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  The Ishmael Community: Questions and Answers

The Question (ID Number 763)...

    I am a big fan of your work, and have started to discuss New Tribalism with my friends. One of my friends is convinced that what I'm talking about is Communism, and that it won't work. How can I explain it better? What is the difference between Tribalism and Communism? Why does one succeed and the other fail?

    ...and the response:

    Your question gave me a rare laugh-out-loud -- not at you, of course, but at your friend, who must find Communism a big bugaboo. Every animate species evolves with a social organization that survives (stays in place) because it works well for that particular species or group of species. Thus you have the flock for geese, the pod for whales, the pack for wolves, the troop for baboons and gorillas. For humans that social organization was the tribe, which was functioning millions of years before the appearance of Karl Marx.

    A tribe is simply a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living. It worked well for humans for millions of years (and still works well wherever it hasn't been plowed under by our culture). Aboriginal tribal peoples generally make their living as hunter-gatherers or as hunters who do a mixture of gathering and agriculture.

    Communism is fundamentally about property. Property is held in common, actual ownership being ascribed to the community as a whole or to the state. Tribalism is fundamentally about making a living, not property or the ownership of property.

    In Beyond Civilization I describe a tribal newspaper that I and my wife started in New Mexico (not thinking about it being tribal, just thinking that it was the only POSSIBLE way of starting a newspaper with virtually zero capital). It was very much a coalition of people working together as equals to make a living. Each of us played needed roles. Rennie, the organizer; did the layout, dealt with the printer, and took care of the money. I, who was working on the novel that ultimately became Ishmael, was in charge of typesetting and advertising production. Hap, an old newspaperman, wrote stories, provided most of the photos we used, and sold advertising. CJ wrote stories and a column and sold advertising. After each issue we got together and divvied up the advertising revenue (which was all the revenue there was). No one received a salary. There was no communal property; we didn't live together, eat together, drive together, or anything else.

    The Neo-Futurist Theater in Chicago, "an ensemble of artists who write, direct, and perform their own work" (and who, incidentally, build sets, sell tickets, clean the theater, and so on) is another group for whom the tribal solution worked. It enabled them to found and operate a theater without hundreds of thousands in capital and to keep it going when conventional theaters around them were going under in the recession.

    Ben and Jerry of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream began, again, with relatively little capital and no employees, as a tribal venture (though they didn't think of it this way). The two men opened a shop, made the ice cream, manned the sales counter, washed the floors and windows, and all the rest. When the business became a success, they adopted the more conventional corporate model.

    On the state level, Communism evolved into something that couldn't succeed for long. On the small-group level, communes rarely succeed for very long. Tribalism, on the other hand, has been around and succeeding for millions of years. (This doesn't mean it's indestructible; we're in the midst of proving that even our planet's climatic system is not indestructible.)

    To equate tribalism with communism is indeed laughable.


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