Home > Anarchism and Voluntaryism > Has anarchy existed before?

Has anarchy existed before?

Anarchists often get asked if anarchy has ever existed, and if it has ever worked. On one level, the question seems ironic. When do they think the state has “worked” before? These people who think we can somehow reform the state and turn it into a tool for social justice are, unlike anarchists, as this post will show, the ones who have no history to back up their claims.

Everyday anarchy

It has been argued anarchy is wherever people do things without being forced to. Consider Butler Shaffer’s argument.

I am often asked if anarchy has ever existed in our world, to which I answer: almost all of your daily behavior is an anarchistic expression. How you deal with your neighbors, coworkers, fellow customers in shopping malls or grocery stores, is often determined by subtle processes of negotiation and cooperation. Social pressures, unrelated to statutory enactments, influence our behavior on crowded freeways or grocery checkout lines. If we dealt with our colleagues at work in the same coercive and threatening manner by which the state insists on dealing with us, our employment would be immediately terminated. We would soon be without friends were we to demand that they adhere to specific behavioral standards that we had mandated for their lives.

Should you come over to our home for a visit, you will not be taxed, searched, required to show a passport or driver’s license, fined, jailed, threatened, handcuffed, or prohibited from leaving. I suspect that your relationships with your friends are conducted on the same basis of mutual respect. In short, virtually all of our dealings with friends and strangers alike are grounded in practices that are peaceful, voluntary, and devoid of coercion.

Anarchy works every day as we interact with the people around us. But, admittedly, it does not get to the heart of the question: can a society exist without a state?

Before answering that question, however, another arises. Where has the state worked? I do not mean, where has the state maintained order and created a national health-care system. The state has done lots of things. But at what cost? Given what we know about the state, a huge one. In Jonathan Goodwin’s words, “The list of state failures is exactly as long as the list of state-run programs. Should the burden of proof of the benefits of considering anarchy and opposing the state really be on the proponent of anarchy?”

If you are looking for an example of a modern nation state that has gone anarchist, you will not find one. The very idea that a nation state could somehow eliminate its government and retain its territorial integrity is fatuous. It would almost inevitably become a number of self-governing communities. They might develop a confederation based on perceived shared values, but they would not force policies on millions of people through representatives, bureaucrats and police. A large country can only be held together by force. Somalia is not fully anarchic; however, to the extent that it is, it is doing pretty well.

Other societies throughout history, however, have done far better.

Everywhere anarchy

Anthropologist David Graeber says anarchy has existed in thousands of places before. Anarchy means no coercive hierarchy and no rulers with the ability to initiate force over an entire population. Anarchy is an ideal condition of humanity. It is not something that will be accomplished in six months of reading books. But in one way or another, at different times, there are opportunities to throw off the state and work and cooperate freely. As such, there have been a number of relatively or completely anarchic societies throughout history. They may have been small communities defending themselves from encroaching empires, confederations with skeletal local governments, or other voluntary, self-governing collectives. Anarchy has existed. It is simply governance–making and enforcing rules–without the state.

In fact, it was the norm for a long time. Yale professor James C. Scott explains. “Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary self-governing kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading, and peacemaking. It did not contain anything one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.”

Thus, to say the state is necessary due to human nature is erroneous. The era of statelessness was the longest era of human governance, and the first states that arose were trivial compared to those of today. “To an eye not yet hypnotized by archaeological remains and state-centric histories, the landscape would have seemed virtually all periphery and no centers. Nearly all the population and territory were outside their ambit.” People sought refuge in places out of the way, such as the Amazon, where today indigenous people are losing their ancestral homes to agricultural and industrial expansion, aided by state muscle; highland Latin America and Africa; the Balkans and the Caucasus. Living outside the state was a realistic option until only a few hundred years ago.

