The Parable of the Tribes

Summary of: The Parable of the Tribes
A new look at how the history of civilization may have been largely shaped by the raw struggle for power between societies

Author(s) / Editor(s)

“The parable of the tribes” is used to describe schematically how one aggressive tribe among an otherwise peaceful group can force the spread of the “ways of power” throughout the system: power becomes a contaminant that, once introduced, becomes universal abetted and magnified through innovations in organization and technology.

Publication Reference

Published in/by
Governance, page 5.
Date
Autumn 1984

Findings

  • The evolution of civilization can be seen as a dialectic between the commonsense view of a benign striving for and choice of a humane world and a more problematic systematic selection for power and dominance over others.
  • “The parable of the tribes” is used to describe schematically how one aggressive tribe among an otherwise peaceful group can force the spread of the “ways of power” throughout the system: power becomes a contaminant that, one introduced, becomes universal abetted and magnified through innovations in organization and technology.
  • The drive for societal survival makes the selection for power among civilized societies inevitable.
  • The synthesis of the compulsive spread of power with the benign choice for the diffusion of beneficial inventions through human and humane aspirations is possible. These “different truths” need to be combined in a balanced way.

The commonsense view of social evolution as the product of choices made in the marketplace of cultural possibilities resulting in the continuous betterment of the human condition is flawed.

The rise of civilization, paradoxically, reduced the natural limits separating societies. In such a situation, Schmookler's Parable of the Tribes describes how, in a situation in which two or more actors desire to exploit a limited resource, power becomes important and a contaminant of the possibility of peaceful co-existence:

All of a group of tribes living within reach of each other choose peace. However, if all but one choose peace, there are four possibilities for the threatened neighbors:

  • Destruction.
  • Absorption and enslavement.
  • Withdrawal to a less desirable place.
  • Imitation of the aggressive behavior.

Technological innovation and “improvement,” far from making things inevitably better, can extend the reach of aggressors throughout the world.

Cultural homogenization and the diminishment of diversity happens both through benign, commonsense choice (i.e., innovations as improvements) as well as through compulsion by dominant aggressors.