Mark S. Weiner, *The Rule of the Clan*

Mark S. Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What An Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom (Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is an informative, well-written, tour through the past, present, and possible future of clannism – with stops among various parts of the Islamic world, Anglo-Saxon England, the Nuer, and others, to illuminate the politics, law, culture, and conflict of clannish societies.

The book also has a warning:

if liberals fail to take to heart the lessons of the rule of the clan, particularly the lesson of individualism’s paradox, our future will be a deeply troubling, literally postmodern version of our own clan past. If liberals lose the political will to maintain and nurture robust state institutions dedicated to the public interest, ignoring our human impulse to create clanlike forms of legal organization, … our societies will move in historical reverse—from Contract to a new terrible form of Status.

As well as giving me a much better understanding of clannish societies, it made me appreciate just how peculiar and unusual are non-clannish societies. Thoroughly recommended. (Earlier comment here.)



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9 responses to “Mark S. Weiner, *The Rule of the Clan*

  1. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed the book, Martin, and that you found it useful! Please know that if some of your readers have questions or comments about my work, I’d be delighted to respond to them on this thread. I really appreciate the thoughtful, meditative tone you have on your blog–it’s wonderful. With the internet, what an extraordinary time it is for scholarly exchange!

  2. Pingback: “Breviosity” Review | Worlds of Law

  3. Here is my question for Mr. Weiner-

    1. Many of the reviews for your book (and I must confess I have read only a few – the stuff at, this website, and those highlighted on your own website) seems to caste the book’s topic as “clans vs. the state.” Clans bring certain benefits and come at certain costs; imposition of strong centralized control have different costs and benefits. Does this dichotomy – between group-thinking rule of your family next door and the liberating, centralized control from afar – accurately define the subject of your work?

    2. Do pre-modern aristocratic societies (think of the type found in the Iliad and Mahabharata or the feudal lords of Medieval Europe or Spring and Autumn China) count as ‘clans’ in your eyes? If so, another question: these societies were ruled by elites united by a strong sense of kinship and their politics revolved around familial ties and hierarchies, but at the same time their myths and histories betray an obsession with a very individualistic heroic ideal. How do we square this championing of the individual with the clannish societies that produced them?

    • Do all aristocratic epics have individualistic heroes? Maybe the Greek epics and Beowulf do, but not sure of the others. (BTW, Beowulf is mentioned in the book.)

      • I am not sure all do. The Mahabharata def. does; the Ramayana, India’s other great epic, is reported to be less individualistic. This probably reflects the societies that produced each piece; the Mahabharata is usually dated earlier, and is thus would be more influenced by the culture of the Indo-Aryan conquerors than the Ramayana, which was probably written well after those guys had settled down and taken a place within the caste system.

        Spring and Summer China we know about mostly through the Zuo Zhuan. It is full of story after story of knight-errants and noblemen who go out their way to challenge each other to single (Chariot-based) combat before main battles begin, who kill each other over slight insults, and are only kept in check by appeal to oaths. It is a very interesting period of Chinese history because it is very much unique. Indeed, S/A society had much more in common with Medieval Europe than any later period in Chinese history.

  4. Interesting. Have heard it said that the Epic of Gilgamesh was not individualistic. But don’t know enough myself to say more.

    • I would not claim that the Epic of Gilgamesh to be individualistic in the same way the Iliad is. In fact, the only thing about it that is individualistic is that the story centers on one heroic individual. The vision of society it presents is not individualistic at all.

      The protagonist, Gilgamesh, is the king of a city state. He has no clan or near-equal peers to deal with. He is not championed because of his martial prowess or other remarkable attributes, but is extolled for “building great walls” around the city. The protagonists of the Iliad, in contrast, are members of a competitive aristocratic warrior class whose honor was derived from hunting and warfare. The individualism of the Iliad (and the Mahabharata, Zuo Zhuan, or even the King Arthur tales) is manifested in the intense competition of this class. Gilgamesh is a king, and as such, he is above other folks. He is place is set; no one can compare. He has no knights of the round table. Aristocrats certainly believed themselves above people of other classes, but within their own class they could never be more than first among equals – and one becomes first through individual triumph.

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