This summer Renegade Inc. went on the road to spend some time at the Port Eliot festival in Cornwall in search of new ideas, great speakers and of course, those people who are thinking differently.
One of the people Renegade Inc. met up with was the indigenous rights advocate, author, explorer and a filmmaker, Bruce Parry. He’s lived with some of the most isolated tribes in the world learning from how they interact with each other and the planet.
After much exploration, one of the things that has truly inspired Bruce is the idea of egalitarian living. He doesn’t want to turn back the clock but he does want us to rethink our leadership structures and muster the courage to look within so we’re able to fundamentally change the modern, western narrative.
In favour of a flat earth
Hierarchical structures in the so-called developed world are characterized by steep alienating gradients typical of banking, government and politics where trust is low, competitiveness high and Machiavellian scheming rampant. This unhealthy, insecure environment in which our society is framed contrasts with the even hierarchies of the kind of tribal societies Parry has lived among.
The differences, he says, are stark:
“I think the groups that I’ve lived with who truly are egalitarian work endlessly and tirelessly to maintain balance and are stopping anyone getting above and anyone getting beneath each other. They’re all working with the various tools they have to do that. They understand when power does get out of hand and starts rising up and people do start accumulating more, showing off more or getting more status, it has a massive ripple effect, in a negative way, amongst the rest of the people.”
The negatives are embodied in rising stress and anxiety levels that impact on all aspects of health and well-being in society as a whole. Parry notes that the few remaining genuine egalitarian and stress-free societies of the kind he has lived with, can be compared to those that existed in pre-historical societies:
“For the majority of our time on the planet”, says Parry, “we were living in a much more egalitarian way than since the dawn of agriculture. The few groups who still have these traits give us an insight into that way of being. They are more stress-free and actually some of them are the most peaceful people on the planet. But the other thing is that they understand it’s about re-empowering the individual; it’s about self-empowerment and everyone has the responsibility and the right to be able to work individually.”
“It’s not like a central politburo or organization that you’re giving it to share it out, it’s actually everyone individually is holding that and so everyone is working in that space. So the difference is that there’s a lot less stress. There’s not this dog eat dog because we’re actually all in it together and we’re sharing and we’re helping each other out. And there’s a sense of unity and all of those things. I mean, it is actually a paradigm shift, it’s a totally different way of looking at the world.”
Parry notes that during the making of his Tribe series for the BBC, he considered the shift in lifestyles from the society he left to the one he returned to in the West, as being quite normal. “I kind of got my head around it. But when I finally lived with a truly egalitarian group I then realized that I was into something else. It was almost like every other tribe that I lived with, and every other nation and person I visited, were living in a certain way and this group were living in a completely different way.”
Parry elaborates on the enormity of his experiences:
“So it wasn’t even just about me coming back, it was about me re-evaluating human nature and society itself. The whole thing of being with this group was like, ‘Wow, this is so different to everything else I’ve experienced before.’
It was quite hard to put my finger on at first because it’s invisible, like people living without competition. It’s like they didn’t seem that different but I could feel that there was something totally different going on and so it was a very slow transition for me to really figure that out. But I now – having had the benefit of speaking to a number of anthropologists and realizing that this is actually well-acknowledged – I’ve had the courage to talk about it. It’s like, ‘now this is how it is now for some people on the planet and quite possibly how it was for us all for 90 percent of our time’ and so that’s a big thing.”
The first group Parry met – which was also the last tribe he ever lived with – were the Penan people of Sarawak in Borneo. One of the tribes in Southeast Asia that he lived with, perceived any form of violence as a type of mental illness.
“They’ve worked together so much that they’ve actually almost eradicated any sort of overt form of violence from their society – which is phenomenal. And then there’s also groups in Africa, mostly in the Congo. There’s still like 100,000 people living in this way”, says Parry.
Competition & violence is shunned
The author and filmmaker rejects the notion that inter-tribal competition is a feature of these egalitarian societies:
“If you go to somewhere like the Congo, you realize that because these are nomadic hunter-gatherers there’s like this ever-changing amorphous blob that actually spreads out into 100,000 people in that forest. So it’s not just a way of existing that can only exist in a small group, it’s actually a way that these people have found that can be in a huge vast expanse of people too. That was something that was interesting for me.”
For Parry, Western societies have a lot to learn from tribal communities in terms of the latter’s rejection of the narrative of violence and conflict. Whilst classical philosophical and theological traditions focus on the internal struggles in antiquity, modern tribal societies are defined, demonstrably so, as a result of their ability to externalize them in deeds and actions no different from those of our ancient ancestors. The former had no knowledge of egalitarian tribes living in the deep forest. On the contrary. “they’d all had eight hundred years of civilization and conditioning before they came up with the best answers. So they were already looking at the world through a certain paradigm and none of them even knew about this”, says Parry.
The author and film-maker adds:
“I think we’re in a really interesting time at the moment where actually we’re able to connect with these last vestiges of people who are still offering us an insight into the time before agriculture and go, “wow! There’s something about them.” Knowing that it was how we lived and how we lived successfully.”
