The Utopian Premises of Ecological Tribalism
The Ecological Turn of “Postmodernity”
“Postmodern” culture has some rather surprising aspects, especially when compared to those it had a few decades ago. One is the ecologist tendency to rediscover, re-evaluate and propose as a model what is regressive, primitive, wild and tribal.
Until recently, one paid tribute to Man the Master of Nature; today, however, one incenses Nature as the idol and mistress of humanity and its destiny.
Until recently, the dominant culture was rationalistic and scientific, aimed at shaping an advanced civilization and building a bureaucratic and technocratic society. Today, an irrationalist and magical culture prevails aimed at forming a regressive civilization.
Before, one planned a cultured, stable, wealthy, comfortable and conquering society. Today, however, a new society is dawning that is ignorant, precarious, poor, uncomfortable, and simplified society; the tendency is to “deconstruct” society by transforming it into an anarchic and tribal community.
This “return to nature” is not as new as it seems. If we remember the history of the revolutionary process we notice that – under the guise of building a future designed on the basis of scientific and technological rationality – one has often dreamed of returning to a lost past, an unspoiled origin, an “earthly paradise” in which humanity would live happily by being unaware of all things, divested and free from everything.
The Discovery of a Tribal Model of Society
History is full of failed utopian projects that endeavored to recover a lost happiness by returning to an unspoiled origin. Their number exploded in the sixteenth century precisely with the advent of “modern civilization,” which demanded that knowledge and willpower be placed at the service of Utopia in order to build a free and happy society.
Shortly after the discovery of the Americas, the ships that reached the new continents began to move not only priests, geographers, naturalists, and traders, but also «philosophers» who today would be called ethnologists or anthropologists, eager to study the life of the discovered peoples.
Those scholars were disappointed with their own civilization, which they accused of being complicated, contrived, unjust and torn by divisions and wars. As you may remember, the Protestant revolution had just broken out. In their journeys, they sought to rediscover an “earthly paradise,” an alternative to civilization, a new model of society to replace that of old Europe. Using today’s fashionable language we can say that they abandoned the “downtown” to search for “suburbia”, refusing exclusivism in order to “open up to the other”, establishing uniformity in order to discover diversities .
Some of those scholars did not merely study dispassionately the lives of the savages but interpreted them according to their own preconceived notions. They naively believed that tribal society was devoid of property, trade, families, institutions, laws, privileges, hierarchy, and political and religious authorities. They believed that the savages lived free from certainties, desires, scruples, security, aggressions, wars, living a shapeless and indifferent life that today we would call Buddhist or vegan (although the savages were keen to eat animals).
According to those scholars, all these privations made the savages not only ignorant and naïve but also peaceful, chaste, humble, altruistic, generous, wise. They did not feel the consequences of Original Sin because they enjoyed an original innocence. In short, those scholars imagined they had discovered in tribal society the ideal community they dreamed of, and so they hoisted it as a model and proposed it to Europeans as an alternative to their “corrupt” civilization.
The Wild Utopias of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment
The sixteenth century, a historical period that marked the triumph of humanistic culture, neo-pagan civilization, and secularized society, also saw the rise of utopias that claimed to muster the knowledge and power required for a return to the “earthly paradise”.
Some Protestant sects such as the Anabaptists already dreamed of a society devoid not only of the Papacy but also of any religious authority, political power, family or private property.
Some exponents of the so-called “erudite” Renaissance – skeptical in religion, libertarian in politics, and libertine in morality – dreamed of a society that was happy because it was free from religious, political and juridical constraints. The Frenchman Etienne de la Boétie, for example, a pupil of Montaigne, hoped that Europe would become a continent “without Faith, Kings or Laws.”
At the same time, between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries illustrious humanists elaborated precise utopian projects. It began with Saint Thomas More who, with his famous work Utopia (1516), coined the name for them, and continued with Dominican Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602). Those literary fantasies, however, were not meant to be imposed on real society.
Later, however, with the New Atlantis (1612) by the Anglican Sir Francis Bacon and the Law of Freedom (1652) by the Puritan Gerard Winstanley,, they proposed Utopia as an ideal program to be scientifically implemented using political and economic techniques invented by the nascent “social sciences”.
To avoid ecclesiastical censorship, many authors proposed ideal societies using the literary fiction of the geographic discovery of distant societies. Gabriel Foigny, in his book The Southern Land (1676) about a fanciful voyage, imagined a primitive society composed of multi-sexed asexual individuals with ambiguous or mutant sexuality, just like gender theorists today.
Although the Enlightenment is thought to have been cultured, scientific, pragmatic and refined, this tribalist utopian literature continued during the eighteenth century. Writers such as Fontenelle, Meslier, Deschamps and Rétif de la Bretonne argued that happiness is the result of «simplicity», understood as freedom from dogmas, laws, duties, obligations and social constraints. Morelly wrote the Code of Nature (1755), Rousseau a pedagogy of “wild spontaneity,” and Diderot the political project attempted during the French Revolution, with the results we know.
The Tribal Utopia of Socialism
In the nineteenth century, when scientists and sociologists joined ethnologists and anthropologists, some of them studied the social system of the pre-Columbian Amerindian societies (Aztecs and Incas). Although those societies were tyrannical, oppressive, slave-holding and even prone to perpetrate massacres, they were praised for their basis in “solidarity”, i.e. living in symbiosis with nature and capable of merging countless individuals into a collective entity that acted as one compact and powerful body, like a “big animal”.
Some socialist authors sought to counter the technocratic model of positivism with the primitive model of the “Third World” or the tribal life of savage communities. They dreamed of a society liberated from religious, political and economic authority, in which everything was collectivized: from marriage to the education of offspring, from property to inheritance, from work to entertainment, from teaching to housing, from food to clothing. Man’s birth, growth and death had to undergo a socialization that presupposed secularization and impoverishment. The socialist utopist Fourier, for example, designed a social system similar to that of the Amerindian empires, in which a tribal-like collectivism subjugated every aspect of individual life.
This primitive model also influenced so-called scientific socialism. Marx himself set the communist revolution to abolish alienating and oppressive factors – property, money, commerce, family, education and law, political and religious authorities – that dominated history from patriarchal to bourgeois society. This abolition would allow a return to that ideal primordial community, that “primitive horde” imagined by Engels, in which “everything is in everyone,” all are equal to each other, not only regarding possessions and power, but also in their thoughts, desires and feelings.
This was the goal of the early experiments by the Leninist regime in Russia and the Maoist one in China. The bloody dictatorship of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia was a tragic, if obviously failed attempt, to eradicate an entire population from its civilization by deporting it into the forests in order to experience a wild tribal life.
“Postmodern” socialism, which began with the sexual and ecological revolution of Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm and Herbert Marcuse, implemented since May 1968, continues to pursue its original goal, now reduced to its irrational, divesting and destructive dimension.
It is no wonder that the very term “Revolution” (from the Latin revolvere) does not express an progression towards the future but a return to the past, to a lost and lamented primordial state of perfection and happiness imagined as a “reign of freedom and equality” – provided that people give up civilization. Therefore, the choice we face today is between revolutionary barbarism and Christian civilization.