Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The First Exchange: On "Neo-Tribalism"

James Hughes wrote:
As a sociologist, and former communard and cooperativist, I have long believed that we need new, postmodern, affiliative tribalisms, with rituals, norms, identities and so on, to fill the psycho-social needs that the old, reactionary, pre-modern ones did. That's been one of the themes of argument on this list between Dale, who doesn't like technocentric neo-tribalism, and myself who believes that techno-ideological identity and even neo-tribalism is both inevitable and desirable (tempered by our self-awareness of tribal excesses).

To say I don't "like tribalism" risks missing much of the substance of what I have been saying on this topic. I am, of course, quite content to agree that practices of identification and dis-identification are indispensable to human flourishing. I refer to these in my work (and have done for quite a while now) as moral beliefs and practices, from mores -- or in more Sellarsian terms, "we-intentions."

The Wikipedia entry on "Neo-Tribalism" says of the idea that
Neo-Tribalism is the ideology that human beings have evolved to live in a tribal, as opposed to a modern, society, and thus cannot achieve genuine happiness until some semblance of tribal lifestyles has been re-created or re-embraced….

Certain aspects of industrial and post-industrial life, including the necessity of living in a society of strangers and interacting with organizations that have memberships far above Dunbar's number are cited as inherently detrimental to the human mind as it has evolved. In a 1985 paper, "Psychology, Ideology, Utopia, & the Commons," psychologist Dennis Fox proposed a number around 150 people….

Radical neo-Tribalists such as John Zerzan believe that healthy tribal life can only thrive after technological civilization has either been destroyed or severely reduced in scope. Daniel Quinn, associated with the New tribalists, formulated the concept of "walking away": abandoning the owner/conqueror worldview of civilization--though not necessarily its geographical space--and making a living with others in tribal businesses. Others, such as Derrick Jensen, tend to call for more violent action, as they believe that it is appropriate and necessary to actively accelerate or cause a collapse of civilization. Still others, such as The Tribe of Anthropik take a survivalist bent and believe that a collapse is inevitable no matter what is done or said and concentrate their efforts on surviving and forming tribal cultures in the aftermath.

In general radical neo-Tribalist groups tend to agree that the current population of humanity is unsustainable and thus a form of cultural change is fundamentally necessary, rather than simply desirable, and that the preferable, or perhaps inevitable form for society to take after this change is tribalism. The call for a revolution is intended to either accomplish or survive this change.

Anarcho-Primitivism has been cited as an influence on or even a variant of radical neo-Tribalism.

I must say that "neo-tribalism" -- or, even worse, "techno-tribalism" -- sounds to me a bit like a hokey neologism designed to make old-fashioned anti-political moralism sound like something new by putting it in a spandex catsuit or something.

I thoroughly disapprove Zerzanian anti-civilizational anarcho-primitivism, although I sympathize with quite a bit of the critique of current civilization that has provoked the anarcho-primitivists. It is palpably true that industrial civilization is unsustainable, just as it is palpably true that the enforced work-ethic, commodity fetishism, consumerist lifestyles, and mass-mediated "manufacture of consent" yield alienation, stress, exploitation, and rampant unhappiness. And Zerzan's theory (shared by many others as well) that it was with the rise of agriculture that both patriarchy and authoritarianism emerge in forms continuous with the ones we still grapple with today has an unmistakable plausibility.

Nevertheless, I strongly prefer those whose response to this agricultural "Story of the Fall" is to re-invent rather than to dis-invent agriculture, and so I prefer Wes Jackson's polyculture projects, David Holmgren's permaculture projects, and Vandana Shiva's Navdanya projects to Zerzan's anti-civilizational anarcho-primitivist projects myself.

And I worry that even many of the less-extreme-than-Zerzanian neo-tribalists still are far too dangerously denialist about the inevitability of a politics irreducible to morals in a shared world characterized by plurality. This is both wrong and reactionary, especially when the political field is planetized (due to global networks, global "trade" practices, global environmental impacts).

I suppose the "ferals" in Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction novel Blue Mars might count as neo-tribalists of a kind I could approve of, but it matters that theirs was a consensual, and for most of them only occasional, recourse to a nomadic hunter-and-gatherer lifeway in the midst of an already technoscientifically literate, already environmentally sustainable, already democratic planetary multiculture. Voluntary tribalisms seem to me more likely to be facilitated by the achievements of collective efforts at democratization and sustainability rather than to provide the way to achieve these desirable ends themselves.

