This book is more important than it is good. By a lot. Which is a problem.
That is to say…
When I started reading Mark Weiner’s Rule of the Clan, my initial reaction was: Oh, thank God, someone is finally doing this. The key thesis of his work is a Giant Thing that I’ve been trying to articulate and defend — for years, including on this very blog — and I’ve done a piss-poor job of it, largely because there are sociocultural factors that make it a very difficult thing to articulate or defend. And his language seemed clean and clear and compelling! He wasn’t gabbling, or getting bogged down in stupidities, the way I always did! Fantastic!, I thought. I’ll have a new thing to shove at all my friends instead of having to construct my own arguments!
And then, right away, he makes it clear that he’s not actually going to talk about the entirety of the Giant Thing. He’s just going to talk about one narrow aspect of it, which is frankly the aspect that I find the least interesting from a modern-urban-liberal perspective. But fine. The Giant Thing is indeed Giant; even a single narrow aspect probably deserves a whole book, and the “least interesting” part is still super-crucial, especially if you’re the kind of social engineer who worries about piddling little implementation details like “all of geopolitics.” So fine. Still on board.
And then we move on from the introduction and get to the rest of the book. Which contributes very, very little. It’s the same few statements of theory repeated over and over and over and over, interspersed with informative little wide-lens descriptions of various societies around the globe. These two things are never actually combined. We never really get an analysis of how Weiner’s conceptual issues play out, or even a detailed anecdote showing us what the problem looks like. I love theory and abstraction more than anyone — I have never before said anything like “this text really needed more examples and illustrations” — but, uh, this text really needed more examples and illustrations.
So yeah. A key idea and then a lot of empty wordcount. We’ve all read blog posts that really wanted to be books; Rule of the Clan is a book that clearly wants to be a blog post.
Which is a damn shame. Because someone should write that book. Like, for realsies.
The Giant Thing, the thesis, goes approximately as follows:
Individual liberty — and even, really, individual identity — are not naturally-occurring phenomena. They are incredibly artificial and incredibly fragile.
Under the vast majority of techno-sociopolitical circumstances, humans form tightly-knit collectives. These collectives are incredibly useful in a harsh and difficult world: they provide mutual defense, conflict resolution, collective-action-problem solving, crisis insurance, institutional knowledge, all sorts of concretely important things. They also provide a rich sense of belonging and cultural worth. They also totally throttle anything that might remotely resemble individual freedom, in the realms of thought and action. The collective respects only its own collective well-being, not the well-being of its members, and certainly not the well-being of anyone else.
If you’re a member of such a group, by and large, you have clearly-delineated responsibilities and you spend most of your life fulfilling them. If you don’t like it, well, tough. You can’t even quit the collective and strike out on your own, probably, because the operational logic of collective-dominated societies means that loners are dead meat. And even if you’re not any kind of rebel, you may be arbitrarily sacrificed in some way to meet the collective’s needs.
The only large-scale viable alternative to this terrible system is the sovereign liberal state. The state spends a lot of its time and energy kicking smaller collectives in the teeth and ensuring that they don’t have the power to enforce their preferences, which translates to “protecting individuals from the groups that would otherwise control their lives.” And the state engages with its subjects/citizens as generic individuals, not as worker bees with extensive particularized duties. It may demand things of them, but its demands are not all-encompassing, and indeed (if it’s liberal) it has an interest in letting people do what they want except when there’s some especial reason to do otherwise.
This is not a “natural” solution. This is a fragile artificial thing that maintains itself through the constant support of those who believe in it. Backsliding into the collectives model is really easy. It happens all the time.
Thus: if you are a liberal or an individualist, you should be grateful for the state, and you shouldn’t devote too much effort to weakening it even if it’s annoying you. The alternatives are so much worse.
You’ve heard me talking about this stuff before, sort of. I tend to use the term “God-Emperor” to refer to my idealized strong liberal state. Which doesn’t do my rhetoric any favors, but…so it goes.
Weiner is really interested only in one particular kind of all-encompassing collective: the semi-sovereign kinship group, which he calls a “clan.”
The book takes us on a tour of various clan-based and semi-clan-based societies throughout history: the Nuer in Africa, medieval Iceland, the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan, Highland Scotland, pre-Islamic Arabia, modern Libya, etc. The following points all get made many times:
* A world of clans, with no strong central authority, runs its inter-clan “justice system” through feud and vendetta. This does actually keep the peace better than your average modern liberal would think, but it means that (a) random not-especially-culpable individuals often die before the problems get settled, and (b) modern weapons mean that even the occasional unsettled feuds become nightmares.
