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Is slavery still relevant in the US?

October 10, 2018 Leave a comment

White Americans, especially conservatives, love to talk about how slavery is simply not relevant anymore, and as such, black people need to “get over it” and “move on”. But is it no longer relevant? Or do they just want to feel good about the country they were born in? This incomplete guide to the enduring legacy of slavery might help high-school-history teachers answer the question.

The origins of racism

Racism originated with the Transatlantic slave trade. No, slavery was not the first time anyone had been racist. The point is, all modern racism in Europe, the Americas and to a lesser extent the rest of the world was “invented” to legitimize slavery. The rich Europeans who wanted slaves naturally had an interest in pretending blacks were inferior, or not even human, as they would therefore be unworthy of respect, freedom or justice. They needed soldiers, slave catchers, plantation hands and so on, to make sure the slaves remained in their place, so not only the elites were made to believe in slavery. The whole white population would be made to feel superior to others, thus making them willing to help with slavery or at least turn a blind eye to it, and deflecting criticism of the elite to other races. (Moreover, the “Indians” they found in the Americas, as well as the Arabs, Asians and whatever other groups they met on their adventures of conquest, could also be subjugated if judged inferior.)

The racism that began with the slave trade has not died. It continues to exist in many forms. It is easy and necessary to point to the large number of right-wing militias that exist largely for the sake of starting a race war. They are killing people and spreading lies about people of color. It is harder but also necessary to see the subtle racism of everyday life. When the media tell us about whites who break the law, we hear about their home lives, their hobbies, their friends. When the media tell us about blacks who break the law, we hear about the severity of their crimes, and even (as if it were relevant) about other laws they may have broken. Blacks don’t get picked for jobs or promotions as often as whites. They get harassed by the police more often. They are more likely to get arrested, jailed or killed by a supposedly blind justice system for the same crimes as whites. These are not accidents. They are the product of centuries of actions by a white-supremacist state.

The history of the US is not one of slavery but then happiness and freedom for black people. It is bad enough that slaves were not given the land they worked their whole lives. Slavery was followed by sharecropping, segregation, eugenics, lynching, bombings, police brutality, incarceration and, at every stage, blacks being mocked for their wretchedness. (The Nazis got many of their ideas from the US.) When they have tried to fight back, it was considered proof that blacks are inherently violent, untrustworthy and unworthy of freedom. The same is true today. Look at how the media and conservatives talk about Black Lives Matter or Colin Kaepernick. They never gave them a chance. They never listened. They mock them by saying “what about black-on-black crime?” and tell them to shut up by saying “all lives matter”. Some actually use the word “terrorism” to describe an attempt by marginalized people to make others believe they are equally worthy of respect. And the same white people who say “all lives matter”, who never listen to black protesters and who hate Colin Kaepernick would balk at the accusation that they are racist. They seem to think the time of denying black people equal rights based on their skin color died with MLK.

White Americans have always been unwilling to acknowledge real problems in the US. They seem to have no idea, for example, that they are not free. There are laws restricting their every behavior, and police or other security forces breathing down their necks at every turn, but “we are free” because we have been told we are free. Racism is another thing white Americans have trouble seeing. Most conservatives will actually deny there is much racism against people of color in the US, to the infuriating extent that they believe white people are the true victims. But that is what happens when you get your information from other racists and not from the actual victims. You might think because you saw a video of some black people angry at whites that means whites are all going to be killed. You might have seen countless stories of black people committing crimes and very few of white people. You may take it for granted that white police who kill black civilians were acting in self-defense. White conservatives rarely acknowledge any racism by white people but revel in pointing out “race baiters” like Barack Obama (where he has said anything anti-white I am not aware) and Al Sharpton, who they seem to think is the king of angry black people.

White skin, black self-hate

In the US and all around the world, people are taught that darker skin is uglier, dirtier, a dishonor, a sad genetic accident. Why? Because white people have spread the idea, and because people in power in places like East Asia have an interest in keeping that idea alive. Darker-skinned people, especially women, tend to get the short end of the stick. Black and brown people end up hating themselves for their hair. Their hair! What could be wrong with “black” hair? But that is what happens when white supremacy spreads around the world. People of color in the US find themselves in the same culture as whites, so it should not be surprising many of them hate themselves and hate other people of color, while believing in white politicians, bureaucrats, bosses and preachers.

Slavery destroyed the black family and the culture of every person who was enslaved. The psychological effect of having your home, your culture and family taken away with you is immeasurable. These things last beyond the initially enslaved and turn into generational problems. But black people, both while enslaved and since then, have created and maintained a vibrant new black American culture. Afro-American culture created jazz, blues, rock n roll and hip hop, something the world should be grateful for. And yet, it gets mocked, ignored, delegitimized.

