No Minister

Modernity feeding Tribalism

with 4 comments

Primitive economics, with its pattern of reciprocities, its enmeshment in the wider social structure, its hostility to accumulation, its rigidly regulated rules of distribution, its come-one, come-all dispersal of domestic resources, is largely what he says it is. Primitive attitudes toward nature, which emotionally fuse the secular and the divine, are just that.

A tribal take-over of a modern government agency is therefore likely to see a complete inversion of modern administrative values. Nepotism will no longer be seen as a vice. It will be seen as a virtue. The private use of public funds will not be seen as strictly forbidden. It will be obligatory. Under such a regime it is entirely fitting that one’s relatives be appointed as “researchers” and “assistants” and “associates” and “facilitators”. That is exactly what those relatives expect from any loyal member of the tribe, and they will be very disappointed if they are not appointed to such positions.

To me that passage very much strikes a chord here in New Zealand.

It’s from a fascinating lecture that was delivered in the far-off days of 1997 by a New Zealand born Australian anthropologist, Roger Sandall, and it’s the subject of a post over at the Bassett, Brash & Hide blog site.

Mr Sandall was deeply worried about modern government attempts to protect and revive tribal life among the Australian aborigines. He argued that although it had been done with the best intentions it was actually a bad thing because it had prevented them from moving into modern civilisation as so many other tribal groups had done around the world across thousands of years of human history.

He starts by discussing the ideas of that infamous 18th century French philosopher Rousseau, with his disgust at his modern world, his worship of primitive man, and his ideas on how we could return to those halcyon ages. I had not realised that his equally illustrious peer, Voltaire, had scoffed directly at him at the time:

“London is ten thousand times better than Rome was then,” he wrote, and the same went for the rest of Europe. “Paris was then only a barbarian city, Amsterdam was a swamp, and Madrid a desert”. Those who don’t like city life, he suggests, should go off to the Orkney Islands and try life there, where men eat oats and kill for scraps of fish. If romantic urbanites admire the past so much, said Voltaire, let them practice what they preach and go and live there.

There’s a fair bit of discussion about the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, which apparently were not much better in Voltaire’s time than when the Romans had arrived 2000 years earlier. However, as Sandall points out, they did manage to finally lift themselves into modernity over a couple of hundred years, crossing what he calls The Big Ditch.

Sandall makes it clear right from the start that every human tribe must do this if the lives of its members are to improve over time, and he compares modern Aborigines to the Orcadians on one specific point, which is that Voltaire’s philosophy of progress was the widely shared one of the time that insisted it must happen to the latter – while it is a version of Rousseau’s ideas, the Principle of Cultural Autonomy, that now holds sway in the anthropological community (and thus the modern political systems) enabling, even extolling Aborigines and other native groups to somehow stick with their tribal beliefs while integrating with the modern world. Sandall acknowledges the ongoing attraction of tribal life:

In a number of ways, belonging to a tribe is fun. Emotionally, psychologically, socially, it’s often a rewarding place to be. We know this from the millions of people who “go for” this side or that, who troop into sporting arenas all over the world to cheer and shout for their teams… it gave a sense of solidarity, of social cohesion, incomparably more satisfying than anything available today. Read Homer. Or get a taste of it from the movie Braveheart or from Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.

Well yes, and of course that emotional aspect was what Rousseau pushed hard. As the British historian, Simon Schama, said of him in the episode, Forces of Nature, from his TV series, A History of Britain:

Jean Jacques Rousseau… reshaped a generation’s mental habits, turning them from creatures of thought to creatures of feeling. Before him, the highest compliment you could pay anybody was to say they were reasonable. After him, the compliment became, “Il a de l’ame.” He has soul.

But as Sandall points out:

…despite the bewitching appeal it has for so many people, tribalism just won’t do. Tribal justice won’t do. Tribal ideas of truth and falsehood won’t do. While tribal economics, as an alternative to modern economic organization, are little but a recipe for disaster.

He goes into detail on each of these, noting specific examples of what tribal truth, justice and economics actually mean in practice. Tribalism is a failure across the board in trying to be fitted to “the cooler benefits”, rationality and reason of modernity, and those failures show up brutally in the reports from regular visits to Aborigine communities by the likes of the UN, the Principle of International Intervention espoused by the same people who push Cultural Autonomy:

we all know what they find — disease, illiteracy, alcoholism and homes with broken windows and barely a stick of useable furniture. The investigative committee then announces its findings to a scandalised world, a Graham Richardson or an Alexander Downer rushes off to Central Australia to register, as loudly as possible, their personal dismay and their determination to do something — immediately. But the only thing that happens immediately is that they collide head-on with the Principle of Cultural Autonomy, find that taking action would mean interfering in Antipodean “internal affairs”, and soon after this everything fizzles out … until next time.

