Three Phenomena Encompassed by the Rule of the Clan
Thanks very much to Deven and all the good folks at Concurring Opinions for this opportunity. I’m grateful to them for gathering such a wide-ranging group to talk about The Rule of the Clan, and to all the participants for taking part in our conversation.
Before we start, I’d like to underscore one of the main arguments of my book that may be of particular interest here. In short, it is that a strong liberal state makes individual freedom possible. Legal history and comparative law reveal that without the authority of an effective state, a host of communal groups rush in to fill the vacuum of power, instituting the rule of the clan. This diminishes the status of the autonomous individual—the core value of modernity and, more broadly, of the liberal Enlightenment. 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.
The rule of the clan encompasses three contemporary phenomena. Here is how I defined it recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education (the link is to a gated site):
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 Afghanistan and Yemen, but they have existed across history and throughout the world.
Second, by the rule of the clan I mean the political arrangements of societies governed by what the U.N.’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report 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—under which the state treats citizens not as autonomous actors but rather as troublesome dependents to be managed. Clannism often characterizes rentier societies struggling under the continuing legacy of colonial subordination.
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 some dedicated to unlawful activity, such as petty criminal gangs, the Mafia, and international crime syndicates, which in their feuding patterns and cultural markers of solidarity look a great deal like clans and in many respects act like them.
I argue that in all its forms, the rule of the clan diminishes the status of the autonomous individual because the weakness of the state fosters a culture of group honor and shame. As I noted in Foreign Policy, this culture reinforces the autonomy of clans by establishing group codes of behavior, and it strengthens their internal coherence by providing an incentive for members to keep watch over one another. Group honor and shame form the cultural circuitry of radical constitutional decentralization.
The culture of the clan values groups over individuals, but it also provides individuals with profound social and psychological benefits. Clans offer equality and solidarity. This makes adhering to the rule of the clan rational for those who live within it. It also explains why the rule of the clan persists and endures, even in the cultural imaginary of modernity. The rule of the clan certainly is far more explicable in human terms than the modern liberal state.
In my book, I seek to highlight that the challenges liberals face are similar as they encounter the clan in all its forms, wherever they live. The underlying issue America confronts in preventing vigilantism, for instance—clannism—is akin that raised by the proliferation of private violence in Mexico and by the local, tribal resolution of disputes in Afghanistan.
In this respect, liberals across the world are part of a common cause to build and safeguard government institutions that protect individuals by advancing the public interest—not promoting the state per se, but nurturing a state that possesses democratic legitimacy and that is dedicated to substantive principles of the common good.
A Lacanian legal theorist (Schroeder), a libertarian economist and blogger (Kling), a scholar of Islamic law in Australia (Saeed), an Argentinean constitutionalist and law school dean (Grosman), a German expert on multi-culturalism (Marschelke), a scholar of administrative law and the regulatory state (Stack), a scholar of administrative law and social theory (Fenster), an Irish legal philosopher teaching in Malaysia by way of Iceland (Murphy), and an American scholar who, among other experiences, has lived with Afghan National Army forces while teaching U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan (Quiggle)—I tip my hat to each one of them and look forward to our discussion.