To describe tribal peoples as socialists makes as much sense to me as describing them as Republicans or Libertarians. Socialism is (to quote from The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia) “a general term for the political and economic theory that advocates collective or government ownership and management of the means of production and distribution of goods.”
“Means of production” and “distribution of goods” are concepts that arose during the Industrial Revolution and have no sensible application to tribal life. Tribal peoples didn’t have factories where they produced sandals, axe heads, and spear points that were then transported to points of distribution where people with money bought them. “Goods” were not “distributed.” If you wanted something, you went and got it. The “goods” of life (whether it was food, wood, stones, or what have you) were not owned “collectively” or by the tribal government. No one owned them, just as no one owned the air or the water or the sunlight.
Species don’t evolve as individual organisms that then by chance come together in a social organization. Rather, they evolve in social organizations–flocks, hives, packs, pods, and so on–and these sustain the individuals. If the social organization of a species doesn’t work, then the species disappears. The social organization humans evolved in is the tribe, which worked for them for millions of years (and still works wherever it hasn’t been destroyed by the people of our culture).
By contrast, not a single social organization subsequently invented by the people of our culture has managed to survive for more than a few hundred years (and that only in the midst of wholesale crime, crisis, oppression, corruption, and poverty). In Beyond Civilization (and elsewhere) I’ve tried to point out that many of the benefits of tribalism are still readily available to us individually–and these have nothing whatever to do with socialism.
The fundamental tribal transaction (as described in the essay “Talk About Wealth!” on the website) is “Give support-Get Support” (as opposed to the fundamental capitalist transaction: “Make Products-Get Products”). I have a very tribal relationship with my publisher, which works to our mutual benefit. My wife has a very tribal relationship with the woman who acts as her artist’s representative, which works to their mutual benefit. We have a very tribal relationship with our webmaster, Alan Thornhill, which works to our mutual benefit. But we don’t have a “socialist” relationship with these people (whatever that might be); it has nothing to do with collective ownership and management of anything but only with giving and getting support. We have played important roles in sustaining these people–and they’ve played important roles in sustaining us, and that’s what tribalism is all about.
If you absolutely must relate tribalism to socialism, then it would be reasonable to say that socialism learned some lessons from tribalism (its sense of egalitarianism, for example); to suggest that tribalism learned some lessons from socialism just makes no sense to me; it’s like saying that birds learned some flying lessons from the Wright Brothers.
updated: 03 Sep 2002