The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on July 6, 2011
The Eternal Return of the Tribe

The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science focuses on a single topic in each issue. In its July 2011 issue the topic is “Patrimonial Power in the Modern World”, edited by two sociologists, Julia Adams and Mounira Charrad. The topic is interesting in itself, and the several authors provide a vivid picture of the survival and diversity of patrimonialism in the contemporary world. The topic also raises some interesting questions beyond the immediate political phenomenon.

Max Weber, the classical German sociologist, is correctly cited by the co-editors as having formulated the most widely accepted definition of patrimonialism. It is power on the basis of kinship and other patron-client relationships. It is the most common form of political authority in traditional societies before the rise of centralized states and empires. Such authority is exercised by way of personal loyalties rather than formal rules. The tribal chief is the prototypical leader in patrimonial regimes. The counter-type is the bureaucrat. Every political system, even if originally established by crude force, is dependent on trust in its legitimacy if it is to survive over time. In a patrimonial system one trusts the chief because he belongs to one’s tribe and embodies its tradition. In what Weber called a “legal-rational” system one trusts the bureaucrat because he occupies an office established by proper procedures; indeed one trusts these procedures rather than the particular individual they have placed in the office. Along with most social theorists in his time and since, Weber believed that the decline of patrimonialism and the move toward legal rationality have come to be inevitable features of modernity. The end result of this process he called an “iron cage”.

An anecdote from the time of the British empire sharply illustrates the difference between patrimonial and legal-rational authority. In West Africa (I forget in which country the story is supposed to have happened) the British did what they did elsewhere in their empire. Most criminal and civil cases continued to be adjudicated before traditional judges; courts set up by the colonial government itself only dealt with a few serious crimes (naturally, above all crimes directed against the colonial government). Thus tribal chiefs were delegated by the government to hold court in the traditional way, guided by what was called “tribal law”—actually a misnomer, since this had little to do with “law” as understood in British courts. The story has it that, be it for reasons of economy or efficiency, a tribal chief was asked to extend his jurisdiction to a neighboring tribe. He demurred: “How can I judge these people?  I do not know  them!” The contrast could hardly be clearer. In a modern legal system a judge must recuse himself if he knows any of the people in a case before the court. In the story the traditional judge wanted to recuse himself because he did not know the people who would come before him.

The Annals volume challenges the inevitability of Weber’s “iron cage”. Or, more precisely, it suggests a picture of the “cage” being imposed on social formations that continue to resist it. Randall Collins, a well-known sociologist, contributes a useful conceptual article in which he distinguishes tribes and pseudo-tribes. Originally all tribes were based on an extended form of kinship. Pseudo-tribes include people who have no biological kinship ties, but who are tied to each other in a solidarity that resembles kinship ties. The Mafia is a perfect example. Not for nothing will a particular unit call itself a “family” no matter whether either the leaders or the members are “really” related. Even under modern Western law a husband or wife cannot be forced to testify against each other. The Mafia practice of omerta—the refusal to cooperate with state courts—is the archaic form of modern marital immunity, and probably its historical origin. It would be a mistake, though, to equate pseudo-tribes with criminal activity. Perfectly non-criminal groups that resist or modify state interventions can also form pseudo-tribes, such as neighborhood and ethnic associations. Every politician in American cities is well aware of this, which is why he or she will risk heartburn by eating ethnic foods and sore feet by marching in ethnic parades. As if to recall their ancient roots, many of these pseudo-tribes will exhibit religious symbols—St. Patrick, San Gennaro or the Virgin of Guadalupe.

The Annals authors discuss a wide range of cases of patrimonialism, some contemporary, some in earlier periods of history. Thus it is instructive to consider the Putin regime in Russia as an instance of “neo-patrimonialism”, as it is instructive to look at the way in which the Manchu conquerors of China in the early 17th century blended their own patrimonial heritage with the “legal-rational” practices of Confucian bureaucracy. One of the volume’s editors, Mounira Charrad, discusses state-building and kin-based societies in the Arab world (Tunisia, Morocco and Iraq). The last of these cases is, of course, enormously significant today. In Iraq, but also in Afghanistan and now in Libya, it has become very clear that tribes continue to be crucially important for any project of strengthening central state power, no matter whether the state is authoritarian or (hopefully) democratic. It is at least arguable that democracy makes the project more difficult.

Anton Zijderveld, yet another sociologist (not represented in this volume), has developed the concept of the “abstract society” as intrinsic to modernity. The very concrete personal relationships of “pseudo-tribes” are a permanent accompaniment of the abstract structures. Sometimes these relationships are openly displayed, sometimes they persist underground. On the whole, they have had a bad press. “Tribalism” is usually mentioned pejoratively. It is seen as an obstacle to democracy and as a source of corruption. This is quite valid, as far as it goes. But there is another way of looking at this: tribal loyalties can also serve to humanize the abstractions of modern society.

