Ages ago, Rantz loaned me his collection of Daniel Quinn. He’d been listening to me talk about Christian community, and he thought I might find Quinn interesting. Unfortunately the books have languished on my shelf these many months.
Now, however, I’ve finally picked up one of the volumes and have finished it. I started with Beyond Civilization because, well, it was the shortest of the books. The Book of the Damned is really more of a booklet. (Alternative title – Booklet of the Slightly Naughty?) It’s arranged as a series of brief one page essays each flowing more or less into the next, almost as a conversation. Quinn makes a point or begs a question, then he goes on to develop the point or answer the question. While the essays didn’t always flows smoothly from one to the next – there were occasional leaps that seemed a stretch far – I have to say I’m glad I read it.
Quinn’s primary thesis is to advocate an abandonment of the civilization vision (my term, so far as I can remember). He might define civilization as the hierarchical social structure in which in which those in power seek to exert economic control over others. This contracts with tribalism, in which every member of the society exists in economic cooperation for the society’s mutual success. The civilization vision, then, are those memes – those undergirding values and myths – that set a particular culture on the path of upholding and supporting civilization.
Quinn argues that civilization is broken. It necessarily pits person against person, and ultimately we will find out that it is untenable in the long term. Today, there is some resonance with such statements. Economic inequality in the United States is approaching historic levels. I suppose it’s no coincidence that Quinn’s criticisms echo those levied by the socialists of earlier industrial eras or the democrats and liberals (go way back here, folks) of the American and French revolutionary periods. When a few have a lot and most have very little, people are bound to complain. Quinn distinguishes himself from these predecessors by calling for abandonment instead of revolution. Replacing those at the top of civilization don’t fix a broken system; it only gives you a new target at which you can direct your vitriol. Rather, Quinn says it’s time to lay down the memes of civilization altogether and move on to something better… or rather move back to something better.
The solution, Quinn says, is a return to tribalism. Or perhaps better said it is the resurrection of tribalism. Tribalism is rooted in a cooperative economic existence, where all members must contribute to the success of the society. I say resurrection rather than return, because Quinn’s new tribalism doesn’t necessarily imply abandonment of technology and related advancements. He isn’t calling us back to pre-Columbian living. But he is calling us away from civilization and its inherent ruling class who must be supported by the labor of others.
An altogether interesting book. At times, Quinn comes across a bit haphazard for me. He occasionally leaps a step too far, and strikes me as unnecessarily cheeky, but those are minor points. To me he doesn’t offer a complete picture. He doesn’t adequately explain why people would be content to remain “beyond civilization.” Whether it is ultimately sustainable or not, there is nothing in human history to suggest that humans won’t continue trying to “civilize” one another. Quinn points to a number of American civilizations, such as the Hohokam and the Anasazi, who developed advanced civilizations and appear to have abruptly abandoned them. But we don’t know how the stories of these people end, so we can only conjecture.
Despite these holes, I generally like what he says. I appreciate his take on the economic reality of cooperative living. The need to eat and be clothed are what tie most of us to the prevailing social structures, so any transformation must address these fundamental needs. Seems these are topics I’ve seen covered somewhere else.