Bright Ideas: Mark Weiner on his new book Rule of the Clan
Sometimes fortune smiles upon you. I met Mark Weiner when we started law school. My life and my work is much better for it. Mark is a scholar and more. He obtained his B.A. in American Studies from Stanford, his J.D. from Yale, and his PhD in American Studies from Yale.
His most recent project is his excellent book, The Rule of the Clan. Ambassadors, professors from all around the world, members of the 9/11 commission, and publishers have embraced the book. Mark argues, and I think rather well, that the state has a quite important role to play, and we ignore that to our peril. Publishers Weekly has said:
A nuanced view of clan-based societies … Weiner’s argument is a full-throated defense of the modern centralized state, which he sees as necessary to protect human rights: “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.” An entertaining mix of anecdote and ethnography.
The New York Journal of Books has called the book “accessible, mesmerizing, and compelling.”
I wanted to get into how Mark came up with the project, why it matters, and, for the writers out there, the process of writing about such a complex subject but in a way that is accessible to a general audience. So I asked Mark whether we could do a Bright Ideas interview. He graciously agreed.
Mark, the book is great. I want to jump in and ask, What do you mean by “clan”?
Thanks, Deven. In my book, I consider clans both in their traditional form, as a subset of tribes, but also as a synecdoche for a pattern by which humans structure their social and legal lives: “the rule of the clan.” Clans are a natural form of social and legal organization. They certainly are more explicable in human terms than the modern liberal state and the liberal rule of law. Because of the natural fact of blood relationships, people tend to organize their communities on the basis of extended kinship in the absence of strong alternatives.
So why clans now?
Two reasons. First, the United States is involved militarily in parts of the world in which traditional tribal and clan relationships are critical, and if we don’t understand how those relationships work, including in legal terms, we have a major problem.
Let me give you an example from Guantanamo. In the book, I tell a story of a college friend who was in charge of the team there interrogating detainees from Saudi Arabia. (I should note that my friend finds torture morally repugnant and against the national interest, as do I, and that she has advocated for this view in meaningful ways.) Over the course of her work, my friend realized that because of the first-name/last-name structure of the detainee tracking system, basic information about detainee tribal affiliations hadn’t been gathered or had been lost. This meant, among other things, that we couldn’t fully appreciate the reason why some of these men had taken up arms against us in the first place—for instance, because the United States had become embroiled in their centuries-long, domestic tribal war with the House of Saud.
Our ignorance about these issues is what I call the contemporary “Fulda Gap.” Our lack of knowledge about more traditional societies hinders our ability to understand the motivations of those who oppose us and leaves us vulnerable—and, even more important, it diminishes our ability to cooperate with our friends and to assist liberal legal reformers abroad in ways that are both effective and ethical.
The second reason to study clans, and ultimately for me even more important than the first reason, has to do with our own political discourse here at home. You could say that I became interested in clans because of widespread ideological attacks against the state within liberal societies—that is, attacks on government. By this I mean not simply efforts to reduce the size of government or to make it more efficient. Instead, I mean broadside criticisms of the state itself, or efforts to starve government and render it anemic.
I think you are saying there is something about clans that helps us organize and understand our world. What is it?
It’s often said that individual freedom exists most powerfully in the absence of government. But I believe that studying the rule of the clan shows us that the reverse is true. Liberal personal freedom is inconceivable without the existence of a robust state dedicated to vindicating the public interest. That’s because the liberal state, at least in theory, treats persons as individuals rather than as members of ineluctable status or clan groups. So studying clans can help us imagine what our social and legal life would become if we allow the state to deteriorate through a lack of political will.
By the way, the idea that the state is somehow inimical to freedom—that we gain individual freedom outside the state, rather than through it—is hardly limited to the United States. It was a core component of Qaddafi’s revolutionary vision of Libya. Or consider Gandhi, who advocated for a largely stateless society for postcolonial India. Fortunately for India, his vision wasn’t realized. Instead, we owe the prospects for further liberal development there to the constitution drafted by B. R. Ambedkar.
Hold on. From Indian independence to Libyan revolution seems a long jump. Can you help me connect the dots?
Both imagine that individual freedom exists most when the state is weak or absent. We’ll have to talk about Gandhi’s legal vision over a tall beer sometime. I’ll show you why Ambedkar is such a fascinating figure, and why it was his constitutional ideals that were essential to the long-term liberal legal development of the country—especially vis-a-vis local forms of justice that are predicated on communal rather than individual norms (for instance in the contemporary struggle against honor killing sanctioned by khap panchayats, or caste councils). American legal academics ought to know more about him and appreciate his achievements.
