Sunday, October 02, 2005


"People Without Government", written by the anthropologist Harold Barclay and has many important insights. The first of these is from of one of the greatest anthropologists, Claude Levy-Strauss, for whom the fundamental aspect of human society was reciprocity. For Pierre Clastres (the contemporary version of Levy-Strauss) this fundamental reciprocity was negated by coercive power or authoritarian hierarchies.

Barclay distinguishes two basic types of societies; "archies" and "anarchies." Anarchies are based upon reciprocity, what sanctions exist are diffuse and supernatural. Archies are characterized by legal sanctions backed by coercion and "a specialized and privileged body separated by its formation, status, and organization from the population as a whole." In other words a state.

How does an archie come about? "Most authority commences as the raw power of the gangster and evolves into the "legitimate" authority of tacit acquiescence." Above all, the state is an organization for war. "Stateless societies less violent and brutish than those with a state." Nor are stateless societies only those of hunters and gatherers, for the majority of horticultural societies were anarchies. Barclay refers to Clastres again, who points out that the Neolithic was not decisive in changing the fundamental structure of society to an authoritarian one. The old patterns of non-coercive organization were not radically altered during this epoch. The state came much later.

Barclay examines a number of different societies that were anarchies. Many were tribal societies in North America or Africa. This would come as not much of a surprise, but he includes some others we might not be aware of. Ireland of 2000 years ago was "not truly governmental", having mass meeting democracy, no executive officers, no military and hence no way of enforcing decisions other than by common agreement. The Kabalyes of Algeria have no state either, important decisions are settled by consensus. The Santals of India, who number some three million people are "egalitarian", "decentralized", and the "barest indication of a governmental system." Decisions are made in open meetings by consensus. Village life is structured to prevent concentrations of power.

Sounds good to me!

1. PEOPLE WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, Harold Barclay, Kahn and Avril 1990 Note that Barclay uses "government" as a synonym for state. Not all critics of authoritarianism do this. Some consider government to include organization, both non-coercive and coercive. Hence for them, an anarchie would have a government, but one that lacked coercion.


Blogger Adam said...

I guess the big issue is to identify the cause for the overwhelming sucess of the state (success in terms of surviving and expanding, rather than promoting human welfare).

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond identifies the state as one of the organizational technologies that allows groups to dominate others. This conclusion made me uncomfortable.

Perhaps the answer is that the state is not so dominant as we might think. Even though states cover the entire surface of the globe, any society is a mixture of archy and anarchy: just as total anarchy is rare or non-existant, totaly archy is rare or non-existant.

Another possibility is that the state arose from the imbalances of power between tribal groups driven by technological advancement. If this is true, then we can expect archies to wane as tribalism is replaced with humanism and technologies spread around the world instantly.

3:37 AM  

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