The Paradox of Modern Individualism

Many conservatives argue as a basic tenet of their political thought that individual liberty thrives when the state is limited and weak. “As government expands, liberty contracts,” explained President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address, calling the principle “as neat and predictable as a law of physics.” This view is especially pronounced among libertarians, and for libertarians of an anarchist perspective, the opposition between the individual and the state is fundamental and irreconcilable.

I believe this view is significantly mistaken. From the perspective of comparative law and legal history, it represents a dangerous illusion characteristic of citizens who already enjoy the benefits of modern liberal government. Although the state can be an instrument of tyranny, robust government capable of vindicating the public interest is vital for individual autonomy.

As I argue in my recent book The Rule of the Clan, among its important benefits, a strong central state provides the most effective means to ensure that persons are treated as individuals, not merely as cousins. In its absence, people are forced to look to other institutions to address their social and legal problems, and the most enduring such organization in human history is the extended family, the clan—for which group loyalty trumps individual rights.

Because the rule of the clan provides many vital goods that liberal societies deliver less effectively, and because it is based on the natural fact of genetic affinity, it represents an ever-present gravitational force in human affairs.

One of the objects of modern liberal government is to resist this gravitational pull.

If the goal of the liberal, critical tradition that grew from the Enlightenment is not the limitation of government power per se, but rather the fostering of individual autonomy, libertarians should seek to elaborate what Arnold Kling, sympathetically yet critically assessing my work elsewhere, has called “a libertarian case for a strong central state.” Moreover, they should join people across the political spectrum who are dedicated to liberal ideals in the shared project of building effective government institutions in the name of the individual.

The human experience with the rule of the clan is universal. It stretches from medieval Scotland to modern Libya, and it knows no bounds of race or geography. Clan organization is now capable of taking a variety of new forms beyond traditional kinship associations, which underscores the fact that individuals must claim their freedom not only against the state, but also through it.

When I refer to the rule of the clan, I mean three related contemporary phenomena. In each case, persons living within its system of governance lack what the Palestinian intellectual Hisham Sharabi in his book Neopatriarchy called “the individual’s claim to autonomous right.” In the rule of the clan, the individual is submerged within the muscular group and corporate associations that maintain the society’s legal and political order.

First, and most prominently, by the rule of the clan I mean the legal institutions and cultural values of societies organized primarily on the basis of kinship—societies in which extended family membership is essential for social and legal action and in which individuals have little choice but to maintain a strong clan identity (the nuclear family, an agent of psychological individualization, is a substantially different social institution). Today these societies include Afghanistan and Somalia, but they have existed across history and throughout the world.

Second, by the rule of the clan I mean the political arrangements of societies governed by what the U.N.’s 2004 Arab Human Development Report calls “clannism.” These societies possess the outward trappings of a modern state but are founded on informal patronage networks, especially those of kinship, and on traditional ideals of patriarchal family authority. In nations pervaded by clannism, government is coopted for purely factional purposes and the state, conceived on the model of the patriarchal family, treats citizens not as autonomous actors but rather as troublesome dependents to be managed. Clannism often characterizes rentier societies struggling under the continuing legacy of colonial subordination.

Third, and most broadly, by the rule of the clan I mean the antiliberal social and legal organizations that tend to grow in the absence of state authority or when the state is weak, including in modern democracies where the writ of government fails to run. These groups include associations dedicated to unlawful activity, such as petty criminal gangs, the Mafia, and international crime syndicates, such as the drug gangs of Mexico—which in their cultural markers of solidarity, their lack of opportunity for exit, and their feuding patterns look and act a great deal like traditional clans. Today racial identity groups and multinational corporations have the potential to transform into similar clanlike systems.

In this respect, the rule of the clan is a synecdoche for a general pattern according to which humans tend to organize their communities.

Across their differences, these three forms of the rule of the clan share a socio-legal structure that, for all its benefits, undermines personal autonomy. This structure radically decentralizes legal and political authority and institutes a culture of group honor and shame. Group honor and shame allow the rule of the clan’s devolution of power to work by promoting both internal self-regulation within extended kin groups and coexistence among them—but this structure comes at a substantial price.

