Friday, February 27, 2015

On the Dangers of Runaway Tribalism

A big-picture look at what ails society

Earlier, I wrote:

"What we are doing isn’t working, we’re all in this together, and we are running out of time."
Here, I explain what I meant.


The world is complex, and human conscious attention is limited. So everybody leans heavily upon the same pair of universal cognitive crutches—instinctive pattern recognition and reflexive analogical thinking—in order to get by.

At some basic level, the simultaneous presence of these three attributes—limited attention, pattern recognition, and analogical thinking—defines a shared core of human intelligence.

(we're all in this together...)

This shared architecture is behind tribalism, that great driver of politics. We routinely sort people into generalized categories of “us” and “them” (analogical thinking) according to their behaviors, beliefs, appearances, nationalities, loyalties, and so on ad infinitum (pattern recognition). We do this because individual people are too numerous, too complex, and mostly too distant to fully get to know on a case by case basis (limited attention).

Everybody thinks in groups. We just don’t think in the same groups. Therein lies the rub.


When tensions arise within a society, tribal divisions sharpen. This is not so much a fact of life as it is a force of nature. If tensions rise far enough, civility starts to break down, societal cohesion starts to destabilize, and (eventually) small patches of violent conflict begin to break out.

Worse, the problem is self-escalating. As the perception of personal security decreases, tribal identities become more and more important. Tribal divisions begin to harden in place, and anyone caught near the borders is forced to declare sides. Armed conflicts, both rhetorical and otherwise, widen and deepen. “Other tribes” are blamed for whatever goes wrong, but if things go sufficiently wrong, internal purges are carried out in hopes of restoring tribal purity. Further suspicions and tribal subdivisions are bred by the purges, and the splintering process repeats itself on a smaller and ever nastier scale.

(By this time, perceptive people have long since started looking for a way out. But there isn’t always a safe place to go, or a good way to get there.)

Still worse, a tribally destabilizing civilization becomes progressively more paranoid as it atomizes, making it far more vulnerable to political manipulation. This too is an escalating process. Tribal political power is traditionally maintained by rewarding your allies, punishing your enemies, and co-opting or discrediting your potential rivals; not by crafting broad-based political solutions to society’s problems. As more and more political power is poured into the battle for tribal consolidation, predictable consequences—partisan mistrust, rampant corruption, apathy, confusion, and civic disengagement—arise in the society at large. The bad drives out the good, as decent people are hounded from political power, or give up seeking it altogether.

(...what we're doing isn't working...)

Worse yet, at some point the entire political apparatus closes off, forming its own incestuous tribe. Coalitions shift as players rise and fall from media grace (and make no mistake, the media are players), but blame-shifting, cronyism, purges, and general nastiness remain endemic as tribalism takes open hold, increasingly transitioning from “under the table” to “over the counter.” The political system exists for its own sake now, and its original purposes have been cast by the wayside.

As the positional battle within the closed political system continues to intensify, the priorities of the active players transition from problem-solving to vote-buying as they scramble to secure their places at the high-stakes table. By now at least four mutually reinforcing societal dynamics are in play: (1) as a long-term strategy, influence-peddling requires first capturing and then maintaining a portfolio of dependent constituencies, which means systematically not solving their problems; (2) the ever-increasing sums of cash needed to stay in the game must be variously raised, taxed, regulated, solicited, extorted, diverted from infrastructure projects, or otherwise borrowed wholesale against society’s accumulated wealth; (3) some people begin to say “why should I work at all, if they are just going to give me some of that free money?” and (4) others ask “why continue to work hard, if they are just going to take from me everything I earn?”

(... and we are running out of time.)

The ratchet continues to tighten. Work ethic, self-reliance, honesty, and personal accountability decline all across the population, while disillusionment and dependency continue to rise, fueling further tribal destabilization. Bit players are squeezed out or co-opted by the big fish (who are themselves already co-opted), leaving fewer and fewer honest brokers. More and more money flows into the political system for less and less societal gain, and the infrastructure begins to fail.

Those who can afford it make good their planned escapes, taking their expertise and as much of their wealth as they can. And as the money runs out and production grinds to a halt, the political players finally, belatedly, begin realizing that they can no longer safely dismount from the ravenous societal tiger that they themselves have created. The only alternative is to tighten their grip and ride on, hoping that something—anything!—might happen along to save them.

Unfortunately, whatever shows up isn’t likely to be all that interested in saving anybody. A society that auto-cannibalizes its own accumulated human capital tends to leave itself wide open to foreign interference on a variety of scales, and few of them are benign. If powerful and hungry neighbors are present, then raids, invasions, or even outright annexations can be expected. If not, then the splintering process may simply continue indefinitely, as things continue to fall further apart. If that long slow drop has a bottom, a hard look at headlines and at human history suggests it has not yet been plumbed.

I reiterate: what we are doing isn’t working, we’re all in this together, and we are running out of time.

But it is not yet too late.

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