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Thursday, April 20, 2023

Why Taming Our Inner Tribal Beast Is Imperative to Civilization, Not Just Civility

In his latest book, 'The Call of the Tribe,' Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa explores the destructive nature of the tribal mindset.

Image Credit: Mobilus In Mobili-Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

In Bawku, Ghana, a city of about 40,000, African tribal leaders welcome al Qaeda activity in the area.

For over 65 years, the Mamprusi and Kusasi tribes have been feuding over which tribe rules Bawku. Neighbors exchange machine-gun fire; each tribe sees the other as a bitter enemy. Houses have been burned. Students hide in their homes. Businesses have collapsed as no one from one tribe dares to go to stores in the territory dominated by the other tribe.

For Salifu Bashru, a leader of the Mamprusi, an attack by al Qaeda militants is good news; he believes “they’ll probably kill his rivals from the Kusasi community first.”

We don’t know if, behind closed doors, tribal members are questioning such madness, but their tribal leaders are determined to maintain the conflict. One Kusasi advisor said of the conflict, “It should have stopped long ago.” But then added, “We will not tolerate any Bawku naba [paramount chief] apart from the Kusasi.”

With tribal hatred as his North Star, Salifu “relishes the idea of al Qaeda gunmen storming through Kusasi neighborhoods.” He vowed, “We wouldn’t help the Kusasi at all.”

It isn’t clear why Salifu is so sure al Qaeda wouldn’t turn on his tribe next; such is the insanity of tribalist thinking. Someone else’s loss is seen as your gain. Your mental blinders are so thick that the source of your suffering—your tribal hatred—goes unexamined. It may seem to tribal members that their leaders dominate them, but in reality, they are dominated by their decision to exclude others as being as worthy of flourishing as they are.

No wonder al Qaeda sees Bawku as a fertile ground for expanding in Africa.

Erroneous mindsets create suffering and poverty. I can share statistics, but an everyday life story may better make my point. Elizabeth Neeld shares a prayer she heard from a bus driver while traveling in Ghana:

Lord, the motor under me is running hot.
Lord, there are twenty-eight people and lots of luggage in this truck.

Underneath are my bad tires.

The brakes are unreliable.

Unfortunately I have no money and parts are difficult to get.

Lord, I trust you!

Neeld’s driver may be a wonderful man with dreams of a good life. Yet, members of his tribe, if governed by mistaken beliefs, are working to hinder his success and happiness, not to mention the safety of his passengers.

People are equal, but ideas are not. If there is less regard for life in Ghana, it’s because ideas that don’t value human beings have taken root.

American mindsets may seem far from the Ghanaian mentality, yet instances of our own tribal identity politics abound. Recently, the press secretary of the Arizona governor wished harm to those who didn’t share her views on transgender issues. On social media during Covid-19 pandemic, people on both sides of the vaccination issue took perverse pleasure when those who made different medical choices fell ill.

Current events can arouse despair; better, we can understand how to go beyond the tribal mindset. In his latest book, The Call of the Tribe, Nobel laureate in literature Mario Vargas Llosa looks at the work of great liberal thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith, and Karl Popper. He explores how their ideas helped change his worldview from Marxism to classical liberalism.

Llosa’s book is a guide to helping us understand the destructive nature of the tribal mindset.

Primitive tribal impulses are not reserved for some African leaders alone. What philosopher Karl Popper called the “spirit of the tribe” appeals to contemporary authoritarian politicians and ordinary individuals, as it did to totalitarians such as Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.

The “spirit of the tribe,” Llosa writes, refers “to the irrationality of the primitive human being that nests in the most secret recesses of all civilized people… when men and women were still an inseparable part of the collective, subordinate to the all-powerful sorcerer or chief who made every decision for them.”

The attraction of this primitive state of mind is a false feeling of safety, “free of responsibilities, submissive, like animals in a pack or herd, … [who] hated outsiders, people different from them, whom they could blame for all the calamities that befell the tribe.”