Parry’s first-hand accounts challenge the narrative that humans are historically and genetically predisposed to competition and violence. The Lord of the Flies stereotype of human nature and its vision of the world, is a prism through which humans have largely been indoctrinated. “When we look inside ourselves we often see quite a lot of darkness and money and we project that. “Also we’re fearful”, says Parry, “of going on the journey of healing and to sort of undo it.”
In Parry’s experience, tribal people, in general, are “very placid.” He notes that “the particular ones I lived with are like super placid, super pacifistic and peaceful. Where’s the people that are just genetically bad that we need to incarcerate and throw away the key? It’s like, they’re not just there.”
Re-thinking human nature
Parry’s experiences invite the reader to re-evaluate all of society and human nature:
“When you have the privilege of living with people like that, It’s like, ‘wow, that’s totally different and I have to rethink everything.’ And also we live in this extraordinary age where we can promulgate that information. So much of what we’re talking about is about power and hierarchy. Power tends to like to hold onto power and that’s been the way for quite a long time. But we’re now in a super interesting time of peer to peer communications, of like different means and ideas that can be spread. It’s a particular narrative, that when you understand it, makes sense for everyone.”
What Parry appears to be alluding to relates to the benefits to humanity of an egalitarian-based culture in which inter-dependency and reciprocity are its defining features. Whereas modern capitalist societies are money-driven, the kind of tribal societies Parry has immersed himself in transcend the money imperative. In this way, the film-maker doesn’t feel the need to engage with his fellow citizens, in the same way, had he not done so.
The alienating void Parry refers to was theorized by Karl Marx over 150 years ago. It’s a gap that anti-capitalists who live in capitalist societies have been trying to fill ever since. Egalitarian societies go some way to filling those gaps. Parry makes the point that unlike capitalism, egalitarian societies are, first and foremost, defined by their propensity to satisfy basic human requirements without the need for rampant consumption.
“They don’t have the problems we do and so if we can get to that place we could also live in a harmonious way like them”, says Parry.
Catalyst for change
For Parry, the catalyst for change is the diffusion of concentrated levels of power towards decentralized power bases, utilizing, for example, technology to harness peer to peer forms of direct democracy and hence enable people to make better, more informed decisions in order to make their life paths happier. “Deep down we’re all gonna benefit from this new direction”, says Parry.
Unfortunately, it’s often the case that, historically, these kinds of shifts don’t happen without some sort of crisis. “You look at Greece, you look at Spain, a lot of those alternative mindsets rose to the fore as a result of them going through difficulties in those times.”
Parry posits that in the UK, people have become more blase and complacent than many of their European counterparts:
“The UK is a privileged society taking a lot of material wealth from around the world – and has done for a long time – and we’re sitting very pretty, doing fine, thank you very much. It’s going to take a lot for us to wake up”. But we, you know, we have woken up in the past but we are also incredibly comfortable.”
Nevertheless, Parry hopes that the next crisis to wake us up won’t result in the kind of disaster capitalism that befell Greece which, if it were to happen in the UK will, he predicts, result in “all sorts of really quite nasty upsets.” Instead, he says, he would much rather the government intervene in the economy in a managed way to avoid “some sort of collapse that ends up separating us and the resentment, the anger, and all the rest of it, that could rise up.”
“There is already collateral damage happening in the world. The direction we’re going is causing more and more. I do think we’ve got to change. But what does this form of change need to take?” Evidence suggests that actually living more locally to your production is manageable and possible. But Parry isn’t clear how this idea would pan out in an urban environment.”
“I think that we have to radically re-evaluate how we’re getting our resources from around the world. I think we have to do that locally. I think that we have to radically re-evaluate our decision making processes as a mass. I’ve been really inspired as well in some of the tribes that I’ve been with, with the role of women coming together and holding space and offering a very different way of helping with the decision making, I do think that we are in a bit of a patriarchy and have been for a long time.
Parry argues that any shifts towards a much stronger female voice in the real decisions of society would be very beneficial for all of us. There are also many different economic systems to consider even though neoliberalism is deemed by its apologists to represent the endpoint of history. We are constantly told that there is no alternative and have to stick with it.
However, according to Parry:
“There are extraordinary other ways that we could do our economics that would disseminate power rapidly. There are all sorts of things that would reduce power and could even do it in a relatively gentle way. I think it’s in the interest of those in power to see what’s coming and maybe start doing that a little bit. But either way, the economic system has to be, I think, completely overhauled.”
Parry’s ideal vision of a future world is one that’s decentralized and comprised of a community of fully empowered and happy individuals going through healing processes who hold and support each other as they learn what it’s like to be again in nature. For Parry, city dwellers in such a world, will likely re-evaluate their position in society and begin to ask themselves deep, philosophical questions. What is my role and what is my service to future generations? Am I of service to nature which we need to support us? And perhaps more fundamentally, am I serving something bigger or am I serving myself? These kinds of profound questions transcend capitalism which, in essence, is only concerned with perpetuating illusions.