I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the weekend. It was pretty good. I still prefer its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but the sequel is interesting for different reasons. One thing I noticed, and I’m not sure if it’s intentional, is that the film presents a fairly positive picture of a stateless human society, at least as post-apocalyptic futures go. The usual trope in post-apocalyptic fiction is that once the state collapses due to whatever disaster befalls the planet, humans devolve into animals, with the exception of a few heroic individuals (e.g. The Walking Dead). By contrast, in Dawn: POTA the stateless human society seems to hold together relatively well. There’s a lot of cooperation, what looks like a robust marketplace, and it’s generally peaceful (before the central conflict of the story) despite everybody being well-armed. In other words, it’s precisely the scenario that anarchists predict would happen in a post-state situation. Is there any evidence that this would be the case?
One of the criticisms of anarchy is that there’s little empirical evidence to support its positive predictions. There aren’t very many real world examples for sociologists to study and those stateless regions that do exist, for example pre-2012 Somalia, aren’t exactly tourist destinations. Imagining how a peaceful, prosperous anarchist society would organize itself is often left to science fiction writers. However, the examples we do find, including Somalia, are instructive.
Somalia was without a national government from 1991 — 2012, which is enough time to draw some conclusions about the effects of statelessness. Admittedly, it didn’t become an anarcho-capitalist utopia as predicted by anarchist theory. But neither did Somalia fare worse than it did under its former government; nor was it worse off relative to other sub-Saharan African nations. In fact, Somalia improved in several international development metrics during its experiment with statelessness, despite remaining very poor by Western standards. You can read about that here and here. Of course, none of this proves that Somalia would be better off stateless than it would be under any government whatsoever. That remains to be seen. But it was arguably better off stateless than under the governments typically on offer in the region.
Another much studied stateless society is medieval Iceland (see here and here). When one thinks of Vikings, one usually thinks of people who settled their disputes with swordplay rather than through non-violent arbitration. However, historical records indicate that the latter was more often the case. Indeed, medieval Iceland fared better than its European counterparts in almost every area. As David Friedman writes: “Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status based on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary output, in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens.” Iceland flourished for three centuries (906 — 1262) without a centralized government in relative peace and prosperity when compared with the feudal kingdoms of medieval Europe.
Medieval Iceland is instructive because it demonstrates the possibility of having a sophisticated legal culture without a robust political culture. Michael Walzer has argued that ancient Israel is instructive for the same reason (HT: Kevin Vallier). According to the biblical text, the ancient Israelites debated about whether to have a king at all — an unprecedented occurrence in the Ancient Near East. Even after ancient Israel became a monarchy, the king was not an absolute authority like the other rulers in the region. In commenting on ancient Israel’s apolitical culture, Walzer notes: “The central concerns of political philosophy as the Greeks understood it—ruling and being ruled, the best regime, the meaning of citizenship, the deliberative process, civic virtue, political obligation—were never central in Israelite thought.” One also finds this apolitical attitude among modern Jews in the Diaspora. As a persecuted minority in Europe especially, they often supplanted state institutions with their own: private schools, private arbitration, and ‘grey markets’ (untaxed, unregulated markets in otherwise legal goods).
What conclusions can we draw from these examples? I would venture two relatively modest conclusions. First, we shouldn’t conflate legal culture with political culture. As the examples of ancient Israel and medieval Iceland show, it’s possible to have the former without the latter. Second, we shouldn’t conflate state with society. Societies can exist, and historically have, without the state. Rather than being the basis for society, the state is but one particular organization a society can take. Society need not collapse because the state does. This is relatively good news for survivors in a post-apocalyptic future.