Monday, April 13, 2009

Going Back to Tribalism?

Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer writes on “Regaining traditional tribal values and ancestral homelands” on the News for Blog HERE [Also; see HERE]:

The main idea of Adam Smith, the founder of unrestricted capitalism, was the idea that the individual’s pursuit of self-interest should be regarded as the main foundation upon which society benefits as a whole. This is perhaps the central premise of his book, The Wealth of Nations. Prior to the Enlightenment, avarice, or greed, was viewed with contempt as one of the seven deadly sins, but Adam Smith, buttressed with the work of Mandeville, Hume and other avowed atheists, paved the way for greed to be viewed as a natural, and even as a positive thing. This change in values was perhaps one of the most important and profound changes that helped to overthrow Judeo-Christian morality as the foundation of Western civilization.
If our nation’s dominant society, which is a part of Western civilization, would replace its current greedy economic system with a traditional tribal economic system it would be going (in respect to the economy of our nation) back to Judeo-Christian morality.

It is not for me to comment on a situation that arose from the occupation of a continent by, first Asian, and then, 9-11 millennia later, by European settlers displacing the earlier (not the original!) occupants. This happened all over the earth’s surface 60-100,000 years ago when the first Homo sapiens left Africa for West Asia (and Europe) and then East and South-East Asia, Australia, the Pacific islands and, of course, the Americas.

Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer writes an interesting essay on the claims by some surviving mid-west ‘native Americans’, anthropologically a misleading label, to their lands in the Dakotas.

My comments are directed at the quoted remarks about Adam Smith, who was not, by the way, ‘the founder of unrestricted capitalism’. Smith died in 1790, long before the word ‘capitalism’ entered the English language in 1854. Nor was commercial society, which Smith wrote about, ‘founded’ by anyone, least of all a moral philosopher.

Societies are not like technical inventions, which are the result of inspired, or maybe accidental, inspiration by individuals; they emerge in their different forms over long periods, sometimes millennia.

Attempts to ‘found’ new societies always (I do not exaggerate) fail, of which Soviet socialism is a prime example on a large scale, while North Korea is another on a smaller scale. I suspect that the re-claimed Wakan Wakpa (Rum River) in Minnesota ancestral homeland would go the same way eventually; experiments of returning people from the modern technological age to past ways of life have not been successful – they tend to break up in acrimony, exhaustion, and desertion. However, that is not my business to comment upon.

Smith did not recommend that people act in their self-interest; he observed that people acted in their self-interest (Smith was an observer, not a missionary). He most certainly did not advocate greed, nor were his observations ‘buttressed with the work of Mandeville, Hume and other avowed atheists’ to pave ‘the way for greed to be viewed as a natural, and even as a positive thing.

Smith criticised Bernard Mandeville’s (1724) ideas about ‘Private Vice’ being ‘Public Virtue’; in Moral Sentiments (1759) he called such ideas ‘licentious’. David Hume is also totally innocent of the charge of ‘buttressing’ self-interest by notions of greed. What alleged ‘atheism’ has to do with this argument is not stated; it’s simply asserted? It’s almost a slur just to make its author’s case stronger, but for anyone informed of the ideas of Mandeville, Hume, and Adam Smith, the slur damages its author’s case.

Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer, or Wahkon (it’s not clear exactly who is the author) claims that if ‘the dominant society’ would ‘replace its current greedy economic system with a traditional tribal economic system it would be going (in respect to the economy of our nation) back to Judeo-Christian morality.’ Whether that would be a benefit (let alone a possibility) is debateable.

All the well-debated ‘ills’ of Judeo-Christian morality in practice may have dubious credentials for improving any form of society, but the extent that people believe that such morality (in its best forms) would be a benefit to any society is a perfectly legitimate reason for them trying to persuade others the agree with them. However, I think we should approach such suggestions with caution.

Consider this other paragraph from the article:

Indigenous people did not follow the English concept of property ownership, but never-the-less they had homelands that they considered their territory, so they did “own” land. And they would defend it if invaders tried to take it away from them. And do so by forcefully driving them from their land, if they had the military might to do so.’

As Shakespeare said, this is the ‘rub’. Wahkon articulates a rather rosy picture of life before the European settlers, perhaps forgetting that the Europeans had formerly been living life-styles similar to the plains inhabitants of mid-west North America. John Locke remarked that ‘in the beginning all the World was America’ (Locke, 1690: Two treatises on Government) and some parts had only recently began to transition from tribalism to commercial society.

The resultant picture in Europe was noisy, bloody, and pretty ghastly. That the tribalism of Wahkon’s past did not embrace private ownership of property does not free it from the consequences of tribal ownership of property, which took several millennia to transit to private property in Europe and East Asia.

The great State tyrannies of Egypt, Babylon, India, and China were founded on State property, and rival conquests, mass slaveries, dominant priesthoods, and dynastic kings and emperors. Something similar (with its attendant horrors) was already well underway in Central and South America when Columbus arrived in 1492 (which does not excuse the barbaric attrocities perpetuated by the Spaniards on the local inhabitants).

Moreover, Wahkon skates over the realities of inter-tribal warfare among the plains and mountain tribes that has began to penetrate anthropologists who have looked beyond the idyllic life before the European settlers and found strong evidence of warfare, raiding, and maltreatment of ‘strangers’ entering tribal property.

I recommend Raymond Kelly’s 2000 book, Warless Societies and the Origin of War, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, for a detailed, scholarly account, of the realities of life in our mutual tribal past.

Remember, in the beginning, ‘all the World was America’; going back to that past, voluntarily, is not an option. It may come about by a world post-nuclewr, post-biolgical catastrophy.

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Blogger Andres said...

As for me, I think humans are humans, and wherever there have been humans there's been theft, violence, pain, murder, envy, and greed, along with love, affection, solidarity, and mutual aid. And whenever humans have been organized in social groups there's been domination and tyranny, but there've also been significant instances of cooperation and liberty. Those idyllic views of pre-colonial societies are simply stupid. Those societies knew hunger, and war, cruelty and despotism, as did many others everywhere.

I agree with all of your comments, particularly when you stresss that no philosopher or economist causes human passions to change in such a drastic way as this author seems to think. And even if that were the case, so few are the readers of philosophical books, that social change to a massive scale simply would not happen. This blog has shown how little has Smith actually been read, so the author, following his own logic, should be pleased to know that greedy people are as few as the very few philosophers and economists who have delighted themselves with the reading of Adam Smith.

1:26 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

I agree with your observations. In Europe at the time, the aristocracy of landowners and inherited property beneficiaries were a deadweight largely because of the laws of primogeniture and entails, which locked land into unbreakable wholes, unless all of the property was old as one item.

This slowed down the breakup of land to yomen farmers in smaller workable and productive plots. The alternative of middling landlords to engaged in initially expensive 'improvements' was far too slow, though it had dramatic productivity results. Many of the figures in the Scottish enlightenment were 'improvers' (Josephs Hutton and Black, Lord Kames, Duke of Argyll, Smith's relatives on his mother's side, and so on).

The unique feature of the North American British colonies was their steps towards abolishing primogeniture and entails (not copied in South America where the Spanish and Portuguese land system was even tighter than the British, with whole country-size landholdings owned, but not worked, by or on behalf of absentee aistocrats back home).

A few thousands copies of Wealth Of Nations, read and understood by fewer, made little dent on the structure. Mass frenzies on a single issue, lead to destructive episodes, often, but not always, making things worse.

6:23 am  

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