* Clans run on an engine of collective honor and collective shame. This means that your clanmates will always be up in your grill about everything, and people with deviant tendencies are just fucked.
* Clans tend to be very bad for women. The collective-honor thing means that their sexual behavior is everyone’s business, and the constant need for ad hoc diplomacy (internal and external) means that they’re usually made to serve more as prizes/resources than as agents. (Technically this is also true of men, but for a variety of obvious reasons it’s overall much worse for women.)
* Internal clan justice is dominated by small-scale politics and peacekeeping rather than, uh, any principles of actual justice. Thus, even in the best cases, leaders do what keeps the power players happy regardless of whether it’s harmfully unfair.
See, you’d think that all these points could be illustrated in some really compelling way. They’re not. They’re pretty much just…said.
To his credit, Weiner does a good job of showing just how widespread the clan thing is, and how much it dominates many different and diverse societies where there isn’t a strong central authority to keep it down.
When he gets to the prescriptive/theoretical/poetic ending section of his book — and if you read pop politics opuses, you know well that “prescriptive” and “theoretical” and “poetic” all really mean the same thing — his voice becomes weirdly schizophrenic. On the one hand, as you’d expect, there’s a lot of “individualism is really important and we need the state to save our tiny selves from the clans!” On the other hand, there’s a surprising amount of “but the clan system is excellent in a number of important ways and we must learn from it!”
It’s not totally clear what he actually wants us to do, on that front. The closest he comes to an actual “lesson to learn” is “liberalism generates anomie and rootlessness, thus we have a tendency to romanticize clans, thus liberal artists have to learn to make art that harnesses the romance of the clans in toothless liberal-friendly form.” Which is fine as far as it goes, but…that’s not very far? This is not really a society-shaping idea, and to the extent it is, we already do plenty of it (as he acknowledges). It feels odd that he’s so reluctant to go down the obvious polemical path. Y’know, CLANS: A MENACE THAT WILL EAT YOUR CHILDREN.
My best guess it that it reflects a problem with his intended audience that he’s unwilling to address. Weiner is a sometime Cato Institute writer, and as far as I can tell, this book is written for libertarians and libertarian-leaning conservatives — the sort of Western readers who are generally skeptical of state power in the abstract. And the thing about libertarians, and libertarian-ish folk, is that they come in two varieties who are (within the context of a strong liberal state) almost totally indistinguishable. On the one hand, there are those who are genuinely committed to an ideal of personal freedom, who love the notion of individual humans bopping around doing whatever they want, and who would be horrified to see anything like a clan take root in their world. And on the other hand, there are the ones who are basically high-ranking clan members themselves…or who dream of being high-ranking clan members…and who just don’t want the state messing around with the (real or imagined) collectives where they wield power over others.
Trying to talk to both of those groups at once, on a topic like this, can’t be easy. No wonder Weiner ties himself in knots.
The best thing about this book is a throwaway. At one point, near the very end, Weiner lets himself imagine a world in which the liberal state is sufficiently weakened that the clans have returned to power. Except that…as he’s forced to acknowledge…it’s not just actual kinship-based clans, anymore. We have other kinds of collectives to which we can turn. Religious groups. Political groups. Above all else, corporations. So we get a few short paragraphs detailing a sort of future-history scenario in which we’re relying on corporations for basic public services, and explaining all the reasons that this is problems, in a way that will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s read any near-future dystopian science fiction ever.
But it does acknowledge that all sorts of modern groups, groups with which we rich Western non-clan-members engage all the time, are just as anti-individualist at their core as clans are.
Which is, to my mind, 90% of the actual issue. In the long run, I’m not actually too afraid of the clans; the corporations, being bigger and richer and full of appealing consumer goods, will crush them and/or coopt them. I’m afraid of the corporations. For that matter, I’m afraid of the religious and political groups, and the nuclear families that have risen up to take the place of the clans directly. I’m afraid of all the many, many little collectives in modern “liberal” society that seek to control their members’ lives on a micro-level to advance their own interests. I’m afraid of bosses and administrators and parents and the rest of the petty tyrants whose tyranny we haven’t yet learned to fear, not because it might someday hurt us, but because it’s hurting us right now.
And that is why I want a God-Emperor. To kick all the petty tyrants in the teeth. No one else will. It’s not really about state-level power versus federal-level power, although Lord knows I have my own feelings about that kind of thing; it’s about recognizing that we aren’t free, not anything like it, and that’s not going to get better until we empower some entity to liberate us and keep us liberated.