Daniel Quinn became
known in the US as the author of Ishmael, a philosophical novel that won the Turner Tomorrow
Fellowship in 1991 that tries to deconstruct the popular notion that
humans are somehow the end product of biological evolution. That book and
its sequels granted him the anarcho-primitivist label, something which he disagrees with.
Quinn prefers to see his work as a reivindication of a new tribalism (more on this below).
Beyond Civilization is a non-fiction follow-up to Ishmael, to some extent, since
Quinn further illustrates and explains the same ideas that he already brought
up in his famous trilogy. Written in the form of short one-page explorations,
Beyond Civilization explains why, in the author's view, human
civilization as we
know it has reached a dead-end and it might behoove us to explore new forms
of social organization, such as the type of new tribalism that Quinn
defends. The book starts with a fable that clearly lays out Quinn's
opinion on the role that humans play in the world:
Once upon a time life evolved on a certain planet, bringing forth many
different social organizations —packs, pods, flocks, troops, herds,
and so on. One species whose members were unusually intelligent developed
a unique social organization called a tribe. Tribalism worked well for them for millions of years, but
there came a time when they decided to experiment with a new social
organization (called civilization) that was hierarchical rather than tribal. Before long, those at
the top of the hierarchy were living in great luxury, enjoying perfect
leisure and having the best of everything. A larger class of people below
them lived very well and had nothing to complain about. But the masses living
at the bottom of the hierarchy didn't like it at all. They worked and lived
like pack animals, struggling just to stay alive.
"This isn't working," the masses said. "The tribal way was better. We should
return to that way." But the ruler of the hierarchy told them, "We've put
that primitive life behind us forever. We can't go back to it."
"If we can't go back," the masses said, "then let's go forward —on
to something different."
"That can't be done," the ruler said, "because nothing different is possible.
Nothing can be beyond civilization. Civilization is a final,
"But no invention is ever unsurpassable. The steam engine was surpassed by
the gas engine. The radio was surpassed by television. The calculator was
surpassed by the computer. Why should civilization be different?"
"I don't know why it's different," the ruler said, "It just is."
But the masses didn't believe this —and neither do I.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 3)
We can certainly see now why some people consider Quinn's philosophy a
version of Anarchism,
in spite of his own protests. It is imbued in an anti-hierarchical spirit
that calls for egalitarianism and the removal of all formal hierarchies, which is precisely what
Anarchism traditionally stood for. However, Quinn is intelligent enough to
realize that civilization would have not survived if only those on top had an
interest to keep it alive. There must be something more to it than that,
obviously. That something else is a shared vision:
Every vision is self-spreading, but not every vision spreads itself in the
same way. In a sense, the spreading mechanism is the vision.
Our culture's spreading mechanism was population expansion: Grow,
then get more land, increase food production, and grow some more.
spreading mechanism was conversion: Accept Jesus, then get others to accept
him. The Industrial Revolution's spreading mechanism was improvement: Improve on
something, then put it out there for others to improve on.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 15)
Once there is a clear vision, a concise idea that fuels a whole civilization
and its lifestyle, it spreads like a cultural meme, and becomes almost unstoppable. Its power lies precisely
in its simplicity, which makes it easier to be internalized. Thus, human
civilization, which started about 10,000 years ago, also has its own meme:
One of these fundamental memes is Growing all your own food is the best
way to live. Apart from a few anthropologists (who know perfectly well
that this is a matter of opinion), this meme goes unchallenged in our
culture. And when I say that a few anthropologists know this is a matter
of opinion, I mean they know it chiefly as a professional obligation. As
anthropologists, they know that the Bushmen of Africa wouldn't agree that growing all your food is the
best way to live, nor would the Yanomami of Brazil or the Alawa of Australia or the Gebusi of New Guinea. As individuals,
however, these anthropologists would almost universally consider this to be
the best way to live and would unhesitatingly choose it for themselves above
all others. Outside this profession, it would be hard to find anyone
in our culture who doesn't subscribe to the belief that deriving all your
food from agriculture
is the best way to live.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 33)
Thus, Quinn appears to throw both civilizations based on agriculture and
those, like our own, based on industry into the same drawer, which I find
quite arguable. Sure, without agriculture there is no industry, at least
in the sense that without food (and a highly efficient agricultural system
that needs less people) there is no workforce available to the factories
and services that rule the world these days. However, I find it difficult
to consider the aphorism Growing all your own food is the best way to
live as the centerpiece of our contemporary civilization, especially since
the vast majority of the population has no clue how to grow anything at
all. Yes, there is a line of continuity between the for of civilization
that started around 10,000 years ago and this one that we live in right now.
Yet, I'm not sure that particular adage is it.
