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Why Democracy May Not Survive Without Tribes

New America Media, Commentary, Franz Schurmann Posted: May 17, 2006

Editor's Note: Tribes have survived the rise and fall of empires, the spread of trade, global migration and the relentless wave of urbanization. The glue that holds tribes together are dialects. Whereas Rome's empire fell apart and never reconstituted itself, the Chinese Empire regrouped again and again, thanks in part to the resilience of its tribes. Today all over the world people abandon tribes for the freedom and money of democracy, but democracy itself may not survive without tribes. Franz Schurmann, cofounder of Pacific News Service, is professor emeritus at U.C.-Berkeley and author of numerous books on global politics.

SAN FRANCISCO--Tribes are the oldest social structures in the world. Rather than vanishing in the face of relentless urbanization, tribes have persisted, proof of people's age-old hunger to be with their own kind.

Go to any city today and you will find scenes reminiscent of the Middle Ages, when trade brought people together from all over the world. Yet wherever they moved, they recreated the old neighborhood -- Chinatowns, little Italys, Baghdads by the Bay. The glue that held people together -- the mark of their belonging -- was the dialect.

The African who swims across the Straits of Gibraltar to Europe has an uncle who speaks the homeland dialect. "If you make it, come see me in Paris," writes the uncle. The swimmer clutches the precious note to his chest.

The countless migrants who've come to Europe and the United States today are risk-takers who've sensed the rot in the Western countries. The rot is the hubris of the middle classes who have abandoned the tribe for money and freedom -- democracy's promise -- yet who still want the intimacy of the tribe. They believe they are entitled to it all. But it is only through the migrants' hard work that the middle classes can sustain a semblance of private life.

Money fuels democracy and the migrants trust neither. They trust only people who speak their dialect. They blame democracy for alienating their children who can no longer speak their dialect.

Millennia ago, the cowrie shell was the currency of the day. One step up from barter, cowrie shells set off the great renaissance of global trade. East Africans gathered the shells on the shores of the Indian Ocean and the Maldives, where atolls disappear and reappear. (The word Maldive is a compound for "Mal" -- Portuguese for "evil" and the English word "dive.")

Money in the form of these shells played a key role in ancient China's prosperity, as trade routes sprang up stretching far to the east and south. The first dynasty in China was named "Shang," a word meaning "trading." In modern Chinese, many words associated with trade or money incorporate the cowrie element in their characters.

The Shang, who came from the east, were tolerant of all tribes who spoke many dialects. Their successor the Zhou Dynasty created the first political state in the world, which eventually collapsed into warlordism. The first great revolution in history was led by Qin-shi Huang-Di, who toppled the Zhou and -- determined to change everything from the ground up -- ordered all books burned and declared himself Huang Di, "the Great God." Qin-shi died in his bed, taking his dynasty with him.

Once again fragmented, China nevertheless regrouped itself under the Han dynasty, the first great Chinese empire which lasted 400 years, followed by the Tang, the Sung, the Mongol and the Manchu. Even at the height of each new dynasty, China's tribes persisted, as did its dialects. And the tribes fanned out along the Silk Route, establishing trading links with the Roman Empire.

Unlike China, when the Roman Empire fell apart it was never able to reconstitute itself. The socio-historian Max Weber argued in his Ph.D. thesis that Rome fell apart when pax Romana (the Roman policy of peace) replaced a policy of war and the huge importation of slaves with a middle-class way of life. The Romans found themselves unable to fight the German and Parthian tribes and the Roman economy collapsed. The Roman middle classes migrated back to the countryside where they eked out a living alongside the poor. As Christianity spread, churches sprouted everywhere, providing a modicum of social order after the fall of the empire.

In China, similar religious waves occurred under Buddhism. But empire and tribe continued to coexist, providing a stability that Rome never had.

The middle class wants money and freedom, but the poor and the migrants know they are likely to die early. So they cling to the tribe. When this journalist spent two weeks in Guyana on the northern coast of South America, he was convinced he was hearing a strange tongue. When he asked what language people were speaking, they responded "English," and repeated again, "English." But it was an English dialect he could not understand.

That is what tribes are about.



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