Tribal, Communal And Ethnic Conflicts: Their Origin And Future Trajectory

Arnold J. Toynbee

Arnold Toynbee's 12-volume study of the genesis, growth and breakdown of dozens of civilizations is back in vogue with the demise of Marxism and the robust acclaim given to market-based solutions in political economies across the world. He had much to say concerning the origin of war and the intractable nature of religious based autocracies that reign throughout Asia, the Near East and Africa.

Perhaps the single most timely insight that dominates twelve massive volumes is violently on display by Iranian proxies that cover the Middle East.  Toynbee  reveals the significance of studying the fall of the Roman Empire along the North-East frontier up to the Danube River that is today known as Western Europe.  According to Toynbee, whenever a formidable sophisticated civilization maintains a limes (a series of military outposts to engage, contain and thwart an enemy), the more sophisticated culture heats up and disturbs the weaker, whereby ultimately the stronger culture is overwhelmed and collapses in its engagement with an intractable foe.

How do we recognize the beginnings of such an outcome?

We must first understand and discover the trends of social impact that a superior culture has on the weaker one.  The more intractable, less sophisticated, nomadic non-specialized culture, in its contact with a sedentary, specialized civilization begins the violent process of acceleration and disruption.  These are the twin movements of trends that portent a future demise.

Specifically, the non-specialized, intractable culture will divine violent methods to conceal its own limited resources as it engages the stronger civilization.  For Toynbee, acceleration (speed) translates a physical problem (of space, distance, technology) into a moral one (read terrorism).  How/Why  does this occur?

We must acknowledge that war is brought about by inequality of rates of growth.  The attendant response to such a mortal challenge is militarism.  Militarism is itself the main route of technological education and acceleration for lagging cultures in the grip of mortal challenge.  As forces (political, social, economic) impel traffic mount, physical problems are transformed into psychological advantage.  Being congregated into forced response is an act of acceleration.  These are the conditions that intensify communal, tribal, ethnic conflicts.  This is the explanation for the violent tribalism on display throughout the Near East and North Africa.

Without clarity of purpose in its political resolve, the stronger, more sophisticated civilization will collapse.  The imperative for a strong, knowledgeable, intractable Executive is already becoming evident as we survey the responses of allies and alliances with the Obama administration.

RE: Toynbee

"Civilization" is as vague and monolithic as "class".  It says nothing of the many different communities that a person belongs to, nor of how fluid these memberships are.  Coming to an objective and universal definition of cultural superiority is not easy.  Although the Germanic tribes lacked the many advancements of Greco-Roman civilization, it was the Germanic tribes which eventually survived and reproduced.  Greco-Roman advancements survived, of course, but they were no longer the intellectual property of Greeks or Romans.  However, cultural relativism does not preclude self-interest or self-preservation.

The Roman Empire collapsed of its own accord.  It had reached its apogee, and Romans gradually lost both the will and the ability to maintain it.  Nor were the tribes that surged across its frontiers vultures.  Population explosions in Mongolia and Scandinavia placed enormous pressure on the Empire, at a time when Romans were not in a position to exterminate their enemies as they had done in the past.  In fact, the Mongols, who became Turks as they advanced across Central Asia, ended up finishing off the Empire's eastern rump.  The Germanic tribes honestly required not only lebensraum, but escape from each other as well as the groups displaced by the Mongols/Turks in Central Asia.  

Societies rarely stand still for long: they are either expanding or contracting, relative to others.  And while it is unlikely that France will be among the Great Powers in the near future, one cannot forget that France has enjoyed Great Power-status more than once.

Nor is war caused by unequal growth rates; rather, it is a form of competition.  The motives for the competition are irrelevant, and include greed for scare resources as much as fair access to them.  The military and economic spheres are inseparable, and pointing to Singapore or Luxembourg is unhelpful.  No society has managed to be both economically strong and militarily weak for very long without foreign protection. 

The Arabs and Berbers continue to identify with families, clans and tribes rather than nations.  A combination of Islam and dictatorship holds the Arab states together, but collectively they are as fractious and volatile as the Holy Roman Empire was.  Initially, Islam united these disparate tribes, and the result was a wave of conquest - again, not unlike the product of German unification.  Iran, Turkey and most of the Levant are not ethnically Arab, and it is disappointing that the few nation-states that we could possibly deal with are Muslim.  The Arabs need to be managed, because they fight one another if they cannot fight the West.  Perhaps we should let them do so, while securing access to their oil and gas, and bringing down unemployment all at once.