In any case, regardless of these considerations about the role of agriculture
in today's civilization, Quinn's point is that we see civilization as
something that will never end, but only because we are not open to other
points of view:
To us, the mem Civilization must continue at any cost and not be
abandoned under any circumstance seems intrinsic to the human mind
—self-evident, like The shortest distance between two points is a
straight line. A mind that doesn't possess that meme hardly seems
human to us.
We imagine humanity was born with this meme in its head. Homo
habilis knew he should be civilized but didn't have the brains to do it.
Homo erectus knew he should be civilized but didn't have the skills
to do it. Homo sapiens knew he should be civilized but couldn't
figure out what it takes. Homo sapiens sapiens knew he should be
civilized, had the brains and the skills to do it, and got down to it as
soon as he figured out that agriculture is what it takes. Naturally he
knew it must continue at any cost and not be abandoned under any
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 47)
And yet, Quinn submits that certain civilizations did precisely that: they
gave up on it, and returned to a tribal lifestyle. He is talking about
civilizations like the Maya, the Olmec, the Hohokam and the
Anasazi which is, once
again, highly arguable. We do know that those civilizations ended up
disappaearing. We also haven't been able to find out yet how they disappeared.
Howewver, that doesn't mean that they disappeared because their members
voluntarily decided to give up on civilization and return to a tribal life.
Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn't. My opinion is that, in this regard,
Quinn is jumping to conclusions.
Regardless, the key is that humans did turn away from tribalism and decided to settle down in agricultural
communities that laid down the foundations of today's civilization. That is
a well known fact. As is also a generally accepted idea that the birth of
these agricultural civilizations also brought about the concept of hierarchy
and social classes:
People don't plant crops because it's less work, they plant crops because
they want to settle down and live in one place. An area that is only foraged
doesn't yield enough human food to sustain a permanent settlement. To build
a village, you must grow some crops —and this is what most
aboriginal villagers grow: some crops. They don't grow all their food. They
don't need to.
Once you begin turning all the land around you into cropland, you begin
to generate enormous food surpluses, which have to be protected from the
elements and from other creatures —including other people. Ultimately
they have to be locked up. Though it surely isn't recognized at the time,
locking up the food spells the end of tribalism and beginning of the
hierarchical life we call civilization.
As soon as the storehouse appears, someone must step forward to guard it,
and this custodian needs assistants, who depend on him entirely, since they
no longer earn a living as farmers. In a single stroke, a figure of power
appears on the scene to control the community's wealth, surrounded by a cadre
of loyal vassals, ready to evolve into a ruling class of royals and nobles.
This doesn't happen among part-time farmers or among hunter-gatherers (who
have no surpluses to lock up). It happens only among people who derive their
entire living from agriculyure —people like the Maya, the Olmec, the
Hohokam, and so on.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 70)
Again, that is indeed the generally accepted picture of how things evolved,
although I ignore how historically accurate it is. For all I know, it may
very well be pure speculation. One way or another, the reality is that by
now we have come to accept the idea that only civilize people are "rich". As
a matter of fact, we cannot imagine a decent life unless it is in a civilized
environment. Yet, as Quinn points out, terms like "rich" and "poor" are
indeed quite relative:
Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins has written: "The world's mostr primitive people have few
possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small
amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all,
it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 87)
It's the ages-old debate famously summarized in the old adage that "rich is
not that who has the most, but the one who needs the least". We, civilized
people, on the other hand, are used to thinking about wealth as the
accumulation of material things, and poverty as the lack of such things.
Actually, the further our civilization has developed, the more we have come
to see this as the most normal state of affairs. Sure, we have plenty of
aphorisms in our collective wisdom that teach us the opposite, but nobody
(well, only a tiny minority) truly abides by them. In real life, we continue
accumulating possessions like mad. An attitude, incidentally, that is
clearly putting us all in danger by now, since we live in what Quinn calls
"the culture of maximum harm". And yet, although we see the negative effects
of our materialistic lifestyles, we feel powerless to do anything about it.
We lack the imagination to think about a future beyond what we already know.
So, how do we get out of this situation? How do we give up civilization
as we know it? The traditional response was to make a political and social
revolution, but Quinn doesn't believe that is the answer:
The object of ordinary revolution is to effect global change across the board with a single, sweeping
blow. Ideally, former rulers must disappear overnight —en masse,
along with all supporters and minions— with a complete cast of
successors ready to step into their shoes the following morning to proclaim
the new regime. Scenarios like this one are meaningless to those who would
move beyond civilization.
In the first place, there is no need for global change. Those who insist
on having nothing less than global change will wait a long time, probably
forever. There's no need for everyone in the world to go to bed one
night living one way and wake up the next morning living another way. This
isn't going to happen, and it's pointless to try to make it happen.