Zomia

Scott’s book is called the Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. In it, he explains the history of the politically autonomous region of different ethnic groups in the highlands of Southeast Asia (dubbed Zomia in 2002), who descended from groups that left the lowland state. The people of the whole region reorganised their social structures, folklore and agriculture to be inaccessible to the state.

When the state attempts to incorporate stateless people, it clothes its actions in the language of civilising the barbarians: development, economic progress, literacy, and so on. However, it inevitably does so by force. Those escaping predatory states were runaway conscripts and slaves, war refugees, religious minorities and those fleeing taxes, and others who predicted the same fate for themselves.

Their social structures presented no hierarchy that encroaching states could have used as agents of control. “Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them. State evasion and state prevention permeate their practices and, often, their ideology as well.” The long existence of Zomia disproves the hypotheses that we require some form of coercive hierarchy to function as societies and that an elite with coercive authority will always emerge over time.

The Apaches

When the Spanish came to Central America, they made short work of Montezuma and Tenochtitlan, along with Atahualpa and Incan civilisation. Why? Because if you cut off their head of a rigidly hierarchical organisation, which the Spanish did by killing its chief, you incapacitate it. Then they went to the Apaches. The Apaches did not have rulers. Instead, they had spiritual leaders called a Nant’an (eg. Geronimo), who led only by example and not coercion. From the Starfish and the Spider: “You wanted to follow Geronimo? You followed Geronimo. You didn’t want to follow him? Then you didn’t. The power lay with each individual—you were free to do what you wanted. The phrase ‘you should’ doesn’t even exist in the Apache language. Coercion is a foreign concept.” They were free people, most of whom resisted the Conquistadors’ attempts to adopt an agrarian life and convert to Christianity. They fought back and won and held back the Spanish for centuries. The Apaches succeeded so long because of the decentralised way they organised their society.

There was no capital or central command, so decisions were made all over. “A raid on a Spanish settlement, for example, could be conceived in one place, organised in another, and carried out in yet another. You never knew where the Apaches would be coming from. In one sense, there was no place where important decisions were made, and in another sense, decisions were made by everybody everywhere.”

Apache society was not disorganised. It was in fact very advanced and complex. But it was decentralised—very differently from a hierarchical society. A decentralised society is characterised by flexibility, shared power and ambiguity, which “made the Apaches immune to attacks that would have destroyed a centralised society.”

The Spanish would try to kill the leaders but leaders kept emerging. Likewise, you could kill people participating in the Egyptian Revolution but it would not stop the Revolution. In fact, when you attacked the Apaches, they survived and got stronger as a result. They decentralised even more. “This is the first major principle of decentralisation: when attacked, a decentralised organisation tends to become even more open and decentralised.”

Ireland

Ireland was also effectively anarchic until conquered by England. It functioned as a number of confederations (called tuatha) composed of independent political units that came together annually to vote on common policies. People were free to, and did, secede from their confederation and join another. Association was voluntary.

Laws were not changed at the whim of rulers (because Ireland was not ruled) but when people voted in an assembly to change them. Laws were not created by a clique, as in our time; nor was justice dispensed by a monopoly provider. Parties to disputes selected from a number of professional jurists chosen for their wisdom, integrity and knowledge of customary law. Several schools of jurisprudence existed and competed for the business of dispensing justice. Other people, in effect insurance providers, were independent from the jurists and joined with the party that won the case to exact punishment on the loser. If the loser did not pay, the entire community considered him an outlaw and would no longer engage in contracts with him.

Ireland suffered small-scale conflicts, but without a central state that taxes and conscripts, these were negligible compared to the bloodbaths of the rest of Europe. Ireland may not have been the ideal anarchy, but in the absence of Enlightenment ideas of freedom, justice and equality, it did well.

Revolution

Opportunities to escape the state arise during revolutions and wars. During Egypt’s recent revolutionary uprising, every neighbourhood in Cairo formed—within 48 hours—lagaan shaabiyya, or popular committees. When the police suddenly left the streets, they opened up the jails, letting out thugs who, they intended, would terrorise the people into begging the police to come back. Instead, despite thousands of years of dictatorship, the people organised and substituted for the police, protecting the people in their communities and even cleaning the streets. They made decisions as communities and demonstrated amply that they could replace the state if necessary.

