Book Review: The Tribal Imagination—Civilization and the Savage Mind, by Robin Fox

The Tribal Imagination: Civilization and the Savage Mind. Robin Fox. Harvard University Press. Hardcover. ISBN 9780674059016. Publication: March 2011. 432 pages, 28 line illustrations, 3 maps.

THE TRIBAL IMAGINATIONProfessor Robin Fox is one of those mildly conservative, somewhat eccentric, Englishmen that even we Irish Revolutionaries cannot help but find likeable. I had read his The Red Lamp of Incest some years ago, and found his argument, following Edvard Westermarck, that we are not, in fact, all burning to commit incest with our mothers and sisters to be quite a relief–particularly in the sense that Freudian Psychoanalysis tends to regard the psychological balance between the centrifugal incestuous forces of the nuclear family, and the ban on incest, to be the causa sine qua non of civilization and, indeed, of an acceptable level of personal sanity. Here, I am not indulging in a fashionable swipe at Freud–his analysis of the bourgeois family is, in my view, generally sound. It’s just that the bourgeois family is rather more the exception to human development than the rule. This is one of the key points of Professor Fox’s new book.

As an anthropologist, with a career spanning over five tempestuous decades, Professor Fox has never been afraid to isolate himself from the orthodoxies of the day. He still considers the study of kinship to be the basic grammar of anthropology, and this book is dedicated to Claude Lévi-Strauss and Ernst Gellner – two giants of the study of kinship structures. Be that as it may, Fox’s main interests here are the underlying structures of Western, post-industrial, society – a society that has all but abandoned the whole idea of kinship. To reach these structures, Fox must undertake a vast journey, spanning millions of years of hominid development, and focusing on everything from food in the Old Testament, to the metre of Gaelic poetry, to the marriage customs of today’s Iraq. This book is a truly remarkable achievement. It is one of those rare books, that having read it, you will never think of the world in quite the same way again.

My review begins with the cover photograph. We see a very young boy on a Belfast street of the 1970s. He is aiming a gun in a classic TV detective pose. Behind him, we see women going about their daily business, as they practically ignore the heavily armed British soldiers who patrol the street. Straight away, an Irish person will say that this is a Catholic street. Why? For one thing, it was rare to see such heavy British army presence on Protestant streets. But, more importantly, in Ireland, it is thought that the Protestant settlers have more square faces, while the native Catholics have more round faces. This boy has a round face. The toy gun in his hand probably came from China, but the guns his older brothers probably carried came from Libya – a gift of revolutionary solidarity to the Irish Republican Army from Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi.

So, what is a tribe, and how do tribal people really think? One can certainly gain some insight into this question by following the intellectual and emotional development of Muammar al-Gaddafi. Al-Gaddafi was born into what we would usually regard as a tribe–the Arabized Berber tribe, the Al-Gaddafa. He was born and reared in a tent – as were 90% of Libyans, until he took power. But, even in his father’s tent, on the sands of Sirte, it is unlikely that the young Muammar ever regarded his own familial tribe as the limit of his allegiance and affection. His paternal grandfather, Abdessalam Bouminyar, was martyred in 1911, defending Libya from Italian invasion. Muammar later recounted an incident, as a young Libyan Army officer attempting to enter a US Army base in Tripoli on some errand. He was told that Libyans were not allowed to enter without the authorization of an American officer. Muammar protested that this was Libya, and he was a Libyan Army officer. That didn’t matter, he was told. Such incidents were repeated all over the Colonized World in the 1950s and 1960s, and young tribal men and women began seeing the nation as their tribe. The nation as the one solid defence Third World peoples had against the plague of imperialism and predatory transnational capital. In the case of Muammar al-Gaddafi, it was not only the Libyan nation that he aspired to consolidate, but a Pan-Arab nation – following the inspired teachings of the great Abdel Nasser. Such a nation would be founded on language, culture and religion – not on blood. Later again, Al Gaddafi attempted to unite a whole continent. This time, the bond could be neither blood, nor language nor culture nor religion, but a single idea – a United Africa. And here we see the ultimate progression of a young mind, formed in a Bedouin tent, amongst the most traditional tribal ties, to elaborate those blood ties into ties of abstract idealism – ties that could unite not just a few families, but hundreds of millions of people. What was the tribe of Al-Gaddafi on the day he died? It was all the Libyans, all the Arabs, all the Africans, all the Muslims, all the Christians and peoples of other faiths and none, around the world, who united under the banner of Socialism and anti-imperialism. In effect, to define the tribe simply in terms of blood relations, while it is standard anthropological practice and certainly useful for the purpose of categorization, seems an impoverishment of something so fundamental to us, something that, as Professor Fox stresses, remains the default position of humankind.

