Yes and no

A strange idea that often comes up in discussions on law and sovereignty. There are many people who deny any possibility that humans could exist in an “anarchic” state, that is in a state where there is no ultimate judge or ruler. They are prepared to say that “the state has always existed. A chieftain in a hunter-gatherer tribe is himself a form of a state, exercising the right of ultimate decision-making over the rest of the tribe.”

Outside state authority they see only chaos. It is impossible, they think, that civilization could be sustained in a system where there is no single instance that rules over all others, with the power to overpower all those that would seek to challenge it.

It is strange that one needs to explain that a chieftain can only exercise authority if the rest of the tribe lets him. There was nothing close to unchallenged power of the state for most of human past.

Bantu village

What’s even stranger is that many anti-statists and people in the liberty movement tacitly agree that a stateless society has never existed, aside form a few examples in history (medieval Ireland), which are themselves denounced as “not real anarchy“. Point out that nations themselves live in “anarchy”, without any sovereign power over them and you will be met with the same response. “That is not what we mean by statelessness”.

One reason for this confusion is the disagreement on what freedom and anarchy really is. Hayek, for example, defined liberty as absence of coercion. It seems that many “voluntarists” and “anarcho-capitalists” define anarchy as an absence of coercion, aggression or threats of coercion and aggression between the subjects.

“We are concerned in this book with that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as is possible in society. This state we shall describe throughout as a state of liberty or freedom”  F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

It is clear that these people only describe one out of many states of affairs that can arise from statelessness. They are describing the most sophisticated, and the most developed possible stateless order. It is no wonder that there are few examples in history of anything resembling such an order.

However, if we step back and recognize that statelessness is not really about what we want, we can discover an entire world of statelessness out there.

Map of the world in 1000 BC color-coded by type of society. At this time, stateless societies were the norm.  State societies are in purple. (From Wikipedia)

Stateless societies do not, however, need to be very sophisticated. Most were not. Most had very crude institutions and conflict-resolving mechanisms. That is something we must face up to. We must recognize that there are stateless systems we will not like.

Many in the liberty movement fall in a trap of thinking that only thing that needs to be done is to abolish the state. Bad Quaker with his “Sedition, Subversion and Sabotage” is one of the worse offenders in that regard. Such an attitude is pure Utopianism and tantamount to accepting Rousseau’s model of the “noble savage”. The stateless man was not a “noble savage”, and we must accept that there are stateless orders which produce undesirable outcomes. What is more, there are stateless orders that produce worse outcomes that even the most destructive of states!

On the importance of the concept of natural order for a stateless society

This does not mean that a peaceful and sophisticated stateless order is impossible, or even unlikely. It just means that we have to take that issue into account. We have to start thinking in terms of building a natural order that will allow a stateless society to function well.

An introduction on how to achieve a stateless order starting today, with next to no resources required

So, to get back to the question at the beginning. If by “state” you mean your particular vision of what a true “anarchist”, “voluntarist” or “anarcho-capitalist” system should look like, you can be sure that a stateless society never existed. If by stateless order you only mean “absence of state”, then yes, it has. In fact, statelessness was the norm. It just wasn’t our particular vision of what statelessness “should be”.

The Realm of Flora by Nicolas Poussin, 1630-1631.

1 COMMENT

  1. There were plenty of Kings in the five (or so) Kingdoms of Ancient Ireland – and long before the coming of Henry II in 1170. And the various Kings fought each other – not on their own, but with armies. The idea that Ancient Ireland is an example of “Anarcho Capitalism” or some-such, comes from the uncritical reading of Murray Rothbard.

    Still Ancient Ireland is very interesting from a libertarian point of view – as the coming of Christianity meant the decline and fall of SLAVERY. And the coming of the Pagan Vikings brought back slavery – Viking Dublin being the largest slave market outside of the Islamic world. There was in Christian Ireland a doctrine of natural freedom that came close to the libertarian non aggression principle – Kings and chiefs did unjustly attack people, but it was seen to be unjust when they did so. The Thomas Hobbes might-is-right position was alien to Irish political and moral thought – just as Predestination (essentially a denial of Free Will – Moral Agency) was alien to most (not all) of Celtic Christianity.

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