The Clan, The State, and the West

Arnold Kling reviews Mark S. Wiener’s The Rule of the Clan, a good account of a good book. Kling gives a useful summary highlighting three of Wiener’s arguments:

1. A decentralized order is possible. Indeed, it is natural for human societies to achieve such an order, rather than degenerate into the Hobbesian war of all against all.

Certainly possible, and natural—but not so desirable for us since it was often nasty, brutish, and violent and we have become more suited to peace. There was order, but not much peace. The war was not of all against all but of kin against kin.

2. The natural decentralized order is, however, highly illiberal. It requires a set of social norms that bind the individual to the clan. Under the rule of the clan, peace is broken by feuds, commerce is crippled by the inability to put trade with strangers on a contractual basis, and individual autonomy is sacrificed for group solidarity.

Yes, liberal individualism is uncommon. It is a product of quite recent social evolution. In many ways it is a peculiarity of the West.

3. In the absence of a strong central state, the rule of the clan is the inevitable result. In order to graduate from the society of Status to the society of Contract, you must have a strong central state.

I disagree with this. Clannism and strong states went hand in hand in China and the Middle East. To go from clans (status) to individualism (contract) you must have much more than a strong state. Again, it is one of the unique features of the West.



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2 responses to “The Clan, The State, and the West

  1. I have been reading a bit on this as well. The recent Pew study on Islamic public opinion led some to suggest that family structure of various Islamic societies accounts for their different attitudes about honor killings, etc. Looking up all that I came across the work of Immanuel Todd. Best summary I have found so far:

    And some research based on it:

    One of Todd’s basic ideas is that those places where the nuclear family is the norm are the places where liberalism succeeded most brilliantly, and that authoritarian government structures, and clan-based government structures, are closely related to authoritarian and clan based family structures.

    Unfortunately, most of his work remains untranslated in French.

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