I received an email today asking why the anarchic situation in Afghanistan hasn’t evolved toward a peaceful system of protection agencies as market anarchist theory predicts. Here’s the answer I sent back:

For one thing, anarchy doesn’t fully exist in Afghanistan; the u.s. is desperately trying to prop up a government, and they’re importing plenty of money and guns to make it happen. (Ditto for Somalia, mutatis mutandis; though Somalia’s been working out better because the population has a longer history of polycentric law.) For another, so long as everyone shares the default assumption that there’s going to be a monopoly state sooner or later, then everyone strives mightily to make sure their gang rather than some rival gang is in position to control that state once it materialises. Now a relatively peaceful anarchy can sometimes emerge even from a situation like that (there are some medieval examples), but it’s a lot easier when that assumption is given up.

A good analogy is the wars of religion that ripped Europe apart during the 16th and 17th centuries. The common assumption that fueled those wars was the assumption that every territory had to have a single monopoly religion. Obviously that generates a zero-sum game where everyone strives to make their religion the monopoly one – since if one religion is going to have the monopoly, everyone would rather have that be their own rather than the other guy’s. What brought religious peace to Europe was the idea of religious toleration – or in other words, the realisation that something other than a single victorious monopoly religion might count as a peaceful resolution of religious differences. Once people realise that the same thing applies to political toleration, it’ll be a lot easier to develop and maintain a polycentric legal order. (This is also a good example of how politics depends on culture. Just as governments end up better or worse depending on the prevailing cultural assumptions, so do anarchies.)

Any further suggestions, O readership? If so, I’ll send my questioner to the comments section here.


13 Responses to Afghanarchy

  1. Anon73 July 3, 2009 at 3:25 pm #

    There’s a quote on Francois Tremblay’s blog: “Anarchy is order, while government is civil war.” I think that is very apt in the Afghani situation. People sometimes point to an “anarchy” and say that its violence shows anarchy does not work. In the popular meaning of anarchy as chaos this might make sense. But, can a situation where many factions are killing each other to establish a monopoly state really be considered to exemplify the absence of a state?

    Conversely, many people say that under government there is peace, but this too is illusory: There is violence of the government against ordinary people and there is violence of “state wannabes”, i.e. gangs, mafias, private criminals, and others trying to either control the state directly or imitate it. If you look at Fascist Italy during WWII or North Korea today, a statist sees peace and order, but an anarchist sees a war of those with power against ordinary people without power.

  2. Rich Hammer July 3, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    Good question, Roderick. It deserves a Forum of the sort we organized in the Free Nation Foundation.

  3. Niccolo July 3, 2009 at 9:13 pm #

    I don’t know how people can think that Afghanistan is possibly what we mean when we talk about the ideas of an Anarchy.

    Sure, if it wasn’t in a state of war, then yes it might work out, but in any place, with government or without, war always brings misery. Is that such a surprise?

  4. Kevin Carson July 4, 2009 at 12:41 am #

    I’d respond the same as I do to liberals who hold up Somalia as an example of real-world anarchy: it’s not too surprising that you get all kinds of social pathologies when a centralized state collapses and leaves a vacuum, without any viable alternatives ready to take its place. It would take up a lot of space just quoting all the anarchists who stated the same commonplace: that if the state disappeared tomorrow, but everything else remained the same, it would be rebuilt in no time. The state causes civil society to atrophy; anarchists desire to supplant the state with voluntary forms of association, but it may be slow going.

    • Richard Garner July 4, 2009 at 5:44 am #

      That’s a good point: On Free Talk Live, when the Somalia thing comes up, Ian is always quick to point out that Somalia’s statelessness didn’t come about as a result of most people being persuaded that it is wrong to agreess against another or steal from them, and so things are bound to be very different there than they would be if statelessness came about (partly) due to the spreading of libertarian beliefs.

    • John Markley July 4, 2009 at 6:17 pm #

      Adding on this, people sometimes speak of anarchic areas as if they have no prior history, or as if the government is gone because the rulers just decided out of the blue to quit. However, most people want a state to exist, and the most powerful people usually want it most of all. Thus, in the real world, places usually become anarchic because they became so violent or dysfunctional while the state still existed that they could no longer support the existence of a state. The parasite killed the host. Our real-world examples of anarchy are therefore pretty much guaranteed to be devastated societies to begin with.