The tribalist sees the world through zero-sum eyes believing their neediness can be satisfied when the needs of others are sacrificed. As tribal hatreds are instilled, everyone suffers in a lose-lose world. The more tribalists suffer, the more they are sure the other tribe is to blame.

Llosa looks to classical liberalism, as espoused by Hayek and Smith, as “the greatest protection from the inextinguishable ‘call of the tribe.’”

Traditional liberalism, Llosa writes, “is above all an attitude toward life and society based on tolerance and respect, a love for culture, a desire to coexist with others and a firm defense of freedom as a supreme value.” Without support for that “supreme value,” Llosa explains, citizens can drop rationality, return to primitive impulses, and become seduced by “dreadful charismatic leaders.”

We turn towards freedom when enough people realize there must be a better way than to be governed by the brutality of tribal hatred. Llosa explains that to “shed barbarity” and expel “the beast within” requires a mindset that not only values the rule of law but respects “others equal to or different from [ourselves].”

In a 1968 speech to honor the seventieth birthday of FEE’s founder Leonard Read, Hayek warned that “what is threatened by our present [illiberal] political trends is not just economic prosperity, not just our comfort, or the rate of economic growth. It is very much more. It is what I meant to be understood by the phrase ‘our civilisation.’”

In his speech, Hayek exposed the fundamental misunderstanding that civilization is a product of a planned order. He argued, “if at any point in the past man had mapped out his future on the basis of the then-existing knowledge and then followed this plan, we would not be where we are.”

Hayek explains why otherwise “reasonable” people disparage what they cannot comprehend:

This process of growth to which we owe the emergence of what we now most value, including the growth of the very values we now hold, is today often presented as if it were something not worthy of a reasonable being, because it was not guided by a clear design of what men were aiming at. But our civilisation is indeed largely an unforeseen and unintended outcome of our submitting to moral and legal rules which were never ‘invented’ with such a result in mind, but which grew because those societies which developed them piecemeal prevailed at every step over other groups which followed different rules, less conducive to the growth of civilisation.

Our institutions evolving from spontaneous order, Llosa explained, “are pragmatic but also moral institutions because, thanks to them, it is not just material reality, our standard of living, that has evolved but also our customs, how we behave toward others, our notions of citizenship and ethics.”

Today we are endlessly assured that the government makes us moral and civilized. Without respect for spontaneous order, Hayek explains, not only would we be “much poorer, we would not only be less wise, but we would also be less gentle, less moral: In fact we would still have brutally to fight each other for our very lives.”

We may be tempted to attribute sinister motives to tribalists who seem deliberately to undermine civilization. Still, Hayek, echoing a common theme in Read’s books, argued that if our opponents lack an understanding of the spontaneous forces that shape civilization, we must do better: “Yet if we have not yet convinced them, the reason must be that our arguments are not yet quite good enough, that we have not yet made explicit some of the foundations on which our conclusions rest.”

Llosa, too, cautions that the fight against the illiberal tribal mindset is ongoing: “For this call is heard time and again by nations and peoples and, within open societies, by individuals and collectivities that struggle ceaselessly to close these societies and negate the culture of freedom.”

Truth may not change the mind of someone determined to hold onto their tribal mindset. Yet, many who want a better life for themselves and their children will turn towards a better way if exposed to ideas proven to help humanity flourish. The price will be higher tomorrow, but today the price to tame the beast within is relatively low. Simply, have the humility to respect spontaneous processes you can never fully understand or control. As our attention shifts to the civilizing forces of tolerance and freedom, the beast within us all is tamed.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.


  • Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. 

    To receive Barry's essays subscribe at his Substack, Mindset Shifts.

    His essays also appear at the American Institute for Economic Research, Intellectual Takeout, Learn Liberty, The Epoch Times and many other publications. Barry’s essays have been translated into many languages, most frequently Spanish and Portuguese. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership.

    Barry holds a Ph.D. in economics from Rutgers University and a B.S. in mathematical statistics from CCNY.