Slavers used to have no compunction about taking slaves’ children away from them. They did not treat slaves as human; why would they care if their slaves got upset? I cannot comment on the lasting psychological effects I am sure that heartless cruelty had. I can, however, point out that descendants of people who owned slaves still do not care about separating brown people from their parents, as the policy continues to this day at the border. They turn a blind eye or use words to justify it to themselves. They do not care that children are being separated from their parents, that children are being kept in cages, or even that the people in government are getting rich from it, because it has all happened before. It was considered normal. The racism created then to make people feel nothing for slaves continues as people feel nothing for “illegals”.

Indeed, slavery itself is still alive and well in the US. The prison industry houses nearly 1% of the US population. This figure is much higher than any other country in the world. Prisoners tell of all forms of abuse from guards, along with rape among inmates. But they are also worked as slaves, making peanuts for themselves and making a few people rich. Some whites have become so cold they consider abuse and slavery part of the punishment (for whatever crime, however minor or victimless). How could they object so strongly to a black person selling weed or a brown person crossing a border as crimes but have nothing to say about ruining someone’s life and making them a slave for the profit of the elite? Racism would seem to be the only explanation.

When slavery ended, the era of mass incarceration began. Whites occasionally went to jail for terrorizing black people, but police have never gone to jail for selectively enforcing the law. Black people are disproportionately jailed, particularly in places where slavery existed most prominently–in other words, where fomenting racism against blacks was most important for the elite. Is it just an amazing coincidence?

From wars for slaves to wars for empire

The Civil War was not the only one fought over slavery. Nor is it the only war who causes have been virtually erased in history lessons. Many of the US’s wars that took place during slavery were demanded by slaveowners who wanted to expand the legal territory for owning and catching slaves. The British helped thousands of slaves escape during the War of 1812. Slavery was threatened in East Texas by Mexico, so the US started a war with Mexico to expand the number of slave states. Countless wars on native tribes meant expanding the US’s territory, and was often related to slavery, such as the Seminole Wars that ended up annexing Florida. Slavers wanted more territory, so the US went to war. Slavers wanted to catch runaway slaves, so the US went to war. Each time, it killed people of color and expanded its territory. It should be obvious that the effect of these wars has lasted into the present, as (like all countries) war and conquest has given the US the territory it has today.

But these wars are also still relevant because the US is still making war all over the world. People used to profit off war then, and they continue to do so today. Indeed, the profit of the rich was usually the reason for the US’s wars, just like today. Once the US had finished expanding across the continent, it went to East Asia and conquered territory overseas. It now reserves the right to make war anywhere in the world on whatever flimsy pretext (eg. invading Afghanistan and Iraq because of a terrorist attack), and kill as many brown people as it likes. A white-supremacist state is not necessarily a genocidal one. It is one that can make war on non-whites for the wealth and power of the elite and its white subjects could not care less about the wars (or even encourage them), because only brown people are dying.

With the prospect of indiscriminately killing and torturing brown people, is it any wonder so many outright white supremacists are soldiers, along with police and prison guards?

Conclusion

It is clear the legacy of slavery is still alive. Descendants of slaves are treated as criminals to be jailed and re-enslaved, and mocked whenever they try to shed light on their condition. The territory gained through wars for slavery remains part of the state. The contempt for non-whites is present in political discourse. And when confronted with evidence of racism, privileged white people dismiss it. “I’m not racist,” they will say, as if that is the end of the discussion. They need to acknowledge the past or else continue to live with it. It is not because you are white that you are the problem but because you have internalized the values of a white-supremacist state. You learned to think one way and you can unlearn.

The point of this post is not to blame white people. What would be the point? They should not feel guilty but angry. They should not feel they are helpless because of history but stirred into action by the present. They could start by educating themselves, which consists mostly of listening but sometimes calling out racism among friends and pointing out the history behind the oppressive institutions of today. People are still trying to divide us, including rich elites giving money to far-right racists. We should unite against the dividers.

What it means to be white in America

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

So many white Americans don’t like to hear the words “white people”. That is because they think they are being attacked. Unfortunately, mere words calling white people out for their bullshit, puts them on the defensive, and they refuse to listen or learn anything. Their closed minds have created a dangerous situation.

The first thing so many white Americans don’t get when you talk about “white people” is what the word really means in America. White people have a history of genocide and slavery on a wide scale, all over the Americas, and that history is still relevant in ways so many white people ignore. Instead of coming to terms with it, they have paved over it in the history books, smothered it with conformity to civic customs as a basis for national unity and callously told the survivors to get over it. Acknowledging this past is the first step to understanding the way the US is today, and why people are talking about “white people”.

