The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom

The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom

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by Mark S. Weiner

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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

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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. 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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Cara Parks
…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. Weiner stresses the urgency of his subject for reasons stretching from national security…to self-preservation…[an] erudite, quick-paced book…
Publishers Weekly
Weiner, a professor at Rutgers School of Law, presents a nuanced view of clan-based societies, from medieval Iceland to modern-day Afghanistan, in this sociological history and political treatise. Whether a barbarian dystopia or a libertarian paradise, clan-based societies, Weiner argues, provide security and social stability while subsuming the identity of the individual into the larger order. But is security worth the sacrifice of individual freedoms? Ultimately, Weiner's argument is a full-throated defense of the modern centralized state, which he sees as necessary to protect human rights: â??In the face of well-intended but misguided criticism that the state is inimical to freedom, we must choose whether to maintain the state as our most basic political institution or to let it degrade.â? An entertaining mix of anecdote and ethnography, the book is broader than it is deep, quickly springing between continents and centuries, though two extended sections—on early Anglo-Saxons and the spread of Islam—focus cogently on how societies can make the transition from â??communities in which family groups serve as the primary basis for social organizationâ? to those where the individual is paramount. Scholars of ancient civilizations and modern government will find something of value in Weiner's study. Agent: Tina Bennett, WME Entertainment. (Mar.)
The New York Times Book 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.
New York Journal of Books

An accessible, mesmerizing, and compelling argument...An important book...Highly recommended
Kirkus Reviews
A compelling argument about the indispensable function of the modern liberal state as a bulwark for individual freedom against traditional kinship-based clan forms of social organization. Weiner (Constitutional Law and Legal History/Rutgers School of Law; Americans Without Law: The Racial Boundaries of Citizenship, 2008, etc.) asserts that, in the wake of the recent financial crisis, current calls to "engage in the wholesale dismantling of public institutions" have the potential to be "a catastrophe for individual freedom." He forcefully presents the case that individual rights will be weakened, not strengthened, by the diminution of state power. Personal liberty will be challenged due to the need of people to place greater reliance on the family structure to ensure survival. This decentralization will enhance the power of the kin-based group, with its collectivist organization of honor and blood feud and social justice among kin. The author presents legal, historical and current political contexts for his case, drawing from the work of the British legal historian Henry Sumner Maine, who distinguished between societies of "status" and societies based on "contract" for a foundation. Weiner also presents anthropological studies of the Nuer in Sudan and tribal organization throughout the Arab world and the Indian subcontinent. The author turns to Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon history to show how clans and the liberal state have coexisted in the past and continue to do so. He makes a convincing case that it is the strength of the clan structure, rather than the Islamic religious worldview, that breeds terrorism in countries such as Pakistan or Syria. Romeo and Juliet and Walter Scott's Waverley also provide grist for the author's mill. Weiner believes that modern liberal states can support the constitutional development of clan-based societies by supporting the professional classes. A highly revealing study with global implications.

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The Rule of the Clan

What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom

By Mark S. Weiner

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Mark S. Weiner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-3638-9



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.

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. 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." 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."

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:


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.

* * *

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.

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." 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:


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." 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. 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."

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.


Excerpted from The Rule of the Clan by Mark S. Weiner. Copyright © 2013 Mark S. Weiner. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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