The Rise of Nation States Over The Tribal World: The Gap Nations Leave In Human Needs
While I am a social conservative, I am not a political one
Most people would call me conservative. I’ve probably given out this impression by being married for 20 years to the same man, and mostly being a homemaker and mother of two, though I have a Masters degree. I support stable families, education, hard work, fresh baked apple pie and such American things. In general this makes people think I am a conservative, and I wouldn’t argue with it. However, I have a historical bone to pick with current conservative economic policy. I think the economic conservativism of our time, at least its American expression, displays an ignorance of the history of human societies, and leaves a gap in human needs.
Current conservativism does not support, but rather seeks to weaken or even eliminate, programs such as social security, Medicaid, universal health care, health care for children, government aid for higher education (a conservative recently called Pell Grants for college tuition “welfare”), ect. Sometimes called Supply Side Economics, this approach works to keep taxes low, especially for wealthier citizens and for corporations, allowing them to retain control of large sums of money. The idea is that wealthy individuals and corporations will reinvest their money, creating more jobs and more prosperity for everyone, and improving all of society.
To follow my argument on why I think this policy, with its self defining emphasis on freedom and rewards for hard work, does not suit the needs of human beings, stick with me through a discussion of how today's conservativism works, and then a historical tour of human economic interaction.
A clip from "The One Percent"
Conservativism of today
A recent documentary, The One Percent, illustrated the conservative fiscal approach. In an interview a billionaire businessman said, “It’s better for us to control wealth, because we will reinvest in the economy, creating more jobs and more prosperity. It’s better for us to have that money than for it to go into Social Security or Medicare.” He then paused a minute, perhaps reflecting on the fact that he had just said that even though he was already rather staggeringly wealthy, the tax structure should favor him becoming even richer, versus providing minimal living expenses and basic health care to elderly US citizens. “I don’t want to sound crass,” he said. And then he repeated, “I really mean that. I don’t want to sound crass.” The documentary, ignoring this hope, hung him out to dry by immediately switching to footage of him enthusing over his private yacht, just slightly smaller than the Love Boat, and his French château, just slightly smaller than Versailles.
The documentary The One Percent is so named because in the United States 40% of wealth is owned by 1% of the population, making us a culture of haves and have nots. I will argue in this hub that this structure was a characteristic of modern nation states from the beginning, and that the concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of a few was a major departure from the lifestyle lived by human beings in clan and tribe based systems. While the clan system had its drawbacks, I will contend that it served human beings better than modern nation states in two key areas: providing for individuals, and giving individuals purpose.
A brief history of clans
Before the rise of modern nation states, people lived in tribes and clans. Individuals without a clan, and what we call “nuclear families,” without the help and protection of a clan, lived a precarious life. Often they did not survive. For this reason, people who had fallen afoul of their clan, or who lost their clan to warfare, famine or illness, would sometimes band together and form a new clan.
People in clans took care of each other. A man fought the clan's battles, knowing that if he fell to the enemy, his widow & children would be cared for by the surviving clan members. Old people sat by the fire, doing what work they could and telling stories. Women helped each other birth and care for small children. Many clans had marriage customs which ensured that a widowed woman was remarried after her husband’s death, most likely to one of his relatives, to protect and provide for her and her children, and anchor her again in the clan network.
A deportation of Inuit which led to the largest land grant ever given to indigenous people.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's two years with the hunting and gathering Kalahari Bushman in the early 1950s.
Clans by their nature were rather egalitarian. Individuals might have status, but accumulating more material possessions than others in the clan was generally more trouble than it was worth. In The Old Way, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas writes about the two years she spent living with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, and comments on how individuals were uncomfortable owning more than others in the group. Bushmen gave away surplus, rather than store it to be used another time. They relied on others in the group to do the same. The Long Exile, by Melanie McGrath, makes the same observation about traditional Inuit culture. When a need was perceived, someone in the group would give to the person in need. Storing resources up for yourself when another clan member needed something was considered morally wrong. People in these clans lived interdependently, and too much difference in wealth was avoided. Among other problems, the resulting jealousy might undermine the cooperation so necessary to survival. (Contrast this to our modern culture, where if anything individuals seek to stir up envy from their peers: many consider the jealousy of others a badge of success.)
