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A revealing look at the role kin-based societies have played throughout history and around the world
A lively, wide-ranging meditation on human development that offers surprising lessons for the future of modern individualism, The Rule of the Clan examines the constitutional principles and cultural institutions of kin-based societies, from medieval Iceland to modern Pakistan.
A revealing look at the role kin-based societies have played throughout history and around the world
A lively, wide-ranging meditation on human development that offers surprising lessons for the future of modern individualism, The Rule of the Clan examines the constitutional principles and cultural institutions of kin-based societies, from medieval Iceland to modern Pakistan.
Mark S. Weiner, an expert in constitutional law and legal history, shows us that true individual freedom depends on the existence of a robust state dedicated to the public interest. In the absence of a healthy state, he explains, humans naturally tend to create legal structures centered not on individuals but rather on extended family groups. The modern liberal state makes individualism possible by keeping this powerful drive in check—and we ignore the continuing threat to liberal values and institutions at our peril. At the same time, for modern individualism to survive, liberals must also acknowledge the profound social and psychological benefits the rule of the clan provides and recognize the loss humanity sustains in its transition to modernity.
Masterfully argued and filled with rich historical detail, Weiner’s investigation speaks both to modern liberal societies and to developing nations riven by “clannism,” including Muslim societies in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“It has been said that the past can be a reliable guide to the future. Mark Weiner's The Rule of the Clan is a fascinating case in point. He dissects modern society to reveal the ancient form of social order from which it emerged, then portrays convincingly how those earlier forms can reassert themselves under certain conditions. His book should be of great interest to scholars of history, government, and human behavior alike.” —Rick Docksai, World Future Review
“Weiner doesn't simplify his argument by dismissing or condescending to the clan system; he engages with the very real benefits provided by one of the most durable political associations in human history . . . This erudite, quick-paced book demonstrates what the mix of modernity and clans can create.” —Cara Parks, The New York Times Book Review
“The Rule of the Clan confronts an uncomfortable but important reality. In the process, it challenges the careless liberal assumption that national identity is an anachronism and a strong state a threat.” —Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion
“A must read for anyone interested in understanding the complex relation between tribal identity, law, and custom; in seeking common ground between the Western and Islamic legal and political traditions; and in connecting the past to present in the service of legal reform.” —Abdullah Saeed, Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne, Australia
“The Rule of the Clan gives a fascinating glimpse into a world that few Westerners today understand: a world of honor, shame, collective responsibility, and violent feuds. This book tells us what we need to know if we really want to modernize the clan societies of the Middle East and central Asia—and if we want to save our own liberal democracies from descending into clannish chaos.” —Ian Morris, Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and Professor of History at Stanford University, and author of Why the West Rules—For Now
“The Rule of the Clan is a delight to read—an engaging tour of societies in which kinship groups have been the primary form of social organization, from Anglo-Saxon England to medieval Iceland to southern Sudan, modern India, the Philippines, and much more. It is also an insightful meditation on what proponents of individual freedom must grasp if they are to realize their aspirations in societies made up not of rational abstractions, but of people like us.”—Rogers M. Smith, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania
“Mark Weiner has raised the crucial yet neglected subject of tribal identity and loyalty in modern society. The sweep of his book and the depth of his analysis make it essential reading for anyone interested in connecting past to present in order to chart a felicitous path to the future.” —Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, and author of Journey into America: the Challenge of Islam
Imagine that one fine morning you are strolling down the sidewalk on your way to work. Suddenly, a young jogger wearing headphones turns the corner, running swiftly, oblivious to the world around him. He crashes into you and as you hit the ground you feel a sharp pain in your arm, which quickly begins to swell. It’s broken. Soon after visiting your doctor, you contact your lawyer. He begins a civil suit against the jogger so that you can be compensated for your injury.
The case is open and shut. The jogger was clearly at fault and he will be held accountable for the harm he caused.
