Agency and Interdependence

I recently read Junger’s book, “Tribe.” It hit a lot of my buttons– not well thought out or researched, explanations just asserted even when there were far simpler possible explanations. He had a theme  and a bias and stuck to them… but it got me thinking.

We live in an amazingly interdependent society. How many of you butcher your own food? Make your own clothes? Do both? Raise the cotton or wool to make the clothes? You’re reading this on a machine you didn’t make. Maybe, if you are really good, you assembled your own PC, but you damn sure didn’t make it. Amazingly interdependent… but not really.
Societies have always been interdependent. You can think of the best survivalist societies you know– the Kalahari Bushmen or the Lippan Apache or whatever and in all of those societies of super-survivalists, the greatest punishment was to be ostracized. Because as good as they are, no one survives for very long alone.

What’s missing now is not the interdependence, it’s the awareness.  One side is easy to see– the iconoclast rebel who declares himself free while typing on a keyboard (that some corporation produced) and sucking down corn chips and Mt. Dew (ditto) in his mom’s basement (do I need to say ditto again?)

It’s physically impossible to tweet “I’m off the grid.”

Junger wrote about the other side. All of us, on some level, want to feel the interdependence. We want to feel the connection. Corny as it sounds, we want to serve.

A few of us have been trying to figure out why it seems that individual power–agency– is so systematically denigrated in modern society.
I think there is an assumption that agency is a contrary force or contrary attitude to interdependence. It’s not. In what I consider a natural society— tribal hunter gatherers— increasing one’s own agency was important for the good of the tribe. You wanted to be the bravest warrior or the most cunning hunter or the wisest healer. Change that, not ‘or’.  Ideally ‘and’. So it was all about increasing agency or personal power, but for the good of the tribe.
You can look at the collectivist movements (socialism, communism, fascism) as attempts to force a tribal level of interdependence from the top down.  It takes massive control because the tribes are artificial and we have enough radical ideas and different points of view that people can find their own tribes and can easily switch tribes. In order for it to work, people would need a monolithic set of values. Hence force. And failure. But those movements appeal mightily to the people looking for that sense of connection.
As wisdom (one type of power) increases, so does a recognition of interdependence as a fact. Individualists recognize that agency is not a contradiction to cooperative society. It is required if we want society to continue to improve.
At the same time, we aren’t insects. We will never all have the same values or the same priorities. Nor should we. Wisdom is to let people disagree.  Even more than focussing on increasing our own agency for the good of the tribe, we focus on increasing the agency of others. Accepting other people’s differences _and_ their power.
Our society tries to draw a distinction between the passive and the active– and to include passivity in the definition of “good” (but that’s a post for another day). That has resulted in the infantilaztion of adults. Screw that. Be strong. Let others be strong. Cherish their strength and your own.

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