Some Background: I’ve noticed in casual statist critiques of anarchism that the charge of naivety or being “unrealistic” gets thrown around a lot. When asked for explanation, one is usually treated with a Hobbesian explanation of man’s state of nature, i.e. that without the state our lives are poor, nasty, brutish and short. Somalia is often mentioned. As an example, here’s a bit of an exchange that happened recently on The FaceBooks when a gentleman posted a link to The Karl Hess Institute, someone responded with:
There’s delusion for you.
It would be lovely, I agree, if things worked that way: but they don’t. All of human history and comparison of present societies demonstrates that beyond question. Go this route and you get places like Somalia, Darfur, and the tribal areas of Pakistan. It is prescription for return to primitive chaos and violence where human potential is stunted. Civilization requires increasing order as a prerequisite.
My Take: Now, I have problems with a few of the positions taken here. First, I take issue with the Somalia canard. This is thrown in the faces of libertarians/anarchists quite a bit, and I’m not entirely sure it’s fair. First, it’s not even entirely clear that Somalia is what the statists say it is. As Kevin Carson points out:
Second, “Somalia” does not equal “Mogadishu.” Most of the horrific, Mad Max scenes captured in Somalia are in Mogadishu, where the central state was most powerful before the collapse and the institutions of civil society were accordingly most atrophied. As Roderick Long, director of C4SS’s parent body the Molinari Institute, put it, “the farther one gets away from Mogadishu, the more one gets into relatively peaceful areas that have always been anarchic or close to it, barring occasional intrusions from the statebuilders in the city.” In other words, the further you get from Mogadishu, the less Somalia resembles “Somalia,” and the more it resembles the kind of stable society described by James Scott.
So, there’s a conflation going on already with the conditions in Somalia. Not only that, but there’s more than a hint of ethnocentrism in the mix, since the entire Somalia argument is predicated on comparing current conditions in Somalia to conditions in the U.S. (or Western Europe or what have you). Instead, the best point of comparison for Somalia now is Somalia when it had a state:
Third, the proper comparison to Somalia is not the United States and similar societies in the West, but to the actual state that existed in Somalia before the collapse of central power. Given that comparison, things in Somalia aren’t that bad at all. For example: a study by Benjamin Powell, Ryan Ford and Alex Nowrasteh took “a comparative institutional approach to examine Somalia’s performance relative to other African countries both when Somalia had a government and during its extended period of anarchy.” And it found that Somalia, when subjected to an honest comparison — “between Somalia when it had a functioning government, and Somalia now” — is less poor, has higher life expectancy, and has experienced a drastic increase in telephone lines.
So, Somalia is probably better off now that it is stateless than when it had one of those shiny governments that keep the bloodthirsty rabble in line. Maybe it’s just me, but Somalia doesn’t sound like a clear-cut case against statelessness at all.
So, that’s the Somalia issue. But what of some of the other charges levied against anarchists, especially the position that there no examples of anarchism in practice? Well, for one thing, I’d argue that any time someone engages in mutual aid, that’s anarchism in action right there. But if you need Big and Grand examples of anarchism, all we have to do is look to southern Mexico:
Today, quite remarkably, the Zapatista’s continue to survive as a movement controlling a large swathe of Chiapas, probably around 150,000 people in around 1,300 communities that continues to build an infrastructure of eduction, health clinics and co-ops independent of the state. Much of the funding comes from the coffee co-ops which produce and sell organic Zatatista branded coffee. They remain isolated but Mexico is a powder keg due to the extreme division between wealth and poverty it contains both internally and due to the US border so the Zapatistas remain placed to break out of that isolation with the next wave of popular struggle.
A whole generation has now grown up in these free communities, a generation that the EZLN described in 2005 as “those who were children in that January of ’94 are now young people who have grown up in the resistance, and they have been trained in the rebel dignity lifted up by their elders throughout these 12 years of war. These young people have a political, technical and cultural training that we who began the zapatista movement did not have.”
The whole article is worth reading as an excellent (and short) primer on how the Zapatistas removed state power from Chiapas and, after 17 years, are still living in radical free communities. There may be things to disagree with in how the Zapatistas removed the state, or whether it’s a perfect vision of anarchism, but there are 150,000 people living in a free Chiapas who are a testament to the fact that anarchism can work. That’s pretty cool, and it seems odd for proponents of the state to erase these people from their discourse.
So, thirdly I guess, my problem with the argument presented against anarchists is that it takes a view of human nature that I do not hold. As I mentioned, the “government is needed to create order” position seems to be taken straight from the tradition of Hobbes, who viewed his fellows as little more than beasts to be feared. If that’s honestly how you feel about those around you: that your friends, your family, your co-workers, neighbors, etc., if not for the threat of the police and military, would all be giving into fearsome primal urges, then I feel a bit of pity for you. It must be a sad life to think so little of your fellow man. For my part, I think the evidence is overwhelming that people generally engage with each other for mutual benefit, not because the threat of violence hangs over their head like a spectre, but because most people generally recognize that mutually beneficial relationships are… mutually beneficial. The vast majority of transactions that occur daily between people have no significant involvement – or even threat of involvement – from the state, but we usually go about our business without man-made catastrophe awaiting every action.
It seems to be the tendency of statists to trumpet the great, sweeping wars and conflicts of history (usually perpetuated by state actors, it should be noted) as The True Face of Mankind, while ignoring the quiet, daily activity that – by far – makes up the experience of most people. Why should that be? At best, it would seem to be prudent to decide that “the jury is still out” when it comes to human nature, but in any case: if man is decent, as I believe, what need of a state? And if he is as terrible as the statists believe, why would you want him to rule over us?
Note: This is part one in an ongoing series. Look for more posts on this topic from Agreeable Anarchism’s other bloggers soon!