Next, imagine that you decide to open a small business, perhaps a bakery specializing in German-style breads. You rent the perfect building for the shop and visit your local bank for a loan. The loan officer reviews your excellent business plan and approves it. You sign your name to a stack of papers he slides across his desk and soon you have the capital you need to purchase ovens and other equipment. You are now responsible for repaying the loan.
Nobody could seriously question your liability or the bank’s right to be repaid.
In both these cases, the law’s basic focus, what social scientists call its framework of analysis or its “jural unit,” is the individual rather than the family. In the case of the errant jogger, when your lawyer contacts the jogger’s lawyer, he will make a claim against the jogger and not against the jogger’s brother or sister, who are irrelevant to the suit. Likewise, your own brother or sister will have no claim to any settlement money you might receive.
In the case of your business venture, too, much as you might wish to do so, you can’t foist your financial obligations onto others without their consent. By taking out a loan, you don’t make your family members responsible for the success or failure of your bakery. At the same time, you needn’t obtain their permission to take out a loan in the first place. The law makes you responsible for meeting your financial obligations and it also enables you to contract for them yourself, with your own signature.
This individualist focus is fundamental to the law of modern liberal societies. It lies at the core of nations that trace their democratic political heritage to the Enlightenment and their economic roots to the Industrial Revolution—and that hold individual self-fulfillment and personal development as a central moral value. Indeed, legal individualism is so basic to the social fabric of liberal societies that most of us who live in them take it as a matter of course.1
In an election, you cast your vote for yourself alone, rather than for your household, village, or tribe. Doing so would seem absurd—it would contravene the axiomatic principle of “one person, one vote.” Nor does the head of your household, village, or tribe vote on your behalf.
When you enter into a marriage, you alone incur its benefits and obligations. A wedding may bind two families together in a metaphorical sense. But it doesn’t establish a relationship between them as a matter of law, for instance by requiring them to come to each other’s mutual aid or military defense.
If one evening you are watching a movie and a notorious thief, John “Quick Hands” Smith, steals your car, police will seek to capture and arrest John Smith. If instead the officers arrest his staid brother Jack, an accountant, explaining to a judge that after all Jack is related to John, the officers will be disciplined. Likewise, when you call the police station to report the incident, you will be asked for your street address rather than the name of your grandparents—your lineage is irrelevant to whether the state will protect you from crime.
Such individualism extends as well to the legal issues of property and inheritance. In liberal societies, land need not be owned in common by tribal groups or village associations, as it is in many parts of the world, with individuals having only a temporary and limited claim to its use, known as a usufruct interest. Instead, land can be held by individuals, who have a general right to do with it as they wish, including the right to exclude others from its benefits.
Similarly, in common law jurisdictions, people are free to will their estates to whomever they please (civil law jurisdictions impose some limits on this principle). Assuming they comply with technical rules for creating trusts, people may even decide that upon their death their assets will pass to their dogs or cats, as did the flamboyant real estate tycoon Leona Helmsley, who left twelve million dollars in trust for her Maltese dog, Trouble. Whether or not it results in wise or just decisions in any particular case—it often quite clearly does not—a person’s wealth is deemed to be his or her own.
All these facts may seem self-evident, perhaps even obvious. But if one looks beneath them, they point to an essential paradox about individual freedom, a paradox that’s illuminated by examining the subject of this book: the rule of the clan.
It’s a common and understandable belief that liberty exists only when the state is absent or weak. Many people often imply that individual freedom flourishes in inverse proportion to the strength and scope of government. The argument is a perennial feature of American political discourse (“freedom means the absence of government coercion,” asserts a prominent recent presidential candidate), though it is hardly limited to the United States.2 A deep antipathy to the modern state was a core principle of the United States’ longtime enemy Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, who sought, in the words of his manifesto The Green Book, “emancipation from the chains of all instruments of government.”3 Likewise, guided by a compelling spiritual vision, Mohandas Gandhi advocated for a stateless society of local self-rule for postcolonial India, in which power would be radically decentralized to ancient village communities—panchayati raj. He and his followers campaigned for “as minimal a ‘state’ as possible,” following the maxim “keep government to the minimum, and what you must have, decentralize.”4
Yet, whatever form it takes, the belief that individual freedom exists only when the state is frail misunderstands the source of liberty. The state can be more or less effective in the pursuit of its goals—it can be stupid or smart—and it can be used for illiberal, totalitarian ends. But ultimately a healthy state dedicated to the public interest makes individual freedom possible.
