Friday, June 11, 2010

Kevin Carson on Somalia

Rachel Maddow, a popular liberal commentator on MSNBC, recently iterated — for the umpteenth time — the standard liberal talking point of Somalia as a supposedly unanswerable argument against anarchy. The Somalia reference, when done according to formula, comes as the follow-up to a one-two punch – usually preceded by the “drown government in a bathtub” quote from Grover Norquist.

Following a snarky allusion to the idealized “small-government conservative” vision of society (“which, you know, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of bucolic and awesome, right?”), Maddow went in for the kill: “When you see it in action in a country that hasn‘t had a government in about 18 years, it actually looks like this. This is Somalia.”

But this is dirty pool for several reasons. First, no intelligent anarchist argues that the sudden and catastrophic implosion of the state will result in a peaceful, self-regulating society.

We’ve lived through centuries of the process which Pyotr Kropotkin described in “Mutual Aid” and “The State,” by which centralized territorial states suppressed bottom-up, self-organized alternatives, and caused civil society to atrophy. Under such circumstances, when the state suddenly disappears, the result is likely to be a power vacuum with nothing ready to take its place, and the proliferation of all sorts of social pathologies.

What most of us want to do is reverse the centuries-long process Kropotkin described, by building alternative social institutions, organized on a voluntary cooperative basis, to supplant the state. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, conventionally regarded as the father of anarchism, described it as devolving or submerging the state in the social body. And this by no means implies the anarcho-capitalist vision of a society where all functions are performed by for-profit business firms. It could just as easily mean a society of worker and consumer cooperatives, common property, free clinics, community supported agriculture, intentional communities, urban communes and squats, and the kinds of mutual aid arrangement described by Kropotkin in “Mutual Aid” and E.P. Thompson in “The Making of the English Working Class.”

So it would make far more sense to look at a stateless or near-stateless society that’s been that way for a long time, under comparatively stable conditions (like some of the near-stateless areas in Southeast Asia described by James Scott in “The Art of Not Being Governed”), and the institutions by which people peaceful govern their lives.

Second, “Somalia” does not equal “Mogadishu.” Most of the horrific, Mad Max scenes captured in Somalia are in Mogadishu, where the central state was most powerful before the collapse and the institutions of civil society were accordingly most atrophied. As Roderick Long, director of C4SS’s parent body the Molinari Society, put it, “the farther one gets away from Mogadishu, the more one gets into relatively peaceful areas that have always been anarchic or close to it, barring occasional intrusions from the statebuilders in the city.” In other words, the further you get from Mogadishu, the less Somalia resembles “Somalia,” and the more it resembles the kind of stable society described by James Scott.

Third, the proper comparison to Somalia is not the United States and similar societies in the West, but to the actual state that existed in Somalia before the collapse of central power. Given that comparison, things in Somalia aren’t that bad at all. For example: a study by Benjamin Powell, Ryan Ford and Alex Nowrasteh took “a comparative institutional approach to examine Somalia’s performance relative to other African countries both when Somalia had a government and during its extended period of anarchy.” And it found that Somalia, when subjected to an honest comparison — “between Somalia when it had a functioning government, and Somalia now” — is less poor, has higher life expectancy, and has experienced a drastic increase in telephone lines.

I’d also add, parenthetically, that while Somalia is often celebrated by anarcho-capitalist types, in reality it hardly fits the anarcho-capitalist stereotype (especially in those areas away from Mogadishu). For example, there’s widespread communal ownership of land by extended families and clans, with only possessory or usufructory rights by individuals.

-Kevin Carson Somalia — Is That Really All You Got? at Center for a Stateless Society

I came across the above article earlier today. Statists love to bring up Somalia. In fact, our leading statist commenter, Ginx, brings it up all the time, most recently here. He is so in love with government that he even prefers North Korea to Somalia!


  1. Society is already as voluntary as humanly possible. You can leave at any time if you live most places, and those places you cannot leave are undeniably lacking in freedom (North Korea, for example).

    The problem with voluntarism is no one volunteers to be born, nor do we have any power over such things as what our family decides to do when we are children. If you can come up with some sort of system whereby small systems of governace geographically overlap without incident, you would be on to something.

    You want a better anarchy story? How about 19th century France. After deposing the royalty and failing to establish a democratic system with any staying power, you have the all-to-common military dictator ready to step in.

    I understand calls for minarchy, and I even understand the desire for local oversight, but I also know that small systems are no less abusive; they just ensure that abuse is confined to a smaller area. A well run federal system leads to a well run nation, while a poorly run federal system leads to... well, look around I guess.

    I like federal systems, because you only have to fix things once. At the local level, you're looking at hundreds, if not thousands of municipalities that have to become battlegrounds for any sort of change. What's more, many small communities will find themselves without any means of keeping up with infrastructure and technology.

  2. What about the anarchy with rule of law in Ireland or Iceland? (Historical)

    OK so we can't go there today to find out, but it would be a better example than lawless drug addled Somalia.

    In the end a society needs more things than government or absence thereof. If there is a culture of virtue, government or no government, that place will be more successful.

    BTW I'm thinking of how the media-educational complex is trying to re-engineer the western world into an entitlement culture, which is part of the reason why we're going under. Loss of civic virtue.

  3. I'd like to punch whoever it was who taught conservatives the word "entitlement" last year. It's got to be the dumbest buzz word that won't go away. It's always uttered by the same bunch of nobility-endorsing corpocrats who support ending estate taxes that result in generational fortunes passing hands from the earner to spoiled brats. Poor people are entitled to not die in the streets, fucking get over it.

  4. Conservatives? No!

    We don't make anything anymore, the Chinese make everything for us. For example.

    It won't go on for much longer without major losses to western standard of living, which is the result of international free trade.


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