Monday, October 17, 2011

Tar Me with that Brush

Charles Davis takes on the notion of Somalia as an anarchist/libert paradise:

I think it's worth pointing out that this critique is no different than a conservative or right-wing libertarian responding to a criticism of modern state capitalism by snorting, "oh yeah, and how did the Soviet Union turn out, ya Marxist?" It's intellectually dishonest. It's lame. It's -- perhaps most damningly -- just plain unoriginal, returning "About 210,000 results" on Google. And it's a damn weak attempt to hang around the necks of those who would dare imagine a world where people are free to organize and live in communities not subject to the coercive interference of an outside, centralized power, a failed state -- Somalia -- that has been torn apart by decades of Western state intervention...

Back in July I summed up thoughts about Somalia that I've posted in a dozen places previously. Somalia ain't anarchy; the phrase I used was "enforced chaos." It's Caesar in Gaul, it's France in Italy, it's America in Latin America or damn near anywhere else. Pick your precedent.

But... And this is where I'm crass and kneejerkily contrarian. Anarcho-friendlies may well ask themselves how they avert the gangs-and-thugs-and-Mad-Max scenario. It is plain as day that Somalia has suffered from foreign intervention. It is plain as day that it is not an anarchist paradise. It is not plain, however, that anarchy must turn its eyes away from Somalia, as we have nothing to do with that.

Nobody wants to be associated with failure, or atrocity, or bad things. Everybody wants to say that they would never support something that would lead to something bad. Rightists have nothing to do with Hitler. Liberals have nothing to do with Vietnam. Socialists have dodged the Soviet Union how many times, and yet the fact remains that a great many institutional socialists supported Stalin up until it was no longer popular. The fact is that libertarians must face the Chicago School's advice to men like Pinochet. Ayn Rand nuts should figure out where they stand on HUAC. And if that means that anarchists must learn from Somalia, so be it.

Because if you ever fucking impose "a world where people are free to organize and live in communities not subject to the coercive interference of an outside, centralized power," then you must articulate how you avoid local despotism (or acknowledge its possibility and dismiss it as acceptable) or articulate how big, bad, angry neighbors aren't going to come in and fuck your shit up. It's that simple.

Somalia had anarchy. It experienced devolution, secession, and popular institutions take the place of a centralized entity. And yes, it swiftly passed to enforced chaos. Nevertheless, it remains highly relevant for anyone who wants to see the leviathan fall.


  1. "Must" overstates things.

    The rest is a poorly-presented fly and the trout are wilier than you credit them.

  2. Why must "local despotism" be opposed in advance, Cuneyt? Why must the solution to all problems be assumed before they present themselves? Why must anyone, anywhere presume the mantle of godhead, and satisfy an unattainable perfection, in order to justify a world which cannot be perfect, but could be less awful?

  3. A few things come to mind, though I haven't had any caffeine yet so bear with me.

    1. Iraq had one of the largest armies in the world yet it was not able to resist the designs of sole remaining superpower.

    2. Afghanistan, which has never had a functioning central government, has been much harder to conquer. As had Somalia, where the self-imposed, Western-backed transitional government controls but a few blocks of Mogadishu.

    3. Compared to its years under the rule of a US-backed military dictator, Somalia under “anarchy” was indeed better for the vast majority of people.

    4. Anarchists advocate not a sudden, calamitous removal of the state, but a long term-transition – meaning a slow hacking away at the institutions of coercion while engaging in education and direct action to create a society that values consensus, not the status quo sans the only institution that claims a legal; monopoly over violence.

    5. Finally, anarchism is pragmatic: It insists on decentralizing power not out of mere ideological attachment, but because history suggests bad things happen from centralizing it in the hands of the few. The question isn't whether Somalia under “anarchy” was or is utopia, it's whether it would have been better off with a single warlord's power over the country being wielded without challenge – the US-backed government is headed by one such warlord – or not. I vote for not.

  4. Karl, you're right. "Must" is my assertion and nothing more.

    Jack, you're right. It's less about perfect foreknowledge--which is of course impossible--and more the ethics of the surgeon. We must do our best to articulate how we hope to improve things before we, ahem, start cutting. And politically, I think that a major bind of all systems is how to balance internal power sufficient to limit incursion with the despotism that such power necessarily enables. How to be "strong enough" but not "too strong." But in nature, and I fear humanity, there is no such thing as either "too strong" or "strong enough."

    Charles, I am grateful to catch your attention, and a little daunted. You, as well, speak wisely, but I'd say that on Point Four you speak not of "anarchists" but of a certain type. Perhaps a type that is preferable, but there are quite a few anarchists historically and presently who would support a precipitous end to the current order. In fact, there is an argument to be made for the thought that any evolutionary approach is sure to be co-opted by rulers (of course, I think that a sudden shift benefits them too, and many a thug to boot).

    Anarchism need not be pragmatic. Perhaps your sort is, and that's laudable, but we have quite a few romantics, idealists, and martyrs in our ancestry, no?

    All these are of course, not real responses. Just my thoughts. Thank you all for such swift comments, especially given my recent hiatus on account of emotional disturbance and medical crisis.

  5. Here is one thought I'm wrestling with, and again, I think it tells me something about anarchy, depending on whether I think it's true or not.

    It's my read that the Islamic Courts Union was a child of Somalian anarchy. It was homegrown, emerged from local conditions, and served many of the functions of a state. It was installed by force, of course. It was a state, and yet it was a native state, at least in part.

    On the other hand, I see the civil war that followed the American and puppet Ethiopian invasion as a child of foreign state power. Likewise, al-Shabab is not representative of Somalian anarchy, but of foreign power.

    Does anarchy lead to state emergence? If not, what power prevents it?

  6. Cuneyt,

    I don't think we can look at our humanity with the eye of permanence. Permanence is the root of states, and it is why we remain obsessed with them.

    Time gives way to more time, events to new events. If the implications of QM are real enough, there are infinite universes in which infinite possibilities play out. An infinite jest.

    But, for our own sad little time burrow - perhaps what's needed is less of an eye for permanence, and the prevention of all the futures which obstruct it, and more of an eye to doing now what can be done.

  7. hmm. i guess i dismiss it as acceptable.

    that i now enjoy relative peace in my day-to-day life is due to the fact that i live under the auspices of the biggest, baddest, angriest, most effectively despotic, meddling neighbor out there. we are already living in anarchy.

  8. Montag, you remind me of one of the more clever ideas I've seen on the whole Internet, and one of my core beliefs. The game's already started; most of us just don't want to change roles. We are not simply lucky; we are complicit.

    And Jack, not to be glib, but doing what we can and hoping for the best is also the motto of how many institutional reformers and statist renovators? I don't care about permanence, but I do feel we need to cut with at least a nod toward the risks. Of course, all this is headed toward a post responding to Karl's bashing of Marxist historicism, so maybe I'll percolate and hope the thought comes out stronger.

    Basically, I fear nobles as well as kings. The nobles of libertarianism, like the nobles who forged the Magna Carta, like the nobles who led the American secession, like the nobles of representative authority and oligarchy everywhere--always say that they protect us from the big guy, or are not as dangerous as the big guy. "States' rights" betrays a very real risk in American devolution--it just changes the states that will fuck us and take our lives.