The Paradox of Rule

As Mark S. Weiner argues with great eloquence and erudition, the clan is a form of social organization ever present as a possibility within even the most liberal societies, and it’s a lived reality for millions of people in the developing world, where group membership all too often trumps individual rights. The security of liberal societies like our own depends on the success of liberal reformers in developing countries. And individualism at home demands strong, relatively centralized government to uphold the common good and provide for human needs that would otherwise be supplied by clan-like institutions.

In a nightmare scenario sketched toward the end of his book The Rule of the Clan, Weiner previews a future in which financial crises and anti-government ideology have combined to cripple the modern state, freeing racial gangs, blood-bound crime cartels, and even clan-like corporations to oppress the individual. Among his prescriptions for averting this Mad Max future are a renewed commitment to the voluntary institutions of civil society—as liberal substitutes for clannish groupings—and the use of imaginative literature to reconcile the clannish heart to the modern world of legal individualism. As the clan becomes a romantic literary ideal, in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for example, the emotions are satisfied while the harsh realities of kin rule may be abolished.

Last, but hardly least, Weiner calls on individualists to support strong government. This is the paradox of individualism, at least for those who have been educated to believe that smaller and weaker government means greater liberty. For Weiner, only the strong impersonal state can protect the individual and his rights against the demands of the clan. Yet the relationship between the clan, the state, and liberalism may be more complex than that. And there’s another paradox to be noted here, the paradox of rule.

The modern West is not the first political order in which legal individualism has prevailed against clan structure. The ancient world offers a few examples, including that of early imperial Rome. Under Augustus and his successors Rome was certainly not liberal—there were no guaranteed freedoms of speech or worship, for example—but the law did tend to treat citizens as individuals. Nevertheless, the historian Tacitus, for one, believed that his people had irretrievably lost their liberty when they came to be ruled by the emperor and his armies rather than by the senate—a far more aristocratic and clannish institution than any organ of our government today.

The historian was not just lamenting the loss of his own clan’s or class’s prestige, however. He recognized that with the rise of the principate, the people as a whole—the common populus as well as the noble senatus—had ceased to participate meaningfully in the activity of government. What individual legal freedoms Romans now enjoyed, they did so only as a gift from their master. And when at last emperors decreed that citizens could not change professions or leave their lands of residence, the citizen of the later empire became what we would call a serf.

The loss of Roman liberty under the empire, even in its earliest days when individual freedom in some senses increased, points to a refinement of Weiner’s paradox. It’s not only the case that a strong central government—today’s “state” or the ancient empire—can safeguard the individual from being subsumed into a constraining group identity, but it’s also the case that the active component of liberty, the exercise of self-government, has tended to be a matter of group expression.

In republican Rome, the good (self-government) was inextricably mixed with the bad (rule by clannish elites). But this is the story of self-government everywhere. The House of Commons in England, for example, did not begin as an institution to represent all commoners; it began as a forum to represent the wealthiest towns and localities. Well into the 19th century many seats in the Commons were effectively owned outright by landlords, who might themselves sit in the House of Lords. There was no secret ballot: a landlord could see exactly how his tenants were voting.

Reform of the boroughs, broadening of the franchise, and the introduction of the secret ballot were great struggles; at times they seemed almost revolutionary to Britain’s landed class. These struggles were fought and won not by individuals but by groups that were more than a little clannish and coercive. Clannishness was characteristic of the Catholic and Dissenting Protestant groups that also fought at this time—sometimes literally in streets—for their civil liberties. And in America, too, clannish groups, from racial minorities to religious and sexual ones, have had to battle for freedom. This was not at all an individualistic activity, either in its origins or its methods. The liberties we as individuals cherish today were largely won by clannish groups.