So many white Americans give excuses not to listen to someone who says they have been a victim of racism, unless the victim was white, in which case they somehow are able to sympathize. Anyone who implies there may be historical reasons black, native or other people might not have the same privileges white people do get told these bad things like slavery were a long time ago. Things are different now. We’re all “equal” now. Because “I don’t see race [because I don’t want to]”. Being white in the US means forgetting and not needing to remember, ignoring and not needing to listen, living in ignorance and not wanting to know.

One thing so many white people who try to win an argument will say is black people were involved in the slave trade. They bring it up even though it is rarely relevant. No one is saying you were part of the slave trade because you are white. They are saying you don’t understand what it is like to live as a person of color in a white-supremacist state, and you prove you don’t understand by arguing with them. They also say there have been slaves throughout history. Yes, and many other parts of the world also have problems due to unacknowledged history. But the descendents of slaves in ancient Sparta are not still suffering in the present. If the slavery we are talking about was in recent, relevant history, such as that of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is important to understand its legacy. If you use slavery elsewhere as an excuse not to talk about the legacy of slavery where you are, you are simply not interested in listening.

Think slavery doesn’t matter anymore? You’re wrong.

Why do they bring up black people in the slave trade? Because they think they are being attacked just for being white. They once saw a video of a group of black people saying “kill whitey” and thought there were hordes of people who hated them for being white. (Just like how they saw a video of brown people saying “Allahu akbar” and thought they needed to support war in the Middle East.) It’s a strange excuse not to listen. It’s like saying some Jews were paid to work for the Nazis during the Holocaust. It’s a tiny percentage compared to the rest who suffered. What’s your point? Very few people are saying being white makes you evil (far fewer, incidentally, than white people who hate anyone who is not white). Europeans created the market and some Africans took advantage of it, showing us that people are corruptible in any culture.

The other thing so many white Americans don’t understand is the enormous legacy of the events of the past 500 years. It is, quite simply, the elephant in the room. The history of the colonization of the Americas (and the whole world) is that of enslavement, massacre, taking land and building monuments to white people on top of it. Many millions have been killed during the wars that killed and drove the natives off their land and into wretched arrangements with the state. Those are the wars that created the vast territory of the US as it is today. Most of the native inhabitants have lost their land to European empires, followed by the states the empires left behind, such as the US, Canada and all of Latin America, and then in our day by corporations with legal claims.

The legacy of colonialism includes the strengthening of the empires of Europe so they could make war on far-flung people, then later with each other, and now on far-flung people again. It has meant the creation of powerful states and corporations that bleed people dry and kill them in the thousands when they resist. These states tend to have white-supremacist laws, given that most of them were created to protect the property of the rich white minority.

The people in power needed to justify the brutality necessary to carry out the project of colonizing the world so they, in effect, created racism as we know it. All states and empires have told the people in their heartland they were special. They created the opposing identities of “us” and “them”. That is, very briefly, the reason we have countries today: defining citizens or taxpayers or non-slaves in opposition to those being conquered. European empires have told their subjects they were superior to the far-flung natives because they were white. Over time, in their heads and in law, people who were defined as white got cut off from the rest of humanity. They were shielded from the worst excesses the state inflicted on people. They were expected to fall it line when it was deemed necessary to destroy an entire native town or round up runaway slaves. The same pact exists today: white people turn a blind eye to the state’s greater violence against minorities (or post a screenshot from Fox News to tell themselves it isn’t true) in exchange for the privilege of not getting the short end of the stick.

Slavery is not the only thing that has happened to black people in the US. Since the Civil War, blacks have been kicked out of government, kicked off their land, lynched, legislated out of jobs, rezoned out of residential areas, harassed, arrested, beaten, spied on, shot or given the electric chair for little or no reason besides the color of their skin. Do those things figure in your understanding of race in the US? Like all hierarchies, racial hierarchy must be enforced through words and laws and symbols. The South was not the only place with racism, either. Many Northern liberal towns had explicitly racist policies until as late as the 1970s. To the so many white people today who claim to be victims of racism, did these things happen to you or your family? When you say blacks are complaining about something only their ancestors suffered, you’re talking about their parents.

Yet so many white people wave a Confederate flag around, get angry about tearing down statues to Confederate war heroes and say it’s about “heritage not hate”. Do these people simply not know the history of the symbols they love? Do they not know those people fought to uphold slavery? Or are they lying, and they hate black people and wish them to return to their subordinate role?

white afraid slavery confederates

This denial of history is not only unfair to the survivors of the US’s original sin. It is a matter of life and death. An unarmed black kid gets shot in the street at night by a white guy. Imagine two possibilities. In the first, the whole city or even the country come together to condemn the killing and acknowledge the racism that it made it possible. In the second, millions of people rush to the defense of the white guy. They believe everything his lawyers and the newspapers say and call the boy a thug. If the former scenario had happened and the whole country opposed killing a child and using self defense as an excuse, the act of killing would seem less justifiable, fewer would get killed and people would feel safer. Instead, the latter happened, and keeps happening every week.