This is the paradox of individualism. The individual freedom that citizens of liberal societies rightly cherish, even our very concept of the individual, is impossible without a robust state. Modern individualism depends on the existence of vigorous and effective government dedicated to the public interest, to policies that a majority of citizens would support without regard to their particular position in society at any given moment. It depends as well on the willingness of individual citizens to imagine themselves as members of a common public whose interests the state regularly vindicates.
The state maintains a system of courts to ensure that people play by the rules, rather than resorting to trickery or force to advance their interests. It provides professionally trained police to safeguard people from crime; fire protection to prevent collective disaster; and military power to defend against threats from abroad. It constructs roads and bridges, builds or subsidizes utilities, and supports mass education to encourage economic growth and foster human capital. To mitigate major social and economic risk in advance of calamity, it operates a wide range of regulatory programs, such as those that safeguard the public health or oversee financial instruments, and it provides security for individuals through various forms of welfare.
Most important, the state stipulates the receipt of these benefits not on a person’s membership in an inescapable group but simply on his or her status as an individual.
Your ability to obtain redress for injury, to enter into contracts on your own terms, to use land and other property, to dispose of your wealth, to be protected from crime, and to access a range of goods and services all depend on the state treating the individual—you—as a member of a community of legal equals.
The legal status of the individual under a strong liberal state, in which healthy government and robust individualism go hand in hand, might be represented in simple visual form this way: [DIAGRAM]
In a modern liberal society the state, represented by the large circle, is vigorous and effective, clearly demarcating and defining the community it surrounds. The discrete individuals living under the authority of the state, the smaller circles, are in turn equally vital and independent. An essential aim of the liberal legal tradition, as important as its goal of limiting state power—though we are often unmindful of its centrality—has been to build state capacities to ensure such vitality and independence.
By contrast, in the absence of the state, or when states are weak, the individual becomes engulfed within the collective groups on which people must rely to advance their goals and vindicate their interests. Without the authority of the state, a host of discrete communal associations rush to fill the vacuum of power. And for most of human history, the primary such group has been the extended family, the clan.
The clan is a natural form of social and legal organization—it is far more explicable in human terms than the modern liberal state—and people quickly, reflexively turn to it in the want of an alternative. Left to our own devices, we humans naturally build legal structures based on real or fictive kin ties or social networks that behave much like ancient clans. Our instinctual drives are not only psychological and sexual, but also legal. The impulse is part of who we are as human beings.5
* * *
In this book, I therefore invite readers to engage in what might seem to be a contradictory exercise: to consider what societies governed by the rule of the clan can teach citizens of modern liberal democracies. I believe that by examining the rule of the clan and understanding its legal and cultural architecture, including its many positive and compelling features, liberals can gain critical insights for liberalism (by “liberal” I refer to people committed to the values of individualism and the principles of liberal democratic government, regardless of party affiliation). This ancient form of social organization can sharpen our appreciation of the institutional and cultural values necessary to sustain our individualist way of life. We can also learn how best to assist native legal reformers abroad in turning their societies toward more liberal legal arrangements.
What exactly is the rule of the clan? When I refer to the rule of the clan, I mean three related contemporary phenomena.6
First, and most prominently, I mean the legal structures and cultural values of societies organized primarily on the basis of kinship—societies in which extended family membership is vital for social and legal action and in which individuals have little choice but to maintain a strong clan identity. Today these societies include many in which the United States and its allies have a major strategic interest, such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia, but they have existed across history and throughout the world. Sometimes they are described as “tribal,” though I tend to avoid the term because in English it carries a host of negative and racialist connotations. This strict form of the rule of the clan also includes the traditional Hindu caste system and Indian joint family, despite the manifest great differences between tribal societies and rapidly modernizing democratic India.