The Libyan case is really interesting. If you read Qaddfai’s tract The Green Book, you’ll see that he was quite opposed to the modern state. He saw the tribe and its constituent parts as the fundamental unit of social organization. That’s why the great challenge for liberal development in Libya today is to build effective and transparent state institutions whose authority in time will supplant those of the tribe. That will take some time, but for a variety of contemporary reasons, especially the existence of social media, I think the process will be relatively fast in historical terms, at least if liberal democracies offer appropriate assistance.
Are you saying that rejection of the state is a clan impulse?
I wouldn’t put it quite that way. But clans are local power brokers, and the development of central authority diminishes their autonomy. One of the objects of constitutional reform in countries with strong clan identities is to provide national incentives for people to cede local power—and, more generally, for people to give their loyalty to a larger public identity that rises well above kinship structures. The ultimate goal of this process is the transformation of clans from hard institutions with legal and political significance to purely soft institutions with cultural and psychological importance. From clan to club. From kinship to social networks.
In all this, lawyers and members of other middle class professions are essential. But so are artists and other cultural activists, in ways I discuss in the book.
Kinship and social networks? Those seem to run in opposite directions. Kinship seems a given, an accident of birth. Social networks seem an escape from that, because one builds those networks. What is the link then from clan to social networks? Is it a devolution? Or evolution to accommodate some clannishness?
For clan societies to modernize, the economic, social, and political significance of extended kinship needs to be replaced by relationships based especially on individual choice. Societies need to undergo a change “from kinship to social networks” as part of the transformation of the clan from a hard, legal institution to a soft, cultural one.
That’s one reason why the spread of social media technology is so important as a legal and constitutional matter, including in the Middle East and North Africa. By reducing the cost of establishing relationships across clan and tribal lines, the spread of social media technology will in time facilitate constitutional modernization by fostering the construction of a transcendent public identity on the basis of which the state can vindicate the interests of individuals qua individuals. In this respect, I think that in the very long term the constitutional significance of social media will resemble the spread of monotheistic religion in propelling individuals to imagine themselves as part of social groups that transcend the family.
One challenge for liberals during this transformation will be to foster cultural and social structures that can provide the goods that clans provide much more effectively than liberal modernity does—particularly the values of solidarity and social justice.
Ah, understanding clans lets us see how to maintain some of the benefits of clans as “soft, cultural” institutions while also seeing what needs the modern state must address and meet. Sounds like reason enough to buy the book!
Before we end, some of our readers are interested in process. How on Earth did you come up with this project?
Thanks for the plug! When we meet to talk about Gandhi and Ambedkar, the first two rounds are on me. (Concurring Opinions readers can learn more about the book here, on my blog.)
As for process, after publishing my first two books, I wanted to make sure that the direction of my future intellectual life wouldn’t be determined simply by the furrows I had laid down over the past. So in late 2005, I packed up the library I had collected over the course of twenty years and gave it away. I sent it off on my birthday—it was my gift to myself.
Wait—I can’t imagine that. How did it feel and what happened after that?
It was completely liberating. All at once, I had a lot of empty shelf space, and I had the chance to start filling it. I thought it was possible that I might end up buying the very same books I had just given away, but I figured that if I did then having them around would be a conscious choice rather than the result of inertia.
As it happened, after a year I realized that most of the new books I was reading were about the European middle ages, especially the history of the Anglo-Saxons. And reading about the Anglo-Saxons soon led me to the enchanting world of medieval Iceland. The Icelanders are a northern Germanic people, cultural cousins to the west-Germanic Anglo-Saxons, and their written records provide a colorful window onto medieval Germanic dispute resolution.
My fascination with Iceland led me to apply for a Fulbright to spend a semester in the small town of Akureyri, in the very north of the country. That gave me time and inspiration to think about how the history of Iceland illuminated a more general issue that had come to interest me: the relation between decentralized forms of constitutional organization and kinship structures. Being outside the United States also helped me to think about that issue’s contemporary relevance—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were very much in the background.
I blogged a bit about the trip for Legal History Blog—my very first experience blogging!
Was there a moment when things came together?
One day, I took all of my notes to a local coffee shop, the Blue Cup, and I sat the whole day drinking hot chocolate and eating pastries and sketching out my ideas. By the end of the day, I had a fairly clear conception of my direction, though it took another year before I understood just what the book would cover and the tone I’d adopt in the writing.
What’s funny is that now, looking back, I realize that the book touches on many of the same themes I had written about in Black Trials and Americans without Law. In those books, I was interested in the relation between the growth of the state and the transformation of the popular concept of law. That’s a deep background feature of The Rule of the Clan, too.
Mark, thank you again for sharing some insights on clans and the writing process. I look forward to your next book and best of luck with Rule of the Clan.
NOTE: This interview was written using Google Docs. Both Mark and I edited portions to increase readability.