Glenn O’Brien: Let’s Go Tribal


The world is WAY too big – 7.4 billion people. Obviously this is a mistake. Who needs these crowds? They’re mostly destructive, unsightly and delusional. We are told that God created all of these people because He wanted admirers, or that he wanted little versions of Himself, perhaps to amuse Himself.

But that’s just the Judeo-Christian- This would explain the epidemic of Islamic slant. The gods of the Olympian pantheon were even more like us – even though immortal, they were apparently more fragile. Back when those gods still walked among us and spoke to (through) us, and Homer was inventing literature, thus creating historical time, the earth was home to about 1% of its present headcount. We communicated with those who lived within earshot. Writing came along and we began to learn about the others, the aliens, the barbarians, the strangers who spoke incomprehensible tongues.

Those people we knew, with whom we could communicate, made up our tribe. Usually we felt like our tribe was the best tribe. Our tribe was enough, but the existence of other tribes was convenient and made things more sporting. If we started getting weak or stupid, or if the kids were born with that dumb look that we see now on inbred royal-family members, well, it was time to make contact with another tribe and steal some wives or make an alliance.

I know this sounds elitist. It always does when the subject of the environment and/or population control comes up. If we got rid of the blacks, the Asians, the Indians, the Jews or the whites, everything would be all right. What if we got rid of the stupid? No, that’s even more problematic. Population debate always ends with a nasty spat involving racism, sexism, classism, sizeism, ageism, ableism… now, even competence is discriminatory. The fact is there’s no acceptable answer to the problem, except for the coming plague everyone secretly hopes for that will kill them and spare us.

What is the problem with having such a huge human load? Most of the problems are pretty obvious – resources and all. We had long hoped that science would take care of such issues, but finally we’re beginning to realise that progress is not a done deal and regress seems to be gaining on us. Is it possible that the human race has peaked and we’re now on the descending path?

What if human intelligence were a limited, finite quantity, and each of us got an equal piece of the human race IQ pie? If there are now 100 people forever on that existed at the dawn of history, that would mean that individuals are operating on 1% of their former power. (IQ amperage?) stupidity. It would explain why we have major nuclear-armed parties organised around superstitions and patent untruths. What about progress? Well, we do have a lot of intelligence in storage, but it’s not walking around on two legs.

Individual humans used to contain the sum of all extant knowledge. Today, we have a vast store of information collectively, but it is held in a corporate structure. Knowledge is owned and exercised by collectives that subsume their human components. Even the best of us are cogs in machines that function on a sort of algorithmic autopilot. Theoretically, democratic governments and profit-orientated corporations are supposed to organise and guide intelligence in a productive manner, yet the result, more and more, is what Edward Bernays, the nephew of Freud and father of PR, called “engineered consent” to a vast bait- and-switch, resulting in unprecedented plutocracy and a Dark Ages lite.

And so, as the seas rise, the land dries and the religious kill one another, we wonder if it is possible to revert to a structure that could generate operative intelligence rather than arbitrary anarchy, one that brings the light of truth and not the chiaroscuro of fashion.

The global brain concept, or the hive mind, is a little more than a century old. It was dangled in front of us by Nathaniel Hawthorne in his novel from 1851, The House of the Seven Gables. “Then there is electricity – the demon, the angel, the mighty physical power, the all-pervading intelligence! Is it a fact or have I dreamt it that, by means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time? Rather, the round globe is a vast head, a brain, instinct with intelligence. Or shall we say, it is itself a thought, nothing but thought, and no longer the substance we deemed it?”

It was fleshed out into a full theory by the great science-fiction writer and political theorist HG Wells in his book World Brain (1938), which predicts not only the internet but Wikipedia, “a new, free, synthetic, authoritative, permanent World Encyclopaedia that could help world citizens make the best use of universal information resources and make the best contribution to world peace”.

