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Review: The Rule of the Clan

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner

I often review good books. Sometimes I review great ones. The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom  by Mark S. Weiner gets the highest compliment of all: it is an academic book that is clearly and engagingly written so as to be broadly useful.

Weiner is Professor of Law and Sidney I. Reitman Scholar at Rutgers University whose research interests gravitate to societal evolution of constitutional orders and legal anthropology. Weiner has put his talents to use in examining the constitutional nature of a global phenomena that has plagued IR scholars, COIN theorists, diplomats, counterterrorism experts, unconventional warfare officers, strategists, politicians and judges. The problem they wrestle with goes by many names that capture some aspect of its nature – black globalization, failed states, rogue states, 4GW, hybrid war, non-state actors, criminal insurgency, terrorism and many other terms. What Weiner does in The Rule of the Clan is lay out a historical hypothesis of tension between the models of Societies of Contract – that is Western, liberal democratic, states based upon the rule of law – and the ancient Societies of Status based upon kinship networks from which the modern world emerged and now in places has begun to regress.

Weiner deftly weaves the practical problems of intervention in Libya or counterterrorism against al Qaida with political philosophy, intellectual and legal history, anthropology, sociology and economics. In smooth prose, Weiner illustrates the commonalities and endurance of the values of clan and kinship network lineage systems in societies as diverse as Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, India and the Scottish highlands, even as the modern state arose around them. The problem of personal security and the dynamic of the feud/vendetta as a social regulator of conduct is examined along with the political difficulties of shifting from systems of socially sanctioned collective vengeance to individual rights based justice systems. Weiner implores liberals (broadly, Westerners) not to underestimate (and ultimately undermine) the degree of delicacy and strategic patience required for non-western states transitioning between Societies of Status to Societies of Contract. The relationship between the state and individualism is complicated because it is inherently paradoxical, argues Weiner: only a state with strong, if limited, powers creates the security and legal structure for individualism and contract to flourish free of the threat of organized private violence and the tyranny of collectivistic identities.

Weiner’s argument is elegant, well supported and concise (258 pages inc. endnotes and index) and he bends over backwards in The Rule of the Clan to stress the universal nature of clannism in the evolution of human societies, however distant that memory may be for a Frenchman, American or Norwegian. If the mores of clan life are still very real and present for a Palestinian supporter (or enemy) of HAMAS in Gaza, they were once equally real to Saxons, Scots and Franks. This posture can also take the rough edges off the crueler aspects of, say, life for a widow and her children in a Pushtun village by glossing over the negative cultural behaviors that Westerners find antagonizing and so difficult to ignore on humanitarian grounds. This is not to argue that Weiner is wrong, I think he is largely correct, but this approach minimizes the friction involved in the domestic politics of foreign policy-making in Western societies which contain elite constituencies for the spread of liberal values by the force of arms.

Strongest recommendation.

3 Responses to “Review: The Rule of the Clan”

  1. Jim Gant Says:


    I highly agree with your recommendation. Great book. Great review.


  2. zen Says:

    Hi Jim,
    Much Thx! Weiner did a great job of distilling a lot of complex material and making it accessible. reminded me of what larger society-culture books like Shield of Achilles or Dawn to Decadence would look like trimmed down to 25% of their size

  3. david ronfeldt Says:

    I applaud your review, though it’s another reminder of how far behind I am, since I’ve long meant to do a review for TIMN purposes. I’ve still not read the book, but I did go through a couple articles (an interview for Concurring Opinions (*), and a piece for Foreign Policy (^)). So I’ll offer some quotes from those, plus extra comments below.
    Weiner’s analysis aligns very well with TIMN and its emphasis on the early yet enduring roles of the tribal/T form:
    “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.”*
    “Based on the biological fact of blood relatedness and the adjunct principle of “fictive kinship” — in which a non-consanguineous group is treated “like family” — clan rule is a natural way of organizing legal and political affairs. Certainly, it is more explicable in human terms than that most historically anomalous of institutions: the modern liberal state. … Clannism is tribalism’s historical shadow.”^
    Weiner’s analysis is quite evolutionary, as is TIMN’s, in looking beyond the clan:
    “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.”*
    Weiner sees, as does TIMN (though I lag in writing up), that clannism attends and explains corruption in systems where institutions do not take hold properly:
    “One step up the development ladder, nations that posses the outward trappings of a modern state but are still firmly in the grip of clannism — like the Palestinian Authority or Egypt — suffer from corruption and stifled economic development.”^
    And he offers extensive descriptions of how “The social and cultural consequences of clannism are insidious.” in modern societies (e.g., urban gangs) in ways that fit with TIMN as well.
    Weiner’s analysis also resembles TIMN in seeing that people will retreat to the clan form if the higher forms (institutions and markets and networks) break down:
    “Given these advantages, people who live under clan rule often — and sensibly — hold it in high regard, just as they rationally return to it when other social structures break down. But today, clan rule poses grave international challenges, not just in tribal societies, but in more developed nations, and even in modern liberal democracies.”^
    Weiner, like TIMN, recognizes that tribalism is becoming rife and risky here at home as well as abroad:
    “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.”*
    I’d also note that clans have figured in comparative organizational charts besides TIMN’s: William Ouchi’s chart about clans, hierarchies, and markets; and Clay Spinuzzi’s chart about clans, hierarchies, markets, and networks. Weiner’s work helps confirm these. Jim Gant deserves credit as well for his efforts to gain recognition of the significance of the tribal/clan form.
    I apologize for my long-windedness — but not much, for this is strategically interesting stuff. Onward.

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