Second, by the rule of the clan I mean the political arrangements of societies governed by what the Arab Human Development Report 2004 calls “clannism.”7 These societies possess the outward trappings of a modern state but are founded on informal patronage networks, especially those of kinship, and traditional ideals of patriarchal family authority. In nations pervaded by clannism, government is coopted for purely factional purposes and the state, conceived on the model of the patriarchal family, treats citizens not as autonomous actors but rather as troublesome dependents to be managed.
Clannism is the historical echo of tribalism, existing even in the face of economic modernization. It often characterizes rentier societies struggling under the continuing legacy of colonial subordination, as in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where the nuclear family, with its revolutionary, individuating power, has yet to replace the extended lineage group as the principle framework for kinship or household organization. A form of clannism likewise pervades mainland China and other nations whose political development was influenced by Confucianism, with its ideal of a powerful state resting on a well-ordered family, and where personal connections are essential to economic exchange.
Third, and most broadly, by the rule of the clan I mean the antiliberal social and legal organizations that tend to grow in the absence of state authority or when the state is weak. These groups include petty criminal gangs, the Mafia, and international crime syndicates, which look a great deal like clans and in many respects act like them. Today corporate conglomerates and collectivist identity groups have the potential to transform into similar clanlike systems. In this respect, the rule of the clan is a synecdoche for a general pattern according to which humans tend to organize their communities.
Life under the rule of the clan is profoundly different from life in liberal societies. Most important, compared with modern liberal states, communities governed by the rule of the clan possess a markedly diminished conception of individual freedom. This is because under their legal principles people are valued less as individuals per se than as members of their extended families. The rights and obligations of individuals are fundamentally influenced by their places within the kin groups to which they inescapably belong.
The legal status of the individual under the rule of the clan might be represented like this: [DIAGRAM] Here, in the presence of a weak state, the individual is weakened and submerged in the more muscular corporate associations—kin groups—that maintain the society’s political order.
* * *
The founding father of legal history and legal anthropology, Henry Sumner Maine, had an illuminating term for such communities. He called them societies of “Status,” which he contrasted with communities he called societies of “Contract.” According to Maine, the history of all “progressive societies,” societies that had undergone a course of modernizing development, is a story of their transformation “from Status to Contract.”8 It is a formulation that sheds a good deal of light on a number of grave threats shadowing liberal societies today.
Born in 1822 and raised near London, Maine rose from relatively humble origins to the most influential heights of Victorian intellectual life. Strikingly, he brought together two professional paths that today might seem at odds: recondite historian of the ancient world and practical colonial administrator.
As a young man, Maine was a scholar’s scholar. His raw intellectual talent as a student of classics at Pembroke College, Cambridge, was legendary—his academic achievements were “among the most impressive undergraduate records in the long history of Cambridge University”—and he was a masterful writer as well.9 While an undergraduate he was the recipient of a prestigious prize in poetry previously awarded to Alfred Tennyson. Later, the future American president Woodrow Wilson would bestow upon him a compliment with which most of his admiring readers across the world would concur. He called Maine “a lawyer with style,” one who “belongs by method and genius among men of letters.”10
Like many an excellent student, Maine soon entered the professoriate, returning to teach at his alma mater at the tender age of twenty-four as the Regius Professor of Civil Law. He also began to teach civil law at the Inns of Court, the center of English legal education in London. The civil law tradition derives from the law of ancient Rome, whose principles provide the basis for the law of admiralty, the canon law of the Anglican and Catholic churches, and the doctrines of equity that were once the exclusive province of courts of chancery. Maine’s first and greatest book, Ancient Law (1861), took the history of Roman legal ideas and used it to unravel the legal development of humanity as a whole.
