Karl Popper vs tribalism

Karl Popper was, I think, among the last intellectuals to be truly liberal.  He wasn’t a social democrat, or a socialist, or a Freudian, or a Marxist – merely a liberal as in “advocate of liberal democracy,” and this makes him appear, at times and by our later standards, quite conservative.

He acknowledged the importance of tradition even in that most critical of undertakings, modern science.  He restricted his zeal for social improvement to piecemeal changes, and saw with unerring clarity the human disaster of “social engineering” on a vast scale, such as was being attempted in his day by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  His rationalism approached reasonableness, and his humanity was ever-present in his argumentation.

For Popper, liberalism stood for the “open society,” which held within it the possibility of conscious, reasoned change.  He contrasted this with a more primitive but still pervasive state, “tribalism,” the belief that society and nature were one, and that neither could be altered without retribution from magical forces.  Science and free enterprise pierced the walls of closed tribal societies, but paid the price of a fierce reaction by those who longed for the old order.

Popper considered Plato to be the prototype of the intellectual reactionary.  The republic watched over by philosopher kings and guardians, in which music and poetry were banned and humans bred for quality like prize hounds, was the political equivalent of a forced march back into the enclosure of tribalism.  The same, Popper believed, could be said of Hegel’s turgid idealism, Marx’s iron laws of revolution, and Freud’s obscure mythologizing of the individual personality.

The “revolt against reason” was grounded on a loathing of liberal freedoms, and a corresponding nostalgia for the authority of the group.

In this interesting but eccentric article, Roger Sandall, a retired anthropologist born in New Zealand and now living in Australia, explores the meaning of “tribalism” and the reason Popper may have chosen the word as the opposite of the open society.  Sandall notes, in passing, the current legislation put forward by some Hawaiians, to be formally considered a tribe – a move that, like a good Popperian, he describes as “a new and spectacular demand for special privileges in the name of race-based ethnic separatism.”

What did the word mean to Popper?  A distaste for personal responsibility, a devolving of all value to the group, a hiding behind muddled but unquestioned doctrines:  the moral condition that totalitarianism, in blood and iron, attempted to impose during much of the last century.

At the ethical center of both tribalism and totalitarianism was the ideal of unity, of conformity, of groupthink carried to a point where the interests of the individual barely existed. In his discussion of “totalitarian justice” Popper pointed out that for both Plato and modern totalitarians there was only one ultimate standard – the interest of the state. “Everything that furthers it is good and virtuous and just; everything that threatens it is bad and wicked and unjust. Actions that further it are moral; actions that endanger it immoral… This is the collectivist, the tribal, the totalitarian theory of morality: ‘Good is what is in the interest of my group; or my tribe; or my state.”

This so-called morality would be enforced by state officials, which was another way of saying that a citizen’s conduct would be more a matter for the police than a matter of conscience. Those who advocated such a program “apparently do not see that this would be the end of the individual’s moral responsibility, and that it would not improve but destroy morality. It would replace personal responsibility by tribalistic taboos and by the totalitarian irresponsibility of the individual.”

Possibly the most interesting bit of Sandall’s piece is the appended “Terminological Note,” in which he traces the vagaries of “tribe” and “tribalism” as terms increasingly unacceptable in polite academic discourse.


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