Thursday, 31 January 2013

Stephen Corry on Diamond

This is a short reply to Stephen Corry's article on Diamond's new book.  Corry claimed that tribal societies - the sort his organisation, Survival International, was ostensibly founded to protect - were/are about as peaceful as modern democratic states, or perhaps even more peaceful than them.  This is not the truth, and Corry's argument amounted to little more than the moralistic fallacy ('it would be bad if that were true, ergo it isn't').

If you live in a society without a state, then you are more likely to be killed, and more likely to kill someone, than if you live in a society with a state.  This is for the simple reason that states have organisations devoted entirely to reducing violence in the community in one form or another.  Even the most violent states - the Mongol empire or Stalin's Russia, for instance - have an interest in preventing violence between individuals (whether they were violent institutions themselves is another matter).  There are police forces and armies that stop cattle-raids and headhunting assaults and other minor offenses that otherwise blight life.  Where cattle-raids and tribal/'gang' warfare continue to occur, it is because state power is insufficient to stop it; hence Lorna Doone, Mexican cartels, and the 'Wild West'.

It's not because 'tribal' people are inherently more violent, but because, when states aren't present, there is no reason not to be violent if a situation appears to call for it.  If the police won't intervene when my cattle are stolen, and when I rely on my cattle for my livelihood, I only have one realistic recourse: violence.  Yes, there are 'laws' in tribal societies, and in that sense they are similar to states, but the difference is that tribal law cannot be enforced and doesn't apply to other tribal groups.  Who would do the enforcing?  And how would they acquire their power?  Only through the collective ascription and use of resources that... well, would make that society a state society, and not a tribal one at all.

'Tribal' is too flexible a term here, as is 'primitive', as is 'traditional'.  So let's define it properly.  A tribal society is one largely reliant on cultivation or pastoralism, with descent groups rather than higher governmental organisations functioning as the supreme institutions.  So defined, tribal societies are probably the most violent of all societies on earth, because they have a lot to defend (pasture/land for horticulture, animals, village sites) and no one above them to prevent acts that would be considered 'criminal' in a state, like the theft of livestock.  This is amply borne out by the ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and archaeological records.  By contrast, state societies contain an element directly opposed to this activity and with the power, by collective ascription, to prevent it.  And foraging societies that aren't sedentary and don't rely on horticulture don't need to fight in this way.  Egalitarian ('immediate-return') foragers are perfectly capable of violence, but they don't have the inequality of tribal societies, nor their large institutions and property.  Foragers ('hunter-gatherers') tend to fight as individuals, because they have no need of collective property; tribes fight in groups based on residence or descent because they do.  This easily leads to an escalation of violence.  (This is also probably true of 'delayed-return' foragers, especially sedentary ones, as they have resources to defend and, probably, larger descent groups than their immediate families to defend them with.)

Stephen Corry apparently finds the entire early ethnographic and ethnohistoric record dubious, and won't accept the evident fact that life in states is less violent for the common person than life in tribal societies.  This view rather conveniently ignores the enormous amount of archaeological evidence for greater violence before the rise of states: defensive walls or palisades around villages throughout the tribal world long before European/'Western' contact or meddling (at Jericho; along the Xingu river; in Iron Age mainland southeast Asia; in Celtic and Germanic Europe; etc); skeletons riddled with arrowheads or sling stones; cemeteries filled with the corpses of young men who died violently (a pattern not found in a cemetery in modern Britain, for example); and so on.

If you think the Hopi weren't violent before the historic period - a pretty common claim - then you should read Steven LeBlanc's Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest (University of Utah Press, 2007).  If you think tribal Europe was peaceful, then any book on the Iron Age should show the error of this.  If you think Amazonia was as peaceful as a modern state before European colonisation (or, realistically, into the late twentieth century), then look into the archaeology of Amazonian villages to see the defensive measures they took to avoid predation by one another: moats and palisades are incredibly common and function as some of the main diagnostic features for archaeologists attempting to identify pre-Columbian Amazonian villages in the landscape.  You need a palisade - a costly feature - only if you want to keep somebody out on a regular basis.  The presence of such features around communities (rather than, say, military garrisons) worldwide correlates strongly with endemic warfare.

The 'modern' world is far from perfect, and none of this justifies atrocities, as is sometimes claimed (and as Corry has claimed).  States can lead to an inexorable weathering of egalitarianism and the rise of arbitrary rules that impinge on the freedom of the individual.  It is also possible for states, as highly-organised, powerful, stratified entities, to override the rights and freedom of people in other, smaller-scale, societies - this is precisely what we see in, say, Indonesian Papua or almost the entirety of the Americas in the post-Columbian world.  But it has to be admitted by even the most cynical Luddite or Thoreau that today's world is incomparably peaceful, and in contrast to the lives of people in pre-colonial Timor, you don't have to lock your door at night to avoid a raid by headhunters.  You can get through life in modern Europe without once having to fear murder, incredible as it would seem to a person in pre-Columbian Amazonia or pre-colonial Sumba.

Survival International should campaign on the basis that all humans deserve just and ethical treatment, including the prevention of endemic violence by the state (ideally through mediation).  It is not a good idea to base a moral argument on a flawed and unrealistic empirically-settled point.  If it becomes widely-acknowledged that the point behind the moral is untrue, then it could lead to an undermining of the moral.  This is part of the reason why you can't derive an ought from an is.

Corry should have tried to dissuade us from using endemic violence as an excuse to massacre whole societies or remove them from the earth.  He should have challenged the flawed transition from 'is' to 'ought' found in so many discussions of tribal societies, and shown that while life without states is more violent, this is no excuse to demonise people who live in tribes.  Instead, he chose to endorse this as a viable argument.  He implicitly validates the argument that endemic violence in a tribal context would be a good reason for genocide and atrocities if it were true.  This is, as I said, a terrible idea, because endemic violence is or was present in many or most (if not all) tribal contexts, and it certainly doesn't serve as a reason for committing atrocities against people who live(d) in tribal societies.  Should the nature of tribal violence become widely-known, it could indeed jeopardise the struggle to apply human rights legislation equally to marginalised communities - but only because of spurious arguments like Corry's that implicitly accept it.

Corry did make a good argument against Diamond's book - that his category of 'traditional' societies isn't really valid, and that no living human society is a true throw-back to the past.  But it was smothered by the incorrect claim that life in a tribal society is about as peaceful as life in a state.  That is simply wrong and not borne out by any of the evidence.

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