Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button
History Table of Contents
1994 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1994
Globalism and Tribalism: The New World Disorder?

Tribalism: Recreating Community

DAVID MAYBURY-LEWIS, Founder and President of Cultural Survival Inc. and Professor of Anthropology, Harvard University

For me it is a great honour to be invited to attend to what I take to be a truly Canadian tribal gathering.

I am also a little concerned because maybe some of you are hoping that since I am the anthropologist, I am going to somehow set the record straight on tribalism.

Well,alas, I am going to disappoint you. There is no right way to talk about tribalism. In fact, anthropologists don't talk about it at all these days. The word tribe has disappeared from the anthropological literature entirely.

All I can do today is to take a hard look at our uses, or rather misuses of the term tribalism, and ask you to reflect on what this tells us about ourselves and the world we live in.

I find it an extraordinary irony that we are in fact so pessimistic about the world we live in.

Iimagine that 10 years ago someone came along and said to you, you know in 10 years time the Soviet Union will have imploded, the threat of nuclear war will no longer hang over us; Germany will be reunified; apartheid will be abolished in South Africa; etc, etc, etc,

We would have said, oh, come on, this is incredible.

Certainly nobody in the think tanks thought that all that was going to happen. It would have seemed at that time like a miracle.

In fact to me, today, it still does like a miracle. But then, why no euphoria, when all these much-to-be-esired things have finally happened? Is it simply that we miss our enemies?

It seems to me that that kind of stand off with the Soviet Union and the West was kind of a solution. It gave us a story about ourselves, which we firmly believed in; at least we professed to believe in. At least it gave us something to do. And we thought a reason for doing it.

Whereas now, this post-modern world is violent and dangerous and beset with local conflicts and wars; brutal, if not genocidal; ethnic conflicts, which are nightmares that were never supposed to happen.

After all, according to our most cherished beliefs, modernization should have made ethnic attachments irrelevant by now; obsolete in most places and obsolescent in the rest.

What happened? After all, according to Western theorists, modernization should have led to a certain kind of state.

If modern states appear to be breaking up and if pre-modern states are consumed with ethnic strife, then it must be because civilization after all is very shaky; it must be because primordial passions have been loosed upon the world and that human kind is reverting to its instinctive tribalism in all its savagery.

Tribalism, that great fear, comes like a jolt from the id of our common humanity. A plague threatening the modern world, one of our leading newspapers called it; even more deadly than AIDS.

Well, I think this is overheated rhetoric and these are mistaken conclusions derived from outworn theories.

So what I would like to do is to take a more analytical look at tribalism and what it refers to and how we might set about rethinking it.

Obviously in the first place tribal, the word tribal and tribalism, was used to refer to small scale "primitive societies," that is societies that we are pleased to call primitive.

We use the term for indigenous peoples primarily, peoples who were in the old days considered uncivilized. People who, in some quarters even to this day, are regarded to be unable to adapt to the modern world. People who, I am still told in the board rooms of major corporations and development banks, stand in the way of development. And that in our modern world is somewhere between a sin and a crime and punished rather severely either way.

And people, who if they do adapt and prove, as anybody who knows them well knows that they can, that they are perfectly capable of adapting to the modern world; if they do adapt, then they are dismissed as being no longer properly tribal.

After all, if those people are not using bows and arrows any more and they are dashing around on ski-doos, can they really still be their own tribal selves? Surely not, the argument runs.

We apparently reserve only to ourselves the right to move into the suburbs in our automobiles and to change our entire way of life and the entire physionomy of our societies and yet claim that we are still maintaining our traditional culture. Tribal peoples, according to us can't do that, which of course is nonsense.

Now we discovered that all of these arguments about tribal peoples; that they aren't able to adapt, that they stand in the way of development, were nonsense. They are mere rationalizations for their mistreatment by the state in which they live and by the peoples who surround them.

