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Reading :: The Rule of the Clan

Posted by: on May 28, 2013 | No Comments
The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom
By Mark S. Weiner

I've been reading a lot on social organization lately, and I've been especially interested in better understanding Ronfeldt's TIMN framework. The T part—tribes—has been the least familiar to me, and is also the most likely part of the framework to be contested by anthropology, since anthropologists in general have questioned the notion of tribe, have moved away from the notion of a single originating form of organization, have become skeptical of older anthropological work along these lines, and have problematized kinship, which has been understood as a key part of tribal organization.

And yet, as Ronfeldt argues, this critical work still seems to indicate a measure of organization that is quite different from institutions, markets, and networks. In particular, even the critical work seems to argue for small, strongly affiliated, relatively segmented "simple egalitarian societies" in our past, societies that took on the more familiar characteristics of "tribes" as they came into contact with more complexly organized societies.

It was with that discussion in mind that I read Weiner's The Rule of the Clan, a book aimed at the popular market. Weiner is an expert in constitutional law and legal history, and his book examines the shift from kin-based societies to the rule of law:
In a modern liberal society the state... is vigorous and effective, clearly demarcating and defining the community it surrounds. The discrete individuals living under the authority of the state... are in turn equally vital and independent. An essential aim of the liberal legal tradition, as important as its goal of limiting state power... has been to build state capacities to ensure such vitality and independence. [This is the Kindle version, so I don't include page numbers.]
In 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.
 Weiner warns that since the clan is such an ancient form, "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." The rule of the clan, he says, encompasses three phenomena:

  • "the legal structures and cultural values of societies organized primarily on the basis of kinship"
  • "the political arrangements governed by what the Arab Human Development Report 2004 calls 'clannism'"
  • "the antiliberal social and legal organizations that tend to grow in the absence of state authority or when the state is weak" (e.g., criminal networks)
"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." 

One of Weiner's main sources is "the founding father of legal history and legal anthropology, Henry Sumner Maine," whose work came under sustained attack by Kupfer in The Invention of Primitive Society. In a nutshell, Kupfer was not impressed with Maine's generalizations of primitive society, which he considered both poorly founded and a specimen of social Lamarckianism. Let's keep that in mind as we proceed through the rest of the book.

In Part II, Weiner describes "the highly decentralized constitutional structure of the rule of the clan, in which legal and political power reside not in a public authority but rather in numerous kinship groups." He illustrates this argument with three examples: E.E. Pritchard's account of the Nuer, medieval Iceland, and the contemporary Palestinian Authority. 

In Part III, Weiner discusses clans in cultural terms, examining its "distinctive network of informal legal institutions" across "a range of contemporary societies"—and how its benefits have been undermined by the availability of modern weaponry.

In Part IV, he examines how we might modernize clans by looking at how two medieval societies (England and Arabia) constructed public identities and public life that transcended clans. "Liberals should encourage the spread of information and social media technologies in clan societies" to induce this shift, he argues.

In Part V, Weiner argues that "the normative order of the clan" still plays a role in modern liberal societies—in fact, clan affiliations can provide a basis for personal identity, and affirming clan ties (one example is a Scottish pub that is branded by a family's traditional crest and symbols). This use of clans actually reinforces liberal society rather than threatening it. (Compare with Ronfeldt's argument that the Tribe persists as the organizational form for culture.)

Yet clans still represent a "postmodern threat" since they are considered the default position, the one to which people will return if the state erodes. 

So there's the summary. Now here's the critique.

The Rule of the Clan is an interesting, well-written book that examines the legal substrate and cultural assumptions makes liberal society work. Its examples are clear, its discussion is lucid, and in consequence I learned a lot about how legal frameworks make societies possible.

Yet, as implied above, the book has two issues. These issues may be simply artifacts of the popularization that this work has undergone, or they may represent deeper disagreements.

The first is that clans and liberal society are placed in opposition. Weiner portrays societies as moving from clan-based law to state-based law, with the constant threat of decay back to clan-based law if the state is not adequately maintained. Yet clan and state are not the only two games in town: there are at least a couple of other forms of organization (market, network), and states themselves have undergone significant changes as well. In narrowing the account to state and clan, Weiner creates a binary: evolve to the future or devolve to the past. That account loses a great deal of subtlety.

And that brings us to the second issue. Weiner, following Maine, describes the shift from clan to state as social evolution and warns that if we don't maintain the state, it will decay or devolve. As noted above in Kupfer's book, anthropologists have generally repudiated this Lamarckian view of social evolution, arguing that the evolutionary metaphor is not adequate for understanding social change. To put it another way, rather than understanding society as evolving (going forward to the state) or devolving (going backward to clans), contemporary anthropologists see it as always going forward (adapting to changing circumstances). That is, the contemporary anthropologist's account looks less like Lamarckian evolution and arguably more like Darwinian evolution—although anthropologists now tend to avoid evolutionary metaphors altogether.

That being said, I'm glad I read this book. It gave me a broader understanding of how clans have worked, focusing on the laws that underpin societies, and helped me to think through aspects of organization. Even though I have reservations about some of his themes, Weiner really seems to know his stuff and he writes so lucidly that even a tyro like me can follow along. If you're interested in societies and law, pick up this book and take a look.