  5. Jesse Walker July 4, 2009 at 1:10 am #

    Set aside the US’s efforts to prop up a central state. Is there any reason to believe the warlord territories outside Kabul have been in any sense polycentric in the time since the Taliban fell?

    If a polycentric system evolved into the current crop of mini-states, that would be a point against the anarchists. But if a bunch of mini-states failed to evolve into anarchy, I’m not sure that’s a point against anybody.

  6. Anon73 July 4, 2009 at 1:28 am #

    That’s a good point Jesse and it has been made before, namely that if all places are controlled by government then any individual place that collapsed would be unlikely to become anarchist since neighboring aggressive states would attack it (as has happened with Somalia). And further if all places were anarchic then a region that collapsed would be unlikely to evolve a strong central state (since people could just leave it and escape elsewhere).

  7. Tracy Saboe July 4, 2009 at 11:41 am #

    Lots of people for some reason equated the violence in Iraq an anarchy too. And I was like, “WTF?”

    The American Federal GOVERNMENT was occupying the territory, Saddam Husein a DICTATOR, had just been deposed.

    You call that statelessness?


  8. Alex J. July 5, 2009 at 9:09 am #

    Somebody held that all of the naturally arising legal codes were the same and that this supported natural law. Pashtunwali is not the same as, say, Gragas, and it is not as successful at maintaining peace. The chief flaws, as I see them, are these: First, if someone wrongs you, it is considered acceptable to seek vengeance against his relatives, and not just the offender. Second, one is expected to support one’s kinsmen in any conflict, even they are in the wrong. Somalis are expected to show similar chauvinism to their clansmen. In “War Before Civilization”, Keeley quotes tribesmen from New Guinea lamenting the fact that they have to fight battles started by their kinsmen.

    • Roderick July 6, 2009 at 2:06 pm #

      Though the good news is that bloodfeud-based polycentric systems can evolve into restitution-based polycentric systems — as witness Iceland and pre-Norman England.

  9. Dan July 11, 2009 at 4:38 am #

    Anarchy is (philosophically, at least) opposition to coercion. For it to properly exist, it would seem to me a society first needs principled opposition to coercion.

    In other words, I don’t think anarchy exists without /some/ (probably rather significant) societal value placed on non-coercion. Though that /might/ be in accord with people’s “natural” sense of morality (or at least not too much of a stretch from what is intuitively obvious in a civilized setting), people are almost invariably educated, in the modern world, to believe in the nation-state paradigm (and hence to tolerate marauders and /or wait around for the strongest one to win—or for the least evil to show himself so’s to give him their support, etc).

    Again, though, the state is just /organized/ coercion. Localized banditry and violation of human rights are still coercion – a state is not required; all that is required is powerlessness /or/ acquiescence.

    That said, another problem which tends to prohibit a /functional/ anarchy in this day-and-age, and one that I find seldom discussed despite its seeming great importance, is the fact that institutions (like the theoretical “insurance companies” that one always hears about in market anarchist theory) are, if not entirely precluded from existing at all within the dominant nation-state paradigm, certainly precluded from /tending/ to exist. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna believe that proponents of the nation-state are going to let alternate paradigms come into being (let alone flourish)!

    The nation-state would seem to me to crowd out all competing models (by design, in fact – albeit not necessarily by /conscious/ design). For example, how likely would you think it to find a company dedicated to providing non-coercive governmental services going public anytime soon on the NYSE? How likely would it be that if such a company (or better yet, companies) were to come into being, it (they) would be allowed to provide any kind of service before the compassionate international community put the effort to a halt – either militaristically and / or by clamping down on the finances of the company / companies in question?

    So, yes, I would agree that militaristic meddling is a significant factor in the deteriorating situations in Afghanistan and (apparently, though I’ll admit I’m not terribly knowledgeable on the subject) in Somalia. However, I find the nation-state to be a jealous god, and one unlikely to allow something as “amoral” as a stateless territory, not to mention the institutions that would allow felicitous existence therein, to exist untrammeled for any length of time. Yeah, people are definitely equipped to get along without /necessarily/ resorting to violence, but people are left little recourse against gangs of bandits when moral defense agents aren’t allowed to come into being or do their jobs (by exceptionally large, well-funded gangs of bandits called “nation-states,” of course).

    • Roderick July 11, 2009 at 3:32 pm #

      How likely would it be that if such a company (or better yet, companies) were to come into being, it (they) would be allowed to provide any kind of service before the compassionate international community put the effort to a halt

      Well, that’s something that Gil Guillory is very carefully testing.

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