It is very convenient to say that these peoples can't hack it if we happen to be taking away their lands and their resources and making as sure as we possibly can that they will not be able to hack it in the future.

These arguments are rationalizations, but the ultimate rationalization of all, is that these kinds of tribal people subvert the state simply by being there, simply by wanting to maintain their own cultures. They presumably want to succeed and wish to set up their own states within the state, or outside of the state.

What these people want is cultural survival. And by that they mean the preservation of their own culture, control over their own future, normally within plural, or multi-ethnic states, both here in Canada and elsewhere in the world.

That is one kind of tribalism, the kind of tribalism that anthropologists are supposed to deal with.

But, I want to devote the rest of my remarks to the kind of tribalism that anthropologists are not often supposed to talk about. That is really the tribalism, which is intended by our title this evening; the tribalism that is supposedly breaking up modern states.

According to this view, Hindus and Muslims, Croats and Serbs, Tutsi and Hutu, and all the various peoples of the former Soviet Union, it is just in their nature to want to get at each other, to want to kill each other and now nature is taking its course.

And I think this is a total misreading of history.

Hindus and Muslims have often lived harmoniously together, worshipping even at the same shrines. Croats and Serbs, likewise, when not separated by exterior, and that is one of the reasons that it has been so difficult to disentangle them in recent times.

As for the peoples of Central Asia, they traditionally lived in multi-ethnic societies. Turkish rulers with Persian bureaucrats all intermingled with other ethnicities throughout the length and breadth of that enormous land mass. So much so, that as a colleague of mine wrote the other day in article in our journal for Cultural Survival, "there is an old Central Asian proverb that says, a Turk without a Tajeek, is like a head without a hat."

That is a multi-ethnic society. It is not innate tribalism that is leading to ethnic conflict in Central Asia, but globalism and its effects.

In any case, these peoples are normally ill-treated by the states in which they live. And that, incidently, is why my wife and I over 20 years ago founded Cultural Survival. Because we had seen how such people were being ill-treated in the jungles of central Brazil and we came back and talked to our colleagues about what might conceivably be done to prevent it. And Cultural Survival was an organization that tried to figure out what could be done to prevent it and then try to persuade the powers that be to do it.

Globalism in its very stages; its first stage which was Imperialism. It was Imperialists that treated the tribes of Africa and other parts of the world, as natural units, rather than as contingent social formations, which had a future and a changeability of their own.

They froze the tribes and hardened the boundaries between them. I think it is too hard to say that they created tribes; there were tribal-like organizations there before, but these were organizations that had a malleability and a flexibility of their own and it was that flexibility which the imperialists removed, giving them the arbitrary and uncompromising form which we come later to associate with tribalism in its worst phases.

Probably all of you have heard of the tall, willowy Tutsi and how distinct they are from the short dark bantu, Hutu. And it is somehow or other their lethal antipathy to each other derives from this essential difference between them. Therefore, it may come as a surprises to some of you to realize that actually Tutsi and Hutu, individually, are virtually indistinguishable. And when the colonial Belgium wanted to distinguish them, they had to issue them identity cards so they could read on the card who was a Tutsi and who was a Hutu.

And the way they determined who was a Tusi and who was Hutu, was because Tusi were the aristocrats and therefore they should have many cows and the Hutu were the labours and they shouldn't have many cows. So if you had 10 cows or more, you got an identity card as a Tusi and if you had a couple of cows to few you were consigned to the helot class. And then the interesting thing is that the colonial powers then wrote so called ethnological treaties about the racial distinctions between Tutsi and Hutu, having created the distinction themselves.

It was Russian and Soviet Imperialism for example that created the ethnic republics in central Asia. The republics had previously been multi-ethnic systems. And it was the Soviet Union that created these republics and then left no room for the peaceful expression of ethnicity in the Stalinist State.

Moving on to the Cold War. Each side in the Cold Wr armed its proxies to fight in places like Angola, Chad, Ethiopia, and a whole list of others. Armed them to the teeth, encouraged them to fight while the Cold War was on and have now left them to fight it out when the Cld Wr is over.

