The Call of the Clan

Why ancient kinship and tribal affiliation still matter in a world of global geopolitics.

What do the European sovereign debt crisis, the difficulty of building a liberal democracy in Afghanistan, and a Mexican drug cartel have in common? To begin with, all three are the predictable result of weak government institutions. On a deeper level, however, they are products of a single basic impulse: They all implicate the fundamental human drive to live under the rule of the clan. Grasping this impulse and appreciating the range of forms it takes are vital to solving a surprisingly long list of foreign-policy challenges.

So what is the rule of the clan? Ancient Highland Scotland provides a helpful example. Until well after the failed 1745 Jacobite rising, when Britain roundly defeated the cause of "Bonnie Prince Charlie," no robust public identity or state institution in the Highlands effectively superseded clans. Society was organized around kinship groups -- like the MacGregors, Macphersons, and MacDonalds, each associated with its own region -- and the ever shifting confederacies they established over centuries. Under clan rule, groups of extended families formed the basic building blocks of civic life. They remained largely autonomous from central government authority, maintaining their own law and settling disputes according to local custom.

Inseparable from this profound decentralization of authority was the clan's culture of group honor and shame. Collective honor allowed individuals to interact with outsiders -- whether for the purposes of trade, marriage, or friendship -- based on the social reputation of their kin (a stain on one Macpherson was a stain on all). This principle reinforced the autonomy of clans and strengthened their internal coherence by providing an incentive for members to keep watch over one another's behavior. Group honor and shame formed the cultural circuitry of ancient Highland Scotland's radically decentralized society -- just as it does in many parts of the developing world today (and, indeed, in some parts of the developed world as well).

Based on the biological fact of blood relatedness and the adjunct principle of "fictive kinship" -- in which a non-consanguineous group is treated "like family" -- clan rule is a natural way of organizing legal and political affairs. Certainly, it is more explicable in human terms than that most historically anomalous of institutions: the modern liberal state. Clan rule also has much to recommend it, offering its members social solidarity, a secure sense of personal identity, and a measure of social justice. Likewise, the institution of blood feud, the dispute-resolution corollary of kin honor, has delivered relative harmony for millennia -- controlling violence through its finely calibrated rules of reciprocal exchange.

Given these advantages, people who live under clan rule often -- and sensibly -- hold it in high regard, just as they rationally return to it when other social structures break down. But today, clan rule poses grave international challenges, not just in tribal societies, but in more developed nations, and even in modern liberal democracies.

In weak states such as Yemen and Somalia, the strength of tribalism -- and the sharp distinction it makes between insiders and outsiders -- often allows militants to find shelter beyond the reach of law enforcement. The distinction is all the more powerful when it maps onto religious cleavages, as it does, for example, in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Equally destabilizing is the increasingly potent mismatch between the tribal principle of group liability and the technology of modern warfare. Feuds between competing tribes only preserve social harmony when the reciprocal exchange of violence can be finely calibrated: a brother for a brother, a cousin for a cousin. That was possible when tribes fought with the technology of 1,000 years ago; it's inconceivable when they fight with modern automatic weapons -- making it more likely that conflicts will escalate and spiral out of control.

In addition, societies divided by tribe often struggle to construct a unifying identity under which to achieve common ends. This problem is vividly on display in the much-lamented weakness of the Afghan National Army (ANA). As Doyle Quiggle, an American professor who taught at Forward Operating Base Fenty, recently explained to me, "I eventually understood that the identity structure of the average member of the ANA might implode at any moment, due to his conflicting loyalties."

One step up the development ladder, nations that posses the outward trappings of a modern state but are still firmly in the grip of clannism -- like the Palestinian Authority or Egypt -- suffer from corruption and stifled economic development. Although they possess stronger state institutions, they nevertheless govern through informal patronage networks, especially those of kinship. President Bashar al-Assad centralized and maintained his power through such patronage in Syria. So did Yasir Arafat after his return to Palestine in 1994. Where clannism reigns, governments are co-opted for purely factional purposes, and states, conceived on the model of the patriarchal family, treat citizens not as autonomous actors but rather as troublesome dependents to be managed. At the same time, kin-based patronage groups have the power to discipline their members in accord with their own internal rules.