And so we return to the questions asked in Professor Fox’s book. For two million years, humans walked in small family groups, hunting and gathering. Marriage between maternal cousins was found to be the best way to maintain the coherence of the group, while allowing just enough genetic diversity. For all of this time, no other, larger, form of social organisation was considered to be necessary. So, what happened to change this mindset, and how was this change organised? The most generally accepted explanation is that growing populations and depletion of hunting stocks forced humans to begin saving seeds and cultivating them. Agriculture, because it has a much lower Energy Return on Investment (EROI), when compared to hunter gathering when wild animals and fruit are abundant, forces a much more hierarchical and disciplined form of society. Class structures form when land is claimed as private property, i.e. populations are divided into owners and those who work for them – be it as slaves or wage slaves. Religions are founded to explain and justify these class divisions, and to keep the underclasses in “superstitious reverence,” as Engels so aptly described it. However, Professor Fox shows that this cannot be the whole story. He gives several examples of civilization, i.e. city dwelling, which emerged not from agriculture, but from harvesting of abundant seafood – a form of hunter gathering. The Calusa Indians of southwest Florida and the Norte Chico of Peru built extensive city structures without any agriculture, depending entirely on the always abundant sea and complimenting their dietary and other material needs from gathering in the local forests. The peoples of the northwest coast of North America have long been famous for their astounding cultural achievements and large population centres – again without any extensive agriculture, but abundant seafood. The Potlatch custom of these peoples has inspired many great writers, including Franz Boas, Marcel Mauss and Ruth Benedict. A central question is always: Are these class societies? Class structure being generally considered a sign of civilized development. There are certainly differences in rank and wealth but is that the same as class? Is there a fundamental difference between a rank based society and a class based society? Of course, any Marxist will answer in the affirmative. The sea is not conducive to private property rights, and the Potlatch makes sure that very little wealth is inherited from generation to generation. A man makes his name and rank from giving away the wealth he has won from the sea. As Marx points out, class is a relation to the means of production. In a society where any man can go out to sea, enjoy an abundant catch, and then share his catch with his neighbours in ceremonial feasting, class has no meaning. Rank, in contrast, has great meaning, and is greatly desired. Here, a man’s worth is not in how much he accumulates, but in how much he gives away.

However, none of these societies developed literacy. The epics and genealogies were remembered in an oral tradition, assisted by great works of visual and dance art. Literacy seems to be a consequence of the need of emerging agricultural states to record production and tax it. Once literacy is achieved, man’s ability to remove his being from the confines of nature grows terrifically – to the point where a philosopher like Jean Baudrillard can describe our Western world as a Simulacrum, where the Real has been murdered. Though, it’s likely that the Real is returning – in the form of Peak Oil. It takes huge amounts of cheap energy to cover all of reality in a membrane-like Simulacrum, or Hologram, as Joe Bageant characterizes it, to the point where hundreds of millions of people can be so isolated from reality that they can hardly feel, see or appercieve it–still less imagine that it could be changed. This is not to say that the Simulacrum is exclusive to Western society. No society can exist without being able to tie all of its reality into some form of continuous, homogenous, image. In the ancient world, magic provided the Simulacrum. Magic gets its fuel from natural phenomena – the seasons, storms, floods, volcanoes, etc. There is no danger of these phenomena running out, but, they are intermittent, not entirely predictable, and so leave room for doubt. Oil, in contrast, has flowed in accordance with human desire for many decades, allowing our Western Simulacrum to invade the deepest recesses of the human psyche and abolish all doubt – not only in the West, but all over the planet. I quote Baudrillard:

“There can be no doubt that had capitalism developed in accordance with its own contradictory logic, it would have been defeated by the proletariat. In an ideal sense, Marx’s analysis is still irreproachable. But Marx simply did not foresee that it would be possible for capital, in the face of the imminent threat to its existence, to transpoliticize itself, as it were: to launch itself into an orbit beyond the relations of production and political contradictions, to make itself autonomous in a free-floating ecstatic and haphazard form, and thus to totalize the world in its own image. Capital (if it may still be so called) has barred the way of political economy and the law of value; it is in this sense that it has successfully escaped its own end. Henceforward it can function independently of its own former aims, and absolutely without reference to any aims whatsoever. The inaugural event of this mutation was undoubtedly the Great Crash of 1929.” The Transparency of Evil – Essays on Extreme Phenomena.

