From Beyond Civilization:
The New Tribal Revolution: Tribal Models
When I first described the New Tribal Revolution in My Ishmael,
I was rather like an astronomer describing a planet whose existence
has been deduced but which has yet to be seen by any eye. If asked,
I couldn’t have furnished a single example of what I was talking
about. Only after a year of vague groping did it occur to me that
Rennie and I and two other people had once (quite unconsciously)
made our living in an authentically tribal way producing the East
Mountain News in a vast area east of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Rennie and I started the paper as a speculative venture with
virtually no capital. After putting out a couple issues we got a
call from Hap Veerkamp, an old newspaper man living in forced
retirement (because no one would hire him at his age). He said he
could do literally anything on a newspaper—except sell advertising.
We said we’d love to have his stories and pictures, but if we didn’t
find people who could sell advertising we were going to be out of
business very soon. He said he’d give it a shot.
A few weeks later we heard from C.J. Harper, a young woman
who wanted desperately to be a writer and who had an idea for
a column that we might like. We liked the column and we liked
her. The next question was, “Can you sell advertising?” She said,
“I can sell anything.”
Suddenly we were in business—in a modest way. None of us was
salaried. At the end of the week, when the issue was out, Rennie
would sit down with C.J. and Hap and divvy up the advertising
revenue that was left over from paying the printing bill.
The newspaper worked for us for two reasons. First, we all enjoyed
a very low standard of living (and “enjoyed” is not a misnomer),
so what we got from the paper (a pittance by normal standards)
was enough. Second, it wasn’t just a way of making money for
any of us. We all loved the paper and were intensely proud of
our contributions to it.
We were nothing like the size of an ethnic tribe, nor were we living
in community, but we were nonetheless receiving the chief benefits
of tribal life.
Another tribal example
The Neo-Futurists are an ensemble of artists who write, direct, and
perform their own work “dedicated to social, political, and personal
enlightenment in the form of audience-interactive conceptual
theater.” Working in a “low/no tech poor theatre format,” the group
put together a unique postmodern dramatic endeavor performed
under the title Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind.
As many as thirteen members are active in the company at any
one time, though the average performance tends to involve only
eight or so. In addition to writing, directing, and performing Too
Much Light, these thirteen perform virtually all chores associated
with the theater and the production—manning the box-office,
cleaning up, recycling, producing the programs, buying the props,
and so on.
Scuffling in the usual way
In a study of Gypsies and other itinerant peoples, anthropologist
Sharon Bohn Gmelch lists some reasons these groups survive. They
keep overhead low and have little interest in “material accumulation
and capital expansion.” They’re willing to “exploit ‘marginal’
opportunities,” to “fill gaps” in the economy, and to “accept a
narrow profit margin from multiple sources.” In short, they’re
experienced scufflers, as were all the residents of Madrid when
we lived there—and as were all the members of the East Mountain
News, none of whom made 100% of his or her living from the
The same is true of The Neo-Futurists. Though their goal is to make
a living from the theater, most were probably deriving only 20% to
50% percent of their income from it in 1998, according to founder
Greg Allen (who supplements his income by teaching theater
history at Columbia College). Others have various part-time jobs.
One of the company, Geryll Robinson, writes: “I wish I could lead
my life without supporting/being supported by corporate America.
I can’t. I engage in a number of odd and often messy activities that
people give me money for. . . I visited Chicago. I saw Too Much
Light., I wanted in. I moved here. I auditioned. Now they own me.
My life is good. Very good.”