Clannism is tribalism's historical shadow, shaped by the jagged contours of the developing state. It often affects rentier societies struggling under the continuing legacy of colonial subordination, as in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, where the nuclear family, with its revolutionary, individuating power, has yet to replace the extended lineage group as the principal framework for kinship or household organization.

The social and cultural consequences of clannism are insidious. Corrupt governments regularly set factions against each other to avoid scrutiny of their own practices, and a lack of economic dynamism encourages out-migration of workers and fosters social unrest. More profoundly, in the words of the 2004 Arab Human Development Report, by "implant[ing] submission, parasitic dependence and compliance in return for protection and benefits," clannism destroys "personal independence, intellectual daring, and the flowering of a unique and authentic human entity." But clannism is not just a relic of the developing world. Modern liberal democracies can and do succumb to clan rule when their central-government institutions are weak or perceived to be illegitimate. In inner cities of the United States, for example, where the writ of the state often runs out, petty criminal gangs enforce their own social order. Likewise, in countries like Italy and Mexico, international criminal organizations and drug syndicates dictate their own internal codes of discipline and engage in intergroup behavior -- like blood feuds -- strikingly akin to that of traditional clans. Even the weakening transnational institutions of the European Union have accelerated the rise of right-wing parties, such as Greece's fascist Golden Dawn party, which claim to provide alternative social orders based on ethnicity.

And at the level of international relations, in the absence of sufficiently powerful central banking institutions, most of Europe's response to the sovereign debt crisis has had a distinctly tribal feel: a rough harmony achieved at the expense of justice on fully individualized terms -- each nation its own clan.

Clan rule requires a distinctive response in each of its manifestations, but there are also generally applicable principles for confronting it effectively and ethically. When clan rule diminishes, two aspects of a society change: its legal and political structure and its culture. Structurally, the society develops more powerful and legitimate central-governmental authority. Culturally, it develops a common public identity and a broader set of (ideally liberal) shared values. This process took place, for example, in 18th- and 19th-century Scotland under the influence of liberal writers and intellectuals like Walter Scott.

Structural change cannot be imposed from above or forced upon a society by an outside power (the latter often merely exacerbates intergroup conflict). For structural change to last, it must be perceived as legitimate -- and legitimacy requires the messy political process of compromise with the clans themselves. Governments and their international partners must work with and through clan groups and traditional institutions, such as the jirga in Afghanistan, in order to align local and national goals. This process requires a granular understanding of clan groups that may only be possessed by indigenous members of society. It also requires that central governments offer goods that are self-evidently better -- more efficient, effective, predictable, and transparent -- than those they seek to replace.

But structural change is typically impossible without pre-existing or simultaneous cultural change. Such change is typically slow to develop, but as the recent success of efforts to prevent post-election violence in Kenya demonstrate, it is possible under the right leadership, social conditions, and cultural strategies -- including the smart use of social media technology. Contrary to the widely held pessimism about "imposing democracy," moreover, cultural change can be fostered effectively -- and ethically -- from outside. Support for the middle class through trade policies, the creation of international ties between professional groups, the extension of social media to help build ties across traditional group lines, encouraging religious freedom, and international support for literature, the arts, and liberal scholarship can all accelerate the cultural modernization that is vital to structural reform.

The rule of the clan everywhere challenges liberal values. But it need not. Over time, as they did in Scotland, clans of all sorts will transform from hard political entities to soft -- if cherished -- markers of personal identity. Over a long span of history, clans will become clubs -- even in the most difficult parts of the world.

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From Winterfell to King's Landing

How the cartography of Game of Thrones explains the world.

In the long and steamy affair between fantasy and cartography, certainly the most mesmerizing image of recent vintage is the dynamic beauty kissed alive by the title sequence of Game of Thrones. At the start of each episode, the viewer is strapped to a rollercoaster and swept across its alternate world. The camera dips and climbs vertiginously over a map of fictional lands and their unfamiliar shores, halting at crucial spots for cities, castles, and magical trees to shoot up from the earth, self-assembling like 22nd-century Ikea furniture.

Apart from enthralling map nuts, the opening sequence also sets the scene for the action to follow, using the map as an elaborate chessboard in mid-game and the castles its precariously positioned pieces. The zoomed-in views occasionally reveal more than location and situation: the charred husk of a fortress serves as a brief memento of its sacking. We're not just reading a map, we're playing spy satellite.           