We’ve never had such regular visits here in NZ because Maori more successfully integrated into the British colonial society that set up here. As far as I know such reports as have been made over the years have been internal ones.

And that’s one of the terrible ironies of all this. It is modernity itself, our post-Enlightenment world, that – especially since Sandall gave his lectures – has given us the massive philosophical and ideological turns that are enabling this return to primitivism.

With the application of new ideas such as “systemic racism”, “Critical Race Theory” and a vast increase in “anti-colonialist” theory (which was still small-scale in the 1990’s and not seen much in anthropology), you have to wonder when UN visits to NZ will also become a feature, especially given that our efforts focused around TOW settlements, Maori language, and more recently things like mātauranga Māori in science, have already led to the following description being equally applicable to us:

One must ask: what has the enthusiastic promotion of Antipodean Cultural Autonomy for the last twenty years got to show for itself? Dot paintings are pretty, but they will only take us so far.

A small well-paid élite with its own ideological priorities is not so pretty, and under the banner of “my culture, right or wrong (at your expense)” seems to be taking the majority of its constituency nowhere at all. In any case, the vital questions are surely these: Are Antipodean literacy rates higher? Can more Antipodeans do their own accounts? Is their health improved? How do they live, and are their houses better looked after than they were? Because those are the things which visiting inspectors from the United Nations are interested in — not dot paintings or élite privileges.

The lecture is titled, An Australian Dilemma: Reconciling the Irreconcilable. I suggest you read the whole thing and see also:

“It is sometimes forgotten that New Zealand is a securely post-Enlightenment society… By the last quarter of the nineteenth century economic and moral progress would be widely considered fruits of knowledge. The myth of the Garden of Eden, where knowledge brings the Fall, had been stood on its head.”

That’s professor Erick Olseen, in an essay from 1997. I’d say that assertion of Eden has been turned on its head again since then and I have doubts about how “securely” we’re a post-Enlightenment society.
“It is easy to be sentimental, or romantic, about the beauties of primitive societies…”
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4 Responses

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  1. Reblogged this on Utopia, you are standing in it!.

    Jim Rose

    January 25, 2023 at 2:58 pm

  2. Is this the philosophical indoctrination all child students should be exposed to at year 12/13 before idealistic marxists get them at University and fill their still developing intellects with the failed philosophies that the lecturers rely on to sustain their warped view of the world.
    New Zealand as a Nation is ignoring the true state of such philosophical development that was the norm in the early 19th century for a people who had not discovered such basics as metallurgy, wheels and rollers and even simple fulcrum levers.

    Gravedodger

    January 25, 2023 at 3:26 pm

  3. Thanks Tom, it’s a great read as are your additional comments. I’ve linked the original article on Bowalley Road – yet to be approved. I’m sure GS & Co will get a lot out of it.

    David George

    January 26, 2023 at 5:58 am

  4. And for the opposite perspective here’s the man himself in print, Chris Finlayson (as told to Connie Buchanan), with Co-governance should be embraced — not feared.

    And I see he’s decided to double down on the terms he used before – and with an added insult too:

    The people I call “the KKK brigade” are out there. They dream of a world that never was, and never could be. They are the people — and these words aren’t mine but are taken from a former British foreign secretary — that you can call the “sour right”. They don’t really understand tangata whenua. They don’t like change.

    I enjoyed the two years I spent at high school learning Maori, but I didn’t realise I’d have to embrace the entire culture and hold mine and my heritage in contempt.

    And as always the question is how many more like him are there in the National Party?

    Finally there’s the question of whether he really understands the tribal leaderships as much as he seems to think. When I see the DOC huts being burned down – including after a supposed court order for it to stop – I don’t see people interested in even “co-governance” but in the restoration of chiefly authority along the lines of the Scottish lairds and Irish and English landowners, complete with a class system and large measure of utu.

    In the face of that I can’t help thinking that Finlayson’s role in this history will be seen as the familiar one in such revolutions: the useful idiot.

    Tom Hunter

    January 26, 2023 at 12:07 pm


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