During the Spanish Civil War, the state was in crisis and lost its ability to govern large parts of the country. Workers controlled factories, peasants collectivised farms, people used barter instead of money, started libraries, schools and cultural centers, and organised militias to fight in the civil war. Spain’s brief experiment with anarchy was by no means utopian, as war imposes a variety of constraints on people. But it could be replicated and improved on.

In Ukraine in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, a free state emerged comprising millions of people. Throughout the Russian Empire, as imperial authority collapsed, workers, soldiers and peasants began to reject any outside authority and establish self-governing cooperatives. They began by arresting state officials, occupying government buildings and disarming police. They were eventually ruthlessly crushed by the central government, much as the communities in Spain were. But they demonstrated, as the did the Southeast Asians, the Irish, the Spanish, the Egyptians and, as we shall see next, the French, that anarchy is desirable and practical—if it can be maintained in the face of state aggression.

In the wake of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the Paris Commune was established. The Commune was independent of the French state and self-regulating. The armed workers defended Paris against German soldiers and for some time French government aggression, but were eventually overwhelmed and murdered in droves. Like some of the other examples, the Commune was not the ideal picture of anarchy, but it nonetheless comprised free people in community warding off oppression. They did well in the time (less than a year) they had. As Mikhail Bakunin said at the time,

Contrary to the belief of authoritarian communists—which I deem completely wrong—that a social revolution must be decreed and organized either by a dictatorship or by a constituent assembly emerging from a political revolution, our friends, the Paris socialists, believed that revolution could neither be made nor brought to its full development except by the spontaneous and continued action of the masses, the groups and the associations of the people. Our Paris friends were right a thousand times over.

This list is not exhaustive; again, there have been thousands of cases (here, here, here), only a few of which have been recorded.

Many people will read these examples and reject them because they do not conform in every way to the ideals of a stateless society. They are presumably the same people who would dismiss all anarchist or voluntaryist thinking by saying it is utopian. The societies that have existed without the state are evidence the state is not necessary, and people who want to can live free. It is also evidence utopia is difficult or impossible to achieve. So what? One does not need utopia to be free of the state. The coming posts outline the theory and methods for achieving a stateless society even more successful than these ones. The point is, freedom works for the people wherever it is tried, whether in a community wishing to free itself from oppression, or simply to the extent it is allowed in a state system.

But even though anarchy has been attempted and has worked, an equally reasonable answer is it does not matter. New ideas work if they make sense and enough people agree to put them into practice. When John F. Kennedy said the US would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, nobody asked if it had been done before. When slavery was abolished, it was not important to ask if there had been historical precedents. The abolition of slavery was an idea whose time had come. Many people thought that it was impossible to get rid of slavery—after all, that would be extremism—and slaves were better off in captivity than free. It turned out they were wrong. Anti-abolitionists used to ask “but how will the cotton get picked?” But if the cause is moral, it does not matter how the cotton will get picked or the roads will get built. People who need a historical precedent for anything before they consider it have not attempted to use their imaginations. Whether it has existed or not is irrelevant when considering if it could work in the future.

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  1. July 7, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    That is an amazing picture. The fellow with the machete, I mean.

    • July 7, 2012 at 7:37 pm

      Spread it around!

  2. February 14, 2013 at 2:15 am

    Societies don’t remain orderly without rules.

    • February 14, 2013 at 10:26 am

      That’s right. All of the societies above had rules. Anarchists do not propose societies without rules, merely ones without rulers.

  3. October 13, 2014 at 10:15 am

    I started reading this, but didn’t make it past the straw man in the first paragraph. A state government that “works” is one that lasts generations (occasionally with citizen support) without being replaced by some other form of government. An anarchy that “works” would do the same; but historically, anarchy seems to mostly be a transitional phase between different ruling powers.

