Author: Mark Fenster


the clan story, and what to learn from it

Rule of the Clan offers a narrative and set of warnings. The historical narrative tells us of the shift from clan to state in modern states — a necessary but incomplete shift, for good and bad reasons. Mark’s first warning is of the threat that the clan can re-emerge from within the modern state, and he sees signs of it in the threatened “erosion of the state’s capacities,” which would leave “the individual . . . submerged within corporatist groups that take the place of modern law.” His other warning concerns how modern states encounter and interact with those states that remain under the clan’s rule, by recognizing their own limitations to promote reform from without while encouraging the adoption of modern institutions, and especially of a centralized state under the liberal rule of law.

Mark offers a rightly complex and well-rendered narrative. He shows how the clan form remains in some places alongside and against the modern; he also describes how the clan remains as what the British cultural studies pioneer Raymond Williams characterized as a residual element of longing in the midst of liberal modernity. His is thankfully not a simple evolutionary story.

The warnings Mark presents are unobjectionable, especially given the care and sensitivity with which he puts them forward. I’ve already revealed my take on the first in my earlier post — absent external catastrophe, I don’t see the clan reemerging as such. So I don’t view Mark’s warning as much different from that of the typical center-left cosmopolitan confronting political opponents from the libertarian and social right-wing. Which is to say that I share his general concern, but I’m not convinced that I need to view it in terms of the modern/ clan duality.

The second warning seems right, and as I think Doyle’s posts demonstrate, it’s here that Mark’s book can have the most sanguine impact. One might think that taking care with how we moderns encounter and interact with the clan would be common-sensical, but as shown in the long history of colonial rule (some of which Mark recounts), Cold War foreign policy and state-sponsored or -encouraged resource extraction, and our disastrous occupation of Iraq (even during the era of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual), the modern doesn’t really understand or play well with the clan. Mark’s book might help instill this common sense, especially if it’s read by those for whom it might matter — diplomats, military leaders, civilian administrators, boots on the ground, and pundits. It’s equally important that individuals, NGOs, and corporations attempting to work with or in states under some degree of the ROC consider these issues.

It will also obviously have great influence, and perhaps much greater influence, if it’s read by those attempting reform from within — because, as Mark notes, it is those internal reformers who are likely to affect long-lasting, institutional change.



The modern state, from 30,000 feet

Thanks to Deven and Mark for the invitation to participate. I concede preliminarily that readers should discount my comments both because Mark is a dear friend from law school and after, and because the book falls far outside my own areas of expertise. I’m neither a comparatavist nor an anthropologist, and my knowledge of the vast expanse of world history Mark covers pales in comparison to the pool of scholarship and literature from which he expertly draws. So the best I can provide is some gut-level reactions — and, more specifically, an account of why I enjoyed the book but also why I wanted a bit more from it.

I’ll have two basic comments: the first, which I’ll post now, regarding its description of “the state,” and the second regarding my resistance to the book’s normative thrust. Both come from my response to what Deven rightly characterized in his introductory post as the “bold” nature of the book and its argument. It is scholarship and prescription from 30,000 feet, summarizing and marshaling knowledge (sometimes contested) and ideas about the entirety of human history in the quite masterful categories of liberalism v. clan. This makes for a great read, as well as a powerful narrative and set of conclusions, but it can also frustrate someone who, like me, prefers the smaller story, the more complex and thicker description, and the contingent, trembling conclusion to the comprehensive, confident one.

Mine is, at bottom, an aesthetic preference. It comes from the kinds of writerly and institutional choices Mark has made. Rule of the Clan is a scholarly, intellectual book, but it isn’t a traditional work of scholarship. It is intended for a non-specialist but curious and engaged readership, and its publication by an excellent trade press publisher, emphasis on accessible narrative, and interjections of Thomas Friedman- and Malcolm Gladwell-like insightful conversations with interesting people make the book a much easier read than your typical academic tome. Mark’s back-and-forth with Orin Kerr in the comments to the initial post were telling. Orin’s request for greater definitional clarity, like my own comments below, want a complexity and situational precision that Mark’s archetypes resist, even as he sensitively notes that the archetypes are not as absolute or normatively good and bad as they might at times appear in his argument.  Read More