The Wisdom Of The Tribe

Lessons from old cultures
may help us overcome the reign of raw power

One of the articles in Governance (IC#7)
Originally published in Autumn 1984 on page 54
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

IF WE ARE TO FULFILL the visions expressed in the previous articles, we will, among other things, have to find a way to overcome the tendency towards raw power struggle predicted by "The Parable Of The Tribes." I’d like to return to that challenge now, and to "the problem of the bully," to see what hope there may be for developing a planetary system of governance appropriate for humane sustainable cultures. Before we begin, however, l have one more item to add to our toolbox.

Governance As A Systems Concept The discipline of "systems theory" or "systems dynamics" is in many ways a study of governance in complex systems – how they behave and what shapes their behavior. The basic concepts of systems theory are:

1) The relationships between elements in a system are as important as the elements themselves.

2) Actions often lead to reactions that affect the original actor. Such loops of action/reaction are called feedback.

3) Of the various inputs that contribute to some part of a system, there will always be one that most limits the dynamics of this part. This "limiting factor" provides the highest leverage point for change.

Using these basic concepts, it is possible to model the ebb and flow of cause and effect in surprisingly complex systems. As system analysts have done this, they have come up with a number of recurring patterns that characterize the behavior of many complex systems (see, for example, "Whole Earth Models & Systems," Donella Meadows, CoEvolution Quarterly, Summer 1982, p98). The particular one I want to emphasize here is called "policy resistance." Think of some human system where the different players have competing goals. The system will tend to stabilize in a state that is balanced between the various forces. If one player now tries a new strategy to pull the system in his direction, chances are that the other players will soon learn to adjust and move the system back to its original state.

For example, when the Romanian government wanted to raise the birth rate, it made abortions illegal. At first the birth rate shot up, but in a few years it was back down close to its original level. Romanian couples still had the same family size goals; they just developed new strategies for reaching them.

The lesson of "policy resistance" is that the most effective way to change a system is to look for "win-win" solutions that change goal competition into goal cooperation. Hungary, for example, found that one of the main reasons young couples wanted small families was that they generally had cramped housing. By pursuing a policy of providing these couples with better housing they raised the birth rate more effectively than Romania’s "direct" approach had. (Readers of the last issue of IN CONTEXT may notice that the principles underlying this "goal alignment" approach are very similar to those for the psychological technique of "reframing" described in that issue.)

The Wisdom Of The Tribe So, what can be done about "the problem of the bully"? The "Parable Of The Tribes" says that, if there is no stronger governmental force to impose order, human systems can be forced into a raw struggle for power by any part of the system choosing to be a bully, whereas no part of the system can impose peace except through force. History confirms this analysis all too well, right up to today when, at an international level dominated by well entrenched "power maximizers" called nation-states, the rule of power reigns supreme. What can we, simply as people, do to extract our world from this vicious cycle?

Since this problem arose with civilization, we can begin by looking for clues from pre-civilization, from the internal life of hunting and gathering groups. Anthropological accounts indicate that these groups did have occasional bullies and even violent murderers, but their cultural system was stable against these disruptions. The key factors seem to be:

1 ) Interconnection and interdependence. Since they all lived and "worked" together, each person was in close, easy, and frequent communication with the rest of the group. In the same way everyone depended on everyone else, not only for food, but for friendship, health, physical protection, and spiritual meaning. Essentially all members "knew," in a deeply felt almost unconscious way, that the good of the group was the same as their personal good. For bullying to have success, it needs a cultural environment where individuals see themselves as separate and independent. Not only is this the attitude of the bully, who is willing to exploit others for his/her personal benefit, but the group also must be vulnerable to "divide and conquer." The close knit character of hunting and gathering groups meant that few bullies were likely to appear in the first place, and when they did, the rest of the group would react in solidarity.

2) No "crucial" people. The other side of interconnection was flexibility. While they all depended on each other in general, they did not have a highly specialized division of labor or roles that made any one person irreplaceable. This worked two ways: first, no one could use the power of his/her position as a leverage point for dominating the group, and second, no bully could control the group through pressure on one person. This is not to say that individuals had no importance or no influence due to their roles, but this was always limited by the ability of the group to rearrange itself under stress.

3) Nonviolent forms of discipline. There was great diversity among these groups; nevertheless, the most common form of "punishment" was disapproval and loss of status, with the maximum form of this being banishment from the group. The interdependence and solidarity of these groups made this both a real loss for the offender and something that the group had the unity to carry out. Thus the response was qualitatively different from the offense – it was not suppressing the violence of the bully with the stronger violence of a bigger bully (like the state). Psychological studies of those who hunger for power indicate that frequently they have traumatically experienced powerlessness, and their concern is not so much having power as it is guaranteeing that no one else will have violent power over them. By responding to violence with nonviolence, the cycle is broken.

