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The Clan vs. Modern, State-Dependent “Individualism”

Thomas Hart Benton, "Independence and the Opening of the West," 1961

Thomas Hart Benton, “Independence and the Opening of the West,” 1961

1,612 words

Writing for Cato Unbound, Mark Weiner, author of The Rule of the Clan, recently made several correct observations about the problem of reconciling statelessness or “small government” with American conceptions of individual liberty. 

Many of my readers tend toward libertarianism, and I favor libertarian ideas by default. As a natural-born American, it’s in my DNA. You know what I’m talking about.

However, I also think it’s important to look at how the State makes this swaggering self-conception of the romantic one-against-all rugged individualist possible, and how this modern anti-clannishness actually makes the individual more dependent on the modern State.

To begin, let’s look at Weiner’s essay, and go over what he got right.

What Weiner calls “rule of the clan” is similar to the male group mentality I identified in The Way of Men  as “the way of the gang.” Weiner admits that the “rule of the clan” is a natural, universal form of human organization which exerts a “gravitational pull,” and that it is the object of modern liberal government to resist that pull. He defines the “rule of the clan” first as a society based on kinship, but notes that extra-genetic kinship is possible, and points to the existence of gangs and criminal brotherhoods which inevitably form in the smooth, derelict spaces of failed or impotent State influence.

Weiner is also sharp for making the distinction between the modern, liberal idea of honor, which is a self-imposed standard of moral goodness, and the clannish or traditional idea of honor, where individual honor is linked to both the reputation of the group as a whole and the individual’s reputation within the group. He reduces and degrades this primal, tribal form of honor with a vulgar financial analogy, but recognizes that group honor enables group autonomy and group independence. He also recognizes the profound benefits offered by group identification. In his words, the way of the clan “fosters a powerful sense of group solidarity,” “gives persons the dignity and unshakable identity that comes from clan membership,” and “generates a powerful drive toward social justice — a political economy that prizes equality.”

Weiner’s admission of the benefits of clannishness is significant, because he sums up many far-right and reactionary criticisms of modern liberalism and globalism. The prices of liberal, globalist modernity include rootlessness, detachment, an emptiness and desperation for identity that is easily exploited by commercial interests, a lack of community, and a lack of intra-national loyalty that encourages financial greed and insulates elites from the social responsibilities of nobility and the social penalties for betraying their kin, neighbors and countrymen. As the modern, liberal State is easily influenced by large amounts of money, it also insulates the wealthiest individuals from taking physical responsibility for their crimes and betrayals.

Can there be any doubt that it is only the armed protection of the State that has made it possible for the gun-grabbing billionaire Michael Bloomberg to escape a spectacular skyscraper defenestration?

Weiner argues that the modern libertarian idea of individualism, “the modern self” — which generally includes a freedom from responsibility to clan beyond the immediate nuclear family and voluntary instead of mandatory association with groups — is a in fact a product of state development which owes its fragile sense of individual autonomy to the legal protections provided by the state and the conditions of modern life.

This makes perfect sense to me, because I’ve never understood the weird, crypto-religious libertarian obsession with the idea of “natural rights.”  I have always understood “rights” as a bargain between rulers and subjects, or in the case of the American democratic ideal, between “the people” and “their” government. In nature, men have no rights. There are no police to call and there is no mechanism to sue any entity that has wronged you or “infringed upon your natural rights.” This is why the primal form of human organization is not the pioneer nuclear family of libertarian individualist fantasy, but the patriarchal clan or tribe or gang of men who unite to provide coordinated protection against danger, and a communal mechanism for righting wrongs or resolving disputes. How “fair” or “just” these tribal systems of resolution and retribution actually are is varied, culturally relative, and subject to taste.

Weiner has concluded that, for the liberal state to thrive and continue to deliver on its promise of individual freedom and autonomy, it must do a better job of doing the things the clan has always done better. He suggests that the state “pursue policies that moderate economic inequality,” “provide space for the flourishing of voluntary civil society organizations that provide opportunities for solidarity,” and “ensure that individuals have fair opportunities to exercise their autonomy within the marketplace,” whatever that means.

At first glance, his suggestions sound OK, if you’re into that whole “saving the modern liberal state” thing.

However, after a closer look, they quickly become unworkable. He is also overindulgent of the fictions of the modern State, and he barely mentions the biggest elephants in the room.