Robert Musil, in his great novel The Man Without Qualities, recounts an incident when Ulrich, the central character, is arrested and processed in a police station. He experiences what he calls a “statistical disaggregation” of his person. He is reduced to the minimal characteristics relevant to the police investigation, while all the characteristics essential to his self-esteem are ignored. In one way or another, we experience something like this depersonalization in many situations. We are abstract objects of the juridical system in court, abstract patients in a hospital,  abstract consumers in the marketplace. Everything we cherish most about ourselves is strictly irrelevant—our intellectual achievements, our sense of humor or capacity for affection, not to mention the prerogatives of age. In such situations we instinctively reach out for “tribal” connections—for someone who knows who we are, with whom we share an ethnic or religious identity, or even someone who laughs at a joke we tell: in sum, someone who recognizes us in a personal way. I would propose that, in this respect, patrimonialism constitutes a humanization of modern abstraction. It seems to me that this insight has political implications, and not only in the Middle East.

I would not be misunderstood here. There is a romantic conservatism nostalgic for the communal solidarity of the tribal past. This is an understandable reaction against the impersonal abstraction of the large modern institutions. But this is not what I am talking about here. In this, as in so many social phenomena, what is required is an institutional balancing act. If one values the enormous increase in material wellbeing brought about by the market economy, and the equally enormous increase in personal freedom engendered by the democratic state and its rule of law, one will be prepared to pay the cost of a measure of anonymity endemic to these modern institutions—but not if that is all there is in modern life. No one needs to care who I “really am” in my performances as a worker and consumer, or as a citizen. Inevitably, although my name is inscribed on my credit card and my driver’s license, for all practical purposes I am “just a number”. I can live with this, as long as there are places “where they know my name” (to quote the theme song of that old television serial about a neighborhood bar).  There are institutions (pseudo-tribes, if you will) which recognize and nurture the name by which I want to be called.  In our little book To Empower People (1977), Richard Neuhaus and I called these institutions “mediating structures” (we discussed four of them: neighborhood, family, church and voluntary association). A more common designation for the aggregate of these institutions is “civil society”.

  • Adam

    I would only point out that the lead review in the current issue of The American Interest is entitled “Tribal Realism.” It is a review of Lionel Tiger’s newest book by Roger Sandall. I recommend it, but then I’m the editor, so I would, wouldn’t I?

    Let me also point out that Frank Fukuyama’s newest book, The Origins of Political Order, spends a lot of ink discussing patrimonialism and the rise of the state, as well as institutional decay. I recommend it, too. But then I would, wouldn’t I?

  • Richard Treitel

    I can’t say much without reading that issue of the _Annals_, but one kind of place that comes to mind immediately is the public school, or large (public or private) university, where a student is likely to be a statistically disaggregated list of characteristics. Some of the teachers may be quite skilled assembly line workers, but schooling on an assembly line is not a valid replacement for education that treats its raw material as whole people.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    A prosecutor friend of mine in postmodern California tells me humorous stories about how criminal court prosecutors suffer from role confusion. They sometimes believe their job is to be a social worker or a priest who can exonerate perpetrators from their crimes rather than a prosecutor seeking justice for victims and society.

    The apparent reason they suffer from role confusion is due to cultural value confusion. In postmodern relativist California there is a rejection against the rationalization of law as pointed out by sociologist Max Weber long ago. The Rational-Legal form of modern law no longer is desired in many sectors of the California legal system such as tort law, environmental law, and criminal law.

    Japanese political scientist Nathan Quimpo has an apt definition of patrimonialism as “a type of rule in which the ruler does not distinguish between personal and public patrimony and treats matters and resources of state as his personal affair.

    Infamous California Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird might have fit Quimpo’s definition of an oxymoronic feminist-patrimonialist jurist who could not distinguish between the courtroom and her personal and political predilections.

    Professor Berger wrote about the phenomenon of demodernized consciousness in his book The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness which I would recommend to anyone wanting to understand why patrimonialism is sometimes still desired over modern concepts and systems of law.

    Another book that might be helpful is Postmodern Legal Movements by Gary Minda (New York University, 1995) but this book lacks a conceptual or cultural framework from which to understand postmodern legal movements.

  • abraham aponte

    If Jacques Barzun’s thesis, From Dawn to Decadence is correct and the return of patrimonialism is also correct then as an individual I’m caught between being an enlightened citizen living as a disaggreagte member of many institutions that care little for my personal welfare, rather the welfare of the institution itself. It is a struggle to make each day filled with rays of hope. Are we really better with patrimonialism or is it a collective “instinct” to preserve our individual selves in a collective self?

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  • ARH

    I recently picked up the new Fukuyama book but have yet to begin. Reading this article made me think of a review I read about it. Excellent article on a topic I know little about, but have been pondering a lot lately.

    I’m particularly fascinated about the transformation of a society not from patrimony to rule of law, but the other way around. While the US is still a very stable country, I can’t help but wonder how little the political partisans (party supporters, not the politicians themselves) believe in patrimony rather than rule of law, even of they claim the latter. Partisans trust their tribe, even if the policy isn’t sacrosanct, hence why Kennedy and Reagan are held up as paradigms of virtue despite being less ideologically wed to the party faithful than they realize.

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