The Open Tribe is already here

A review of Sue Goss' book, "The Open Tribe".

Liam Barrington-Bush
7 October 2014

“What have we lost and gained, as we trade solidarity for a sense of individual freedom?,’ author Sue Goss asks us early on in her new book, Open Tribe. “Could we, in this day and age, re-create a ‘tribal’ sense of togetherness without re-creating old insularities?”

The question is critical, and is too often ignored, even as the costs of both ‘us vs them’ factionalism and lack-of-belonging surround us, in politics, in work, in life. Goss delicately takes a bold step forward, asking us to re-think a range of deeply-held understandings about how we organise ourselves.

This must be praised. Her analyses of the pitfalls of political parties and top-down workplaces are at once scathing, and (I think?) palatable to those hovering around the frustrated edges of these institutions.

In the spirit of its core messages, the book gives a lot of space to verbatim accounts of the conversations that Goss had during the writing process. In doing so, she sculpts a dialogue between various actors – community organisers and philosophers, activists and Lords, MPs and academics. The pages of Open Tribe offer a brief glimpse of the kinds of dialogue the book places at the core of wider social transformation; a meeting of perspectives, finding ways to coexist, through and around differences, without an expectation of permanent resolution. This is a beautiful thing.

But with a few exceptions, the group’s perspectives are narrower than it seems Goss intends. She does a good job of representing those floating just-inside the edges of the elitist political system she is so rightly fed up with, while still framing change as primarily about adapting that system, rather than about creating alternatives to it.

I think it’s time for a disclaimer: I’m an anarchist – my hope for change to be achieved within the existing corridors of power is minimal. Privilege perpetuates privilege and election after election, those seemingly more interested in rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, than in creating fundamental change end up filling those corridors, continuing what was done before them, offering momentary exceptions to the rule.

Perhaps this cynicism places me in a tiny minority, but I think it’s a perspective worth exploring in relation to the idea of the Open Tribe (of which I’m definitely a fan!). I believe the Open Tribe is both desirable and – better yet – already happening all around us, if we look in the right places. “The future,” Goss reminds us at the start of a chapter called ‘Change always starts at the edge,’ “is already here.”

But I can’t help but feel, with its siloed bureaucracies, ruthless inter-party/department blood feuds, and party-whip dictates, ‘Politics’ is not the place to look. If widespread change is to occur, I suspect government will be the last place to get the memo. Its systems – even under progressive regimes – are too deeply ‘anti’ everything that the Open Tribe is about.

Meanwhile, I see the Open Tribe in Grow Heathrow, the intentional community in Sipson, where radical green activists have been planting food gardens with the local community for three years, steadfast in their shared commitment to block a 3rd runway at Heathrow, despite their differences.


image - Indymedia

I see the Open Tribe in Balcombe, where local anti-fracking groups in the Tory stronghold of West Sussex, found common ground with the Reclaim the Power movement, working together since last summer to both kick-out fracking company Cuadrilla, and kick-start a solar energy coop.

I see the Open Tribe spreading across North America via resistance to tar sands pipelines and other extreme energy projects, where Indigenous and settler communities – long-divided by colonialism and racism – are literally putting their bodies on the line together, to protect their land and water.

The natural environment, its current deterioration, and the ongoing threats it faces, may be the best catalyst we could hope for in creating an Open Tribe. Our sense of belonging becomes painfully clear when we notice our same aquifers are at risk of being fracked, or that smog is making it harder for both of us to breathe the air. In this sense, I see something far more profound than ‘Politics’ at the core of the transition we need. I feel that even framing the discourse around political institutions muddies the waters of our fundamental shared interests.

Representational structures are too far from the frontlines to shape many of the discussions we need to be having. Decisions need to be made closer to the places they affect, and continuing to put our efforts into reforming systems that take them further away, undermines our real potential to connect with one another and find answers that make sense where we are.

The movements I describe are not simply protests; they are evolving examples of how we can live differently together. These are examples all of us have the potential to experiment with, wherever we are. I see them as the seeds of countless Open Tribes, emerging independently and slowly merging with one another.

They may not be ideas that can be ‘mainstreamed,’ ‘rolled out’ or ‘scaled up,’ but they are the truest faces I’ve seen of people learning to bridge feelings of community and individual identity. I get the strong sense Goss, in spite of her history with formal politics, realises the subjectivity of this kind of change and knows that it is not something that can be ‘applied’ at mass scale, but must grow and be nurtured amongst individuals. But her emphasis remains with the political structures we’ve got.

It is always uncomfortable to cross barriers of difference. However, as in the examples above and so many more, a combination of shared passion and urgent necessity seem to be the best tools we’ve got for encouraging unlikely new relationships that transcend both our old tribes and our new individualisms.

The abstracted, disconnected realities of the Westminster Bubble – or even many local councils – seem like the absolute last places to expect this kind of change to occur. Thanks to the calculating realpolitik of the party system, and because ‘urgent necessity’ is not in the vocabulary of the (still vastly white/male/wealthy) privilege that dominates ‘Big P’ politics, I feel we are far better off looking to one another for change.

For better and worse, passion and urgent need are in no short supply almost everywhere else you look, as the dual threats of climate chaos and austerity make themselves felt. But passion and need can struggle to see shared interests beyond the confines of locality and individual relationships. So why not start where we are?

But here’s the anarchist/radical social democrat divide: where do we place our faith – in people, or ‘the system’? Our choice is whether we believe the institution with the structural reach to create massive change will do so, in spite of decades and centuries of evidence to the contrary? Or do we believe that a vast number of smaller scale changes will collectively add up to the big change we need, though we have yet to see a sufficiently sizable example where this is actually the case? Without being able to reliably predict the future, where do we place our bets?

Goss leaves her poker chips on the side of the system. I’m more inclined to believe in people. Neither of us can know for sure if either path will get us to where we need to be, but she’s opened a door and given us the space to learn from one another. So while I sometimes cringed at her suggestions as to how she imagines social change will occur, I appreciate that she has forged common ground between us and so many others, and admire her efforts to start a new conversation. Which is probably the best endorsement this book could get.

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