Consider a financial analogy. In societies of group honor and shame, a person’s social worth, his or her honor, is bound to the honor of each of the separate members of his or her kin. Imagine, then, that your personal financial worth were structured on the same terms. This would mean that the funds in your retirement account or your ability to obtain a mortgage would be tied not only to your own personal earnings, but also to the investment decisions and reputation for financial probity of every one of your cousins.

In such circumstances, you surely would do whatever was necessary to ensure that your cousins maintained an unassailable reputation for fiscal trustworthiness. After all, your own financial power would depend on it. If one of your cousins were acting irresponsibly, you and your siblings and other cousins would use the utmost social pressure, and perhaps even physical force, to keep him or her in line and protect your interests. In clan societies, likewise, each member seeks to ensure that every other member of his or her clan acts honorably, generating powerful pressure toward social conformity.

The principle of group honor thereby strengthens the internal cohesion of extended kin groups, enabling their autonomy and independence and, in turn, fostering the rule of the clan’s decentralization of power.

Group honor also establishes rough harmony between groups by creating a regime of group liability. Whereas in modern liberal societies, if you do the crime, you do the time, under the rule of the clan, members of a kin group can be held responsible for one another’s misdeeds. Honor and shame form the cultural circuitry of such a collectivist system. Just as an injury to one is an injury to all, so an injury from one is an injury from all.

In our financial analogy, group liability would mean that if one of your cousins presented the member of another family with a bad check, the brother of the person to whom he presented the check would be entitled to attach a lien on your home. No doubt your cousin would think more than twice before perpetrating such a fraud, knowing the possible consequences of his behavior, including your wrath at being drawn into the mess he created.

Group liability thereby moderates infractions against other clans, enabling kin groups to coexist peaceably despite being autonomous and responsible largely to themselves alone.

This radically decentralized socio-legal organization offers many profound benefits. Most important, it fosters a powerful sense of group solidarity. It gives persons the dignity and unshakable identity that comes from clan membership, and it generates a powerful drive toward social justice—a political economy that prizes economic equality. This makes it attractive. Artists in modern liberal societies often romanticize the rule of the clan for this reason.

Moreover, because the rule of the clan is based on the natural fact of genetic relatedness (and on principles of fictive kinship that mirror the natural world), it is frankly more explicable in human terms than is the modern liberal state. People thus reflexively turn to it as a principle of social organization, especially when state alternatives break down.

Yet from a liberal perspective, the rule of the clan also possesses profound shortcomings. For one, as I discuss in my book, in the face of modern military technology, particularly automatic weapons, the socio-legal technology of group liability can quickly set in motion a cycle of escalating violence that can destabilize regions and create profound suffering: modern blood feuds.

More fundamentally, societies governed by the rule of the clan are structured around ineluctable status groups, not around the individual. As a result, the rights and obligations of persons are deeply influenced by their position within the extended kin groups from which they derive their honor. Clan societies are ascriptive societies of “Status,” in the words of the nineteenth-century legal historian Henry Sumner Maine.

In addition, compared with cosmopolitan liberal societies, clan societies offer a far more limited range of acceptable personal autonomy, especially for women. Indeed, across the world, the degree of women’s personal freedom is generally inversely related to the importance of extended family relationships to socio-legal organization—itself a predictable condition of decentralized societies.

Many thinkers and political leaders across the ideological spectrum and around the world have valorized such decentralization, often with a full understanding of its cost to modern liberal ideals. For instance, a deep antipathy to the modern state was a core principle of the United States’ longtime enemy Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi, who sought, in the words of his manifesto The Green Book, “emancipation from the chains of all instruments of government,” and who looked specifically to the clan and tribe as the basis of socio-legal organization.

