Discover more from The Lightfoot Letter
Beyond Priests, Kings & Bosses: A Neotribal Declaration
Six years ago I encountered a word that stopped me in my tracks. It captured the essence of everything I held most dear and pointed towards a cultural paradigm I longed to inhabit but that was still in the process of being birthed. The word was neotribalism and this article attempts to convey a small burst of the imaginal electricity I feel when I dream of such a neotribal future.
But first let's go back to the late 1980's to a time (when like me) the internet was just beginning to stumble around on its own two feet..
Of Neotribal Origins
The story begins in 1988 with Michel Maffesoli a conservative Parisian professor of sociology who originally coined the term. Maffesoli predicted that the postmodern era would involve a nostalgic look back to organisational structures from the distant past and suggested that human beings have evolved to live in tribal society, as opposed to mass society and thus will naturally form social networks constituting new tribes.
While I agree with Maffesoli's underlying premise I've since taken the liberty of adding a few extra layers of meaning to the term. But before sharing them I think it's useful to provide some context for how I first started my own journey along the neotribal path.
My relationship with the word began in earnest during an encounter I had with a tribesman in Brazil. He was my same age but that's where the similarities ended. Something in the way he held himself suggested he had access to a kind of inner composure usually only found in Kung Fu masters and resting animals. I, on the other hand, was still subtly broadcasting the neurotic hum of an overheating computer, typical of a young man freshly plucked from the 21st century urban jungle.
What he shared with me that day would only really make sense to me five years later as I found myself forming a new community in the north of Thailand. As this nascent constellation of humans began to orbit around each other the immense potential of what we might experience together slowly began to dawn on me. I realised that community could be so much more than just a means for finding belonging, friendship or support. It could also act as a gateway for stepping together into a whole new way of interfacing with reality and serve as a container for the kinds of inner transformation that might empower us to create little pockets of truly regenerative culture.
I became fascinated with what might be possible if we could we cultivate a communal experience that was deeply rooted in ancestral wisdom and yet still dovetailed with the structures and rhythms of modern life. Essentially a new way of relating that if applied at scale may have the potential to turn our social, economic and political systems on their head. I had the sense that if we could restructure the human grouping systems that tend to typify late stage capitalism (ie. nuclear families + sporadic friendships + autocratic organisations + surface level social media groups) then we might just be able to birth a whole new kind of society.
I persisted in my search for authors and thinkers who'd already put words to what I was envisaging and soon discovered the term ‘new tribalism’ in the book Beyond Civilisation by Daniel Quinn. After a celebrated career Quinn had tired of utilising fictional protagonists (like Ishmael his telepathic gorilla) to convey the subtleties of his over arching message and longed to write a more direct and succinct version of his philosophy of change. And so for his final book he penned a non-fictional treatise on what he saw was an essential transformation we had to go through in order to renew our culture. He proposed that we must journey beyond the dominator hierarchies that had come to characterise much of the modern world and move towards an entirely different kind of social structure. A new kind of tribal society that was entirely beyond the concept of civilisation as we know it.
Something clicked for me as I read Quinn’s work, it dawned on me that I didn’t just want to strive towards a world that was only slightly less corrupt, a little less violent and only mildly polluted. I wanted to conceive of a future that lit me up on every level, to dream of a world that I'd be truly proud to hand on to the coming generations. I found it interesting to observe the parts of me that were resistant to doing so, as if even privately dreaming of such an ideal future was an expression of a kind of unhealthy privilege that was somehow off limits or taboo. And while I think some of this limiting impulse was in response to having studied the long history of the excesses of visionary cults and religions throughout history, another part of it felt suspiciously like it had been instilled in me by the cultural superego in the name of maintaining the status quo. Some of my own more personal insecurities came to the surface too. After all who was I to try and imagine a whole new kind of culture? I was just a quasi-nomadic meta hippy with some big ideas and a community of awesome friends.