Not any longer! If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then pick up any newspaper or magazine. Do you feel a gap beween what you are seeing in these media and what you are seeing in the world around you? A somewhat annoying, maybe even frightening, gap? If so, it’s because the Simulacrum is in shock – frozen by the flat lining of oil production – it no longer has the energy to cover reality.

So, it seems reasonable to suggest that civilization is not, after all, a function of scarcity only. Abundance will generate one type of civilization, and scarcity will produce another. In this, Professor Fox points in the same general direction as Marx, who looked forward to the abundance created by Capitalist production as the very force that would usher in a new form of society, i.e. Communism. This is slightly ironic, given that Fox often mentions Marx, but mostly to suggest how he got it wrong. Indeed, if there’s one thinker that Professor Fox constantly returns to, it’s Marx – as if the Spectre of Marx remains the touchstone against which all new thinking must constantly be proven.

The distinction between rank and class is one that has often been mentioned in relation to the USSR. It has become fashionable among the more trendy Trotskyite and Anarchist groups to simply dismiss the USSR as a class society and thus a failure vis-à-vis its founding principles. But, this fashion is more based on ignorance than sound analysis. It’s clear that rank was very important in the USSR, as it is in all of the current Socialist states, and with rank comes certain privileges, including increased access to wealth. That said, the situation was not directly comparable to the Native American fishermen. There was a distinctly different relationship between the high-ranking Party members in the USSR and the means of production, and the Proletariat and the means of production. It was a relation of power rather than of ownership. Is this a class structure of some kind? This question is important in that the USSR was a form of society, which developed in conditions of extreme scarcity. It was blessed with abundance of natural resources – most importantly oil – but, in 1917, and for a long time after, it did not have a form of society that could harness these resources. Shifting from a semi-feudal, agrarian, society to an industrialized society was always going to involve all the atrocious suffering that occurred in the West – except that in the USSR, for it to survive in the face of imperialist aggression, 200 years of industrial development had to be forced into a mere 20 years. And industrial modernity, be it of the state or private variety, has been a system of discipline and control, where the vast majority are excluded from decision making, and whose lives are regarded as generally subject to the imperative of production growth. In this, the USSR was no exception, and, in my view, could not have been.

To return to Professor Fox’s book, the leap from blood relations to the relations of civilization requires the substitution of the Real of blood for the Repression of an idea. Freud told the myth of the Primal Father, who was murdered by his sons. In atonement for this crime, the sons institute the ban on incest. Once this abstract idea has been accepted, Repression becomes the organising function, which allows society to develop. In short, an idea now has the power to tame the power of blood. It doesn’t matter that Freud’s myth is unlikely to have ever actually happened. What certainly did happen is that, at some time, a generally arbitrary idea was elevated to a level held to be more important than the immediate desires of the flesh. This was a stage of development already reached by all hunter-gatherer groups. In the agricultural societies, the idea became so powerful that a class of priests was instituted to regulate and enforce it. This was the first class division. In short, religion is the structuring force of all complex societies–be it the USA or the USSR. Let’s take the example of circumcision – here was a master-stroke in the annals of population control. When you can get men to accept the idea of cutting pieces off their most prized part, you can more or less get them to accept anything – and to believe anything. One can only marvel at the sales technique of the first man to suggest circumcision to another man. Gender roles are another great nonsense that has kept generation after generation under control. The American Dream? Well, as the man said, nobody awake would believe it. If the Westermarck Effect really is the determining factor in incest avoidance, then elevating the ban on incest to such marvellous heights was truly the nonsense idea par excellence. And, of course, the USSR also had its state religion, with a full range of hagiographies and reliquaries. Tragic though it may seem, such ideas, or Master Signifiers, as Jacques Lacan called them, really are necessary to the functioning of any complex society. (While religion \ Master Signifiers serve to structure any society, the Simulacrum \ Magic \ the Hologram serves to cover\hide the structure for those who live inside that structure – particularly its victims. Our hope for the future is that the Simulacra we develop will be self revealing, i.e. allowing us maximum comprehension of the structure of our society, and our ability to change it.)