I find it very encouraging that the pattern of relationships that characterizes the social structure of hunting and gathering bands is very similar to patterns found in systems as diverse as the most reliable computer systems and stable biological systems. This pattern does not yet have a good name, but it might be called "network semidependence." The characteristics of this pattern are explored in detail by Amory and Hunter Lovins in Brittle Power (Andover, MA: Brick House, 1982) where they deal with the requirements of designing resilient systems – systems stable against disruption. The fact that seemingly very different systems can share characteristics that make them resilient offers both hope and specific guidelines.

Of course, when civilization began and tribes started to bump up against each other in serious competition, their strength of internal solidarity became their weakness of external isolation. Without interconnection and interdependence between tribes, "the wisdom of the tribe" no longer applied and the raw struggle for power began.

Can we now rediscover and reapply the wisdom of the tribe, or at least find a new way to build a resilient human system? The crucial question concerns the balance between 1) the ability of social units to project concentrated power (be a bully) and 2) the ability of these units to communicate, exchange, and develop interdependence with each other (be a bonded group). For most of the past 5000 years, the techniques for power projection between societies have run far ahead of those for interconnection. But in the last half century, the relationship has flipped. Military technology has raced ahead, but it is not at all clear that it has succeeded in making nations any more powerful. Nuclear weapons, for example, are so destructive that they are essentially useless. On the other hand, the coming of the "global village" – in terms of economics and the environment as well as travel and communications – has shown that not only can we become strongly interconnected, we already are.

Thus the technological conditions are promising, but that is not enough. Our social structures have to readjust to take advantage of this new opportunity. There are a number of steps that need to be taken to successfully reapply the wisdom of the tribe:

1 ) Individuals must re-establish a sense of deep connection and bondedness to the whole (in this case the planet). This is a process that is both practical and mythic, left brain and right brain – and it is fortunately already occurring. It is especially important that people build direct human connections around the globe. Since the nation-states are today’s bullies, we can not rebuild the peace of the tribe unless we build a global community that stands independent of these nations, as William Ellis argues so well in the Summer 1983 issue of IN CONTEXT. It is also essential that these connections be "real," based on meaningful ties of economics and common personal interest, and not just a technique for peace.

2) Our societies need to decentralize to remove crucial pressure points. We need to replace brittle systems of hierarchical power with resilient systems of "network semi-dependence."

3) In addition, we need to specifically develop the skills and techniques of nonviolent defense and power. The violence-based struggle for power will not disappear because we smile and ask it to please go away. It will only disappear by being replaced with another more effective way to handle power that makes the old way obsolete. Gandhi and others have demonstrated the power of nonviolence (see The Politics of Nonviolent Action, by Gene Sharp, Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973), and the cultural and technological changes of the past decades have made these techniques potentially even more effective. Yet there is a great deal that needs to be done to expand techniques, and especially to train large numbers of people in these skills.

Each of these steps are things that people can work on immediately and directly. We don’t need to wait for governmental action. Governmental support may at times be helpful, but focusing primarily on gaining that support or power would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the kind of social change that needs to take place. We need to acknowledge both our power and our responsibility for direct participation in creating sustainable planetary governance.

At some point in time, formal structures for planetary dispute resolution will need to be created. These, in effect, will be an expression of world government, but they are not the place to begin. Attempts to impose world government, even in the mild form of the United Nations, have encountered the expectable system response of "policy resistance." As things stand now, "world government" based on the nation-state system can’t be anything more than another strategy for some nations to exert power over others. Since this leaves the underlying competition of goals unchanged, the system just readjusts to this new strategy.

The lesson that "policy resistance" offers in this situation is that we need to directly empower people and provide multiple sources of security in addition to the nation-state. Ordinary people as well as government officials support the power projection of their own nation largely because they want security – they don’t want to be overpowered by someone else, be it another nation or a world government. As long as the nation offers the only realistic protection against power intrusions from other societies, we are trapped in the same old game. But if through the building of local and planetary connection, we can develop a planetary community that can come to the aid of its members and exert power through nonviolent techniques (as, for one example out of many, Amnesty International is already doing), then we can truly change the underlying structure of the system. Successful governance has always been much more a matter of shared culture than formal government, and this will be as true for planetary governance as it was in the tribe.

The reign of raw power we call civilization has not always existed, nor need it always continue in the future. The direction of cultural change, the momentum of history, is promising. We have the opportunity to begin a new epoch, but like most opportunities, it will take clear vision, dedication, and work to turn it into a reality. We have much to do.

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