The essay's value as a piece of anthropology is as useful as the Social Contract written about by Hobbes and Locke, but just as with the Social Contract it is not in anthropology that it has uses. Like the Social Contract, it is a "useful myth" in which Mr. Pournelle describes three levels of social development that a people go through.
The first is the Tribesman:
The Tribal culture--in its never-actually-existent theoretical pure state--is a system of pure ritual and taboo. "Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory." The objectively observable system stems from an unstated philosophy--which is unstated because the Tribesman doesn't know philosophy exists, any more than a dog knows logic exists, or a fish knows that biochemistry exists. The philosophy is, essentially precisely that of the Absolute Totalitarian state . . . minus the familiar dictator. That is, in the Tribe, the individual exists for the service of the state. The individual has no value whatever, save as a replaceable plug-in unit in the immortal, ever-existent machinery-organism of the Tribe. No individual exists as an individual--neither Tribal king nor Tribal slave; each is a unit plugged in--temporarily, for all these units wear out and are discarded in a score or two of years--to the eternal Traditional System of the Tribe. The cells in a living organism wear out and are discarded; the organism is, relatively speaking, immortal. So, in the Tribe, the individual is nothing; the Tribe is eternal.
In return for a practically absolute loss of self-identity, the Tribesman is rewarded with security and peace of mind. The Tribal Traditions have The Answers to all possible real problems; nothing can happen that the Tribal Traditions, in their ancient and time-tested wisdom, have not already solved. There are no doubts; there are answers which involve "these tribesmen must die," but Death is not intolerable. Uncertainty--Doubt--these are the Terrors that live in the Unknown. And against those horrors, the ancient wisdom of the Tribal Traditions stand a strong, sure defense.
The Tribesman has an exact, clear-cut, and perfectly understandable definition of Evil. Evil is Change. Any Change whatever is Evil. The correlation is absolute--perfect one-to-one.
The next stage above Tribesman is Barbarian.
The Barbarian represents the Ultimate Horror from the viewpoint of the Tribesman; he is the Pure Individual. The Barbarian does not put his faith, his sense of security, in the ancient wisdom of the Traditions--but in the wisdom and strength of a Hero, a living demigod-man, a Leader who solves all problems.
Barbarism, in other words, is the Dictator, without the Totalitarian State. There is a Hero, who is a strong, and unusually clever leader--an individual who stands out above the men around him.
Tribalism is "a government of laws, not of men," with the minor change that "traditions" replace "laws."
Barbarism becomes a government of Men, not of traditions.
It is the first development of human culture which recognizes the value of the individual. It is not true that only civilized people respect the dignity of the individual; any Barbarian will assure you that Citizens have no dignity, that Civilization does not respect the individual. That only Barbarians understand what it means to be an individual.
The Barbarian, in essence, "has too much Ego in his Cosmos."
It's perfectly true that all men seek security--but necessarily, that means they seek what they believe is security. A superstitious Tribesman, fleeing a ghost, would happily climb a 100,000 volt power-line tower because he knows that ghosts can't climb.
The Tribesman's security is his conviction that the Tribal Traditions have sure answers to all real problems.
The Barbarian's security is in his absolute conviction that he can handle any problem--and if he can't, why, of course his Leader-Hero can, and will.
Barbarism is one of the great breakthroughs in cultural evolution; for the first time, it establishes that the individual has great value, that the individual must be respected.
He also describes the relationship between Barbarians and Tribesmen. Tribesmen, who view change as violating the traditions and therefore evil, see the Barbarian as evil. Barbarians, who view obeying orders with which one disagrees as spineless and sub-human, sees Tribesmen as being fit only for slavery as they are not human. A Barbarian thinks it pitiful is someone obeys an order with which he disagrees.
Advancing beyond Barbarism, the third stage so far is Civilization.
When the Barbarian encounters Civilization, therefore, he is going to be enormously confused and baffled. The Barbarians of North Europe, meeting the Citizens of the Roman Republic, were meeting men who allowed others to order them about, to tell them what to do and when to do it. Who obeyed commands they didn't, themselves, agree with. Obviously, a pack of servile slaves!
But these cowardly Roman Legionnaires, for some incomprehensible reason, did not collapse in battle. These Legionnaires, who had no self-respect, who did not fight man-to-man, but used short swords so that no one of them could say, when he returned home, "I killed Urhtoth!" but only, "I am a member of the Fourth Legion,"--these Romans strangely didn't flee before the fiercest Barbarian charges.
To the Barbarians, the Citizen shows the symptoms of all the things the Barbarian rejects as vile and degrading--the essence of cowardice. The Citizen yields his will to the demands of others. He allows himself to be limited, and allows himself to be compelled against his own desires.
To the Barbarian, the Citizen shows the same loathsome abnegation that the Tribesman does.
Which makes it all the more incomprehensible that these sniveling Citizens win battle after battle. They who have sacrificed their Manhood, have given up their right to individual dignity, somehow prove able to fight like maddened demons!
He spends little time describing the Civil system, and given that it is the current system in the western world there should theoretically be little need to describe it. What he does describe is interactions between Barbarians and Citizens and between Tribesmen and Citizens. In both cases, as with Barbarian and Tribesmen, interaction between a later stage and an earlier stage dooms the earlier stage.
The key question then becomes what happens to a Barbarian who discovers he cannot beat a Civil System from the outside? Doing so from the outside turns the Barbarian into a criminal, as can be discovered from a cursory examination of most true criminals. At one point there was a belief that criminals had insufficient self esteem, but further examination found that many real criminals had excessive self esteem.
A smarter Barbarian would find the Civil system useful, to do from the inside what cannot be done from the outside, to use the system for looting by proxy. The first advantage of this is that it saves the Barbarian from the consequences of criminal activity. The second advantage is that Citizens are conditioned to have a basic respect for order, and thus are much less likely to defend themselves from crimes when committed by the government.
This actually solves one of the biggest riddles of the twentieth century: why did not the German people do more to assassinate Hitler or overthrow his regime? It is because the Germans were a civilized people, raised to have a basic respect for order. Even though they did not like it, the Barbarian Hitler achieved power working inside the system.
If faced with a Barbarian in an alley, a Citizen will fight back. If faced with a Barbarian with a government form, a Citizen is likely to give in and try to work within the system to stop the Barbarian. A stupid Barbarian becomes a criminal; a smart Barbarian becomes a politician.