Yes, not all white people were or are rich, and yes, they get shot by police too. Yes, some people of color are rich nowadays. But to think you have it bad because you’re white in a country with a history of white supremacism is a slap in the face to the people of color you are not listening to. Start listening to people who tell you they got turned down for an interview because they have black-sounding names. Start sympathizing with someone who went to prison (especially for a victimless crime like taking drugs) for something a white man got a slap on the wrist for. That person might not be able to get a job either because, even though they were told they had “paid their debt to” a society that did not love them, they still do not get treated equally. Start believing the huge numbers of people who get repeatedly harassed by police because they are black or brown, whether in a non-white-majority neighborhood, because the police are always there harassing people, or in a majority-white neighborhood where white people are scared of people different from them so they call the cops. Start talking to people about a court system and a prison industry that puts people of color away (and works them in slave labor) in far greater numbers than white people. Justice may be blind but the law, the police, the judge, the lawyers and the juries are not.

black child arrested handcuffs

Do you really need context?

And why do so many white people have no qualms about all the people of color shot by police? They always seem to be able to find some way to justify the death. Every time a cop guns down a person of color, so many white Americans take to the comment sections to say why they support the officer and support law enforcement no matter what it does. Some of them actually send large sums of money to killer cops, as if to tell them “thank you for getting rid of one of them. Sorry some people disagree.”

So many white people have reached the point that racism against minorities simply does not exist. Every case that could provide evidence for racial bias is swept under the rug. You hear them say “fake”, “liar”, “he deserved it”, etc. And they have the nerve to get mad at the inconvenience when the things they tried to sweep under the rug keep popping out again. White people were openly racist until the 1960s or later, and now they claim not to see race. They seem to think this claim insulates them from the consequences of 500 years of colonization. The same people actually despise people of color so much they can’t bring themselves to agree that black lives matter. Whenever they hear the phrase, they shut the speaker up with “all lives matter”, as if they were trying to prove they didn’t understand, they didn’t want to talk about discrimination against black people and they wanted an entire race to shut up about its problems. To claim racism is over, or that white people are victims of racism, when you refuse to listen to people of color living with the violence you don’t know about, is the height of ignorance. Do you want to remain ignorant, not understanding (or pretending not to understand) why millions of Americans are angry, and what part your whiteness plays in their oppression?

There are white militias around the US training for a race war they are hoping to instigate. They are killing people already and are vocal about the fact that it is because of their race. That is the consequence of all this racism so many white Americans refuse to see. Many of them have infiltrated law enforcement and the military. But still, people of color are expected to shut up. So many white Americans have the arrogance to tell people of color to get over their grievances, no matter what happened to them, no matter how recently, no matter how obviously the product of racism, because to so many white Americans, there is no racism against people of color. When people of color protest, they get told to stop protesting, or start protesting something else, or protest in a different way that does not inconvenience anyone, and go get jobs. Meanwhile, so many white Americans are still grieving for 9/11, which happened 17 years ago in a city they had never visited to people they had never met.

The first thing white (and other) Americans could do is learn about and acknowledge the history of the United States. No, you did not learn about it in school or on TV. Learn from the perspectives of people who are not the winners or the beneficiaries of history.

Next, you could use the knowledge you gained to understand the reasons why things are the way they are today. How did Columbus pave the way for the world as it is today? What about all the other empires that have invaded the continent since then? How did the slave trade create the Americas and modern racism, how did it aid in the development of capitalism, how did it lead to the wars and conquests of the United States and why might black people still want to talk about it?

There was nothing inevitable about genocide and slavery. Let us apply a little knowledge and imagination to how things could have been better. Not all white people wanted to kill natives or thought it right to own slaves. Some of them even ran off to join indigenous people, preferring the relative peace and freedom to the rigid laws of the settler states. What if more white people had refused to turn guns on natives, or had fought on their side? What if more white people had set more slaves free, or at least shamed and shunned everyone involved in the trade? What if, instead of believing the divisive rhetoric, white people had seen themselves as people too, and never attacked the natives at all? What if they had lived side by side and integrated with them? Think of all they could have learned from each other and how much more harmonious the present would be. Americans often talk about how much freedom they have, but the US could really have become a Land of the Free if it had eschewed the central state for the decentralized model of some indigenous people. If they had simply had different ideas, different attitudes, things could have been much better for all concerned.

But since genocide and slavery are the truth of history, white people need to understand. The ones in the comment sections claim to understand, but they do not, and their failure to listen is the reason they feel attacked.

Warlords

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 5 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.

nationalism

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 32 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” to solve any of the problems it claims to solve? When has capitalism “worked” except to make the rich richer and the poor slaves? 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.

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 left-libertarian 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.