Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Smash the State! Anarchism in Medieval Iceland

"Smash the State!" is the slogan for the anarchists.

Here the "State" is defined as the institutionalized government that claims a monopoly on the legitimized use of force over a certain territory (to use Max Weber's famous definition). As this definition suggests, the authority of the State ultimately rests on violence, because the State originates typically through military conquest, with the conquerors becoming the rulers.

The State also depends on agriculture. The first states arose during that crucial point in human social evolution when human beings moved from nomadic foraging (or hunting-gathering) societies to settled agricultural societies. Farming allowed for increasing and concentrated populations with a greater division of labor than had been possible in foraging societies. For the first time in human history--in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica--a class of farmers provided a surplus of food that supported a ruling elite--priests, bureaucrats, soldiers, and kings--who extracted resources through taxation, coercive labor, and military conscription.

These agrarian states provided the conditions for high civilization--economic wealth, technological innovation, cultural progress (particularly, through the invention of writing), bureaucratic administration, and military power. But that high civilization came with a big price--the loss of the freedom from domination that human beings enjoyed in foraging societies. Among foragers, the inequality of power, wealth, and status is minimal. Foraging societies don't allow some to tyrannize over others. But agrarian states allow ruling elites to live by exploiting those they rule.

Consequently, the history of politics over the past 8,000 years has been a conflict between freedom and domination--with the rulers inclined to tyrannical domination and the ruled looking for ways to escape that domination. There often seems to be no good resolution to the conflict because human beings seem to be caught in a dilemma of having to choose between freedom without civilization and civilization without freedom.

Classical liberalism attempts to overcome this dilemma through liberal democratic capitalism. The combination of a liberal society, a democratic polity, and a capitalist economy is thought by the classical liberals to promote both freedom and civilization: people can be socially, politically, and economically free while enjoying all the benefits of a progressive civilization. But such a regime allows for great inequality in social status, political power, and economic wealth, and so those who hold the higher ranks will be inclined to exploit those at the lower ranks.

To me, this shows the tragic conflicts in human social life that arise from natural desires that cannot be changed. The natural desires for social status, political rule, and economic wealth will always create inequalities of rank that will incline those at the top to become tyrannical. But while we cannot totally eliminate such tragic conflicts, we can mitigate them through social, political, and economic structures of countervailing power that create competing elites so that power does not become concentrated or unchecked. Such a system is imperfect. But it's the best we can do.

Or is it? The anarchists argue that the only real solution to our problem is to abolish the state. As long as the state exists--with its territorial monopoly on legitimized coercive force--those in the ruling classes will use the power of the state for their selfish benefit.

There's an amazing variety in the schools of anarchist thought. But one main division is between the communal anarchists and the capitalist anarchists. The communal anarchists believe that to abolish the state we must abolish private property, because inequality in private property will always bring about statism as the rich seek state power for their benefit. The capitalist anarchists believe that anarchy can be best achieved in a system of private property and capitalism where power would be dispersed through free competition.

Despite their disagreements, both the communal anarchists and the capitalist anarchists would agree in their denying my claim that political power is a natural human desire that cannot be abolished. On the contrary, they would say, the history of social evolution shows that human beings have lived in anarchic societies without government. Through most of human evolution, human beings lived in foraging societies without government, although this required a primitive way of life without the advantages of the high civilization made possible by farming. Furthermore, there seem to be a few cases of anarchy in highly civilized societies with farming.

One of the most widely discussed examples of civilized anarchy is medieval Iceland during the period of the "Free Commonwealth" (930-1262). In the second half of the ninth century, King Harald Fairhair unified Norway under his rule. Some of his people fled his rule and found their way to Iceland, where they established a social system based on Norwegian traditions, but without a king or any centralized executive authority. The only centralized authority in Iceland was an assembly of local chieftains who represented their assemblymen. Every assemblyman was attached to a chieftain to whom he paid a fee. The chieftaincy was private property that could be bought and sold. The assemblymen could change their allegiance without changing their residence, so the chieftaincies were not based on territory. This freedom of assemblymen to move from one chieftaincy to another (along with their fees) created a free competition between chieftains so that chieftains had an incentive to serve their assemblymen. The legal system worked largely through private enforcement based on arbitration. Victims initiated prosecution of offenders.

This system worked well for almost 300 years until 1230. By then, six large families had gained control of most of the original chieftaincies, and the competition between these led to civil wars. Once the rich farmers grew frustrated with the disorder of the civil wars, they accepted the invitation of the King of Norway to become part of his kingdom in 1262.

This example of the Icelandic Commonwealth has been used by capitalist anarchists--particularly, David Friedman and Roderick Long--to show how a stateless society could work through capitalist free markets and private arbitration, without any need for a centralized bureaucratic state.

Communal anarchists have responded by arguing that medieval Iceland was not a capitalist industrialized society, but was, rather, a society based on communal self-management, which was more like guild socialism than capitalism. Furthermore, they argue that what brought about the collapse of this communal anarchy was the growth in economic inequality from the accumulation of private property, which shows that anarchy requires the abolition of private property in favor of communal property. This has provoked a debate between Friedman and his critics as to whether the example of Iceland supports Friedman's anarcho-capitalism.

But for the sake of my argument, the key point here is that while Iceland was "stateless"--in the sense that it did not have a centralized bureaucratic state apparatus--it still had political rule. It was a chiefdom, but with multiple competing chieftains. So what we see here is not the absence of government, but rather the freedom from tyranny that can come from a system of decentralised, limited government. The natural desire for political rule was not eliminated. But it was channeled through a system of competing elites and countervailing power that secured freedom and minimized exploitative domination.

Some anthropologists have spoken about social and political evolution as if it were a progressive movement through stages--band, tribe, chiefdom, state--so that the state is somehow the predetermined end. But what is significant about the Viking settlers of Iceland is that they apparently chose to escape from the tyranny of King Harald's feudal state to establish a system of chieftaincies without centralized state authority. If this is so, this suggests that the evolution towards the state can be reversed.

Some other posts on anarchism can be found here, here. and here.


Troy Camplin said...

I would generally agree with your analysis. However, it may be that the Icelanders didn't so much "reverse" as discover ahead of everyone else a working decentralized spontaneous order form of government. What is beyond the "state"? Let us hope that it is true spontaneous order government -- what all social orders are evolving toward (when not interrupted, of course).

joseph kenneth malone said...

Another possible example of an anarchist society was the Metis Nation in early Western Canada. See George Woodcock's biograpy of Gabriel Dumont.

SA23 said...

Indeed, or the highland civilization of Zomia as described in Scott's The Art of Not Being Governed.

I also recommend Graeber's Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.

Also, please see this, on the distinction between types of "capitalism":