When the State pursues policies that moderate economic inequality,  to do so, it must become more nationalistic — more clannish, even — not more economically libertarian. A chief contributor to economic inequality in America is surely the ability of corporations, wealthy individuals, even small businesses to undercut American labor and outsource it to foreigners. A little more economic protectionism and certain degree of nationalistic isolationism might go a long way in the long term, but would be damaging to “the economy” in the short term. American politicians are necessarily short-term planners, because they are held accountable in the short-term, so the likelihood of American politicians acting to serve the long term good of the nation while cutting off a foreign supply of cheap labor for corporations, wealthy individuals and small business owners in the short term is approximately zero. This is probably why, for all of their populist posturing about getting tough on immigration, and despite widespread popular support for immigration control, conservative politicians almost always fold.

When Weiner says he wants the State to “provide space for the flourishing of voluntary civil society organizations that provide opportunities for solidarity,” that sounds good, but the reality is that the State as it currently exists would end up micromanaging these organizations to the point where no one would actually want to be members of them anyway. The alternative would be the State creating space for organizations which, if left to flourish organically in harmony with human nature, would eventually challenge the authority of the State itself. Surely, no explicitly kin-oriented groups could be encouraged, especially for white people, because that would be racist. No groups that exclude women could be allowed, because that would be sexist. And the more the State intervenes to regulate and sanction the activities of individuals who associate voluntarily, the more laughable this whole idea of individual autonomy within the context of the State becomes.

What Weiner really fails to acknowledge with this suggestion, even though it is implicit in everything he has written, is that opportunities for “solidarity” and truly meaningful group bonding are a threat to the State, which exactly why there isn’t more room for them now.

People already express group solidarity in ways that are acceptable to the state and its corporate sponsors. They become sports fans. They invest money and time and emotional energy in a group identity that revolves around the dramatic but completely inconsequential activities of, usually, a gang of men.

If men put the same amount of time or energy into forming a highly visible organization with ethnic concerns, for example, half of their enthusiastic new members would probably be FBI agents, because that kind of loyalty would threaten the interests of the liberal state by creating an alternative — and clannish — network of support. The power of the liberal state depends on dependency, and as Weiner has noted, even libertarianism depends on it to protect “rights” and “liberties.”

Finally, in his ode to the State, Weiner perpetuates the fiction that the American State is some kind of benevolent expression of the will of its citizen voters, and he all but ignores the most powerful actors in American politics: corporations. Corporations amass enough money to fund, manufacture and distribute the scientific miracles we use on an everyday basis, but they also perpetuate their own amoral existences by using that money to buy and exert influence on the American political system, whether they are American or foreign-based corporations. Because corporations can exert so much more influence on politics than any voter, the modern liberal state has become a tool of corporate interests, not as Weiner idealizes, a guarantor of individual liberty.

The clan, gang or tribe poses an economic threat to corporations by creating alternative support systems, reduced consumption of goods produced extra-tribally, and the possibility of supply-chain disrupting inter-tribal violence or violence against the State. The State will always oppose clannishness because the state responds first to the interests of self-perpetuating legal entities known as corporations, and because the State is, itself, a self-perpetuating legal entity that will, like any fundamentally amoral corporation, act to perpetuate its own survival above all other concerns.

If the State is over-reaching and becoming the biggest threat to the liberties it supposedly protects, as many men with libertarian tendencies now believe, the solution is not a return to the atomized, go-it-alone individualism that ultimately relies on the liberal State. The only viable option is to increase clannishness or tribalism, which Weiner correctly identified as the natural counter to the modern liberal State.



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  1. rhondda
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    You know I feel I am stating the obvious here, but I will say it anyway. The people who opened up North America were men. In Canada we had the Coureur de Bois — individual explorers and fur traders and they were mostly French. That is why I get annoyed at English Canadians who disparage Quebec. Hey, who first came here? Then all the English Explorers were MEN. Men alone and men in groups. The settlers came later. Why is this forgotten? Yes, they shacked up with native women. Probably a mistake, but it happened. And for your information, Bannock that fry bread that everyone thinks is Indian was actually introduced to them by Scots men. Men, got that Men, WHITE MEN.

    • Stronza
      Posted March 18, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

      Men who back home had white women of one kind or another (wife/mother/sister/housekeeper) keeping things in order. And after all that arduous exploring, mapping, and surveying – women were needed to help clear the land and grow and prepare food for the hardworking men. And make a few babies, too. And provide rootedness, a center from which they could continue their nation building. No, I’ve never seen a decent society built without men, but I haven’t seen one built without women, either.

      Lordjeezus, it’s yin and yang, inbreath and outbreath. “Useless each without the other.” (Longfellow)

      That these men couldn’t go a year or so without a woman, any kind of woman, is demonstrated by all those shackups with abo females.

