Beyond Civilization
Humanity's Next Great Adventure
Daniel Quinn
Three Rivers Press, New York (USA), 1999 (1999)
201 pages, including index.

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, unsurpassable invention."

"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. Christianity's 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 circumstance.

(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 civilization."

(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 civilization:

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 course.

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 wigs.

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 water.

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 them.

Don't waste time with people who want to argue. They'll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.

(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