But it turns out I wasn’t the only one profoundly impacted by Quinn's words. He’d also been one of the inspirations behind a group that had just gathered in Brazil for an event called Neotribes which brought together a number of different collectives from around the world. They were exploring the question of which new tribes will come to govern our public and private lives and their aesthetics and prose spoke to me deeply. But unfortunately I'd just missed the boat as their conference turned out to be a one off event. And yet the memetic seed had already taken root and over the next five years I would spend the bulk of my energy cultivating a two hundred person collective based on my own emergent understanding of neotribal principles. Over that time I developed a unique constellation of meaning around the term which I'll present to you now.
The Nine Petals Of Neotribalism
1. An ideology which posits ‘that human beings have evolved to live in a tribal, as opposed to a modern society, and thus cannot achieve genuine happiness until some semblance of an archaic lifestyle has been re-created or re-embraced’ (wikipedia). In this sense for me it represents a blending together of the ancient and the futuristic which points to a culture so far away from what we experience today that it can also be thought of as an aspirational narrative vision. An invitation to imagine what it would be like to establish a global network of liquid democracies composed of a substrate of sociocratic purpose based cooperatives where each person was consistently encouraged to attune directly to their own sense of truth, beauty, goodness.
2. A developmental stage for groups of people that have cultivated a very high degree of communitas (or deeply symbiotic relationships with each other). Thus a neotribal individual would be someone that is developed and experienced enough to interact in such high functioning communal contexts without repeatedly disturbing the balance or harmony of the group. In this sense it’s also a symbolic representation of the reformation of our human grouping structures and the inner growth and transformation that is required to make this possible.
3. A collection of qualities that can describe a more ideal society based on the best aspects of immediate return hunter gatherer cultures (or what Murray Bookchin has referred to as Organic Society) and the best aspects of our more recent history in the civilisational mode. Summarised here:
The Better Parts Of Civilisation
Advanced technology such as the internet and prosthetic limbs.
Higher life expectancy & lower child mortality rate in most of the world.
Highly diverse artistic culture.
Highly developed architecture.
Less taboo (in the most progressive parts of civilisation).
Change & innovation is welcome & even encouraged.
Imperfect but still functioning institutions (legal, political, education, health etc.)
The scientific method & mathematics.
Advanced contemplative practices.
Ever widening circles of discourse.
The Humanities, Natural & Social Sciences.
The Better Parts of Organic Society
Individuals are each empowered with a baseline of survival skills.
Deeply engrained cooperation mentality.
Equal respect for each gender.
Egalitarian with relative wealth equity.
Strong connection to nature (biophilia) & seasons.
Fusion/Fission tribal dynamics allowing for a greater ability to switch & change kinship groups.
A deeper/lived sense of meaning (direct divine/animism).
A less processed diet.
Deeper connection to the present moment woven into everyday habits.
Natural movement of the body.
Regular connection to the stars.
4. An opportunity for those of us more alienated from our ancestral wisdom to collectively step towards a form of new indigeneity. To re-establish a sacred connection to the land we live on and break out of the disembodied trance so much of modern culture has found itself in since the dawn of consumer capitalism. A reconnection to our shared human heritage and ancestry as egalitarian members of highly supportive and adaptive communities. In this sense it also entails a reimagining of our relationship to technology. A reprioritising that ensures that technology remains a means to an end rather an end in and of itself. A move away from the addictive dopamine cycles that typify so much of online life towards a rediscovery of the simple joys of being in the company of others.
5. An invitation to see the fathomless intricacies and infinite subtleties of human connection as a gateway into direct connection with the mystery and majesty of being. A recognition that our connection to each other is what makes us who we are and that perhaps the many kinds of love that we share can be held as a sacred source of meaning and central orienting factor in our journey through life.
6. Something to believe in. A North Star to keep steadily walking towards even though it may take generations to emerge. A kind of pure and unbridled optimism around the potential goodness of the human race.
7. A renewing force that has the potential to dissolve away the malignant aspects of our modern culture. In this sense neotribalism can challenge me deeply as the parts of me that are resistant to change are intimidated by the idea. Such consideration invites a level of humility, authenticity and rawness that is challenging to the artifice of our consumption focussed and status hungry culture.
8. An egalitarian and global ethos that is open and welcoming of everyone but is also able to peacefully co-exist along side the vast array of regenerative subcultures that people may choose to propagate, embody and inhabit over time.