      • rhondda
        Posted March 18, 2014 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

        Well Stronza, maybe in the US what you say is true, but here in Canada we had lots of adventurers who did not have someone at home to keep order. As I said, the settlers came later and yes indeed they kept order. But there were no women traveling down the rivers and trading with the Indians. Surveying etc was not the order of the day. That came later too. It was not a job, it was their life. Conning Indians out of their furs was very lucrative. We didn’t have Indian wars, we just traded useful and pretty things. Probably the original libertarians, until the English imposed their laws which most likely was a good thing at the time. Some Indians still have this idea that the Queen should speak on their behalf. Since there was no universal Indian and some tribes hated other tribes, it was easy to pit one against the other. It still happens, only it is lawyers doing it.
        I do have to ask though what is your definition of a decent society?

        • Stronza
          Posted March 19, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          First I would like to say that those adventurers you mention had a mother or at least a female caretaker when they were small. It was women who raised them. They came from nations filled with women doing their duty to their nation and men. They didn’t spring up magically full grown, they came from women doing their part, which as you know consists of far more than pushing the baby out. Men built the homes (in the broad sense) and women made them worth inhabiting.

          Anyway. A “decent society” is one where all the leaders and all the citizens are aware, and act on, the knowledge that civilization sits on a foundation of self-restraint and a recognition that no one is self-sufficient. There’d be no need for infestation by vultures, parasites or hyenas to feed off the filth, injustice and disrespect for Nature that’s roiling beneath the surface of societies who don’t have that recognition. Thank you for asking, Rhondda. Somebody here asking my opinion is a heady experience for me!

  2. LovedIt
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Yet another awesome Jack Donovan piece. Is there no end to the awesomeness Sir?

  3. Robert Pinkerton
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    “… Because corporations can exert so much more influence on politics than any voter, the modern liberal state has become a tool of corporate interests, not as Weiner idealizes, a guarantor of individual liberty…”

    Why should this be surprising? Throughout The Mind and Society,, Pareto takes as axiomatic that the democratic republic is the precursor of plutocratic oligarchy.

  4. Arindam
    Posted March 18, 2014 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    The main point made in this essay is of great importance: the enemy of the State is not the atomized individual (for such an individual is usually too weak to threaten it), but the close-knit community. Indeed, it is quite common for the the strengthening of the State to be accompanied by the decline of communities (both qualitatively and quantitatively) and their replacement by crowds of strangers – the replacement of a people with a population (to use Spengler’s distinction).

    One could perhaps justify such a phenomenon if one could demonstrate that humans are happier as atomized individuals than as members of cohesive communities… but as far as I’m aware, whatever evidence exists points to the opposite.

    [Curiously, what Mr. Donovan refers to as ‘the clan’ is not dissimilar to what anarchists had in mind when they spoke of ‘society’ in opposition to the State. A case in point would be Kropotkin’s ‘The State: Its Historic Role

  5. Jaego
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Well there are successful Organization, Nations, and Clans without Liberty. But we believe it is a God given Right anyway. And thus we fight for it. It’s a very useful belief system even if not True. For the more philosophical, it accords with Justice which is part of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful and is worth fighting for for that reason. Of course not everyone’s Liberty is of equal value…

  6. James
    Posted March 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this terrific piece. I hope Donovan writes something longer (book-length) on this topic, it is desperately needed. Some paragraphs of this piece, if not the whole thing, are worth their weight in gold. I will be referring people to this piece. I try to say stuff like this to people & they think I’m crazy. I haven’t always agreed with every single thing Jack Donovan says but a huge thank-you for this desperately needed piece of sanity & reality.

  7. R_Moreland
    Posted March 22, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink

    I’d like to think we could have a free society. I’d like to see liberty as a higher ideal of white people.

    The dilemma is how do you deal with those who do not buy into the social contract which makes a free society feasible? To give an obvious example: what ought to be the policy of a white state to post-modern egalitarians who push for laws censoring dissent (as hatespeech); or who attempt to shut down pro-white organizations via legalisms or mob violence; or who promote a rigid ideological conformity in academia and the media? And what of those totalitarian egalitarians who brought us Bolshevism in its various forms?

    This has been a debate which has gone on for quite some time: “Do you deny freedom to those who would use a free society to destroy it?”

    (I am not even going to go into the numerous non-white demographics who demand an expansion of state power under the guide of affirmative action and a thousand other race hustles. They are explicit in their demand for state power. This is something that should be considered, but will not, by those conservatives who claim that by doing minority “outreach” they can round up more votes for “small government.”)

    But if white people are faced with an existential threat, does that mean only by a total war sort of mobilization can we survive?

    I’d like to think that White people have a destiny. Perhaps it was that vision of going to the stars which once motivated the US space program. Certainly, white people laid the foundations for the most incredible civilization of all time during an era of laissez faire. Of course, we are losing all that today.

    As a side note: one reason that the movie “Fight Club” has had such resonance was that it evoked that clannishness as a form of underground resistance in which men could reclaim their natural liberties.

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