    It isn’t a question of whether an anarchic society would hypothetically be better. It’s whether such a society could remain anarchic for any meaningful period of time without forming a government.

    • October 13, 2014 at 10:55 am

      Perhaps you should go past the first paragraph to see anarchy over generations is indeed possible and has existed. And I disagree with you last statement. It is about what would be better. If people appreciate freedom they will work to achieve and maintain it.

      • October 13, 2014 at 11:14 am

        Then why introduce the whole thing with a straw man argument like that?

        Anyway, my last statement was of the question I came here with—not which was better for people, but whether a large-scale society would even allow it to persist. But I also disagree with your last statements, but that’s because I don’t consider anarchy and government to be synonymous with freedom and oppression respectively, which it sounds like you do, and there’s not much to be done about that. Some governments are oppressive. Some anarchies are awful.

      • June 8, 2015 at 9:03 am

        Since you’re still around and responsive, may I ask you to answer my question? Why open with the implication that organized governments “don’t work” when those are all we’ve been left with in every nation?

      • June 8, 2015 at 9:13 am

        I can’t edit my comment, so here’s a followup… The following uses the exact same form of logic:

        “Non-dieters often get asked if eating an Oreo ice cream cake has ever made anyone lose weight. On one level, the question seems ironic. When do they think a diet has made anyone lose weight before?”

        Anyone writing an opening line like that would be discrediting himself immediately. So why do it?

      • June 9, 2015 at 1:54 pm

        You would have to explain what you mean when you say government “works”. For whom does it work and how could you say it has necessarily benefited someone other than the ruling and higher classes as opposed to any alternative form of governance?

    • Stu
      September 11, 2015 at 6:41 am

      The state NEVER “works”. Stealing everyones money and forcibly controlling/threatening them is not a solution. It is a problem.

  4. June 5, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    What a bunch of horseshit. Anarchy is nothing but warlords.
    Is this idiot for real ? Apache ? They were so busy slaughtering each other, the Spanish just let them continue that stone age barbarism behavior unless they were directly affected.

    • June 5, 2015 at 8:14 pm

      ha! Great historical analysis, guy. Maybe come with some facts next time.

      • January 11, 2017 at 4:15 am

        Would you know a fact from a corporate state lie? I think not.

    • Stu
      September 11, 2015 at 6:45 am

      warlords?? really?? hmm how about the warlords (presidents/kings) if states? where is this warlord mythology coming from regarding anarchy?? people just make this crap up and everyone buys it. just like the concept of the state. NOBODY had any authority EVER to give the people of “government” so they could not have acquired the super powers they claim because NOBODY HAD THEM TO GIVE TO ANYONE ELSE. It is very simple. Arguing to have a state is like arguing we should use magical pixy dust. It is the BELIEF in “government” that is the problem.

      • September 14, 2015 at 3:38 pm

        That’s not how it works…
        Everybody had complete autonomy. That is what they gave to their leaders, as part of the “social contract,” a concept which I encourage you to research. Not really a “belief” so much as something that the citizens have all agreed (or been coerced) to go along with. But yes, it only works because everyone is complicit with it.

  5. April 18, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Great insight on the Apache! It’s hard for most folks to recognize due to the brainwashing by state corporations called “churches”, but the Bible is full of examples of anarchist societies in ancient history: http://higherliberty.com/?p=859

  6. January 11, 2017 at 4:13 am

    (A).

  1. August 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm
  2. August 13, 2012 at 10:43 pm
  3. September 5, 2012 at 11:59 am
  4. October 5, 2012 at 8:06 pm
  5. February 7, 2014 at 8:34 pm
  6. November 18, 2016 at 11:45 am
  7. February 20, 2017 at 6:12 am
  8. May 4, 2017 at 8:42 am
  9. July 14, 2017 at 4:14 am

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