We have seen glimpses of the power of that emerging world brain – flash mob youth riots in Britain, the Arab Spring, Occupy this or that – mostly flashes of electric spontaneity where the like-minded hook up beyond conventional borders. But while the idea of a global intelligence would seem to be about a new unity, it may turn out to be more a spirit of informed rebellion and divisiveness. Not a United States but a Divided States, not a United Nations but a Divided Nations, not a new international, but a new global tribalism. The breakup of the Soviet Union was a remarkable testament to the appeal of devolution.

America’s new political situation shows a “nation” more divided than it was during the Civil War. New Yorkers, New Englanders and West Coasters have nothing in common culturally with the citizens of the Confederacy. We are “united” only in the most technical and artificial sense. The same can be said for much of the European Union. Meanwhile, the Middle East and Africa are just now restoring tribal borders, the colonial violation of which resulted in cultural disaster and genocide.

So, what’s the answer? Maybe it’s a new, conscious tribalism. We are born into a state of alienation, so let’s really go alien. Become other. These are alienating times. We were bred to belong, but then we grew up and there was nothing left to belong to. Our affinities were with the enemy.

You grow up in a broken home, estranged. You get a job for a company, now you’re a suit. You look like the rest. Your job is to lie and represent principles that are not your own. Marx called it “alienated labour”, which is a lack of identity with the products of your labour. Flip the burgers or flip the artwork, it’s all the same.

I say, if you feel alienated, look alienated. Look like the other. Look like an alien! Why not? Vive la différence! Cultivate your otherness. It’s what makes you an individual.

Marshall McLuhan saw this coming in the 1960s, when he talked about the electronic world as the “global village”. He foresaw a return to tribalism and, a few minutes later, hippies and miniskirts showed up. Then punks, goths, bikers – rebels without a specific cause but a sort of holistic cause.

Chick says to Brando: “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” “Whaddya got?” he coolly replies.

Clearly, most of us are feeling the need to detach from the big groups, from nations to corporations, and organise into smaller, independent, mobile affinity groups. Tribes. It’s called devolution and we are so Devo! I have seen the future and it is our gang.

Not de-evolution. That’s the cause. We see a man who is 1/7,400,000,000 of humanity and we think, “How the mighty crown of creation has fallen.” And so we respond to the second fall of man, which looks irreversible, with a doctrine of devolution. Disassemble the titanic entities, the omnipresent and immortal legal persons known as multinational corporations! Disassemble the United States! Disassemble the European Union! Return to a tribal state of demos! And to identify ourselves we must create new tribes, collages of the cultures we have loved. That man in the toga and fedora… he’s one of us! I am the OG. Follow me.

If you’ve been paying any attention at all you must have noticed that democracy isn’t working. Everyone in the media seems to think that democracy represents the unquestionably ideal government, but then the people elect another moron who hires his pals and starts another war. What’s the answer? Maybe smaller democracies. The original democracy was in ancient Greece. The idea was that society would be organised into groups small enough that the political unit consisted of the number of people one could know personally. Today, we have the opposite, political units led by actors and performers playing the role of statesmen and leaders. Really, they are just gangsters, or gangsters’ stooges. If you’re looking for democracy I think you’ll find it exists in a much purer form in real gangs, such as the Bloods, the Crips, the Latin Kings, Hells Angels.

When I was a kid, I went to summer camp, where we were organised into age- based tribal units. Mostly it was Indian inspired: Blackhawks, Apache, Seneca, Blackfoot, Chippewa, Iroquois. We thought it was cool to have an Indian-based tribal identity, even though the Indians were the avowed enemy of the white eyes, the invaders. We rooted for the Indians in Western movies, probably because we knew they would have scalped our parents if they’d had the chance. We liked their long hair and war paint, the painted ponies, the war shields. We liked the way they psyched themselves up, whooping and hollering and dancing. The tribes were all sort of equal – no sergeants, no colonels. Just warriors, a medicine man and a chief. The Indians also had women around and they were pretty hot, but they weren’t too feminine to chuck a spear if necessary.