Master Signifiers, for all their often-grotesque lack of truth or logic, do give space for the emergence of the individual, which is, perhaps, the main story of the last 5,000 years of human development. Professor Fox devotes a chapter to the work of Karl Popper, entitled “Open Societies and Closed Minds – Tribalism versus Civilization”. Popper’s distinction between Open and Closed societies is easily ridiculed, and Fox takes full account of this ridicule, but anyone who has spent any time at all in communal living of any kind will recognize what he’s getting at. Communal living, be it in Bedouin tents or Anarchist squats involves giving up a lot of the individual indulgences that solitary dwelling allows. In effect, the collective rule of tribe comes into force. Whether that rule be expressly stated or not, it is certainly felt. But, Popper goes further than recognising these tensions. He defines the Open Society as one where the ends of the society itself, and not just its means of “muddling through,” can be brought into question. Given this definition, can we say that Western society is now an Open Society? Who is seriously allowed to question the “free market” as the ultimate end of this society? Yes, one can ask the question in academic publications, etc., but not anywhere near the locus of power. Is a thought that can have no consequence really a free thought? I would say not. Antigone had more freedom than we have – her opinion mattered – mattered enough to cost her life. Fox writes: “What is closed in the Closed Society is the future, because it is thought either to eternally repeat the present, or to recycle fixed ages, or to change in completely known and fixed ways. The Closed Society seeks to ignore, deny, and arrest, or to predict and hence totally control, social change.” Yes indeed! However, the good Professor is not thinking about Western Capitalism, but National Socialism and Communism. With Popper, he wonders at the great attraction that these political philosophies have had for so many intellectuals, brought up as bourgeois consumers, with the seemingly vast realm of choice that bourgeois consumers enjoy. Why would they opt for political systems that curtail consumer choice and what Popper liked to term “personal responsibility” to such a degree? Fox writes: “The ‘perennial appeal of tribalism’ (my phrase not Poppers) both to the masses and to the elites, is often overpowering. When things look bad for us, we cry out for a saviour – a doctrine and a leader – to return us to the unthinking security of tribal society and the tribal mentality.” Well, yes, there is, no doubt, much truth in this. However, Professor Fox does not seem to consider that the ultimate exercise of personal responsibility may be precisely to reject a system that leaves the means of production as the private property of the few, while the great majority do not have the means to exercise any real choice at all – including the choice to simply survive. There is no such thing as personal responsibility without the material means to put that responsibility into effect. Capitalism, with its structural need for mass unemployment – the reserve army of labour, as Marx called it – will not, and cannot, provide the majority of the earth’s population with the means to exercise personal responsibility. Professor Fox writes: “I have sung the praises of the “Paleoterrific” – the Old Stone Age societies like those of Lascaux….More open societies…can be riven with anxiety and uncertainty, with alienation, anomie, and angst. This was the point about the ‘burden of civilization.’” I would suggest, echoing Jung’s dispute with Freud, that the anxiety of civilization is not so much the burden of the superego, or personal responsibility, but the burden of being excluded from the material means to exercise personal responsibility. Let’s be honest with ourselves – a person working in Burger King on minimum wage is not exercising personal responsibility any more than a Roman slave was. Indeed, Roman slaves tended to revolt every so often, thus showing a far higher level of personal responsibility than today’s “Precariat” can generally even imagine. As an obscene footnote to the question of personal responsibility, and what it means to the Masters of Men – the guardians of liberal democracy–one thinks of the U.S. Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act, 2005, which attempts to protect U.S. corporations from law suits filed by obese victims of the intentionally addictive shit they peddle as food. Again, many of these victims live so precariously, that buying fresh food and cooking it is a luxury they can scarcely imagine. They’ll get 25 years in prison if caught three times with a gram or two of cannabis – but kill themselves with cheeseburgers, well, that’s their own “personal responsibility.”

In a later chapter, “The Old Adam and the Last Man”, Professor Fox writes:

“Even though the liberal-democratic-capitalist societies may meet Hegel’s idealistic criteria, could it be that they have simply become too complex and too expensive to sustain, despite this virtue? Could it be that the authoritarian capitalism of Singapore and China, and the traditionalist and familial capitalism of Japan, offer more viable alternatives?”