One might have expected that after he published his illustrious study, the muttonchopped Maine would have retired into Oxbridge fustiness. Instead, he cast concerns about his frail health aside and set sail for India with his wife, Jane. There he worked for the British colonial government settling land disputes, reforming marriage laws, and codifying legislation, as well as serving as the vice chancellor of the University of Calcutta.
He served with distinction and, as luck would have it, his health improved and he greatly enjoyed himself. When he returned to England in 1869, he drew on his Indian experience in an important series of lectures and books. His writings on native law and society—particularly his observation that India possessed indigenous resources for self-government even as those institutions required western paternalist protection to survive—provided “the ideological linchpin” for Britain’s distinctive mode of imperial rule.11
Maine’s broad, comparative experience set him thinking in channels that were at once wide and deep. On one hand, he put a world-spanning range of societies into dialogue, often with surprising results. One of his characteristically intriguing observations, offered in Lectures on the Early History of Institutions (1875), was that modern India shared core legal ideas about marriage, property, and dispute resolution with medieval Ireland, as the two societies derived those rules from a common Aryan cultural ancestor. So outwardly different, the lands of Guinness and Gandhi are in fact genetically related in their legal principles, possessing a shared progenitor deep in the Indo-European past.12
But even more important, Maine used his knowledge to ask basic questions about a grand subject: legal evolution, the development of legal systems over time.
He explored two issues in particular. First, he sought to explain the mechanisms by which legal rules change in response to social pressure. What are the pathways of legal transformation? In biological evolution, as Charles Darwin had shown a few years earlier in On the Origin of Species (1859), the mechanisms of change include natural selection. Scientists now know they also include genetic mutation and genetic drift. According to Maine, law has only three methods of development, and in the last one hundred and fifty years, no one has effectively proposed another.
The first method is legal fictions, ideas that alter the substance of law without changing its letter. In the United States, for example, business corporations are viewed as “persons” under the terms of the federal Constitution, entitling them to due process of law and a host of other constitutional protections (including, controversially, protection of their political speech).
The second method is equity, the harmonization of existing law to higher bodies of principles external to the law itself, especially transcendent morals. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which declared policies of racial segregation unlawful, did so on a slim constitutional basis but a firm moral one.
The third method is legislation, which changes law through the expressed will of the persons or institutions responsible for crafting rules. Such legal change takes place every day through the work of representative legislative bodies and administrative agencies.
In addition to exploring the mechanisms of legal change, Maine also asked whether those changes tended to move in a specific direction. By placing the laws of Rome, India, Ireland, and other societies side by side, could one discover whether legal evolution followed a particular trend or track? Maine’s answer was a succinct theoretical formulation that has influenced the writings of legal historians and anthropologists for generations.
In Maine’s view, the legal development of “progressive societies” follows a path “from Status to Contract.”13 The pithy phrase (the italics are his) was Maine’s most important idea. In the words of one scholar, it “might well adorn the family crest of anthropology.”14
One might say that it made Maine the Charles Darwin of jurisprudence.
By societies of Status, Maine did not mean societies that simply possess a sense of social rank or hierarchy. Instead, he meant those communities in which family groups serve as the primary basis for social organization and in which the law takes the extended family as its principal unit of concern. In these communities—societies governed by the rule of the clan—a person’s social and legal role is determined by his or her place within the kinship group. For instance, the role of women in clan societies is to physically reproduce the clan itself and this role shapes all the legal rules affecting them, from their ability to sue or be sued to their property rights.
By societies of Contract, Maine meant societies in which law is oriented toward the individual rather than the group, and in which individual choice serves as the central value of the legal order. In such societies, individuals are no longer legally subordinated to their extended families. Instead, the legal order is directed toward fostering the ability of individuals to chart their own life course, economically, professionally, or personally, from enabling them to dispose of their assets through a will or charter their own corporations to permitting them to marry without regard to clan affiliation. Maine showed that this individualist orientation of societies of Contract was made possible by the growth of the state and its institutions.