Such struggles, even when they are outlawed and cannot be conducted at the ballot box, are a kind of participation in power, as one institution of power—not the state, but the clan—compels another to recognize its demands and accede to at least some of them for the sake of peace. Even in ordinary politics at the level of Republicans and Democrats, clannishness rather than individualism is the rule, with religious, ethnic, and cultural blocs pursuing group objectives. Individualists tend to be blind to this reality; they are often at a loss to explain politics when, judged as a purely individual activity, even the act of voting is irrational. But it’s not an individual activity—it’s a clan ritual, one that bears some relation to the actual acquisition of power for the group.

Without groups, there is no participation in power—not outside of the tiniest direct democracy, at any rate. The ever present possibility of clan organization, well noted by Weiner, is a natural building block for group participation in ruling. As Weiner warns, the admixture of kinshp and government can lead to “clannism,” in which a kin group dominates the state and uses its machinery of power for selfish ends. Yet without strong clans, participation in power, for defensive as well as aggressive purposes, is forestalled. The result is Caesarism—the condition of the early Roman Empire, in which the citizen may have certain individual legal rights, but he has hardly any way of participating in government to safeguard or extend those rights.

Too much clan power within a state can lead to collapse of the state. Rome itself experienced this when it failed to assimilate the German tribes who were migrating into its territory. But too little clan power within a state is also dangerous—it deprives the people generally, and minorities in particular, of power centers that can protect group and individual rights alike through protest and participation.

The paradox of rule is that to secure one’s rights, one must participate in government, but participation in government means wielding power that can—and inevitably will—be used to oppress others. Participation in government necessarily has an illiberal dimension, even though it is also insdispensable for securing liberty. This would be true even if individuals could directly wield power; in the real world, in which power is always wielded by groups, the peril is amplified.

This is why decentralization and division of power—not only according to the legal framework of a written constitution but also as played out through the conflicts of competing clans—are as crucial for liberty as are a sense of the common good and a state strong enough to act as arbiter. Liberalism itself owes a great deal more, even today, to struggles between clans than is commonly recognized. Historically, liberal practices certainly did not emerge chiefly from reformist efforts on the part of benevolent leaders wielding power for the good of all humanity.

Weiner grasps something of the importance of group identities for liberalism, but the voluntaristic institutions of “civil society” that he commends may not be enough. Deprived of the clannish power to bind their members through force or shame, voluntary groups are weak barriers against state intrusions on their members’ rights, and they are even more feeble as instruments with which to participate in government.

This weakness on the part of civil society opens the door to another evil, an alternative to Weiner’s neo-clannish Mad Max dystopia: the ideological party-state. When clannish associations have been weakened to the point where they cannot challenge or wield power, a different kind of association may arise, one that is quite un-clannish in its mass scale and its ideological rather than biological connections. These ideological movements, built out of individuals who have been reduced to ants in a heap, have been known to grow to the point where they can challenge the state, seize its power, and erase the distinctions between party and government, ideology and reality—at an appalling cost in human life. Clans may feud, but the scale on which the party-state seeks to eradicate its categorical ideological enemies—whether Jews or kulaks or intellectuals with eyeglasses—puts all forms of clannishness to shame for sheer murderous potential.

Ideological movements, Caesarism, Road Warrior-style anarchy, all these evils may attend the collapse of the liberal state—and even conservatives must pause to consider how grim the probable alternatives to liberal government really are. But liberalism cannot cure its own disease. Neither libertarian anti-statism nor Weiner’s more Hobbesian statist individualism can succeed, not without the division of power and means of self-government that clan-like groups, above all, are apt to provide.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • The Paradox of Modern Individualism by Mark S. Weiner

    Mark S. Weiner argues that, while the state does often destroy individual liberty, an even greater danger lies in the rule of the clan. Clan-based societies have been found throughout the world, in many different times and places. In general they have been highly resilient, successful at replicating themselves – and markedly illiberal. Individual freedom may need a strong central state after all, one that can provide the rule of law, enforce contracts, and suppress clan-based feuds and prejudices. Without the state, we may find ourselves regressing from an egalitarian society of contract to a hierarchical society of status. Liberals of all persuasions, including classical liberals, should beware this outcome.

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.

  • 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.

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