What Overcame the Clan in England?

Mark Weiner writes,

One of the great stories of English constitutional history is the development of strong Anglo-Saxon kingship. Under the leadership of figures like Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon rulers were able to regulate and ultimately abolish the kin-based blood feud as a mode of dispute resolution.

There is an alternative explanation for English exceptionalism, rooted in culture.  This case is made in a recent book by James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus, called America 3.0.  They in turn draw on other works, notably Alan MacFarlane’s The Origins of English Individualism.  They take the view that the causality runs from the nuclear-family culture of the English to the path of institutional development that emerged in England (and later in America), more than the other way around.

For example, in a clan-based system, land can be owned collectively and allocated according to traditions as administered by the clan leaders. In a nuclear-family system, families need to be able to obtain their own land, which requires a system for exchanging land.  This leads to concerns with property rights.

Bennett and Lotus argue that our nuclear-family culture is not going to disappear, given that it has a thousand-year history behind it.  And they suggest that our central government has become so awkward and misaligned with the information age that a new era of decentralization is likely.  What they foresee is neither a libertarian quasi-anarchy nor the Washington-centric welfare state that we have now.

Anyway, the issue that you might address is whether the English and American cultures have embedded within them a strong resistance to the clan form of society and if so, whether that means that we could see a less powerful central government without the emergence of an order based on rule-of-the-clan.

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4 Responses

  1. Mark S. Weiner says:

    Thanks to Arnold Kling for this interesting comment. One of the notable features of ancient and medieval Germanic culture was the longstanding importance of the nuclear rather than the extended family (on this, see the work of Jack Goody and, regarding the Icelandic experience I discuss, Kirsten Hastrup). And these kinship patterns were part of the underlying social conditions of Anglo-Saxon England under Alfred et. al. Their historical development was a very important factor enabling royal authority to regulate and overcome feud. Yet it’s worth noting that the relative importance of the nuclear family didn’t on its own end the use of the kin-based blood feud as a mode of social regulation. Naturally, only a strong central authority could do that, by offering institutions of justice that were effective and that, in time, changed the very notion of justice by providing one of the structural foundations of modern individualism.

    But your question is about the present. Are social conditions today such that dismantling or radically weakening central government authority would not, in fact, result in a return of the rule of the clan? Do “English and American culture have embedded within them a strong resistance to the clan form of society” such that “we could see a less powerful central government without the emergence of an order based on rule of the clan”? I’m struck by the speed with which communities to which the writ of the state runs only weakly quickly establish clan-like relationships. I think of gangs in American inner cities, for instance. Or looking abroad, I think of the consequences of state decline in Mexico or in Argentina—or in Greece. Or, indeed, in Europe more generally, where (on a larger scale, I appreciate, than we’re discussing) the relative weakness of the union with respect to banking and finance quickly resulted in a Europeans falling into nationalist camps when push came to shove in the crisis, despite all the earlier idealistic singing of Beethoven’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” Despite the deep importance of nuclear as opposed to extended family relationships for most Americans, I think we would find that order created in the face of state anemia would be one in which groups would trump individuals as the core units of social and legal consequence.

  2. Gordon Sollars says:

    I am a little puzzled by the focus of the commentary here on the consequences of the strength of “the” state, given the possibility of a federal system. I will assume for the sake of the argument that the choice is between state- or clan-based structures of order. My reading might be selective, but I think that libertarian (and, perhaps, even more so, conservative) criticisms of the role of the state tend to focus on the concentration, if not the arrogation, of power in the central government. Inner city vulnerability to the formation of gangs, as an instance of (re)emerging clan structures, for example, is not credibly the result of libertarian critiques of centralized national power. A (somewhat) more plausible argument would be that gangs emerged as the power of the federal government grew at the expense of the states, leaving them without access to the resources needed to address local problems.

    A federal government with considerably less power than presently exists in the U.S. is not necessarily a “weak” government, opening a society to a resurgence of clans, given the existence of state and local government structures. These structures may prove too weak to resist clan emergence, but if Mark’s thesis is correct, those who value liberal autonomy must concern themselves with how these structures can be strengthened. The best part of the anarchist libertarian critique of the state (with which I confess considerable sympathy) is the criticism of centralized versus decentralized power. If the only choice is between clans or governments with a direct span of control over the lives of hundreds of millions of people, the contemporary liberal project is as doomed as the libertarian one.

  3. Mark S. Weiner says:

    Hi Gordon, thanks very much for your comment. I’ve noticed it just as I’m heading out for the day, but I didn’t want to wait until tomorrow to respond very briefly and say that I certainly don’t view my argument as inconsistent with a strong vision of federalism. In the United States, most of the central authority I imagine could be provided at the state as much as the federal level. More I hope tomorrow. In the meantime, my thanks again.

  4. Regarding the nuclear family displacing the clan in England, there are two sources which we discovered after completing America 3.0 which are illuminationg. One is Kindred and Clan in the Middle Ages and After: A Study in the Sociology of the Teutonic Races, Bertha Surtees Phillpotts (1913). This book is excellent on this topic. She concludes that the process of seaborne invasion of England by Angles, Saxons and Jutes caused a breakup of clan structure at the moment of initial settlement. I find this pretty convincing. On the breakdown of clan systems more generally in Europe, the expansion of manorialism is given as the cause in Why Europe? Medieval Origins of its Special Path, by Michael Mitterauer. I have read the pertinent parts of Philpotts, but for Mitterauer, I had to rely on a review this review essay. The extent of manorialism matching the limits of the Hajnal Line is remarkable.

    On the question of clan-like associations like gangs, we need to be clear on terminology. The Absolute Nuclear Family communities have always been good at forming civil societies, with lots of voluntary groups. They are individualistic, but not loners. Clans are kin based, voluntary associations are not necessarily kin based. So, in the face of “state anemia” or worse the ANF communities are particularly well suited to create effective collective responses by voluntary effort. If the network technology of today continues to improve, voluntary association should become easier. Other societies will have a tougher time, with their extended families uprooted by modernization, but less aptitude for forming civil society in its place. Yet another reason to feel lucky to be American.