believed “the Jews were the tribe par excellence.” As a result he thought “Zionism was a colossal mistake, and Israel a tragic error (that) retarded solution of the Jewish question and incited a national conflict between Jews and Arabs.” Elsewhere Hacohen writes:

He regarded the Hebrew Bible as the fountainhead of tribal nationalism. Oppressed and persecuted, he said, Jews in the Babylonian exile created the doctrine of the ‘Chosen People’, presaging modern visions of chosen class and race. Both Roman imperialism and early Christian humanitarianism threatened the Jews’ tribal exclusivity. Jewish orthodoxy reacted by reinforcing tribal bonds, shutting Jews off from the world for two millennia. The ghetto was the ultimate closed society, a ‘petrified form of Jewish tribalism’” (The Open Society, Vol 2, Chapter 11, n.56)

To Hacohen it was shocking that Popper, of Jewish background himself, should hold such views and should have argued so intransigently for assimilation. But it was consistent with Popper’s overall view of the need for a transcendent cosmopolitanism in modern life.

Open borders too?

So an ‘open society’ was everywhere and always superior to either petrified or arrested tribalism. But is an ‘open society’ also supposed to be an ‘open polity’ with open borders too? Popper’s is a theory of society, not a theory of the state—and his book offers no clear account of the political entity in which an ‘open society’ can both flourish and be properly defended too. A minimal state of the kind Hayek advocated is steadily implied, but never adumbrated. Is there a Coast Guard? Are the borders secure? What role should the army play?

We can all be glad we live in nations that are commercially prosperous, cosmopolitan, and democratic. We can agree that a free-trading nation in a free-trading world, with representative government, an independent judiciary, and liberty of thought, association, and expression, is a very fine thing indeed. Popper more than once appeals to the stirring oration in which the Athenian leader Pericles proudly boasted that “Our city is thrown open to the world; we never expel a foreigner…”

But what do you do after you have thrown your city open to the world, only to find you have let in enemies who not only decline to assimilate, but want to destroy it? When these same destroyers have been given all the rights of law-abiding citizens—including the cultural right to be as disagreeably hostile as they wish? When the relation of a number of sinister tribalistic enclaves to the ‘open society’ around them is a conspiratorial blend of dissimulation and treachery?

It is a curious fact that there is no mention of Islam in The Open Society, and no indication whatever that it might emerge as one of the ‘enemies’ of open societies in the years to come. But Popper would have had no trouble recognising what is happening in Europe now. Metastasising cells of unassimilable jihadis, often united by language and ethnicity, driven by irrational resentments, galled by their failure to cope with modern life and feeling “the strain of civilization” in their bones, hating an imagined exclusion and fearing a suspected inferiority, inspired by a debased fundamentalism more concerned to kill than convert, fortified by prophecy, and aggressively promoting a sacred text containing all one needs to know… this manifestly represents “arrested tribalism” in its current form today.

Terminological note

Since “tribalism” is such a fraught term in public discourse today some questions might be asked about the emphasis it bears in The Open Society. Why did Popper use such a controversial word? How did a major work of social philosophy get published without it being editorially softened or euphemized? It seems to me the answers to these questions are roughly as follows.

When he arrived in New Zealand as a German-speaking refugee from Austria in 1937, Karl Popper was largely a stranger to the English-speaking world, and also to the nuances of English itself. One must assume that the concept of an antithesis to civilization had been clearly in his head in German for a long time. Then, at Canterbury College, writing in English, he seems to have struck upon the English word ‘tribalism’ as the blanket term he wanted, and those who helped him with English in New Zealand saw no reason to change it. (These were an economist, Colin Simkin, and an assistant in both Classics and English, Margaret Dalziel.)

It is well known that Popper had a bitterly hostile relationship with his senior colleague in New Zealand, I. L. G. Sutherland, a man always identified as a psychologist. Sutherland had certainly qualified in psychology. He did indeed lecture in psychology. But his main interests had for many years been anthropological, and he was especially concerned about the welfare of the Maori people. If, as is possible, Popper assumed a stark dichotomy between ‘tribalism’ and ‘civilization’ when talking to Sutherland, the first condemned as Bad and the second applauded as Good, it would certainly have antagonized the latter. The differences between the two men are usually described as personal, not intellectual; but on this issue I think rather more was involved.

As to how the text of The Open Society could have appeared with its heavy negative emphasis on tribalism unaltered, the reasons are two. At the time, in 1945, the words “tribe” and “tribalism” were only beginning to be shadowed by a suspicion of insensitivity. They would have therefore seemed uncontroversial to the editors. Secondly, those who saw the manuscript through to publication were far removed from the world of ethnic revivalism, anthropology, or identity politics. Two of them were scholars in the field of art: Herbert Read and Ernst Gombrich. The other was an ex-Austrian economist whose general outlook was similar to that of Popper himself—Friedrich Hayek.

* * *

It was only after the 1950s that reference to the word “tribe” became risky in polite company. And after 1960 especially. That was the year in which many African states became independent, and the overwhelming question in many minds was this: could they function as modern states at all, or would “tribalism” undermine any attempt to organize their political and economic life at a higher and more inclusive level?

Not only about Africa was this question being asked. Would Burma make a viable polity? And what about the Middle East? Whether “tribalism’ was a discussable subject in the post-colonial period became a classic instance of the clash between idealists and realists. In the case of the idealists on the Left they did what they so often do—unable to change the world, they forcefully altered the language in which we talk about the world. If tribalism was an uncomfortable reality, then by vetoing the words “tribe” and “tribalism” you might at least relieve the discomfort. And you could pretend that nothing else needed to be changed.

For their part the realists maintained that tribalistic loyalties would tend to destroy any wider political entity. You could build Houses of Parliament and Congressional Assembly Halls throughout Africa. You could erect air-conditioned Ministries of Trade and Foreign Affairs in every capital city from Lusaka to Abidjan. You could have elections, and appoint ministers and secretaries and under-secretaries… But the whole thing would tend to be a kind a charade, a Potemkin false front, a theatrical presentation behind which membership of tribe or clan would ultimately decide the distribution of wealth and power.

History has yet to prove the realists wrong.

Posted in Civilization, Open Societies & the Culture Cult, Tribalism.

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