Rereading The Time of the Tribes – Thirty Years On

By James Horrox

Towards the end of the 1970s, against the backdrop of the declining relevance of the collectivities that had shaped earlier generations’ conception of communal ties (class, nation, religion, and so on), Michel Maffesoli began using the terminology of ‘tribalism’ to describe what he saw emerging in their place. A new phase in the life of Western societies was underway, Maffesoli argued, the defining feature of which was the coalescence of a multiplicity of more fluid, nebulous communities, bound together primarily by shared emotion, feelings, lifestyles, passions and tastes. These social formations, whose existence, Maffesoli contends, refutes the prevailing belief in the rise of individualism, are symptomatic of a larger paradigm shift – from modernity to postmodernity – that is witnessing the collapse of the intellectual, social and political models associated with the modern era and the emergence of new ways of thinking and being.

In France, Maffesoli has long enjoyed a degree of notoriety as something of a dissident public intellectual, but it wasn’t until the mid-1990s, with the publication of the SAGE English edition of his magnum opus The Time of the Tribes (originally published in French in 1988), that he began to make an impact in Anglophone academia. With the majority of his sizable back catalogue still yet to be translated, The Time of the Tribes remains an essential introduction to the main themes in Maffesoli’s work – themes that are arguably more relevant today than at any point in the three decades since the book first appeared. Continue reading

Masterless Men and Vagabond Roguery

Beggar 240px-Bellange_beggarBy James Horrox

The figure of the uprooted wanderer has provoked intense fascination throughout modern European history. As shadow figures for the powerful, vagrants, travellers – ‘masterless men’, some were called – have for centuries attracted a stigma consistent with indolence, criminality, blasphemous practices of various kinds, even treason.

Embodying an inversion of the established order, at the head of which was the divinely-installed monarch, for the authorities of Elizabethan England their very existence became a form of lèse-majesté, and hence a sign of disorder in the cosmos. By Tudor times, legislation enacted to extirpate the scourge of itinerancy from the English countryside extended not just to beggars and the ‘idle poor’, but to tinkers, pedlars, unlicensed actors, peripatetic astrologers and those who took to the road in search of work (and from here it is arguably not so far to the precarious world of the contemporary ‘free lance’ – the mercenary soldier of 21st century Western capitalism).

However, historians have often remarked on the sometimes ambiguous attitudes displayed by civilised society towards the wanderer, and in particular on a certain schizophrenia over whether the mobility inherent in their way of life was something to be despised or desired. They have certainly always been cause for concern among the powerful: lack of attachment to any one place made crossing boundaries and transgressing categories part of their nature, enough in itself to cast the itinerant as a threat to the structures of monarchical domination; the figure recalls Edgar as Poor Tom in King Lear, where vagrancy, suffering in body and mind, reversals of fortune, all call into question the supremacy of power.

Equally, it might reasonably be assumed that much of the stigma heaped upon wanderers by people who lived out their entire lives tied to the place they were born reflected a secret envy of the freedom of those perceived to be unburdened by such attachments. As the historian Peter Marshall argues, the impulse to imagine and search for what is not – a kind of ‘utopian’ curiosity – is an inherent part of what makes us human, with us “ever since our ancestors on the African savannah first lifted up their heads and wondered what might be over the horizon or on the other side of the mountain range”. It requires no great leap of the imagination to speculate that those who repress this impulse in favour of ‘security’ may come to resent, envy, even fear those who embrace it.

The term ‘security’ in its etymology shows the close link between being “free from care” and “firmly fixed”. From se cura (se “free from” + cura “care”) the term in its double meaning conflates the condition of being safe and free from danger with being fixed, static, bound. The security that comes with rootedness, in other words – to a particular place, employer, patch of land, ideology, whatever – comes at a price. “Free from” and “free to” are two very different things, and as John Lucas points out, one reaction to the unfreedom of one’s own rootedness is to wish it upon others, as “a way of fixing them unproblematically, whether socially or economically, or both.” Hence, officialdom’s traditional response to the menace of ‘masterless men’ has been to attempt to eradicate the possibility of wandering, the rationale behind the various vagrancy laws passed since the early modern period being that all the concerns associated with itinerancy would be eradicated if wanderers could be tied to a place. As Linda Woodbridge puts it: “a centre was needed, a home to which to return: legislation specified that vagrants be sent back to their home parishes”. Continue reading

Communitarianism or Communitarian Ideal


It’s a kind of mental laziness for which we risk paying a heavy price. A verbal tic, pervasive on both left and right, which consists in seeing ‘communitarianism’ everywhere. A foolish attitude – as if a matter would be resolved when we suppress it, artificially, by denying it – and an infantile one too, that of incantation: we repeat the words and think that by doing so we deal with the issue.

What of the facts? It was the grandeur of social organisation in modern societies that reduced everything to the unit. Erase differences. Standardise ways of being: a beautiful ideal, the Republic, One and indivisible. But – and not for the first time in history – we are witnessing a saturation of this unitary ideal. Heterogeneity is empirically regaining force and vitality; reassertion of difference, diverse localisms, linguistic and ideological specificities assembling around a common origin, real or mythical. All serve to accentuate forms of life founded less in universal reason than in shared sentiment.

Bodies are enhanced, tattooed, pierced. Hair stands on end, or is adorned with scarves or other decorations. In the greyness of the everyday, existence is flushed with new colours, reflecting the fecund diversity of the children of men. As we know from ancient memory, there are “many rooms in the Father’s house”.

This is what I referred to some years ago as the return of ‘tribes’. Be they sexual, musical, religious, sporting or cultural, they occupy public space. That was the observation. It is infantile to deny this reality. It is unhealthy to stigmatise it. We would do better, faithful in this respect to a timeless folk wisdom, to go along with such a change, to prevent it becoming perverted and thence completely uncontrollable. After all, why not consider ‘the public sphere’ (res publica) as being organised from the adjustment, a posteriori, of these tribes based on elective affinities? Why not accept the social consensus, true to its etymology (‘cum-sensualis’), as being based on the sharing of different emotions? Since they’re here, why not embrace community differences, aid their adjustment and learn to deal with them? Such a composition may, after all, contribute to a social melody whose rhythm may not be so smooth, but which is no less dynamic.

In short, it is dangerous, in the name of some antiquated conception of national unity, not to recognise the strength of pluralism. The centre of the union can be lived in the coming together, a posteriori, of opposing values. The abstract harmony of a unanimism of appearance is being succeeded, through much trial and error, by a conflictual equilibrium, both cause and effect of the vitality of the postmodern tribes. So let’s lose our grouchy obsession with the ‘good old days’ of unity, and have the intellectual audacity to think out the verdure of a communitarian ideal in gestation.