Likewise, guided by a compelling spiritual vision, Mohandas Gandhi advocated for a stateless society of local self-rule for postcolonial India, in which power would be radically decentralized to ancient village communities: panchayati raj. In contrast to the ultimately successful modern constitutional vision of B. R. Ambedkar, Gandhi and his followers campaigned for a minimal, decentralized state, whose consequence would have been the intensification of traditionalism.

In the West, however, the implications of decentralization or full statelessness for personal autonomy have been less frequently acknowledged. In criticizing the concept of “society,” for example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once famously asserted that “there is no such thing”—that, instead, there are only “individual men and women” and “families.” Whether or not society is in fact a fictional concept, without a government capable of vindicating the public ideals the concept expresses, power devolves downward with an illiberal twist.

For when there is no such thing as society, eventually there are only cousins and clans.

The individualism that libertarians justly value has a deep cultural history. The modern sense of self was forged only through centuries of literary, artistic, and religious transformation. These cultural developments form the typically unacknowledged background conditions of the ideal of individual autonomy that lies at the core of liberal democratic society.

In addition, the modern self is a creature of state development. In historical terms, the modern self is a legal and governmental achievement as much as a cultural one. It rests on an even less-typically acknowledged history of institutional growth embodying the political principle Hegel deemed “universal” as opposed to “particular” altruism. This institutional history is inseparable from the individual’s cultural development, and in many regions it helped transform clans from hard, ascriptive socio-legal regimes into soft, voluntary markers of cultural identity.

In this respect, modern individualism rests on a paradox. For persons to be treated as individuals, and for clans to become clubs, we require the state. If modern individualism is to survive, society needs effective government institutions dedicated to advancing the substantive end of personal autonomy. The state I have in mind need not be centralized (I am personally a strong supporter of federalism in the American context), but it must at all levels be dedicated to vindicating the public interest, defined as policies most citizens would rationally support regardless of their position within society at any given moment.

Equally, to maintain its legitimacy, government must seek to address the needs that the rule of the clan meets far more directly. It must pursue policies that moderate economic inequality; it must provide a space for the flourishing of voluntary civil society organizations that provide opportunities for solidarity; and it must ensure that individuals have fair opportunities to exercise their autonomy within the marketplace and that they can effectively navigate the host of bureaucratic state institutions that provide the conditions of modern life.

This is a liberal project in which people around the world are engaged, whether they live in Palestine, Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, or the United States. With those people—liberals whose efforts to build effective government are essential to the future of individualism—I feel a profound kinship.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Human Nature vs. Libertarian Ideals by Arnold Kling

    Arnold Kling argues that human beings require institutions to interact on the basis of trust and cooperation. Kling argues that the resurgence of the clan is possible but unlikely in Anglo-American societies because the nuclear family rather than the clan is our distinctive form of non-state order. Kling concludes that the natural individualism fostered by the nuclear family makes prospects bright for shrinking the state without the risks of clannism. He calls on libertarians to advocate institutions that would accomplish this task.

  • The Paradox of Rule by Daniel McCarthy

    Daniel McCarthy argues that all political activity takes place in collectives and in the organizations they create. As a result, even liberal societies are never all that far away from the rule of the clan. Clannishness, rather than individualism, is the rule in politics, and it probably always will be. To McCarthy’s way of thinking, even voting is a clan ritual; his viewpoint gains credibility when we consider that individualist analysis of voting is hard pressed to explain the act at all. The paradox of rule is that, to secure one’s rights, one must participate in government, but that requires committing to a group, an act that necessarily has an illiberal dimension.

  • States: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without Them by John Fabian Witt

    John Fabian Witt argues that Mark Weiner raises a fundamental question about the function of the state. Witt argues that a distinctive feature of the state is its fragility as a stopping point between the small kin group on the one hand and empire or world government on the other. The state seemingly forgoes both the primordial attraction of the kin group and the philosophically seductive vision of empire. While agreeing with Weiner about the state’s vulnerability, Witt is more skeptical of the claim that the state is naturally conducive to liberal values. Defenders of the state, Witt concludes, would do well to refocus on the precise character of the community the state defines.

The Conversation