The US Cavalry was an all-male outfit and life at the fort looked pretty dreary compared with that of the sensual Indians. The Cavalry didn’t dance. I remember that, on Indian Day at camp, dances were performed where buckskin-clad youths exposed parts of the body that weren’t even visible at the swimming hole, like the string- bikini zone of the thigh. We had a glimmer of what it was to be a savage, and we liked it.

Little did we know then that we were the avant-garde of new tribes, arising from the alteration of the world by electronic media. We were TV babies, educated by the boob tube and driven by the car radio. We were initiated into new spontaneous tribes by the movies and the songs and the clothes.

Tribes aren’t nations. They are pre- national or extra-national or post-national. Tribes existed before the development of states. Autonomous. Self-sufficient. Not integrated into the national society.

The tribe is independent of the state. But our tribes weren’t determined by our families or where we were born, our tribes were psychological, even aesthetic. We found each other on the street or on the internet. We found each other by our clothes.

Some of today’s tribal uniform descends from the original rebels without a cause – blue jeans, denim jackets, T-shirts, Perfecto motorcycle jackets, sneakers. The rebel tribes are those that refuse to be assimilated into the adult corporate world – they will never be suits. There was the art tribe: berets and smocks and beards and cigarette holders. There were beats in kaftans and berets. Berets or liberty caps, the preferred headgear of swinging regicides.

One of the best tribal looks is the tartan. The tartan was the uniform of a Celtic clan or tribe. Today, we think of them as Scottish, but the tartan used to be a part of Irish culture – the Irish just got fucked first, in Elizabethan times. The Scots wore theirs until 1746, when the tartan kilt was outlawed as a measure to bring the clans, the tribes, under state control. The Irish envy the Scots for their tartans and they’ll design their own in an attempt to connect with their roots. My approach is to simply

wear the Black Watch tartan, which was worn by the Royal Highland Regiment of the British Army. Why wear it? Well, their motto was Nemo me impune lacessit, no one provokes me with impunity, or essentially: “Don’t fuck with me!”

That tartan spirit was revived by Vivienne Westwood during the punk era, which loved things tribal. The safety pin, handy for any kilt wearer, was the punk crucifix that held the tribe together. Skirts for everyone! A commando army!

So let us henceforth create our own tribes, using the available ingredients. Cultural collages of conspicuous intelligence and gallantry.

Let’s wear the beret and smock of the artist. Let’s wear the leather of motorcycle outlaw. Let’s wear the jeans of the cowboy and blue shirt of the working man. Let’s wear the carnation of Oscar Wilde and the beaded moccasin of the Apache. Let’s wear the kilt of the clan MacGregor, outlawed by King James VI in 1603, and the liberty cap of the French revolution. Let’s wear the penis pants of Eldridge Cleaver and the turtleneck of Bobby Seale. Let’s wear the hoodie of Trayvon Martin and bandana of Jesse James. Let’s wear the black Oakland Raiders cap for “commitment to excellence” and the keffiyeh of the Bedouin. Let’s wear the toga of the Roman tribune and the toga of Delta Tau Chi and John Belushi.

Let’s put on our magic jewellery – the evil-eye necklace, the runic ring, the pinkie signet – and arm ourselves appropriately. My sword? It used to belong to Finn McCool! It’s called Son of Waves, better not touch. Oh, and don’t forget your laurel wreath and your mojo.

Let us tattoo ourselves to show our commitment. Perhaps a coiled snake with the legend “Don’t tread on me”, or the ace of spades for all it signifies. Let’s wear the colours of green, yellow and red for Marcus Garvey and Rastafari, and pack dreadlocks into our tams. Let’s pierce fiercely and grow beards just because we can.

Let’s wear #23 for Michael Jordan and #32 for James Brown. And on our cut-off jean jacket we can still wear a 1% patch for belonging to an outlaw club, but also a 99% for the economic group we belong to, and a 13 for you know what and for good luck. And we always sport a skull and crossbones somewhere, it’s just a good old fashion memento mori. We’ve all got to go sometime, so it might as well be in glorious tribal splendour.

Taken from Issue 44 of 10 Men, TRIBE PACK QUEST, on newsstands now… 

Illustration by Stephen Doherty

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