Posts Tagged ‘history’


February 26, 2014 Leave a comment

“Anarchy is no guarantee that some people won’t kill, injure, kidnap, defraud or steal from others. Government is a guarantee that some will.” – Gustave de Molinari

The warning that, after the removal of government, gangs and warlords would take is not an argument for government; it is an argument against government. Government is not different from warlords. It is the result of the institutionalization of warlords as the formal rulers of a given territory. This argument might confuse some people, so allow me to explain.

Max Weber defined the state as that organisation with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given (national) territory. “Legitimate” here merely means legal, as actual legitimacy is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. That is why Albert Jay Nock countered Weber by saying the state “claims and exercises a monopoly of crime” over its territory. (Statism is the belief that this monopoly of crime is good or necessary.) David S. D’Amato explains its effect: “the state’s principal manner of acting is to make peaceful interactions crimes while protecting the institutional crime of ruling class elites.”

After all, what does the state do? It steals, but it calls its theft taxation. It kidnaps, but calls kidnapping arrest. It counterfeits, but refers to state counterfeiting as monetary policy. It commits murder on a wide scale, but prefers terms such as war and execution. The state claims to act to protect person and property, but paradoxically aggresses against person and property. It claims to protect freedom while taking it away. It claims to aid the less fortunate when in fact it benefits the powerful at the expense of everyone else. If I go to another country to kill people I do not know, I am a murderer. When the military does it, it is fighting terrorism and promoting democracy. This sleight of hand and clouding of truth is how the state manufactures legitimacy. From a historical perspective, the purpose of the state is and has always been the same. Franz Oppenheimer explains.

The State, completely in its genesis, essentially and almost completely during the first stages of its existence, is a social institution, forced by a victorious group of men on a defeated group, with the sole purpose of regulating the dominion of the victorious group over the vanquished, and securing itself against revolt from within and attacks from abroad. Teleologically, this dominion had no other purpose than the economic exploitation of the vanquished by the victors. No primitive state known to history originated in any other manner.

The warlords have already taken over. That is the problem.

two warlords

two warlords

At this point, those with some understanding of history point out such is the way of the world: states and empires constantly expand their power and attempt to conquer us all. But again, this claim is not an argument in favour of government. It is an admission that a monopoly on crime is wrong. Vocal opposition on moral grounds to states and empires can lead to resistance and revolution. If people understand why the state, the concentration of power and the monopoly on crime, are unnecessary and wrong, they can fight it. They can find ways to avoid paying taxes, avoid conscription and arrest, set up systems of mutual aid to become independent, and counteract the lies of the schools and the media.

Countries can still be invaded if the states do not comply with the empire of their time. A military is no guarantee of security. However, the difference between a state society and a free society is resistance is considered legitimate and necessary in the latter. Those who believe in freedom believe in the right to defend oneself against all oppressors by any means necessary without having to put on a uniform. Freedom must be defended by decentralised forces. People will need to fight the power or they will neither achieve nor maintain their freedom for long. But it is possible, and it is worth it.

Finally, we often run up against the claim that domination, hierarchy and elitism are part of our nature, which is why formalizing them is accepting the inevitable. It is unsurprising that we should hear this claim so often. Everyone in our society with a few years of schooling claims to understand human nature, and invokes it whenever defending the status quo. However, in my experience, most such claims reflect the thinking of the immediate world around the speaker. In other words, we believe what we have experienced reflects the whole range of human possibility. Looking more carefully through history, psychology and anthropology, however, we can find innumerable counter-examples. One need look no further than the history of the highland people of Southeast Asia (Zomia) for people who have consciously avoided domination and hierarchy for centuries. My question to those who cite human nature as an excuse for domination is, should we not be allowed to resist and defend ourselves? Should we give up and submit to those who desire power over us? Yes, we would need numbers. Yes, we would need time. But if you recognise that warlordism and violence are wrong, why would you not support us? We should unite to fight all forms of warlords and replace them with freedom.

Illusions of a nationalist

May 9, 2013 4 comments

You can usually tell which ideas the elites benefit most from by observing what non-elites will defend most vehemently.

My original post on nationalism (expanded in my book) dismantles many of the basic misconceptions of nationalism and its euphemism, patriotism, and exposes it as the dangerous delusion it is. But the phenomenon persists. Apparently, it is a force more powerful even than this blog.

Nationalists and patriots are full of illusions. I come bearing inconvenient truths, but the sooner people understand them, the sooner they can see the world for what it is.


You do not have a country of your own. You do not have any control over it. A few powerful people own the territory within the colonial boundaries you live in, and you are not one of them.

Nationalists hold romantic dreams of an eternal spirit of their countries. But that is because they have no historical perspective. Your country does not have a destiny, and what you think is its history is largely based on myth. The idealised depiction of war is the clearest example. Nationalists believe their side has always been righteous, perhaps fighting for God but always fighting only in self defense. But the people who came from nearby where you come from who fought in wars were not fighting for you. They have nothing to do with you. They were fighting because they were told to, and because they would be killed if they did not.

patriotism nationalism

Do you think there is something better about the people who inhabit your corner of the globe? Are they more virtuous than others? If you believe they are, you undoubtedly have superficial, stereotyped views of people in other places. Nationalists see their people as individuals making up a glorious whole and people from other countries as undifferentiated masses that are somehow more threatening than locals. Such stereotypes engender the belief that, while our elites are bad, at least they are not FOREIGN.

The FOREIGN is, of course, to be feared or at least not fully trusted. For this reason, most nationalists want to limit immigration. They worry their compatriots will one day run out of land, or the culture will change. As such, they are willing to use violence to stop the wrong kind of people from entering their country. That is called racism.

Yet, change is constant. Cultures and countries and ethnic groups change. Your country and culture are not eternal. They will change, their values will change, and they will end, like everything does.

For religious people who think your country is the best and is superior to all others, you may want to consult your holy books and see what your god says about idols.

For non-religious people who believe in their countries and sacrifice for them and attack others for criticising them, surprise! You are part of a cult of worship as well.

If you want to believe in something bigger than yourself, how about all of humanity? Or all life on Earth? Or love, or kindness, or peace? Or, if you want to keep it simple, your family and friends? If not, please do not expect my sympathy for your racist exclusion of other humans.

How appeal to national ideals sold Operation Iraqi Freedom

December 6, 2012 1 comment

Drawing on sources from political science, history, media and the psychology of nationalism, this paper explains how the Bush administration used what Americans perceive as the virtues of their nation and its foreign policy–freedom, democracy, peace, humanitarianism and God–to win support for its invasion of Iraq.

Has anarchy existed before?

June 11, 2012 25 comments

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.


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 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.


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.