I do think that networked planetary information and communication practices make it less easy than it once might have seemed to be for many people to pretend that practices of identification and dis-identification will and should yield a kind of viable singular and unified narrative self, while now it is difficult for most to escape the sense that identification is a fragile, multiple, negotiated constellation of practices, and quite a bit provisional.

This is the sort of insight, I have always supposed, that gets me pilloried by some technocentrics as an effete "postmodern" relativist, and I am happy to find that you and I are still converging on this perspective, however much via different terminological paths.

It is crucial to point out that it is definitely the radical contingency and incompleteness of the narrative selfhood produced through contemporary practices of multiple identification and dis-identification that drives conservative temperaments into panic and rage, pining as they do presumably for the "good old days" of parochialism and hierarchy that engineered and policed identification and dis-identification into selves better suited to social orders benefiting incumbents.

Be all that as it may, I don't think much would be clarified by describing this general and not very original insight about the multiple/provisional status of networked moral identification as "neo-tribalism," though. And, as I said, I tend to disapprove of lots of the more specific associations (anarcho-primitivism, anti-politicism) that term has acquired anyway.

I'll admit I'd like to hear more about what gets included under the heading of "tribal excesses" for you, James. And I would like to know more about how one distinguishes what is excessive about these from what inheres structurally in identification whenever it is redirected to properly political ends? My own way of trying to deal with this (a work in progress that so far seems to appeal literally to nobody but me, so I must be doing something wrong) is firmly to demarcate moral identification from personal self-creative aesthetics, from formal ethical universalism, and from public pluralist politics.

Would you worry, for example, let's say -- and this is, of course, nothing but a thought experiment -- about tendencies to tribal "excess" inhering in the politics of outreach and PR that might drive marginal and defensive membership organizations that fancied themselves the iceberg tip of a burgeoning sub(cult)ural identity movement that wanted a particular vision of the future to prevail over an open future?

It remains as true as it ever has that I disapprove of the forms of "identity politics," which would police sub(cult)ures into a more useful homogeneity, which would drive moralizing social conservatisms and proselytizing fundamentalisms to "sweep the world," as well as mobilizing aristocratic elitisms, including neoliberal, neoconservative, technocratic, and eugenic ones, and so on.

My position is actually a bit more complicated than I am saying here -- since when one is attacked as a member of a minority one must respond at that level, and there is a certain "identity politics" that I approve of at that level. That is to say, I think one responds best to an antisemitic attack as a Jew, to a heterosexist attack as a queer, to a eugenicist attack as a differently-enabled person, and so on, rather than retreating into the bland generality of the very "humanity" one has been denied by the attack itself. It's just that I see this sort of vitally necessary identity-politics as always only negative and reactive, rarely as an abiding source of positive open world-building politics. Identification (and dis-identification) must be reprivatized, remoralized in its positive work, else it always becomes in my view a matter of policing mistaken for politics.

I'll end as I began, reiterating that none of this would deny a place for identification (and dis-identification) in human flourishing -- so long as they remain in their proper place and don't attempt to commandeer the proper work of ethics (normative beliefs formally soliciting universal assent) or politics (the ongoing reconciliation of the diverse aspirations of stakeholders who share the world).

1 comment:

AnneC said...

Dale said: It remains as true as it ever has that I disapprove of the forms of "identity politics," which would police sub(cult)ures into a more useful homogeneity, which would drive moralizing social conservatisms and proselytizing fundamentalisms to "sweep the world," as well as mobilizing aristocratic elitisms, including neoliberal, neoconservative, technocratic, and eugenic ones, and so on.

I thought of this post today when I came across a paper online. I've long been confused with regard to what people actually mean when they talk about "identity politics" -- the main context I've seen that term used in, oddly enough, is in the context of being told that I'm "playing identity politics" when I speak out on behalf of the rights of autistic people to self-determine, etc. So I've sort of seen it as a bit of a pejorative term, I guess.

But...the paper I linked to above actually cleared up some of my confusion in that regard. Particularly this bit:

One can be an anti-essentialist about identity without forced into an anti-realism about identity, as I have already suggested. If we move away from Leibniz, there are concepts of identity that can handle internal heterogeneity in the way the identity is made manifest in various individuals, and that avoid presuming to capture the whole person in any given category or set of categories.

Don't know if this reference is actually all that relevant, but it did strike me as isomorphically similar to some of the recent technolib. discussions.