Rule of the clan

Rule of the clan

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Last week, David Cameron’s brother, working without pay, caused the collapse of a fraud trial on the grounds that, because of legal aid cuts, the defendants could not get proper representation. It is a challenge to government policy mounted by a senior lawyer who happens to be the Prime Minister’s bother.

It made good copy and briefly gave us all a good laugh, Cameron v Cameron and all that, but no-one really thought it was that odd. Family members disagree about all sorts of things and the legal profession has been criticising the government’s legal aid cuts for some time.

It might not look odd in this country but, in many countries, a public spat between two powerful brothers would be unusual. In some, it would be unthinkable. If the country’s leader’s brother were a top lawyer then the two of them would be in cahoots. Furthermore, people would expect them to be in cahoots and think it strange if they weren’t.

I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book Rule of the Clan by legal historian and law professor Mark S. Weiner. It is a study of societies based on extended kinship groups and the story of how some managed to move on from clan-based structures to create modern states.

His argument goes like this:

In clan-based societies, the primary relationships are between kinship groups, rather than between individuals. Authority stems from the senior members of the clan and the individual is submerged within it. A person’s rights and obligations are governed by the kinship group and their position in its hierarchy. Property is considered the property of the group rather than the individual.

Offence is taken collectively too. Therefore, if your brother steals from someone and goes into hiding, the victim and his family will come after you. If they can’t get at him, you will do. Furthermore, clan societies are characterised by the need to maintain honour and avoid collective shame. So the theft victim’s family have to be seen to take revenge. The trouble is, after they have given you a kicking, your family will feel affronted and so must be seen to hit back. In this way, feuds start.

In some societies, clan-based feuds can lead to bloodshed out of all proportion to the original crimes. Weiner describes how feuding got so bad in medieval Iceland that the country’s elders had to beg Norway, the country their ancestors has escaped from, to resume sovereignty. Only a powerful referee, in this case the Norwegian state, could put a stop to the killing.

Indeed, says Weiner, it is only when people transfer their allegiance from the clan to something wider, like the country, the nation, or the king, that the sort of society we take for granted in the West becomes possible. He describes how this happened very gradually in Anglo-Saxon England. Clan ties weakened and loyalty to a wider group, symbolised by the emerging Anglo-Saxon kings, took its place.

This progression ‘from kin to king’, says Weiner, makes a whole lot of other things possible. For example, common, widely applicable laws, an infrastructure for resolving disputes and a system for punishing people without resorting to feud. Eventually, people seek redress from the law and the state rather than from blood vengeance.

The establishment of the rule of law allows the individual to come to the fore. No longer dependent on the clan for protection, people can own property on their own account, start businesses and even marry whom they please. Crucially, they can start enterprises without fear of losing everything because a kinsman has offended someone in a neighbouring clan. Paradoxically, the strong centralised state allows individualism to flourish. Without it, people have to rely on the clan for support and must therefore accept its restrictions.

If you have read Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail, some of this will sound familiar. (See previous post.) Their argument is that some nations have grown prosperous because they have developed the political and economic institutions which allow enterprise and wealth creation to flourish and the benefits to be widely distributed. Rule of the Clan provides the preceding chapter to Why Nations Fail. It provides the social and historical underpinning, explaining the changes that allowed these institutions to develop.

It is a persuasive argument. The World Bank’s World Governance Indicators show the rule of law fading out once you get outside western Europe and its former colonies. In the countries coloured green, relationships are primarily individual and commercial relationships are contract-based. The dark red countries are, for the most part, clan-based societies.

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Even where there are the trappings of a liberal state, with laws, courts and constitutions, the persistence of clan rule means that their effectiveness is limited. Saudi Arabia, for example, is based on a pyramid of tribal alliances. Those tribes locked out of the inner circle wage war against the state. And why wouldn’t they? It’s not their state. It’s the Al-Saud’s state. It even says so on the label.

But, as Nicholas Roberts said in Middle East Monitor this week,  we need to be careful about labelling all conflicts in the Arab world and sub-Saharan Africa as tribal. That might have been the case once but modern gangsterism and militia-based loyalty is cutting across tribal bonds. Clan loyalties are part of the story in Libya and Yemen but not all of it.

The presence or otherwise of clan-based power also doesn’t explain all the differences between the liberal and prosperous societies and the rest. As this review in the New York Journal of Books says:

Unfortunately, Mr. Weiner seems unaware of any culture that falls outside the two poles of individual freedom and clannish subjugation of the individual.

That’ said, I don’t think Mark Weiner was trying to give a universal explanation for why liberal societies have developed in the way they have. The decline of clans is one factor; an important one but not the only one.

Others have accused Weiner of endorsing the Whig interpretation of history. Again, a little unfair. It’s true that he discusses a steady progress towards the rule of law in European countries, but he does not say it was inevitable. If anything, he shows that much of the West’s stability and prosperity is due to an accident of history. We are just lucky that, through combination of factors, our societies escaped from clan rule.

Rule of the Clan is a valuable book because it helps us understand that western societies are not normal, either by global standards or historical ones. For most of human history, and in much of the world now, individualism, the rule of law, contracts and property rights were unknown. This often comes as a surprise to westerners, especially when they find the property they thought they had bought in another country seized by someone else, or find the police unwilling to act against someone who has clearly committed a crime.

Rule of the Clan also contains a stark warning. If the state, and with it, the rule of law, are weakened, the rule of the clan could returning a far shorter time than it took to disappear. Where the law is weak, people will try to protect themselves through extended family groups or through other groups which have similar structures and hierarchies, such as gangs. As Weiner puts it:

A decline in the state would bring chaos and catastrophe for individualism.

The book is not a dense read. You don’t need an academic knowledge of history or law to understand the points or the examples used. If you want a flavour of it, have a look at Mark Weiner’s blog, where there are plenty of links and follow up articles.

It is an important book though. It’s one of those I had to keep putting down and thinking about before I moved on to the next bit. Rule of the Clan gives another clue to that often asked question, why did Europe and its New World offspring become so much more prosperous than everywhere else. It’s not the whole answer, of course, but it fills in some of the blanks.


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