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The Rise of Nation States Over The Tribal World: The Gap Nations Leave In Human Needs

Updated on February 19, 2013
I argue this is not a difference of white and red, but a difference of Nation States and tribes.
I argue this is not a difference of white and red, but a difference of Nation States and tribes. | Source

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.

The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic
The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic

A deportation of Inuit which led to the largest land grant ever given to indigenous people.


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.

Last Train Home
Last Train Home

Factory work and the Chinese family.


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.

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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    • pramodgokhale profile image


      5 years ago from Pune( India)

      This hub is thought provoking. It illustrates real picture of so called modern world.

      I am an Indian and India is enjoying Globalization and liberalization of the economy.Indians gen-next is chasing American dream as oyou say Chinese are following American system.

      Nation states Vs. tribal states , it is clearly visible in Africa. Tribal leaders became chief in those tribal state but without modern society or civilian society so some failures were expected.

      I am an Indian, ours is a plural nation and society including all faiths, races, tribes, but due to democratic process and inclusive growth , we are able to intact our federation, we have fourteen languages and 29 states but we run it despite our flawed democracy.

      Our constitution has granted rights to all communities and reservation in job/employment.

      Under British regime India became one nation and well oiled bureaucracy and government controls one billion people !!

      India was fragmented in many princely states but after independence they all merged in India republic.

      It is difficult to build nation from tribes and tribal area. It can be built subject to pragmatic mindset of leadership. This transition is a long process, tribes usually traditional never give up against modernization.


    • graceomalley profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      RTalloni- thank you for visiting and commenting!

      I agree it is always a good thing to reevaluate the values of a group one belongs to, rather than fall in line. I wish groups in our society worked more together to solve problems, even if we have ideological differences.

    • RTalloni profile image


      6 years ago from the short journey

      Interesting read, indeed. Your title drew me in as I am a firm believer of critically evaluating one's own "party policy" first and foremost if we sincerely want to be a positive part of any group, political or otherwise. A fallacy in modern society is that mankind can find the answer to societal problems, thus old ways are not improved on, but are thrown out. Thanks for food for thought. :)

    • Stump Parrish profile image

      Stump Parrish 

      6 years ago from Don't have a clue, I'm lost.

      I'll return the thanks for the reading materials and the in depth reply. I hope some of these are available on the Gutenberg site. If not I will keep my fingers crossed that my library has them available. If you like to read this site is worth checking out, They have thousands of free downloadable books available. Peace to you and yours and happy reading

    • graceomalley profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago

      Stump Parish - The book you mentioned sounds very interesting, and i am going to put that on my reading list.

      My information about Irish clans comes mostly from history books, I'm afraid. But I find much to admire in early Irish history. They were an egalitarian society, as one learns from their epic poetry, which is filled with female characters who are as interesting and multi facted as the male characters. I also admire the way they transitioned to Christianity - they kept a good deal of their pagan heritage, and did not fall into the black & white thinking of many groups who converted, and then felt they needed to forget, or destroy, most of their previous culture. For instance, the Irish cross is almost always pictured with the old pagan symbol of the circle of life balanced on its crossbar. The Irish were comfortable merging the two images, keeping something valuable from a previous religion, even while committing oneself to a new religion. I am a Christian myself, but there are good & bad ways to make that committment, and i admire the way the Irish did it. "How the irish Saved Civilization" tells, among other things, the story of the irish conversion to Christianity, which was mostly accomplished in one generation, and was voluntary. Ireland also remained a rural society - something that I personally think probably helped them remain more egalitarian. Although they had a high degree of civilization (a complex system of laws, artisens, metalworkers, ect.) they did not build cities. Cities and what we call "civilization" nearly always go together, and the Irish are the exception. I think it was to the benefit of some core values of their society. The Vikings built Dublin and the other cities of ireland, when they began to invade. The irish themselves - like I said - they were among the most educated and artistic of European people groups, but they did this without building cities.

