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Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger, Twelve/Hachette, 2016, 170 pages.

“As modern society reduced the role of community,” writes Sebastian Junger, “it simultaneously elevated the role of authority. The two are uneasy companions, and as one goes up, the other tends to go down.” Anthropologists have found, Junger writes, that in tribal societies there is little tolerance for major wealth disparities or for arbitrary authority. If some male tries to dominate, boss, and denigrate others, then a group of males will get together and take him down, killing him if necessary.

There is a huge irony in this, given the recent American election. Please note that Junger, in this book, does not talk much about contemporary politics, and of course the book was written before the election. But one of the worst social problems in the United States today, along with racism and disinformation, is economic inequality. The electorate’s response to this, totally in denial (thanks to disinformation and racism) about the black president who put the economy back together after white authoritarian males ransacked the economy eight years ago, was to vote for a domineering, bossy, white (OK, orange) billionaire with the emotional maturity of a nine-year-old who constantly denigrates others. What in the world is wrong with a society that would do that? The answer, I would say, is authoritarianism operating inside its bubble of delusion.

What would a tribe be, if we still had them? Your tribe, says Junger, are the people with whom you would share food and depend on for survival if all hell broke loose.

Authoritarian personalities, for some reason, read everything differently from people like me. It takes a village, I would say. No, say the authoritarians, what it takes are walls, lots of guns, scapegoats, a vindictive god who hates the same people we hate, and a big boss who speaks his mind and talks good shit that we can understand.

Junger points out (for example) that about 3 percent of people on unemployment assistance cheat the system, which costs the U.S. about $2 billion a year. Fraud in welfare and other entitlements, he says, adds about $1.5 billion to the annual losses. “Such abuse would be immediately punished in tribal society,” Junger writes.

However, Medicare and Medicaid fraud — fraud committed by hospitals, insurance companies, care providers, etc. — costs at least $100 billion a year, but nobody really knows the full cost. Fraud in the insurance industry, he says, is calculated at $100 to $300 billion a year. Fraud by defense contractors is estimated at about $100 billion a year. Total costs for the 2008 recession (brought to us by white authoritarian males) have been estimated to be as high as $14 trillion.

And yet we have a political culture that remains focused on petty fraud by the poor rather than the outrageous larceny of the rich and powerful. Then the victims of this larceny, who understand that they’re being had but can’t figure out by whom, elect a billionaire for president, who immediately begins to install the princes of larceny in his government while vowing to make life harder still for the poor.

If the two basic ingredients of dynamite are nitrogen and some kind of oil or fat, then the basic ingredients of fascism are authoritarianism and propaganda, lit by the fuse of racism, scapegoating and a religion for white Americans invented in hell.

This is not a proper review of Junger’s Tribe, because I have focused on a single element of this book that just happens to speak directly to our current political situation and that stokes my anger. But this short book belongs on everyone’s required reading list for 2016.

Update: From the Washington Post today, here’s a story that underscores Junger’s point and that illustrates the appalling vileness of Republicans: Fox News wonders whether we should cancel food stamps because 0.09% of spending is fraudulent

One Comment

  1. Dan wrote:

    “What would a tribe be, if we still had them? Your tribe, says Junger, are the people with whom you would share food and depend on for survival if all hell broke loose.”

    I read a book a few years ago about American men and tribalism. It was a pretentious macho pamphlet, but it had a few poignant insights that reflect how poorly America has developed due to forced association and government indoctrination.

    Basically, the idea of a tribalism in America has become that of sport. Men hunt, play cards, drink, bet, and gather in small groups with men of similar physical, religious, educational, and socioeconomic qualities. One insight of the book that makes the most sense in a universal way is that as you get older you become less friendly and therefore have fewer friends. You naturally become less tolerant of idiosyncratic differences and even more intolerant of socioeconomic and religious ones. It’s fair to assume a felon is of low moral character and therefore it’s fair to assume non-felons will avoid felons.

    As men get older, they have fewer and fewer friends, and while some have a more gregarious spirit than others, men will eventually pare down the number of friends they have to very few, maybe only one if not two. From a military perspective, this is a fire team. You’ve got divisions, battalions, companies, platoons, squads, and then finally, you’re in the foxhole with one, maybe two other guys, your fire team. You may know that another foxhole gets blown out and feel sorry for losing those guys as they might’ve been friendly within the platoon, but you don’t necessarily depend on them to survive. You depend on the man next to you. In life, we’re free to choose who we socialize with, for the most part, aside from eight hours a day five days a week. Eventually, you’ve got two or three friends with common interests that know you personally and can deal with your personality issues and petty differences since they’ve been there so long and it’s become mutual.

    To me, there’s a dichotomy in American progressivism that expects everyone, literally everyone, to sign a social contract but at the same time you’re expected to somehow adapt to life that has become so decentralized due to technological advances in a way that is local and primitive. My father-in-law is a prime example. He fails at eating local, I’m certain of that, but he cooks at home and drives minimally. However, he talks fondly of the European Union as he’s a German immigrant, but he left there due to there being more opportunities in America. He thinks his neighbors should have health insurance to prevent him from getting sick, but he doesn’t speak to them and barely knows their names. Why do American liberals desire for the big hallmarks of modern progressivism, equality and welfare, to be embedded in our society across the country but simultaneously we’re supposed to be eliminating excess and living off the land? We’re literally trying to have our cake and eat it too.

    We burn crops to create scarcity to keep prices high because instead of creating wage ceilings that create this massive wealth disparity atop the mountain we’re pushing up the wage floor making prices of everything rise. Economists warn that wage ceilings behave differently than wage floors, and politicians take this to mean wage floors are the politically expedient mechanism to appease the masses. Throw ’em a dime and let them fight over the scraps. Without inflation, all these excesses would plummet. Markets would crash. Jobs would disappear. There’d be total anarchy of the insurrectionist variety. Inflation keeps America going. Prices must stay high to keep wages high. Until we accept scarcity and deflation, don’t expect political change.

    Tuesday, December 27, 2016 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

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