When Clans Immigrate, Can Liberalism Assimilate?

When Clans Immigrate, Can Liberalism Assimilate?

There are not many precedents for legally and culturally individualistic societies returning to clan rule: once the way of thinking about extended family that is at the heart of the clan has changed, the habit is hard to reacquire. Greek and imperial Roman examples suggest that even once an individualistic order’s political power has been eclipsed or that order has merged with a community-focused religion like Christianity, the old population does not revert to clan structure. New populations, however, may bring clan organization with them as they immigrate to individualistic territories. This happened in the transition between the late Roman Empire and the Middle Ages.

Arnold Kling, in his first response to Weiner’s essay, says he’s not too worried about “modern democracies [falling] back on the rule of the clan” because scholars such as James Bennett and Michael Lotus have argued “that for nearly 1500 years, the Anglo-Saxon people have developed a culture centered on the absolute nuclear family.” Yet most “modern democracies,” of course, exist in countries not inhabited by “the Anglo-Saxon people,” and even a country like the United States, which does have a historical connection with that people, looks to have a more ethnically diverse future.

This need not be a problem, if the idea is that “Anglo-Saxon” forms of social organization will be adopted by other peoples. Such has often been the case: America’s own Scots-Irish or “borderer” population, vividly described in David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed, once had a distinctly clan-like way of life that ultimately assimilated to Anglo-Saxon standards. (I’ll drop the scare quotes, but let’s not take “Anglo-Saxon” too literally.) Various immigrant populations have come to these shores over the past 200 years with a greater sense of extended family than is customary among Americans themselves. Over time, that clannish character gives way to greater individualism. What Michael Novak once called the “Unmeltable Ethnics” do, in fact, melt down and assimilate.

This assimilation has not always been easy, however, and it has most often taken place within a framework of considerable social pressure—even prejudice—and state coercion. Immigrants, especially those with large families, had to be pushed to adopt Anglo-Saxon customs of sex, religion, patriotism, economics, and so on. State indoctrination (through public schools, for example) is part of the story; so too are sporadic popular crusades by White Anglo-Saxon Protestants for social regulation, population control, and eugenics. Other conformist pressures leveled against immigrants have come from the sheer majoritarian cultural power of the existing population, often amplified by the rhetorical power of the state—think of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson disparaging “hyphenated Americans.”

It stands to reason that if clans are as persistent and powerful a form of social organization as Mark Weiner’s book suggests, the measures to strip newcomers of clan consciousness must be quite strong. And in order for such strong measures to be taken, the majority must exercise a great deal of social control, whether through the instrument of the state or some other mechanism.

Weiner has said elsewhere in our discussion that anarcho-capitalists want to have their cake and eat it. This sometimes appears to be the case for libertarians in general, who want to have a non-coercive world very much like the world in which we presently live—with its nuclear families and individualism—without the coercive architectonic institutions that have brought about the American way of life as we know it. Non-libertarians might be forgiven for harboring some skepticism about this: it’s a rosy scenario, but it’s only one scenario among many others that seem at least as probable and much more problematic.

If assimilation—in part, the active process of dismantling clans and taming or eradicating clan consciousness—cannot take place without tremendous social pressure or state power, then we are looking at a very un-libertarian future. This will either be the future that Weiner fears, in which the state ceases to overawe and disrupt clans—leading not to the re-emergence of Scottish Highlanders among us but to ethnic crime cartels and other postmodern clans—or else it will be a future in which the state or majority again resort to illiberal means to achieve the end of liberal, liberated individuals. Anglo-Saxon folkways must have a vector, and if that vector is not to be the Anglo-Saxon people (which it need not be), what is it to be? The nice answer is that these folkways will be preserved by a voluntary mass of unrelated citizens who inhabit the formerly Anglo-Saxon states. The not-so-nice answer is:  in the absence of a majority with a will to assimilate newcomers, the state will assimilate them by force.

One need only look to certain hard assimilationist, anti-multiculturalist, anti-Muslim “liberals” of Europe to see what this might mean. How about laws prohibiting halal or kosher slaughter of animals? Laws against female genital mutilation are welcomed by every decent person; what about laws against circumcision of boys? The custom of the clan demands one thing—a ritual of induction—while the demands of individual autonomy and human rights demand another. Laws concerning what languages are to be taught in schools or used in official documents are another consideration, as are laws that directly touch upon the legal status and privileges of religious and ethnic groups.

Europe’s controversies in these areas are well known, and so far they are more acute than anything America has faced in the postwar era. But the basic problem remains: the pressure to assimilate to individualism must come from somewhere, and highly liberal states may either fail to supply that pressure or by supplying it may find themselves becoming less liberal in practice, if not in abstract ideology.