There is likewise no need for change across the board —for everything
to suddenly being to be done differently. It's unnecessary for this to
happen, and nothing in the world can make it happen. Always keep in mind that
there is no right way for people to live. There never has been and
never will be.
Finally, we don't want the ruling class to disappear overnight. We're not
ready to see the infrastructure of civilization disappear (and may never
be). At least for the time being, we want our rulers and leaders to
continue to supervise civilization's drudgery for us —keeping the
potholes filled, the sewage and water treatment plants running, and so on.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 96)
So, if Quinn is convinced that civilization is a dead end and he doesn't
believe in revolution (which has been the traditional answer to solving our
problems, at least in modern times), what does he propose? Well, he thinks
we should abandon civilization, just like he is convinced the Mayans, Olmecs,
Hohokam and Anasazi did many years ago. We have to find a live "beyond
civilization", and the tribe (or, better said, a "new tribe") is perhaps our
best bet, although he doesn't pretend to possess the only right answer. It
will be up to our own trial and error. So, how do we define this new
type of tribe?
As I said above, tribes are about working together and may or may not
involve living together. But tribal people can live together without
becoming a commune.
Speaking of artisan, trader, and entertainer minorities such as Gypsies, Norwegian Taters, Irish Irish travelers, and the
Nandiwalla of India,
anthropologist Sharon Bohn Gmelch notes specifically that the social
organization of these groups is flexible and "at its core, non-communal."
The difficulty I see with a tribe becoming a commune is that communes
traditionally choose their members on the basis of shared ideals. Shared
ideals aren't irrelevant to tribal applicants, but they're overriden by
the question "Can you extend our livelihood to include yourself?"
Thus, the concept of tribe that Quinn uses is not necessarily the same as
the traditional tribe usually associated to "primitive cultures". What he
has in mind is more flexible than that. It definitely is an intentional
community, but not as strict as a commune, which demands that its members
submit to a particular ideology or set of beliefs. Quinn's "new tribes"
are flexible, non-hierarchical associations of individuals who retain their
individual freedom but still depend on each other. He actually uses the
circus as an example.
He further explains what differentiates this lifestyle from mainstream
The civilized want people to be dependent on the prevalent hierarchy, not
on each other. There's something inherently evil about people making
themselves self-sufficient in small groups. This is why the homeless must be rousted wherever they collect. This is
why the Branch Davidian community at Waco
had to be destroyed; they'd never been charged with any crime, much less
convicted —but they had to be doing something very, very nasty
in there. The civilized want people to make their living individually,
and they want them to live separately, behind locked doors —one
family to a house, each house fully stocked with refrigerators, television
sets, washing machines, and so on. That's the way decent folks
live. Decent folks don't live in tribes, they live in communities.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 168)
In other words, simply "changing our mentalilty" or improving on this or that
particular aspect of our current civilization won't do. The problems we have
created ourselves are simply too high to solve then with such a piecemeal
approach. What's wrong is not people, Quinn believes, but rather the way
we organize ourselves, the system:
It's a fundamental tenet of our cultural mythology that the only thing
wrong with us is that humans are not made well enough. We need to be
made of finer materials, to some set of better specifications (provided,
perhaps, by greened-up versions of our traditional religions). We just
need to be made kinder, gentler, sweeter, more loving, less selfish, more
far-sighted, and so on, then everything will be fine. Of course, no one
succeeded in making us better last year or the year before that or the year
before that or the year before that —or indeed any year in recorded
history— but maybe this year we'll get lucky... or next year
or the year after that.
What I've endeavored to say in all my books is that the flaw in our
civilization isn't in the people, it's in the system. It's true
that the system has been clanking along for ten thousand years, which is a
long time in the timescale of an individual life, but when viewed in the
timescale of human history, this episode isn't remarkable for its epic
length but for its tragic brevity.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 171)
Notice that the attitude Quinn is criticizing here is prevalent not only
on the right of the political spectrum, but also on the left. Our approach
to these issues, at least in modern times, has always been to call for a
change in mentality and attitudes, a change of heart that is supposed to
happen miraculously due to religious faith, a sudden conviction that the
old traditional ways are best or the revolutionary unseating of the ruling
class. But Quinn is not calling for any of that. He is calling for
real changes that we can touch and perceive here and now. He is asking us
to drop out of civlization, not necessarily all at once, but in small steps
if it suits us better. Whatever works best for each one of us. As he
explains somewher else:
Right now there are about six billion of us in what I've called the culture
of maximum harm. Only ten percent of these six billion are being maximally
harmful —are gobbling up resources at top speed, contributing to
global warming at
top speed, and so on— but the other ninety percent, having nothing
better in sigh, want only to be like the ten percent. They envy that ten
percent and are convinced that living in a way that is maximally harmful
is the best way to live of all.
