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the cause of "Bonnie Prince Charlie," no robust public identity or state institution in the Highlands effectively superseded clans.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.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images


Load More Comments