9. And finally as an aesthetic, sound, look and feeling which I’ve attempted to capture the essence of in an upcoming mix of songs and on this image board. However I feel it’s important to note that in my view something can still embody the ethos, philosophy and values of neotribalism as I’ve come to understand them without encapsulating any of these particular aesthetics. In other words someone doesn’t need to be ‘cool’ to qualify as neotribal, but as we’ve seen with movements before capturing the imagination of artists, musicians and designers can help to expose a whole new generation to a certain set of ideas and values.
For The Record.. A Few Things I’m Not Suggesting
That life in hunter gatherer cultures is (or was) ideal and free from extreme difficulty.
That we need to make the Thanos move and cull half the population to in order realise any kind of neotribal future. I believe neotribal culture can be cultivated in areas of high population density.
That we must return to living in nomadic hunter gatherer bands in order to feel whole again. Cities, large populations and specialised vocations can and do factor into my own vision of a neotribal future. And as Graeber and Wenlow explore in their book The Dawn Of Everything we have a long history of cultivating egalitarian culture in urban contexts.
That civilisation is all bad. In many ways I think it's an extraordinary achievement, I just think it needs to be radically reimagined from the ground up.
The Early Glimmers Of Neotribalism
Despite catching little glimpses of a neotribal future here and there in various communities and subcultures I've encountered over the years, I'm still yet to experience a full spectrum version of what it’s come to mean to me. So in this sense it still remains a somewhat Utopian ideal. However I have encountered some proto-versions already present in the culture. Some of these examples include:
The high degree of mutual aid and synergy apparent in communities, cooperatives & collectives like Enspiral.
The formation of Pods, Crews, Squads and Digital Gangs occuring across various parts of what I've come to think of as The Liminal web (article on this coming soon).
The increasing interest in practices such as Circling, Authentic Relating and Dialectical Dialogos.
The collective intelligence and communitas being cultivated in sense making communities and platforms such as Future Thinkers, Denizen, The Stoa and Rebel Wisdom.
The courageous togetherness exhibited in moments of compassionate activism at sites like Standing Rock and through the Extinction Rebellion campaign.
The paradigm challenging nature of the temporary autonomous zones, mass ecstatic rituals and shared sense of the liminality cultivated at festivals such as at Borderlands, Blazing Swan, Boom and Burning Man.
The lived experience of togetherness and ongoing support shared between people in the global network of ecovillages and permaculture farms such as Crystal Waters, Tamera and Findhorn.
The communal practice and shared commitment towards cultivating embodied wisdom together in neo-monastic settlings such as MAPLE.
The long tradition of intellectuals that have pointed in a similar direction over the years. Some more recent examples include Terrence Mckenna with his vision of an Archaic Revival, Helena Norberg-Hodge with her concept of an Ancient Future and the aforementioned Daniel Quinn with his notions of a New Tribalism.
The implicit knowledge evident in many contemporary writers and elders within the indigenous world who also advocate for similar principles. They are after all the inheritors and custodians of a way being that has been largely forgotten by those in the Global North.
The Shadow Sides Of Neotribalism
Like all potent ideas if misapplied neotribalism has the potential to cause harm. Naturally whenever we form news kinds of close knit community there is always a danger of simply recreating the same mistakes made by countless cults throughout history. For this reason I feel it’s critically important to combine any neotribal impulses with the kind of post-progressive political philosophy seen in Hanzi Frienacht's Metamodernism and the egalitarian, resilient and inclusive ethos of the Solarpunk movement. After all the urge to connect in communal constellations with new kinds of kin and forge deep relationships with our surrounding ecologies can activate primal and potent aspects of our psyche. These are very powerful forces and are best approached with the utmost care and respect.
Perhaps the term meta-tribalism is an equally accurate description of what my own conceptions of neotribalism have become. As really I feel an innate understanding of the kinds of values espoused at the higher levels that developmental theorists such as Hanzi Frienacht, Clare Graves, Robert Kegan, Terri O’fallon and Susanne Cook Greuter lay out in their various models are a necessary precursor for the kinds of empathic, discerning and psychologically attuned communal containers that I see as defining the neotribal experience. However meta theories and developmental models also have the potential to be used in malicious ways and we must be wary not to recreate cultures of domination based on perverted interpretations of these bodies of knowledge.