In the era of Peak Oil, it certainly is likely that the West will be forced to adopt the type of State Capitalism now existing in the People’s Republic of China. Such a system is unlikely to be able to maintain the circus of “liberal democracy.” Perhaps we are already seeing the transition, with ever-greater police and surveillance power being exercised by Western states, the de facto nationalization of industries due to the financial collapse, along with the merging of the bourgeois political parties into de facto single party rule. Peak Oil is to our form of society what AIDS is to the human body. No more immunity from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Everything gets smaller, slower, more careful.

Any yet, the Master Signifiers which structure complex society are never really safe from the continuing power of blood. Professor Fox gives the example of Iraqi tribesmen stealing copper wiring needed to power public utilities in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. George Bush’s “Iraqi People” meant little to them, while their own kinsmen went hungry. Particularly given that Bush’s “Iraqi People” were free-market- representational-democracy-loving-want-to-be-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants, that had never actually existed in Iraq and, doubtless, never will. Not unlike the democracy loving peaceful protesters that NATO invaded Libya to support. Where are they now? Seems they only ever existed on CNN and Al Jazeera.

In a chapter entitled “In the Company of Men – Tribal Bonds in Warrior Epics”, Professor Fox looks at the phenomena of male bonding as a possible avenue from the blood ties of the familial group to the abstract ideas that can function as Master Signifiers to unite nations. He writes: “In the prehunting stage of hominid development, males had not been responsible for provisioning females and young. Male chimpanzees occasionally hunt, but the meat is not part of the steady food supply. They do, however, form cooperative male bands, which operate exclusive of females for a good part of the year and which carry out lethal raids on other such bands.” This is not to suggest that male groups are the basis of society – society already existed for humans, as it does for all primates and most of the higher animals. If the oldest part of our brain is the reptilian complex at the base of the skull, then we have good reason to believe that our social consciousness goes back to then – female crocodiles operate a system of child care, where one mother will look after the young of the other mothers, to allow them to go hunting. However, as we see with the chimpanzees above, the male bond, by its nature, is not so much about the practicality of reproduction and food provision. Professor Fox reviews the great epics of male bonding, from Gilgamesh to the Táin Bó Cuailnge to the Knights of the Round Table, and finds in each case an often-fatal contradiction between the ideals of the warrior band and the necessities of the heterosexual bond, sexual reproduction and child care. He writes: “Without sex between male and female there could be no reproduction, but the male group reproduces first by recruitment (knighthood is a kind of cloning).” This is important. One cannot simply breed a nation. A nation must always be the result of the recruitment of many tribes, and a class of warriors is needed to create, defend and enforce that new identity. Male bonding allows concrete phenomena such as kinship to be abstracted and elaborated into abstract ideals, including the tribe as a religious ideal, extending to racial and national identities, and then extending to even more abstract concepts such as Socialism. But, the tension between the warrior ideal and the warrior’s duties as a husband and father remain. Professor Fox writes: “It could be argued that the most successful males would be those that balanced male bonding, for the protection of and provisioning of the whole group, with the particular care of their own mates and young.” Atomized bourgeois society tries to overcome this tension by encouraging men to become entirely private beings, caring only for their own private households, or, if they must, giving vent to their need for male bonding through harmless outlets such as football supporters clubs etc., where they not only remain harmless, but boost corporate profit to boot. Needless to say, the result has been a masculinity in crisis – and a society in collapse.

And Late Capitalist consumer society has good reason to fear the male bond. Such bonds have always been at the heart of any revolutionary movement. Joseph Stalin’s little band in the Caucuses had adventures that rival any ancient epic, as they carried out bank raids, kidnappings, piracy, organised strikes and ran protection rackets. Marvellous fun for any hot blooded young man. No doubt the politics played its part, but can scarcely have rivalled the thrill of being together with a band of young men, breaking every rule that was beaten into them as children, facing danger, death, hunger and hardship, with only the vaguest care about tomorrow.  In Germany of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, the National Socialists were more than aware of the power of the male bond. Anyone who has watched the youth rally in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, can be left in no doubt about the sheer joy of youth feeling its own power, all under the warm and holding gaze of the godlike leader himself. All of this might seem like hell to aging Leftist intellectuals, but to young men and boys, and to many young women and girls, it’s paradise.