The rise of modern nation states
In medieval times, when modern nation states first began to arise, they looked for ways to weaken the clan system. Individual’s first loyalty was to the clan, not this new idea of a “nation.” An Arab saying describes the tribal hierarchy of loyalty this way: “With my brother against my cousin, with my cousin against my kinsmen, with my kinsman against another Muslim, and with any Muslim against an infidel.” The problem for these new “modern nations” was that with clans intact, clan leaders would have too much power in negotiating with the state, and resources would be kept within the clans, and therefore not as available to national governments.
Changes in Marriage Customs
So nation states began to make policies to weaken clan loyalties. For instance, the marriage of cousins was outlawed. Today we think genetic problems make cousin marriage a very bad idea, but in European tribal society, these marriages were very common, as they still are in the Middle East today. Marriage patterns like this concentrate loyalties within a tight knit group. Requiring people to marry outside the circle of relatives divides loyalties and obligations. This broadening of loyalties served the purposes of modern nation states. Armies shifted from men fighting for and beside kinsmen, to men fighting for the king of a nation state, a person they had probably never met, certainly not a person they had grown up beside.
Changes in Religious life: informal spirituality to institution
The institution of the medieval Church claimed its share of power from the clans also. Before the centralized Church, requirements about who could marry, and by what authority they could marry and produce legitimate children, were decided by clans. If the clan approved, the new couple was all set: if clan leaders did not want a particular match, they had the power to make life very difficult. The Church assuming the authority to proclaim legitimate marriages, and by extension to not sanction other marriages, represented a major power shift, though one we seldom think much about. The “wise men” and “wise women” of society were now also supplied by the Church, in the form of monks, nuns and priests, instead of the older more informal system where elder clan members earned the group’s respect with long life, service, and worthwhile advice.
...Clan ties break down
And the clan system did in fact break down. Modern people identify themselves as Americans or Brits or Canadians, rather than as O'Malleys or Saxons. Now that nation states have rid themselves of clans and clan leaders, they become the locus for identity and loyalty. One great benefit of nation states is the rule of law. The clan system leaned so heavily towards loyalty to the kin network that people supported each other based more on relationship than on right and wrong. Remember the proverb “With my brother against my cousin, with my cousin against my kinsman, ect.” The proverb doesn’t mention the moral rightness of the brother or cousin’s cause: relationship counts more than righteousness in a clan. Another great weakness of the clan based world was violence. Human lived in a rather constant state of conflict between tribes. The modern world marches to war (particularly awful wars, it is true), but within the modern nations themselves, people live in a security unknown in the tribal world.
Shortcomings of the Modern Nation States
But here we come to what I think are the two major shortcomings of the modern nation states: caring for individual’s physical needs, and giving meaning to individual lives. They are serious shortcomings, and ones I think will have to be remedied for our modern states to function with any degree of health.
First, I will look at caretaking of people. The clan didn't just receive a person's loyalty; it took care of that person. A clan was its own sort of cradle to grave welfare system. People may have gone hungry and cold, but for the most part whatever the clan enjoyed or suffered, they did it together. As I mentioned earlier in the hub, the clan system discourages individual wealth, and keeps everyone on a reasonably level.
Nation states now receive the loyalty & service that individuals used to give to the clan. A major difference is that while being born an O’Malley (the Celtic clan of my ancestors) guaranteed a person work, housing, training, food and camaraderie for life, being born a citizen of a modern nation state is a more precarious business. The nation state simply does not take the responsibility the clan once did.
An O’Malley child would not go without food or medicine unless the whole clan went short. The old tribal world was a harsh place, and famine could strike any year. But I would argue that a child starving alongside his clan is one thing, and a child going hungry in the midst of plenty is quite another, both in the heart of the child and in the soul of the society. But many American children lack both food and medical care. I wasn’t aware of how close to home this problem strikes until I did read Growing Up Empty: The Hunger Epidemic in America. For a multitude of reasons, both joblessness and homelessness hover over the United States like specters. While shame attends unemployment, along with the implication that a real go-getter wouldn’t be in this position, many families are just one or two bits of bad luck away from losing a job, then losing a place to live. A willingness to work is unfortunately not enough.
Why doesn’t family take care of people?