Kling is “not convinced that if we were to take the Federal government out of the business of providing income security and extensive economic regulation that the United States would revert to a clan-based order.” But reversion may be less of a danger than failure to assimilate. The welfare state and public schools, to name two frequent targets of libertarian ire, play an obvious function in weakening family dependencies and inculcating majority values. Weiner’s liberal, individualist welfarism is in effect a means to dissolve clan power and consciousness among newcomers; the reversion it prevents need not be one that the existing population would otherwise undergo, but one the country as a whole might in time experience if it failed to assimilate more clannish immigrants to Anglo-Saxon standards.

The way in which the welfare state substitutes for the clan is illustrated in a recent interview with journalist Michael Fumento about his experiences as an American expatriate in Colombia. Asked by interviewer Luke Ford how Colombian women can afford to have children out of wedlock when there isn’t so much of a welfare state to provide for them, Fumento answers:

It’s the extended families. Those who do work gladly support those who do not. What do the people who don’t work do? They babysit the out-of-wedlock babies. The nuclear family would have to get a babysitter. … [Extended families] have the same pernicious effect as welfare. You don’t have to work. Somebody will take care of your babies for you. Somebody else will put a roof over your head. It may be a leaky roof. Somebody else will put a floor under your feet.

There are trade-offs here about which libertarians cannot afford to be glib. Extended families in the developing world are also able to put talented young members through medical school—and of course, having benefited from the family, the young doctor or nurse is then all the more obliged to give back to the clan. Libertarian individualists may celebrate the absence of government loans and tuition subsidies in such cases, but is individualism advanced by having young people indebted to their extended families rather than to the state or its friends in the banking world? Conservatives, too, have to think carefully about just what limits there ought to be to the “family” part of “family values.”

Weiner endorses a gentle, welfarist approach to assimilation and decomposing the clan, and he encourages libertarians to join him. On the other hand, there are those liberals in Europe who have acquired a tint of ethnonationalism in their attempts to assimilate “clans” to individualist values. To assume that Anglo-Saxon notions about the nuclear family and individualism will be carried over to new peoples through the softest possible social pressures—the non-coercive libertarian ideal—may be wishful thinking.

But what’s the alternative? Welfare statism has plenty of dangers and dissatisfactions of its own, as every libertarian (and conservative) knows. Nationalist liberalism may be a contradiction, and even if it’s not, Europe provides ample grounds to fear that nationalist liberalism will quickly degenerate into nationalism illiberalism.

The position I’ve tried to sketch out in this discussion is one that attempts to balance clans, individualism, and the state. The rule of the clan must be avoided, but there’s also a danger in an excess of individualism and statism. Weiner notes that reformist efforts like the Chartists were club-based, not clan-based. But they were clubs built on class, and class was based on birth. The story of the rise of modern liberal individualism is not simply a story of central states overcoming clans; it’s a story of how clans, classes, and other non-voluntary groups claimed privileges and won rights in fierce contests with one another; those rights gradually were won by other groups, too, until they finally applied to everyone.

Today we’ve reached a very advanced condition of legal individualism, which makes the need for social solidarity all the greater. Clans, in a greatly attenuated way relative to their weight in much of the developing world, undergird the strongest institutions of our civil society, institutions that often—as in the case of labor unions and religions, ethnic minorities and even local communities—possess legal privileges. These groups are voluntary in the strict sense, but they depend in part on identities that are not freely chosen. The local union has, or once had, a class dimension that tended to correspond to intergenerational families and ethnic communities. Likewise, churches until recently had a strong ethnic character—even to the point of Italian, Irish, and German Catholics sometimes having separate houses of worship in the same town. The American nuclear family is itself something of a recent development in its pure form: Americans for much of their history, at the elite as well as demotic levels, had extended families that were not clans but were certainly not the modern ideal of two parents and 2.5 children. There have always been other alternatives to the rule of the clan besides extreme individualism.

An excess of individualism—promoted ever further through the welfare state—undermines itself, as atomized, weakly connected citizens find themselves unable to assimilate clannish immigrants and thus forced to confront the liberal Europe’s dilemma: state-enforced assimilation or acquiescence to the rule of the clan. A more restrained individualism, however, a social order in which legal individualism is combined with a cultural disposition toward faintly clan-based groupings, may be able to encourage partial assimilation while tolerating the spirit of the clan and preserving a few of its virtues, in newcomers as well as the native population. This is an unsteady balance, never a stable equilibrium, but it avoids the worst pitfalls of clan, individualism, and state alike.

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.

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