But, what happens when blood itself is taken up as the structuring idea of a society as it was by German National Socialism? Like any other signifier, blood too will serve as a Master Signifier. And the more nonsensical, the better. The whole idea of the Aryan is vague to say the least. It’s a word that was first used in the Rig Veda, by the invading Indo-Europeans in northern India to describe themselves. It means something like “noble.” And what people have not thought of themselves as noble? Heinrich Himmler seems to have taken seriously the idea that the Nordic peoples had especially pure Aryan blood. It’s clear that Hitler always knew it was just a signifier.  Following Himmler’s complaint that Hitler’s cook, a young lady named Kunde, was a Jew, Hitler simply ordered the Kunde family be “Aryanized,” and he continued to enjoy his food from her hands. That said, the familiarity of blood cannot simply be dismissed. As Professor Fox shows, our millions of years of moving in small familial bands have conditioned us to prefer small groups that look and sound like ourselves. The ban on incest is much more about whom we should mate with than with whom we shouldn’t, and what our duties are to the kin groups that result from this ban. Professor Fox writes: “Lévi-Strauss had spoken of an ‘atom of kinship,’ and this metaphor catches the spirit of it. The atom is, in fact, an atom of kinship and marriage…If the brother and sister cannot marry and breed, their children can, and in most preindustrial societies they were encouraged or enjoined to do so.” This is a fact of life that Right Wing politics has used to devastating effect, and that the Left has simply tried to ignore or deny. Tragically, it must be admitted that in every country where Fascism took root, Communism lost out – even when Communist parties began with a massive numerical advantage, as in Italy and Germany. In short, it’s much easier to get a German or an English worker excited about the idea of German or English workers’ power, than about the much more abstract and distant ideal of the power of the World Working Class. It’s a fact that a very large percentage of the young men joining the Sturmabteilung, the SA, were young men who had left the Communist Party. It must be said, also, that the SA got the male bonding much better than the German Communists did – Western European Communists have tended to avoid the excitement of violence and open revolt, whereas the Eastern Communists, and those of the Global South, thrived on it. Race is an issue that the Left will eventually have to come to terms with – particularly the Western Left. As Mao said, not all Nationalism is bad, and I think we can say that not all recognition that racial sympathies and tensions exist is bad. At least, we have to learn to deal with them. As Professor Fox writes: “The main thing about the stranger, after all, is that he is strange. He is not like us; he will never understand us. Our greatest fear, perhaps because the possibility is often so seductive, is that we will become like him and loose ourselves.” Going back to the boy on the Belfast street at the start of this review, the fact that I could say, with some confidence, that the boy is of native rather than of settler stock, points to a reality that is simply not going to go away. I think, again echoing Mao, that we should remember that racial supremacism, as opposed to the reality of race itself, is a function of imperialism. We should not fall into the error of confusing the two. Correct Socialist planning involves rational planning of the workforce. Looking, for example, at the Peoples Republic of China today, it may be that Socialist planning would be much more effective if the state took due regard of the sensitivities of race relations – particularly in regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet.

In conclusion, this is a very readable book, and will be enjoyed by the anthropologist and the lay reader. It dares to look at topics that more trendy and PC writers prefer to avoid. Its scope and erudition is enormous, and I recommend it without reservation – though, as a Communist, I do not share the book’s hope that “liberal democracy” will continue – at least in the West. I finish by quoting Professor Fox on a topic that is, sadly, always current:

“We of the post-Enlightenment Anglo-Saxon West are among the most earnest of givers. We are not, like our medieval Catholic ancestors, really proponents of the Crusade and the holy war against the heathen. We are at heart Protestant missionaries. We want to bring the good news and the benefits of civilization to the benighted of the earth. And if they don’t want it, then like good Protestant parents, and entirely for their own good of course, we must sternly make them accept it. Certainly we hoped to make good profits and attain political power in the process, but these were small prices that the benighted had to pay for the incomparable gifts we had to offer.

“Critics of colonialism miss the point if all they see is the profits and the power. Our civilizing mission was, and still is, as dear to us as jihad is to Muslims. Even when it is not Protestantism per se that we are offering, it is the children of the Protestant ethic that we know as democracy, liberty, equality, and the free market. Our learned men tell us in fact that we are the foreordained bearers of a truth so fundamental that with its triumph history will come to an end, there being nothing left for mankind to achieve. If this is so, how can the benighted so stubbornly, and even violently, refuse our gift of a free leg up onto the stage of world history? …There is no question that we went into Iraq to defend our oil interests: that at least was the rational part. But the Holy Warriors in the White House saw a far greater opportunity. They could plant the banner of liberal democracy in the heartland of Arab totalitarianism, and thus change the world for the better.”