According to Maine, the “progressive” societies of the world had been set on their course from Status to Contract through an internal force, an important social choice made in the ancient past, or by a unique accident of history. (Intriguingly, one of the first signs of the state’s growth was the animal pound, where an individual’s or family’s most valuable property could be taken and held pending the adjudication of a grievance, a legal action known as destraint.) The task of the scholar was to chart this transformation and to discover what those forces, choices, or events were, discoveries which might then lead to practical insights for contemporary policy.
Maine was not alone in this aspiration, but he differed from a number of other important nineteenth-century scholars in a critical respect. Whereas Maine viewed a liberal society of Contract as an evolutionary endpoint, many of his contemporaries believed that Western nations had one more grand step to take—one that, ironically, would return society to its communal and egalitarian clan past. As we will see, this belief was essential to the development of the most important and compelling modern alternative to the liberal intellectual tradition, that of Marxism. As outlined by Friedrich Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), the goal of a communist revolution was to re-create the principles and conditions of clan society in a higher historical form.
Notably, another recent alternative to liberal society, political Islamism, makes an appeal to egalitarianism and social justice that is every bit as powerful as Marxism’s. In doing so, it draws on a potent rhetoric of kin group solidarity (in Arabic, ‘asabiyya) that many Muslims use to understand their religious community. As Akbar Ahmed and Abdullah Saeed each note, many Muslims view the global umma as one large clan, and thus interpret any assault on one of its members as a dishonoring of the group as a whole.15 The genuine attraction of political Islam rests on a vision of legal and political community understood through metaphors of kinship drawn from deep in the Arabian past.
* * *
Understanding the rule of the clan—appreciating precisely how it works as a form of legal and social organization—is critical for liberals for a host of reasons. It is necessary to protect the social peace and national security of liberal states; to ensure political stability in vital regions of the world; and to effectively—and ethically—assist native liberal reformers abroad. Most of all, it is vital for attending to the stewardship of our own nations and protecting what matters most to us.
Yet the comfortable social and political conditions in which we live predispose liberals to neglect the rule of the clan’s most distinctive and important features.
The modern liberal world—liberal modernity—has deep historical roots, but it is the immediate product of a group of interrelated changes that took place in the way people lived in the industrialized nations of nineteenth-century Europe and the Americas. These changes together unshackled the individual from various types of constraint.
Most strikingly, the vibrant economies of nations such as England, the United States, France, and Germany distributed unprecedented prosperity to a remarkably broad segment of their citizenries. Consider the historical trend of per capita gross domestic product (GDP). According to estimates made by the late British economist Angus Maddison, in the year 1000 the per capita GDP of the United Kingdom, calculated in 1990 values, was $400. In the following centuries, that figure slowly climbed, until in the Renaissance it began to increase at a rate of about $250 every one hundred years. In 1500, per capita GDP was $714; in 1600, $974; in 1700, $1,250; and in 1820, after some decades of economic expansion, it was $1,756. But by 1900, it had skyrocketed to $4,593. In the eighty years between 1820 and 1900, that is, per capita GDP in the United Kingdom grew by more than double the amount it had grown in the previous eight hundred years combined.
Statistics tell a similar story throughout Northern and Western Europe, the British settler colonies, and in the United States (which in 1900 had a per capita GDP of $4,096). By contrast, in 1900 per capita GDP in China was $652; in India, $625; in Egypt, $509; and in Ghana, $462.16
This prosperity, and the personal freedom it supported, were underwritten by liberal advances in government, politics, and culture. In the realm of government, economic growth required the intervention of energetic states dedicated not only to expanding economic liberty, most importantly by making it easy for entrepreneurs to charter limited liability corporations, but also to furthering collective social development, for instance by policing public safety, advancing public health, and promoting public works. In time, states also fostered economic vitality through public education and secured the domestic peace, along with a more just political economy, through basic programs of social welfare.