Pinning down an imagined world with precise geography is nothing new: The map's central position in fantasy literature stretches all the way back to Plato's Atlantis. In his 360 B.C. Dialogues, he situates the vanished island at "a distant point in the [Atlantic] Ocean" and describes it as "larger than Libya and Asia together," housing "a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power." (Sounds a bit like Westeros). These and more detailed geographic descriptions are meant to lend credence to Plato's story-- a discussion of the perfect society -- though it's unknown whether he thought he was recounting a true story with a moral, or knew he was concocting pure allegory.

Fantasy islands as a literary device became popular early in the Age of Exploration, when reports were coming in from far and wide of newly discovered lands. In 1516, Thomas More placed his Utopia off the coast of Brazil, then recently visited by Amerigo Vespucci. As for its exact location, More said "someone coughed" when its exact longitude and latitude were related at court. But he specifies that the island is 200 miles across, and crescent-shaped; that it was a peninsula, until its king had a channel dug to separate it from the mainland; and that it contains 54 cities, each divided in four equal quarters. A map printed with Utopia's first edition shows the island to be vaguely skull-shaped. (These tales of Atlantis and other fantastical empires have a pendant in Essos, the other continent in Game of Thrones; it too once housed a great civilization, its former seat of power said to be haunted by demons.)

Distant fictional lands as settings for social satire and morality tales would remain a literary trope throughout the centuries that followed -- think of Gulliver's travels to the fantastical island of Lilliput; or the Island of Despair, where the fictional Robinson Crusoë was marooned for 28 years (curiously, again located off the Brazilian coast). Most editions of that book included a map of the fictional island, showing the locations of some main events in the story. Unlike the islands described by Swift and Defoe, Martin's alternate world is not designed to satirize or criticize society, but as the stage for a good, old-fashioned yarn. In this respect, it shares much with Robert Louis Stevenson's most enduring contribution.

One rainy afternoon in the early 1880s, Scotland would change fantasy cartography forever, by propelling the map itself to center stage. While sojourning in the Highlands with his family, Stevenson glanced over his stepson Lloyd's shoulder as he was coloring in an island of his own devising -- and immediately started improving upon it, adding Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, and other features, naming it "Treasure Island." "Oh, but for a story about it!" exclaimed the stepson, as he later recollected (at the time, he probably was a very annoyed Lloyd).

Not only did the map of Treasure Island precede the story, it also generated an entire subset of entertainment literature -- treasure hunts, novels with end papers covered in maps, and charts dotted with Xs that "mark the spot." Boys' adventure stories would never be the same again: whenever kids want to fabricate a story using pen and paper in the post-Stevenson world, they're more likely to map a fantasy world than tediously describe it in those throwbacks to a bygone age -- full sentences.

George R.R. Martin's world did not start with a map, however. The author of A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of books adapted for TV as Game of Thrones, envisaged the opening scene of the first book, and from there on, as Martin liked to say, borrowing from J.R.R. Tolkien, "the tale grew in the telling."

One of many similarities with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cycle is not just the reliance on maps as guides to the story, but even the look and feel of them. Like Tolkien, who created the maps that illustrated The Hobbit and the Ring trilogy, Martin himself assumed the role of First Cartographer, and his own maps appear in the books. Even though Martin is a Bayonne-born New Jersey boy, his anglophilia is evident in his reverence for Tolkien's trailblazing tale -- maps and all -- and the inspiration by certain key moments in British history.

Most of the action takes place on the continent of Westeros, which looks a bit like Great Britain. Some fans protest this, and they're right if you compare Westeros with the actual island; but place it next to a mirrored version of Britain, and it's a good fit. The main man-made feature of the island-continent is the Wall in the North, at 700 feet high and 300 miles long clearly an extrapolation of Hadrian's Wall in northern England (itself, a mere 73 miles long, and never higher than 20 feet).

The Wall is meant to keep out the Others, an infestation of revenants in no way comparable to most Scots. Size-wise, however, Westeros is in a different league altogether: it stretches for about 3,000 miles from the Wall to the south coast at Dorne, which if you overlay it on a map of Europe, covers a distance from northern Scandinavia all the way to the Mediterranean.

