Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tribalism Redux

Although this subject fits better my other blog, Ghulf Genes, where culture is the central subject, I’ve chosen today to post something there on Asian carp (link), a subject that more properly belongs here. So turn-around is fair play.

My subject, narrowly, is the Sequester, but behind it is something else. Behind the Sequester lies something more basic, something primitive: tribalism of a sort that, in human affairs, is only ever under control when one of two situations prevail. The first of these is wealth so abundant that conflicts of a tribal sort are unlikely to take hold; everybody has enough and then to spare, and in the resulting exuberance, the deeply biological is muted. Therefore this circumstance is extremely rare in human history. The other, and more common, is that a powerful overlord, by sheer overwhelming force, prevents tribal clashes or holds them in close check.

The modern world, up to fairly recent times, wallowing in the wealth bestowed by fossil fuels, represents the first. Such a vast eruption of wealth has never been before—but, presumably, collective control of rivers, to stimulate agriculture, say in China and along the Nile, may represent earlier cases where suddenly if only temporarily resources outstripped population growth.

Powerful empires represent the second, most notably, in recent memory, the Ottoman. One historian, Arnold Toynbee, once speculated that the Ottomans, Turkic peoples whose habits were formed by herding, translated this habit into conquest of people on whose tribute they lived—and to keep that tribute flowing, they adamantly suppressed the usual upwelling of tribal conflict.

Widespread wealth only mitigates tribalism when it is well-distributed—as rendered in the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all ships. Some of us numbers-crunchers, however, noted as far back as the 1990s already, a change in that pattern as the distribution of the wealth changed—so that the three lower quintiles of the U.S. population began losing their share, and the two top one’s began to gain wealth—the topmost soaring to the skies like a sudden Himalaya. In part this transformation has been due to what is known as productivity, thus the replacement of people by machines.

In recent times the mounting inequalities have become much more sharply visible as dropping real household income and unemployment for the lower quintiles, producing economic woes in part due to the erosion of the customer base on which commerce rests. And then—and this was really more accident than design—a black man, of the left, thus at least nominally representing the poor and the urban masses—not least the laboring masses who have been sliding down an tilting economic plane—came to be elected president. President Obama, of course, arguably, is only nominally black. He himself belongs to the upper elite. Nonetheless, in the great cloud that a culture actually represents, he has become symbolic for the “Other” among those elements of the population who are still enjoying wealth but threatened by the overall decline.

Hence now we have a major rebirth of tribalism under various names, Tea party the best known. And the country is now showing serious and terminal rifts. No matter how big a majority President Obama won in the last election—supported by the urban masses—those who voted for him, whatever their income, are seen by a large other grouping, as being the Other and therefore lacking legitimacy—and never mind the numbers. Therefore gridlock, stasis, and the Sequester. Will the returning tribalism manage to sink roots? If that should happen, we must be prepared for major change, very major. I used to hope that by the time that happens I’ll have joined to Dearly Departed. Now I’m beginning to fear that I’ll actually be here to see something of that happening in earnest.

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