Industrialization weakened the already beleaguered family unit. The documentary “Last Train Home” tells the story of family disintegration under China’s new factory based economy. In the film an adolescent Chinese daughter screams curses in her father’s face during a stressful family holiday. This behavior was unthinkable for a Chinese girl before factories splintered the family unit. The maker of “Last Train” said in an interview that he made the film so that people in the Western world would realize how their lifestyle (by which I think he means a plentiful supply of cheap consumer goods) harms the social structure of places like China. This is the sort of statement I’ve heard before – an implication that Westerners need to moderate their lifestyles and stop harming the rest of the world, and maybe they will do that if they understand just how their greed affects the rest of the world. But I think the forces of industrialization are a more powerful engine than most realize. A society in the grip of the industrialization process changes profoundly, and in ways that weaken the network of relationships.
“Last Train” filmed just recently, but industrialization loaded the U.S with a similar burden a century ago. In 1873 social pioneer Jane Addams wrote “20 Years at Hull House,” where she observed some depressing trends among Chicago’s impoverished immigrants. Industrial husbands and fathers neglected their families in ways male farmers simply didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t. Addams noted the laws which made a wife’s income legally her husband’s resulted in a strain of husband who did not hold a job, but weekly collected his wife’s pay; he then got drunk, or bought a new suit. Addams commented that the devotion of these overworked bedraggled women, skinny children clinging to their skirts, to the well brushed husbands who exploited them was testament to the indomitable human heart. In the 21st century we might call it codependence. Either way this was a new sort of male behavior. Farmer husbands who sent their wives out to plough while they lounged about dressed like a dandies simply hadn’t existed.
My best known O'Malley ancestor, Grace O'Malley.
Identity crisis in Modern Nations
The second area I find modern states fall short is providing identity and meaning in the lives of individuals. My Irish ancestors the O’Malleys would never have stood for one of their young clansmen growing up without the requisite skills, tenacity and strength to represent them well, whether fishing for the clan or fighting for it. Many American teenagers, on the other hand, have close to no adult skills. The culture seems to support them in this foolhardy stance, presenting celebrities and gangsters as the role models, not providing much in the way of clear paths to adulthood. “I feel lost,” and “I don’t know what I want to do” are all too common mantras of modern young people.
Many modern young people don’t have intact nuclear families, but even those who do miss a clan. I think this is the allure of gangs. A gang offers a band of brothers, and a charismatic leader who won his position by strength, smarts and a certain type of people skills. A gang is not offering a "being home with Mom and Dad" experience, but a "out on the warpath raiding the neighboring clan with other O’Malleys" experience. The difference is that while fighting a rival clan, the O’Malley’s watched out for each other as much as possible. A boy in a skirmish for the first time had his uncle watching him – the uncle did not want to face his sister’s tears and recriminations if the boy was hurt. Modern gangs do not offer this loyalty, especially to younger, weaker members. Like the rest of modern society, they have suffered a breakdown of loyalties.
Clans offered some buffers between emerging adults and ‘Mom and Dad.’ A teenage O’Malley could work alongside other O’Malley adults and teens at fishing, hunting or managing livestock. The adolescent would still be perfectly safe within the clan network, but could feel independent of parents. Teenage girls could master most skills of adult women: weaving, dairy work, brewing beer and baking bread. Girls married and became women in their own right when they could do these things. Young men needed more time – they had to come into their full growth, which for a male doesn’t happen until the early 20s, become reliable hunters, farmers and fighters, before being considered ‘men’ by the clan. But think of how much more natural this progression into adulthood is than for modern teenagers.
I understand that the clan system had drawbacks, and also that its day is over. But to replace it, to fashion a life for ourselves that serves our needs as human beings, we need to bring back some of its features.
Simply put, human are social creatures, and depend on a group for both physical survival and mental stability. Modern nation states removed the clan system to gain the allegiance of individuals: an allegiance the States needed to become world powers. But States have not structured themselves to provide for the human needs the clans managed so well.
In my own mind, loyalty equals responsibility. You have their allegiance, which makes you powerful. It also makes you responsible. Influence over people with responsibility for their welfare is a clan leader. Power over people with little or no responsibility for their welfare is slave holding. I fear our society moves from the former to the latter.
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