Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Tribalism provided camaraderie, protection, identity, and also a sense of being in charge, something increasingly hard to come by in the workplace. Many gang members were technically "apprentices" or "journeymen," but few harbored any hope of becoming a "master." Jobs seldom gave a worker status or a chance to display skill. And if being a waged employee diminished one's sense of autonomy and control, being fired devastated it. The panic [of 1837] had mad painfully clear that the new economic order could pitch a worker into desperate poverty, virtually overnight. Security and self-esteem were best pursued elsewhere. After work a butcher, tailor, or cartman could doff his smock, apron, or overalls, don colorful gang regalia, rendezvous with his comrades, and regain at least the illusion of being in control of his life, of being a man among men.
Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), Kindle Location 15346-52.
It is utterly fascinating reading about the development of the gangs of New York City in the 19th century. Scores of men joined together in like-minded groups to represent their own interests and feelings. From nativisit groups to Irish immigrant groups, these men often rallied around particularly hot topics. Interestingly enough, the groups (including those of poor and highly mistreated African Americans) had far more in common then they would have liked to admit. Yet because of the squalor-like conditions they were forced into; it became a feeding frenzy on who would be kings of the lower classes. (It could easily be argued that the laissez-faire politics and economics of the rich & powerful were most responsible for the rise of these groups.)

What is most intriguing though is the need for tribalism that everyone has. Security, self-esteem, identity, and a general sense of control all came from being a part of a gang. The economic forces prevented self-worth from developing in the workplace, thus the rise of gangs in the 19th century. Obviously the gangs had many issues (not the least of which was the intense & bitter racism that developed amongst themselves) - but it is easy to see why the associations formed. Men in particular find such value and worth in their vocation. What can possibly fill that void when work becomes non-existent or at the very best a wage-earning day in & day out boring routine?

My question is what can we do in society to foster healthy associations? If tribalism is as natural as history shows it to be (and I would argue can have tremendous value) - how can humanity channel it into more productive groupings? When a man has no hope of "making it" because his job, life, or circumstances prevent it; what can be done to help him find worth? In other words, is it possible to nurture the growth of gangs whom are focused on the actual building up of individuals & society as a whole? If yes, how? If no, then what can be done about the situation?