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.