      Perhaps i should write a hub aboout Irish history.

      The best historical novels ever written (in my opinion) are the Kristin Lavrensdatter trilogy by Sigrid Undset. These take place in Norway in the early 1300s, and modern society has already taken over - people are divided into the nobility and the peasents, the Church is a powerful institution, ect. But the feeling of common living is still there - people lived in manor houses where everyone slept in one big 'hall,' the owner of the manor along with everyone working there. Undset won the nobel prize for literature in the late 20s, and the books make you feel like you are in medival Norway. The author's father was an archeologist who studied medieval Norway, and so Sigrid Undset grew up going to excavations of longhouses from the 1300s and even earlier.

      I should probably write another hub(s) about Sigrid Undset's books - I think they are unparalleled.

      The absolute best book about clan life is "The Old Way," which is literally about the old human way of life when we lived in small bands who kept moving. It is written by Elizabeth Marshall Tomas, who spent two years living with the Bushman of the Kalahari Desert. She was a teenager at the time, and the experience deeply impressed her.

      Some O'Malley history was passed to me by my paternal grandmother, and i want to write about it someday, but it is really a very personal topic for me, and tied up with my own life. I saw myself as an O'Malley from childhood, not that I talked about it, but it was a part of my identity.

      Glad you liked the hubs, and thanks for a long comment.

    • Stump Parrish profile image

      Stump Parrish 

      6 years ago from Don't have a clue, I'm lost.

      Grace please delete the second comment, I wrote it after the first one magically disappeared lol I checked and rechecked and couldn't find it until I came back to hub pages and discovered the pixies are playing games wuth my head , thx

    • Stump Parrish profile image

      Stump Parrish 

      6 years ago from Don't have a clue, I'm lost.

      Very well written hubs that provide a glimpse into another portion of what has contributed to the downfall of America. I will admit that while I have observed much of what you dealt with here, I never realized the significance of what I was witnessing. Part of this can be attributed to my lack of knowledge of the clan system you described. I will say that I have done some research and reading about the American version of the clan system, the Native American tribes. These tribes either survived or perished as a unit. The ability and willingness to help those in need was seen as a strength. I first came across this in the novel "Hanta Yo" that tells the story of 3 generations of a Teton Sioux tribe. The author Ruth Beebe Hill spent 30 years researching this book and claimed to have interviewed over 1000 Native Americans. She also claimed to have written the book in English then translated it into the ancient language, and then translated it back into English.

      What I find most interesting is the way the tribes of Native Americans are a mirror image of the clans you described. I have been a fan of the Native American culture and system of society since the day I finished reading this book for the 1st time. If you are unfamiliar with the book I strongly recommend you give it a read.

      I would love to read an essay on the similarities between your ancestor's clans and the Native American tribes. I would also appreciate a recommendation for one book that best describes the clan system of your ancestors. I would prefer a historical novel as I really enjoy the opportunity to get to know a group of characters as I learn. I do enjoy reading historical reference books but they don't offer me the chance to crawl inside the book an experience the narrative from the author's perspective. A book of facts is fine if I am studying for a test but the historically accurate novel sticks with me and continues to call me back for further reading.

      Thanks for the shoot out and for deciding to follow through with this excellent piece of writing.

      It is a sad state of mind that develops when you realize that the best parts and traditions of countless societies has been intentionally destroyed for the personal enrichment of a few people.

      The atheist in me has to point out that, the similarities between the clans and tribes that developed on separate continents, does in fact disprove the claim that, the bible is required for societies to develop a moral frame work that allows that society to flourish. Every aspect of life with in the clan that you described is present in the story of the Lakota People in "Hanta Yo"

      Congrats again on a well written and informative glimpse into the "clan society" This shed more light onto why the Christians of early America felt the need to completely destroy the Native American way of life. They simply couldn't tolerate a successful society that didn't have the need to worship their God or their growing love of money and power.


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