Long before the current Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic crisis started, I was compelled to begin a book project to consolidate and share ideas I’ve been developing and interrogating for about 20 years. Rather than pursuing the publication of a full manuscript, I think it makes sense for me to begin sharing what I’ve written so far in short form excerpts and give readers an opportunity to offer feedback on my thoughts. Here is my thesis statement and opening chapter, which I originally wrote in December 2019:
All hierarchical social structures have a fundamental design flaw- they are designed such that a privileged minority at the top of the hierarchy will, inevitably, exploit and oppress the majority below, within the given structure. Exploitation and oppression invariably give rise to unrest, rebellion, and, eventually, large-scale destruction. Civilization, by and large, is considered good and right, regardless of the inequities that are, by definition and design, inherent to the model, as it is structurally hierarchical. Attempts to significantly address oppressive and exploitative outcomes within the context of structural inequality are ineffective unless and until the structures themselves are dismantled and replaced with egalitarian alternatives.
Such alternatives include creating self-sufficient communities in which all members are equally valued and power is shared based on the skills and aptitudes of each member. Human organizational history (anthropology) provides us with ample evidence that indigenous cultures lived in harmony with each other and nature, prior to the advent of state societies, or civilization. Tribal groups maintained balance for hundreds of thousands of years, maintaining sustainable populations and subsisting without destructively exploiting natural resources or engaging in large-scale conflict. Scarcity and need were not significant social issues until humans began hoarding food and requiring forced labor by the underclasses for the benefit of the ruling classes. This began roughly 10-12 thousand years ago in several locations around the world- the most commonly-known site being the “Fertile Crescent,” also known as the “Cradle of Civilization.”
The assumption contained in modern stories about the development of hierarchical civilization is that humans are meant to be civilized- that hierarchy is the most advanced and correct way to organize ourselves, regardless of the clear and ever-present detrimental impacts of this type of organization. War, famine, epidemic and pandemic disease, mental illness, isolation, poverty, environmental degradation, overpopulation, racism, sexism, (all the –isms)., are inevitable byproducts of civilization but most accept these as products of ‘human nature,’ rather than outcomes of our dominant organizational structure. Narratives, or stories, are the primary means by which human individuals within any community learn about their roles, responsibilities, values, and potential future opportunities. It is not sufficient to unlearn harmful stories; we must convey alternative narratives that support authentic cultural transformation.
Those of us who are raised within ‘civilized’ cultures are taught from our first breath that the right way to live is within hierarchy. Children, being the most vulnerable members of any human social group, are most impacted by the power dynamics of our hierarchies. It is not surprising to me that children and youth will point out unfairness and abuses of power more readily than most adults. They haven’t yet become accustomed to the systems of oppression that most adults accept as normal within our culture.
Formal education, or schooling, reinforces the power structure through top-down authoritarian rules, regulations, and codes of conduct- designed to train young people to be compliant and complicit in their own oppression and that of others. Freedom of thought or behavior is not valued in most educational models because it leads to questioning the basic assumptions upon which our hierarchies are built. Even at the highest levels of education in our culture, there is an underlying belief that the purpose of advanced learning is the acquisition of status (monetary wealth) and power (ability to control others’ actions). Learning for learning’s sake is devalued- even considered a waste of time by most within our civilized societies- and those who propose any serious consideration of alternatives to hierarchical systems are often treated as pariahs.
Daniel Quinn, author of many books including Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael, and Beyond Civilization, addresses many of the questions that may arise in consideration of tribal organization as the most efficient and effective one for human beings. He proposes that, just as a flock of birds or a troop of baboons is appropriate to those animals, a tribe of humans makes the most sense for us. What many people picture when they hear “tribe,” however, is limited to the notion of ‘savages’ that we’ve learned through our education by schooling, media, and other stories of what it means to be tribal. Half-dressed, barbaric ‘heathens’ struggling to survive in the wilds of Africa or the Amazon and succumbing to injury or illness at a young age is what most are likely to imagine when prompted. This is not an attractive image and not what Quinn, or I, propose.
There are myriad ways to organize ourselves tribally that don’t involve living in the woods or abandoning all of the creature comforts to which we have become accustomed. It is about making a living with minimum stress, in cooperation with others who are similarly inclined. Quinn uses small circuses, independent media, theatre troupes, and other pursuits as examples of how modern tribes may work. Rather than devoting our lives to producing goods and services for the benefit of corporate masters, it is possible for many of us to commit our efforts to independent, local initiatives that provide a livelihood for ourselves without excessive, harmful impacts.
Many of us are already engaged in what may be considered tribal activities. Within the context of civilizational hierarchy, however, we must be mindful that our goals are not aligned with the ‘culture of maximum harm,’ as Quinn calls hierarchical civilization, but with small-scale subsistence and sustainability. Regeneration and renewal are primary concepts within tribal cultures- leaving our children and future generations a world that works and with the means to support their livelihoods. This worldview represents a major paradigm shift for civilized people but it is inherent to tribal philosophies and practices. Based on the unprecedented challenges we currently face, perhaps it is time for many of us to embrace this shift…?