And I find it some what of an irony given that history, that we now turn around and say,ah ha, you see, these are those primordial ethnic hatreds; exactly what you expect from Africans.

But the point is that these ethnic frenzies are created where previously there was only potential for ethnic conflict, as indeed there is almost anywhere. Ethnicity in this form is defensive. Defensive of one's own culture and way of life, as Daniel Salée was saying in a much more dramatic sense, as Michael Ignatieff was saying yesterday, though it may sound aggressive.

Serbs felt that they were faced with genocide in an independent Croatia. Croats and Muslims likewise feel and felt that they were threatened with genocide, if the Serbs take over. Ethnic cleansing was the result of the breakdown of the structures of the state.

The irony in all of this is that the Yugoslav tragedy had, in fact, been foreseen. At the time when the break up of Yugoslavia was being contemplated, it was foreseen that the recognition of independence of the former Yugoslav states would lead to a brutal war.

Europeans, led by Germany, went ahead anyways. Remember that Germany was the creator of the puppet Croatian state during World War ll that was engaged in the systematic massacre of Serbs and others.

What I am saying is that we have a situation where Europeans have played power politics in Yugoslavia for centuries. They exacerbated ethnic conflict in World War II; they were fully aware of the Titoist control after World War II, and its consequences for civil society in Yugoslavia. They saw the ethnic cleansing coming in the 1990s and, yet despite all of this, they were either unwilling or unable to do much about it.

So, then it ill behooves them or us, to cluck our tongues about the primordial savagery of the Balkan peoples.

And I couldn't help but be struck by how well Michael Ignatieff summed this up in his recent book, Blood and Belonging, where he says, "In sum, therefore, we are making excuses for ourselves, when we dismiss the Balkans as a sub-rational zone of extractable fanaticism. These people had to be transformed from neighbours into enemies."

My conclusion from all of this is that the primordial tribalism, tribal savagery is a myth.

If we are going to understand ethnic conflict, we have to understand the political economy of the conflicted areas. We have to understand the external setting, just as well as the internal fissures, which have occupied the forefront of attention up until now.

And such an understanding is absolutely essential, because we can not hope to do anything about this problem – or indeed any other problem – unless and until we understand its nature and its causes.

This kind of understanding would depend on our understanding that ethnic conflict is not in our genes. Neo-socio-biological approaches are rather popular in the West at the moment. They will not do when we are talking about ethnicity.

Ethnic conflict is circumstantial; therefore, in order to understand it we really have to understand the circumstances. That means understanding the history. And we need to understand the circumstances which permit amiable expression of pluralism, just as much as those that exacerbate ethnic conflict. we need to understand that ethnicity and multi- culturalism can in fact be a resource and doesn't always have to be a danger or a threat.

Multi-ethnic states should be the wave of our future. The alternatives are pretty awful.

We otherwise have the world shattered into hundreds and hundreds of mini states, each one corresponding to an ethnic group, which is a pretty fearful outcome to contemplate.

Or, it will be a world in which people who do not control states are suppressed; or, at least their ethnicity and very often their language and sense of themselves suppressed. And that up until now has been the tendency. After all, the United Nations whom we look to to deal with these matters, is really the united states. And I don't mean the United States south of the border. It is a union of states.

But, until very recently it has said very little about the rights of peoples who do not control states. This has only come on to the United Nations agenda in the last two or three years. And that raises the problem of the legitimate state about which Michael Ignatieff talked last night. There is a real problem here and I share his enthusiasm for a good liberal state.

But the problem is that all states consider themselves legitimate, and the international order acquiesces in their claim to legitimacy. The most heinous states insist on their legitimacy and that legitimacy is formally recognized by international protocol. And it is precisely states that normally commit the human rights abuses. It is normally states which carry out ethnic cleansing. And it is certainly usually states who are the perpetrators of genocide.