If we don't give them something better to want, we're doomed.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 172)
There is no need to be pessimistic either. Our own civilization has been
changing lately in ways that make actually help the transition:
People who are reluctant to spend their lives building some pharaoh's
pyramid all have a common need, but the need is felt most acutely by the
young, who are the real pack-animals of the operation. Sixty years ago raw
graduates took jobs in factories, where they could at least expect to climb
the same ladder of advancement as their parents. In the postindustrial age young people (as
James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar point out) are becoming
increasingly ghettoized in retail and service sectors, where they endlessly
lift and carry, stock shelves, push brooms, bag groceries, and flip burgers,
gaining no skills and seeing no path of advancement ahead of them.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 181)
Sure, not everyone is looking forward to that future. There is a good chance
that the highly educated elite will be able to have decent jobs. However,
let's bear in mind that: first, the highly educated elite is just a minority
of the population; second, the vast majority of the population (i.e., those
who don't have a college degree) can forget about ever getting a well paying
job for life; and third, even those with a college degree will have to deal
with the increasing competition from other countries where salaries are lower.
In other words, the future of the workforce (pretty much all the workforce,
perhaps with the exception of the privileged top executives) in the
postindustrial society certainly looks pretty dim. That's what our
civilization has to offer to the younger generations. That and debt, of
In conclusion, the challenge is to bring about real change here and now,
instead of trusting that revolution will do the job. As Quinn explains,
that didn't work in the past and it won't work now:
Lots of songs about revolution came out during the hippie era of the 1960s and 1970s,
but the revolution itself never materialized, because it didn't occur to the
revolutionaries that they had to come up with a revolutionary way of
making a living. Their signature contribution was starting
communes —a hot new idea from the same folks who gave us powdered
When the money ran out and parents got fed up, the kids looked around and
saw nothing to do but line up for jobs at the quarries. Before long, they
were dragging stones up to the same pyramids their parents and grandparents
and great-grandparents had been working on for centuries.
This time it'll be different. It'd better be.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 182).
Now, wasn't that an excellent analysis of the legacy of the counterculture? What is the answer,
then? What do we do? As Quinn puts it:
Beyond civilization isn't a geographical space up in the mountains or on
some remote desert isle. It's a cultural space that opens up among people
with new minds.
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 187)
Or, as he puts it in closing the book:
You don't have to have all the answers. Certainly I don't have them.
It's always better to say "I don't know" than to fake it and get into hot
Make people formulate their own questions. Don't take on the
responsibility of figuring out what their difficulty is.
Never try to answer a question you don't understand. Make the askers
explain it; keep on insisting until it's clear, and nine times out of ten
they'll supply the answer themselves.
People will listen when they're ready to listen and not before.
Probably, once upon a time, you weren't ready to listen. Let
people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate
Don't waste time with people who want to argue. They'll keep you
immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to
(Daniel Quinn: Beyond Civilization, p. 189)
In conclusion, one is still a bit confused about Quinn's final intention
with this book. On the one hand, he clearly calls for abandoning
civilization (hence the title, one assumes) but then, on the other hand, he
also states that he is not calling for a return to the old tribalism. What
is it, then? How is it even possible to live in "new tribes" within society
as we know it and yet, at the same time, break away from civilization?
For, in the end, that is precisely what Quinn appears to defend. Mind you,
I admire his position, in the sense that he is trying to avoid the same brand
of dogmatism that dogged the leftist movement in the past. There is something
to say in favor of that attitude, I think. He is leaving behind the old
"hollier than thou" attitude of the left, and that is good. He stresses that
anyone (literally, anyone) can join these "new tribes". There is no need to
behave like a superhero. Once again, that is good, I think. He is talking
to the average Joe out there. He is making an effort to come up with a
solution that regular folks will be able to live by, and that is worth some
praise. However, as I indicated, it is not clear how we will be able to
live a "tribal life" within our big cities, keeping our jobs and living in
the same houses... all of it, on top of that, without bothering to find
like-minded people, so that we can find intentional communities with them
and share the burden. How does one do this? It certainly does not help that
his concept of "new tribe" is quite ambiguous. Judging from his own words,
he sounds a bit impatient when people ask him to clarify it, but I do have to
agree with his critics on this one. Quinn even uses his own experience
running a small local newspapere with other people, the East Mountain
News, as a living example of such "new tribe". However, one finds it
difficult to believe that simply forming a group with nice friends who seem
to share a particular objective and a lack of greed will solve the serious
problems that we are facing. And yet, once again, there is something to
say for Quinn's heterodox approach. There is something to say for his attempt
to stay away from the old dogmas of the left and his stressing the importance
of individual change if we truly want to bring about social change.
Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 7/10