Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Public trust societies and kinship societies

Huntington famously argues that a clash of civilizations is underway, and locates it as a clash of religious traditions, Christianity and Islam. But it seems to me more correct to think of a clash, less of two universalist religious traditions, than of two fundamental organizational principles, kinship societies and those limited number of societies that have managed to establish, however incompletely, social organization on the basis of public trust that goes beyond ties of kinship. Those ‘public trust’ societies in one sense define modernity, but some of the core conditions predate modernity by centuries - monogamy and out-marriage, to start with.

Monogamy is a necessary, although obviously far from sufficient, condition of a society that is both egalitarian and free: a society in which a group of males has no real access to sexual reproduction is not an egalitarian society, by definition, nor a free one, and that inequality in reproductive access is tied to every other form of economic inequality. And that is to speak only of the men. From this standpoint, the fact that Christianity, for reasons that appear to me, at least, historically and even theologically quite contingent, favored both monogamy and out-marriage over cousin marriage, however much honored only in the breach, sets it apart as a form of social organization.

Modernity in some sense starts with those preconditions. The development of a social ethos that accepts the idea that individuals have fiduciary duties in the abstract, that do not pertain solely to those who are members of extended family groups - even where those extended family groups are as much or more socially, rather than genetically, defined - is what gives rise to the public trust necessary to modern Western society and the modern democratic state: that the state, and its officials, will treat people neutrally, without regard to kinship or other pre-modern markers of identity. Without that trust, the result is the form of the state, but an animating principle quite at odds with it. It is the marker of the rule of law and, it increasingly seems to me, the real line of division between societies today.

What gets the cultural cycle of public trust going in society? I have no idea but certainly it appears to be a long term cultural fact, rather than a short term political creation. Samuel Pepys, for example, wrote his diary at what appeared to be the beginning of a long term shift in English political culture: a time in which offices were still heritable and for sale, but also at a time when officials - in vital public positions such as the Royal Navy - were also beginning to be held to account for corruption and fraud. By the Industrial Revolution, the culture of the civil service was taking hold, and with it an ideal of neutrality in dealing with alternating governments and with the public. The very notion of “honor” and to whom it was owed had shifted.

The idea of equality before the law, in matters related to integrity of person, is a very old one and found widely across cultures. The idea of equality in the distribution of the largesse of state favor, and that it is dishonorable for me as a publi official to favor me and mine over you and yours in the matter of state property and privilege, because it is a “public trust,” is a quite new one, and very limited in cultural scope. Yet it is the basis of legitimacy - even more the democracy - of the modern state worldwide. What we call a ‘failed state’, after all, is almost by definition that there is no concept of public trust, that it has been exhausted and depleted.

(Useful reading on this includes James Bowman, Honor; and Francis Fukuyama, Trust. Of course, if your view is that all societies are equally successful in their social and cultural arrangements, just different, but no one is better or worse, then none of this will make much sense.)


hank_F_M said...

Public trust/kinship vs Christianity/Islam

Might I suggest that the two dichotomies are very related rather than opposed?

In many religious societies what they belive to be the behaviour of god is the model expected for human rulers.

Remember all the fuss about the Regansburg address.

The underling point being made was that

In the traditional Catholic Christian view God, who is always rational, always acts consistent with his nature thus Good for example is inherent in his nature not something He decided. Thus there can be a standard against public leaders performa their responsibilities and be evaluated, they should act rationally in accordence with Good. Thus members of socity can expect that their leaders will act rationally according to the good or at least consistanly wiht his own laws. Which even if it has been a long time since Western Governments were almost exclusively lead by at least nominal Catholics the concept has remained.

In Islam God is absolute he decides what is good and evil and can change his mind arbitrarily and irrationally. Thus political leaders tend to act that way. If you are ruled by such a person the only place you can put your trust is in kinship. The pattern will continue to exist even after Faith is lost.

Defiantly not a perfect correlation but they are so intertwined that we should not look for easy solutions.

Of course Benedict XVI was casting a much larger net than this one point and perhaps he is to optimistic that it can be overcome. But it points to a real contridiction.

Anonymous said...

Your post operates on two very different levels. On the basis of a society's marriage customs, it draws conclusions about that society's ability to create a "public trust" sense of propriety for its government officeholders. You see monogamy and out-marriage as necessary, though not sufficient, conditions for the development of an ethos of "public trust."

It seems to me that there is possibly a missing middle term. The argument, more fully stated, is that societies without a tradition of monogamy and out-marriage arrange themselves in clan structures, and the individual's perception of paramount loyalty to the clan necessarily prevents him from seeing himself as the trustee of the general public when he holds public office. That polygamy and in-marriage are supports of clan structure and clan loyalties is certain. But are clan loyalties necessarily the enemy of the idea of public trust?

The concept of the rule of law, and by extension of officials acting under a general public trust, arguably emerged in England as a result of a permanently inconclusive contest of power. The crown could never so wholly dominate the barons as to act arbitrarily with impunity, regardless of tradition or oath. But conversely, the barons could never make the crown wholly a creature of their will - in large measure because they possessed no unitary will except in opposition to an overreaching crown and therefore needed, however grudgingly the necessity might be confessed, an arbiter that might, at least in the ideal, be a genuinely neutral guardian of agreed-upon rights and forms.

And at that point comes the possibility. For though England was broken into fractious baronies internally united by oath and the self-interest of tenantry (and undoubtedly by marriage as well), yet there was room for a general loyalty to crown beyond that due to the local lord. And so also, in clan-based societies, where inter-clan conflicts might otherwise have only the resolution of he wins who has the greatest power, or the non-resolution of perpetual petty warfare, useful place might be found for a general government of ideally neutral judgment, and with it for a concept of public trust that goes beyond loyalty to clan, without obliterating that loyalty.

Wherever a divided society has concluded, perhaps through bitter experience, that maximalist demands are not worthwhile and that certain means are best never resorted to, and wherever such a society possesses any organs of general government, there may be space, even if at first as a purely practical compromise, for the idea and ideal of a general public trust.

That last bit, at least, is my hope for Iraq. There are less than encouraging signs that with the shift in the balance of power toward the central government, the Shia parties in large control of the government may smell victory and repudiate many of the practical accommodations they had made.

How very precious a thing civil society is! How much a wonder that we do not think of settling what others would only settle, what throughout history men have always settled, by force of arms. The most powerful position in the world at stake, five hundred odd uncertain votes in Florida and the vagaries of the electoral college giving each side a plausible argument, and no one thinks of arms. How very fortunate we are!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post. I have been wondering about this topic,so thanks for posting. I’ll likely be coming back to your blog...
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