And most of our theorizing, our Western theorizing until very recently, has tended to hope that this problem would vanish, as ethnicity vanished, because truly modern states would make ethnicity obsolete. But that, we must finally face, is not happening and is not likely to happen.

In the meantime, we have devoted insufficient attention to making multi-ethnic, post-modern states work. On the contrary, we tend systematically to regard such states, or even the prospect of such states, with suspicion. Multiculturalism we are told by our scholars and pundits, leads to tribalism, which is a dreadful thing, and will encourage chaos.

Arthur Schlesinger, the American historian, in his book, The Dis-uniting of America, argued very eloquently that multi- culturalism in America has been carried to absurd lengths. He writes about the tendentious rewriting of history to make certain minorities, various minorities, feel good. He writes about the intellectual absurdity about a curriculum which is supposed to make different segments of the society feel good. He writes about the inanities of political correctness. And he insists that all of these tendencies should be staunchly resisted in the name of truth in the name, if you wish, of our own sanity and in the name of the future.

And I agree with him. However, I disagree profoundly with his conclusions from all of this. If exaggerated multi-culturalism leads to these absurdities, that does not necessarily to say that a serious multi-culturalism is not to be contemplated.

And serious multi-culturalism, I think, ought to be the wave of the future. Serious multi-culturalism implies tolerance for other peoples' ways of life, understanding of them and a serious attempt to understand them, mutually. We are talking about tolerance, mutual understanding and mutual respect; a serrious effort to allow ethnic expression, while retaining a commitment to a common polity.

All this is very easy to say in a professorial way from a podium, but I realize that it is exceedingly difficult to carry out in practice.

Apart from anything else, it requires a dramatic reversal about our thinking about tribalism, ethnicity and the state, which is the real point of my remarks.

And it requires a willingness to admit that ethnic conflicts don't just happen among the incorrigible and the uncivilized.

In fact, ethnic conflicts don't just happen, they normally result from international trends in which we all of us play a part. And they are normally fanned into flame by unscrupulous leaders.

This it seems is before our eyes and for us to see. Above all we must understand that ethnic cleansing and genocide affect us all.

I find it an extraordinary irony that our newspapers warn us that this is the modern plague on one hand, and yet our leaders taking the pulses of their respective electorates, perhaps in Canada, certainly in the United States and in Western Europe, do their best to turn their back on it, until the television pictures get so horrifying that something, however ineffectual, has to be done.

In the meantime they tell us that all of this is no special concern of ours, no threat to our security, or as a Senator said in the United States the other day, "Not worth the life of one of our boys".

And yet I think they are wrong.

This is a threat to global security, make no mistake about it and should be treated as such.

I don't think that any of us want to live in the kind of world where this kind of activity goes on without any remedy whatsoever.

And if we think through what kind of a world that would be, we will very quickly see that we are talking about our own interests and our own security.

And yet this portentous diagnosis guarantees virtually no cure, because the world's mechanisms for dealing with such threats are notoriously imperfect and our ability, even our will to combat genocide, has been tested and found wanting, even after the horrors of World War II.

The world's arrangements for dealing with potential genocide, which is what ethnocide is and what ethnic cleansing is, are even more confused and ineffective. And yet deal with it we must, because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

I am hopeful and also slightly optimistic. One has to be optimist if you founded an organization like Cultural Survival; people say, what are you trying to do, help the strong against the weak, well that is a losing battle if ever there was one.

But it isn't ,necessarily. After all, the indigenous peoples of the world have gathered together, they have got their issue on the world agenda and they are moving forward with it.

And I think there is real ground for some cautious optimism in the growing strength of the international movement for human rights. I remind myself, when I feel terribly pessimistic, that for thousands and thousands of years, people thought that slavery was a natural part of the human condition.

We no longer think that; slavery has been abolished in most parts of the world and that is a real step forward.

Let us hope that similar steps forward can be taken in these areas of globalism and tribalism, too.