Neither Clans Nor Clubs, But a Bit of Both

The broad framework Mark Weiner presents in his work on clan and state is one with which many conservatives and libertarians can agree. Michael Oakeshott, for example, would concur with a good deal of what Weiner says about the state’s historical role in emancipating the individual from—as Oakeshott writes in “The Masses in Representative Democracy”—“the communal pressures of family and guild, of church and local community, which hindered [the individual’s] own development.” To achieve this, says Oakeshott, the state had to be “single and supreme,” possessed of “authority to abolish old rights and create new.” The state had to be “powerful—able to preserve the order without which aspirations of individuality could not be realized; but not so powerful as to itself constitute a new threat to individuality.” 

He and Weiner are on the same side so far as that goes. Things get difficult, however, as we consider where this analysis leads. For Oakeshott, writing in 1961, the danger to this historically evolved individualism lay not with a resurgence of clans but with what he called the “anti-individual,” the man of the masses whose resentment of inequality leads him to expand state power to a point where it chokes off the liberty to excel. Oakeshott was warning not only about Soviet-style state repression but also the soft despotism of the left-liberal paternalist state, whose circumstances Tocqueville memorably described about a century earlier: 

…an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. 

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. 

Weiner is much more worried about the danger to be found in the opposite direction, with the recrudescence of anti-individualistic blood ties. Whether he would even consider the scene Tocqueville paints as a dystopia is hard to say: tendentious language aside, this could be exactly what liberal individualism aims for—safety, pleasure, strictly voluntary ties and no others, all vouchsafed by a benign, supreme state. 

There are other possibilities, however, beyond the rule of the clan or the perfection of the tutelary state. The enervation of the liberal state may lead not to a return to blood rule but to a gradual economic and demographic decline even as individualism remains the dominant social ethos. This would be a scenario in which the liberal state gradually became a backwater in a world defined by more powerful non-individualist states—a world in which China occupies the role now filled by the Unites States, and the United States has a role analogous to that of perhaps Russia at present. Liberalism, capitalism, and British or American world power have historically so far coincided. If one pillar falls—or two—what becomes of the rest? 

I sketch these possibilities not to argue for the likelihood of one or another, but to insist that the danger Weiner perceives is not the only one that has to be borne in mind as we think about the interplay of clans, groups, individuals, and states. A smart approach will avoid all of these dangers, not rush into the arms of one in the hopes of escaping another. 

Avoiding the danger of the tutelary state requires that some institutions be capable of resisting the state and that at least the ethos of another form of social organization be preserved. Avoiding the danger of geostrategic eclipse requires both a strong state and strong families—the latter not only for population reasons but because the family is also the source of much economic impetus. It’s worth recalling Joseph Schumpeter’s insight into the non-individualistic social backdrop of capitalism: 

the capitalist order entrusts the long-run interests of society to the upper strata of the bourgeoisie. They are really entrusted to the family motive operative in those strata. The bourgeoisie worked primarily in order to invest, and it was not so much a standard of consumption as a standard of accumulation that the bourgeoisie struggled for and tried to defend against governments that took the short-run view. With the decline of the driving power supplied by the family motive, the businessman’s time-horizon shrinks, roughly, to his life expectation. And he might now be less willing than he was to fulfill that function of earning, saving and investing even if he saw no reason to fear that the results would but swell his tax bills. He drifts into an anti-saving frame of mind and accepts with an increasing readiness anti-saving theories that are indicative of a short-run philosophy

(One could say more: Britain’s early industrialists tended to be of particular families of religious Dissenters—and of course, the phenomenon of “market-dominant minorities” in many parts of the world is now well know. There is a clannish side to capitalism as well as a nuclear-family side and an individualistic side. Like the state, capitalism is historically a conjunction of several principles and forces.) 

Weiner suggests that voluntary clubs, rather than ascriptive clans, are the instruments through which social impulses should express themselves in a free society. The point I wished to make in my first response was that groups that are neither purely voluntary clubs nor purely blood-based clans are most often the drivers of civil society and of struggles for civil rights. This is true whether we speak of classes—noblemen extorting the rights of Magna Carta from King John; Chartists fighting in the streets for electoral reform—or of other groups, such as women and racial minorities, using non-voluntary identities as their organizing principles. These groups, in their different ways, are in several respects more clan-like than voluntary. But they aren’t clans: they don’t occupy either extreme on the club-clan spectrum. 

Weiner is right to call libertarians’ attention to a requirement of individualism that they have become apt to overlook: the presence of a state strong enough to break down kin groups into freed, autonomous citizens. Romantics of the right and left who daydream about “tribalism” might also learn a few things from Weiner’s book about the harsh realities of clan rule. But Weiner, similarly, could use a little more introspection about the limits of Enlightenment liberalism, especially as an “end” of politics. (Weiner is distinctly un-Oakeshottian in this respect—for Oakeshott the idea that politics can have an “end,” even one as seemingly capacious as “individual autonomy,” is always a dangerous notion, one that threatens to turn the rather aimless freedom of “civil association” into a mission-driven “enterprise association” with goals prescribed by rulers and intellectuals.)

The blind spot of Weiner’s outlook, which sees only the flaws of clannishness and not those of liberalism, is illustrated by the examples he gives in his book of Walter Scott and Salman Rushdie as culturally liberalizing writers. His use of Scott seems—although he may not have realized it—remarkably conservative, and a conservative like Peter Viereck would have agreed wholeheartedly with what Weiner writes about Scott, only Viereck would emphasize that Scott was a “conservative liberal” and not a liberal simpliciter

Rushdie, by contrast, is not a conservative of any kind, and a work like The Satanic Verses has none of the qualities that make Scott’s Waverly novels an effective bridge between the clannish imagination and modern liberal reality. Rushdie is seen to mock where Scott valorizes; a highlander could read Scott and come to love the English king as his own chief of chiefs; a non-liberal Muslim who reads Rushdie is outraged, even to the point of proscription. Rushdie is a man of the modern left writing for other modern leftists, the sort of people who like magical realism and view religion, if view it they must, though lenses heavily tinted with irony and absurdism. Scott was both a man of the law and a man of the clans in spirit, writing for the clans as much as for the English and drawing both together. He was a Tory. 

Liberals who hope to extend liberalism here or elsewhere must understand both the defects of liberalism as ideology and as a practice—failings which give rise to threats such as those of national decline and tutelary tyranny—and the ways in which liberalism can (and, as importantly, can’t) be imaginatively reconciled with non-liberal perspectives. The alternative is that the only way liberalism can advance is by crushing every non-liberal way of life—and as Weiner fears, it may just as likely be crushed by them.  

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.

  • 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