Another shadow manifestation I’ve noticed is that many of the early adopters of the neotribal aesthetic appear more focussed on the potential status gains that maintaining such a look can afford than they do the underlying ethos of systems change. I’ve seen elements of this in myself as well over the years and if being neotribal ever ends up equating to being cool then it’s something we’ll all have to keep an eye on.
But far more disconcerting than a surface level adoption of the aesthetic by an exclusive ‘lifestyle’ elite is the threat posed by the emergence of ideologically rigid groups, collectives and networks that are willing to capitalise on the high degree of fear, loneliness and existential malaise in the wider population and redirect them towards creating new kinds of dominator systems. The Qanon Shaman and the storming of the US capitol was a prime example of this. Whenever we form new groups, collectives and movements we must always be ever vigilant of the in group bias which will tend to subtly undermine and even vilify those on the outside of our memetic tribe. It's possible to create new trust networks, crews, co-operatives and collectives without othering 'the other' but it's by far the greatest challenge that neotribalism presents us with.
What Might A Truly Neotribal Future Look Like?
Personally I imagine it would see us evolve beyond the confines of exclusively genetic kin bonds into a flourishing network of supportive state structures, communities, collectives and neotribes. A time when everyone has regained a sense of their indigeneity and rediscovered a collective attunement to the sacred well beyond the confines of our current vortex of superficial market based materiality. An epoch when we've reoriented our culture so that it once again matches the rhythms of even the wildest parts of our surrounding ecologies.
This would entail the creation of a social system where everyone is listened to, supported and cared for through inclusion in meaningful constellations of loving kinship. A society where there is universal provision of high quality education, health care, mentorship, therapy and coaching. A culture that disincentivizes (but doesn't shame) our obsession with money, power and status whilst celebrating and prioritising moments of authenticity, kindness and connection.
In order to get there I think we will need to grapple with one central questions. How can we rediscover the rituals and bonds that defined what it meant to be human for tens of thousands of years and recreate them in the context of our increasingly digital and globalised lifestyles? For me it all comes down to how best we can combine the elegant curves of classical antiquity with the agency of our modern economy and then blend them together with the rawness, wisdom and humming vibrancy of the organic world.
And while even small pockets of an authentically neotribal future are still likely to be many decades away there are a number of ways we can start to move in such a direction. One example is to our focus efforts towards the formation of new kinds of mutual aid communities and collectives that can serve as incubators for such nascent culture. This kind of communal cohesion can then be harnessed towards supporting the broader localist and regenerative political movements that are starting to gather momentum all over the world. Years ago the theorist Murray Bookchin laid out a very similar theory of change in his body of work around Communalism and Libertarian Municipalism.
Personally I feel the most important first step towards a neotribal future involves the cultivation of a clearer sense of what it might look like. For me this involves visualising and dreaming about the possibilities of being deeply synchronised with a group of people and intimately connected to the land we live on. And then transmuting this hope into an ability to cultivate micro networks of solidarity and belonging that act as catalysts for inner and outer change. In my minds eye neotribalism could be a modern movement equivalent to that of the Beats or the Hippies. One that starts off in small pockets of the counterculture but goes on to have a massive impact across all aspects of society. If I’m honest with myself the only future I truly wish to pass onto to future generations is a neotribal one. So here’s to making it happen, one enchanted relationship at a time.
Extra Resources, References, Articles
Tawai - A documentary by Bruce Parry
Of Communities, Collectives & Neotribes - An an article by yours truly
Beyond Civilisation - A book by Daniel Quinn
Civilised to Death - A book by Christopher Ryan
Communalism - A pamphlet summarising the work of Murray Bookchin
The Fifth Sacred Thing - A Novel by Starhawk
Joe Lightfoot is a writer, podcaster and apprentice community weaver. He is the author of A Collective Blooming: The Rise Of The Mutual Aid Community and the host of The Lightfoot Podcast. You can sign up to his newsletter The Lightfoot Letter and find him on Facebook.