Some story elements refer to English history -- the seven kingdoms seem borrowed from the early Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy, and the conflict between the houses of Stark and Lannister will ring a bell to those familiar with the War of the Roses, fought between the Yorks and the Lancasters. But the scale, and the wider inspiration, is Medieval. Which explains -- but hardly excuses -- why almost everyone in Game of Thrones is white.

Are the constraints the fantasy genre imposes on itself just another way for TV to remain whiter than the real world? Perhaps. But at least Martin's fantasy, which is about as multicultural as an Amish prayer group, is less deplorable than Tolkien's Middle-Earth, where all the heroes are white, and are endowed with individuality, whereas most of the villains, part of warrior collectives that know only to mindlessly attack and destroy, are swarthy savages from the South and East.

Center stage, as with Tolkien, is an area concurrent with our concept of "the West." Heck, it's even called Westeros. Unlike Tolkien's West, Martin's version is not the repository of all that's good and right about the world. Morally, Westeros is a gigantic grey area: there are no squeaky-clean good guys, no cartoonishly evil bad guys. Each individual is driven by his or her sense of honor, conflicting as those often are with each other. Which is both refreshing, and problematic: Who are the viewers supposed to root for? Perhaps no one. Perhaps Game of Thrones chimes with these post-idealist, neo-isolationist times: Why support either side in the Syrian civil war -- they're both unpalatable, shame they can't both lose.

As in many bloody, multipolar conflicts, certainties in Martin's world are few, and loyalties easily shifted. A reversal of dynastic fortunes is typically swift and cruel. But the show could have benefited from a bit of Marx to balance out all that Machiavelli. In the real world, economic substructure informs the political agenda. In Game of Thrones, however, all politics is personal. War and peace are based on alliances, allegiances, debts, and vendettas between the high and mighty -- never on something as mundane as the price of wool or access to exotic spices. The U.S. military-political complex is not above personalizing foreign conflicts as an understandable shorthand for more complex, or more obscure motives. Hence the focus on "bad guys" like Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad, and others before them -- thereby fostering the illusion that each conflict can be solved by their removal.

True to the dictum -- however questionable -- that democracies don't go to war, the world of Game of Thrones has no use for them. This world is strictly pre-French Revolution. The Iron Throne may be contested, and kings high and low may be interchangeable, but the idea itself of the nobility's right to produce kings and queens, and rule over everyone else, is unquestioned.

Geography at least helps wrest the conflicts away from individual actors, involving the lay of the land as a determinant of the outcome. In the first season, the alliance between the Targeryen, claimants to the Iron Throne, and the Dothraki, a cross between the Huns and the World Wrestling Federation, is considered less pressing because they are confined to a different continent. Again, one can look at the United Kingdom, saved by its splendid isolation from the wars on the Continent.

But the geography of Martin's world, as emphasized by the dynamic map in the opening sequence, also works in perfidious ways. Geographic space is reduced to a chessboard, or the map of Risk: an arena for combat. By creating spatial difference, geography becomes an engine for conflict. If that sounds both simplistic and dire, it's unfortunately not without example in our reality. Complex conflicts -- from the U.S. Civil War to the Cold War -- have at times been reduced to "North vs. South" or "East vs. West" (but never Northeast vs. Southwest -- only the cardinal directions generate lethal animosity).

The four corners of the world don't merely produce centrifugality, however. Geographic space can work centripetally as well: in the second season of Game of Thrones, it seems every army is drawn, like moths towards a flame, from every part of the Known World to the seat of power on Westeros. In the real world too, such strange attractors exist -- Jerusalem, long ago the center of every symbolic world map, and the object of multiple (and mostly failed) Crusades, still is the focal point of three world religions. Both Serbs and Albanians are drawn to the history soaked Field of Blackbirds in Kosovo, while not quite everyone in Ulster agrees whether it should be in Ireland or the United Kingdom.

Game of Thrones is a fun way to indulge in the moral ambiguities, cynical power play, and sheer bloody combat of a fantasy world, and still go to bed without nightmares. For this world is all stage, without any complex, real-world consequences. No hospital wards filled with mutilated war veterans. No decades-long struggles with post-traumatic stress. It's guilt-free war porn, and the ultimate parlor game for students of past, present, and future conflict.