In the realm of politics, similarly, the era witnessed the formal abolition of serfdom and slavery, while the gradual expansion of the franchise enlarged the influence of ordinary people in public life, making government more responsive to the common good.
Finally, in the realm of culture, popular and elite values alike were reoriented toward the individualist ideals of personal growth and psychological and emotional self-fulfillment. From the Evangelical revival in Protestant Christianity to the most important literary innovation of the era, the realist novel, the great drama of the self took center stage.
These changes brought extraordinary benefits to humankind, and the approach to law and government that made them possible—in which a strong, democratic state works on behalf of the public interest by expanding individual liberty, fostering economic prosperity, and enhancing the social conditions enabling personal freedom—ranks among the most liberating innovations in human history. For a citizen of a liberal democratic society, it thus would be easy to view societies of Status as remote, distant, and removed from one’s own fate. Living in relative material comfort and political stability, a person could understandably isolate the rule of the clan at the margins of his or her attention.
But this would be a grievous mistake. Liberal societies and societies governed by the rule of the clan are inextricably connected, like two climbers together ascending the face of a mountain. Citizens of modern liberal nations can afford to ignore the rule of the clan as much as a climber can afford to ignore the partner tethered to the rope tied around his or her own waist.
In fact, I believe that if liberals fail to take to heart the lessons of the rule of the clan, particularly the lesson of individualism’s paradox, our future will be a deeply troubling, literally “postmodern” version of our own clan past. If liberals lose the political will to maintain and nurture robust state institutions dedicated to the public interest, ignoring our human impulse to create clanlike forms of legal organization, it will spell the end of individualism as we know it. In a possibility Maine could not have imagined, our societies will move in historical reverse—from Contract to a new, terrible form of Status.17 As various institutions rush to fill the power vacuum left by the state’s decline, we will be overtaken by a new form of the rule of the clan.
Our future will look something like this: [DIAGRAM]
Here, as the liberal state is eroded, individuals begin to cluster into groups to protect themselves and assert their interests. Over time, these groups consolidate their power, becoming more important to the social order than the individuals the liberal state once nurtured.
In contemporary political discourse, one frequently encounters the warning of Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in Democracy in America (1835, 1840), that in the United States each person is “throw[n] … back forever upon himself alone” and that democracy may ultimately isolate the individual “entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”18 Many people fear that modern liberal society, not simply in the United States but wherever it is found, is threatened most by selfish individualism.
But from a legal and political perspective, rather than a cultural and moral one, the major threat to liberal societies is precisely the opposite. It is that with the erosion of the state’s capacities, the individual will be submerged within corporatist groups that take the place of modern law. It is that the individualism we cherish will be lost as a result of a deterioration of the state.
* * *
To understand the rule of the clan—where it comes from, what makes it work, what it means for the people who live under it every day—this book will examine a wide variety of clan societies across the world and at different periods of history.
I wish to emphasize that this book is not a comprehensive survey of clan societies past and present, nor is it a work of academic social science. There are many outstanding scholarly studies in the fields of law, politics, history, anthropology, and literature that treat in detail many of the issues I examine here. These works include, in particular, many specialized books in the fields of legal and constitutional history, the history of the family, and state formation. I greatly admire these studies, and I refer to some of them in my notes, which I hope will be helpful for readers who wish to pursue specific subjects in greater depth.
But this book is something else. Rather than a work of exhaustive scholarship, policy prescription, or analytic theorization, it is a series of narratives and reflections. It is a long essay, intended for a wider readership than most academic studies attempt to reach. Along the way, accordingly, I introduce a number of people from varying walks of life who have important things to say about the rule of the clan and its significance and whose often colorful stories I believe are important to hear.