I’d like to thank my comrade, Brendan Stone, for his insightful comments and suggestions on the writing of this article.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Tribal Imagination—Civilization and the Savage Mind, by Robin Fox

  1. This is an informed and robust assessment of Robin Fox’s somewhat antiquated understanding of the relationship between culture and biology—perhaps a “senior moment”! But European sweet memories of good old imperial days persist. See the coddling review of Fox’s “Tribal imagination..” in Social Anthropology 20(3): 341-342 located in one of the heartlands of Protestantism and European imperialism.

    I have lived in anthropology for five decades with the understanding that there is a general three tier relationship between culture and biology: In the earliest stage biology determined culture, e.g. freeing of the hands (bipedal locomotion) facilitated tool making. In the second stage culture and biology evolve “hand-in-hand” in a non-deterministic mode. During the third stage—culminating in industrialization and post-industrialism—culture determines the content and direction of biology. Thus, Fox’s obsession biological determinism—e. g. consanguineal tiles and incest—a kind of “tea party” orientation—fails (or is unable) to grasp the naked reality of the prominence of culture and cultural constructs such as ethnicity, ideology, nationalism, identity politics, religious consciousness such as Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc. In our times biology has been and is at the mercy of culture.

    Robin Fox must have “kinship” ties with the neocons who operated the American power machinery during the past three decades. The criminal American war machine invaded Iraq not to defend US “oil interests” but because the Israeli and Saudi fascist theocracies—intimate allies and dependencies of America—feared the remnants of massive amount of weapons (including WMDs) that were given to Iraq by the United States so it can attack Iran. In fact the American criminal apparatus subsidized both sides in this bloody conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people perished. In order to create the pretext for the invasion of Iraq the United States encourage Iraq to invade Kuwait. Ask April Glespie, US ambassador in the years leading to the 1991 Gulf War which served as the warm up for the 2003 invasion and destruction of the secular and stable state of Iraq.

  2. I understand what you’re saying Comrade, but my understanding of Professor Fox’s argument is that even fairly recent ideologies like Protestantism – or even Communism – have a grounding in tribal ideology, which, in turn, is closely linked to biology. As Fox says, Protestantism tends to show this more when conducting “Jihad” against other groups, i.e. by presenting the uniform mask of tribe to itself and those it is attacking, but tries to reject it when structuring its internal society, i.e. by atomizing it’s own populations. I don’t think this is necessarily a Right Wing view. I have no training in anthropology, but it does seem reasonable to me that the two million years we’ve spent as hunter-gatherers would have had a much greater effect on our brain structure than the 200 years we’ve had of Capitalism. Fox is basically saying that Western Capitalism constructs societies that are very anti-natural, and thus very fragile. He basically admits that Communism is a more natural form of society – though he prefers unnatural Capitalism.

  3. Robin Fox is correct in arguing that communism and Protestantism are ideologies—systems of moral and social ideas which undergird practice. Marx’s “false” and “class” consciousness—absence or presence of objective knowledge—is another way of conceptualizing ideology. In either sense, willingly or unwillingly, ideas and knowledges are learned. And everything learned (ideas and systems of ideas) can be unlearned. In either sense, the social formation called “tribe” (including its cognizance and use of genealogies) and “tribalism” are packages of ideas and practices that are learned. They are not biological predispositions. Human beings inherit their biology but they learn their culture. My parents were members of a Pashtun tribe. Through them I have a place in a tribal genealogy. But I have learned Pashtunwalai—Pashtun “tribalism”—not through genes—but through the process of acculturation and socialization, i. e. intense and prolonged “Participant Observation”—the title of Robin Fox’s autobiography. My understanding and appreciation of Antonio Gramsci’s version of Marxist ideology has nothing to do with my genes and my Pashtun tribalism. I sometime metaphorically equate human biology with computer hardware and culture with computer “software” which you can install, update, modify, and/or uninstall on just about any hardware.

  4. I very much like how Jamil is framing the biology vs. culture issues here. Robin Fox may be more than just mildly conservative. However, if I am not mistaken I am sensing something almost the opposite of euphoria in his writing, with respect to modernity, development, Westernization, capitalism, etc. It might then be worthwhile taking this as an “ethnographic document” of sorts, that attests to (a) the once again growing disenchantment with Westernization within the West, and, (b) an attempt to shake fellow Westerners out of their autistic self-enclosure in a world of untested beliefs about “we are the best”. Many thanks to both of you.

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