I begin in part II by describing the highly decentralized constitutional structure of the rule of the clan, in which legal and political power reside not in a public authority but rather in numerous kinship groups. To illustrate this decentralization, I examine three societies that lie along a continuum of legal development. The first society is that of the Nuer of early twentieth-century southern Sudan, a fully stateless tribal community—known in technical terms as a segmentary lineage system—which I consider by telling the story of the intrepid English anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard. The second society is medieval Iceland, one of the most unusual polities of its age in that its government lacked an executive branch, making it a half-state in which kinship played an essential role. The third society is the contemporary Palestinian Authority, where the rule of the clan and a weak state exist side by side, hindering the development of the free, democratic government necessary for peace in the Middle East.
Next, in part III, I consider clans not in constitutional but rather in cultural terms. Specifically, I examine a range of contemporary societies to understand the rule of the clan’s distinctive network of informal legal institutions: its values of group honor and shame, its jurisprudence of customary law, and the threat of blood feud. Group honor, custom, and feud provide the cultural connective tissue of the rule of the clan’s decentralized constitutional structure. The rule of the clan’s constitutionalism and its culture are inseparable—just as the liberal rule of law is inseparable from its own distinctive cultural foundations. I emphasize that it is a mistake to view feud as synonymous with anarchy; instead feud is a highly structured cultural practice that ingeniously maintains social harmony. The conditions necessary for feud to achieve this beneficial end, however, have been undermined by historical developments, especially by the proliferation of modern weapons.
In part IV, I draw lessons for the effective modernization of the rule of the clan from the story of two seemingly different medieval societies, Anglo-Saxon England and early Islamic Arabia. I consider how both societies developed a common, public identity that transcended particularistic kin affiliations and in the process adopted a concept of law fundamentally different from that of the customary legal principles of clan societies. I draw a number of lessons for today from this history, including the general principle that liberal reformers can be most effective in advancing their goals by working not against clans but rather with and through them to build modern states.
More specifically, I argue that reformers seeking to advance liberal values in clan societies can encourage the growth of a common, public life by looking to mechanisms that work both “from below” and “from above.” I suggest, in particular, that liberals should encourage the spread of information and social media technologies in clan societies, predicting that in time social media will lessen the practical and personal importance of kin identity in much the same way as monotheistic religion did in the European Middle Ages. I also suggest that liberals should promote the development of the middle-class professions, which are the modern parallel to the Germanic ruling class within which a public identity in Anglo-Saxon England first developed.
In part V, I consider two different ways in which the rule of the clan is bound to remain an eternal presence in modern liberal societies—not shut off from view, but rather at the very center of our lives.
I begin by considering the surprising role the normative order of the clan plays in the modern liberal imagination—how after the clan’s legal authority has vanished its cultural importance grows. (I anticipate this discussion immediately below, in chapter 2.) First, I consider what liberals’ surprisingly romantic view of the clan reveals about the cultural values and social ideals that promote the rule of law and the individualist mode of life it enables. I argue that Walter Scott, who offered a vivid portrait of the Scottish clan past, best embodies the cultural foundation of a sustainable liberal constitutionalism. Scott’s novels give voice to a historical and aesthetic sensibility that offers citizens the symbolic resources to imagine an abstract public identity beyond their specific social position or accident of birth, while also affirming the value of particularistic clan or clanlike affiliations as a powerful basis for personal identity.
In this light, I also argue that the valorization of the clan in cultural memory is often a sign not of an atavistic regression but instead of liberalism’s legal advent—a phenomenon it is important for liberals to bear in mind as we observe the political development of societies abroad, especially in the Middle East and North Africa.
Finally, in my concluding chapter, I argue that the rule of the clan will always haunt modern liberal society as a postmodern threat: the threat of state erosion, constitutional decentralization, and cultural encrustation. I imagine the dystopian consequences of failing to meet this threat—of allowing the reemergence of a society of Status by failing to support a robust state—in a brief thought experiment.
Before considering these important matters, I wish in chapter 2 to draw attention to a curious phenomenon close to home, and then, in chapter 3, to consider in greater detail how clan societies challenge liberal interests and values from abroad. Doing so will deepen our appreciation of just what’s at stake in our travels to come.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark S. Weiner