What the History of Somalia Can Actually Tell Us About the Practicability of an Anarchist Society

As a Minarchist commonly engaging with Anarcho-Capitalist people and ideas online, a common theme they appear often to get challenged on is people pointing to Somalia as an illustration of how an Anarchist society looks in practice. The objection tends to come in a variety of “If you like Anarchism so much, why don’t you move to Somalia?” I find it dubious that most people making this point really know very much about the history of Somalia, but rather only has an image of it as lawless and chaotic.

So, what actually happened in Somalia? It is a very young nation, though there have been inhabitants in the area since the Palaeolithic. Long after the Age of Imperialism was over, Somalia finally became independent from British rule in 1960. A constitution was ratified the year after, but young nations are often unstable as institutions needs time to develop and become accepted in the public view, especially when its borders are drawn half arbitrarily by foreign powers. Thus, the then-President Abdirashid Ali Shermanke was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 1969, and a coup followed within a week. In 1976 the leading party Supreme Revolutionary Council disbanded itself and instead established the Somali Revolutionary Socialist Party based on a mixture of Socialism and Sharia law. The state became increasingly authoritarian, and as a result of the Socialist policies, there naturally developed shortages in gasoline, and high inflation diminished the purchasing power significantly. The black market was thriving during the day, but at night government authorities were frequently behind “disappearances” of individuals from their homes. The government was again overthrown in 1991, this time by a coalition of opposition groups backed by Ethiopia and Libya.

The collapse of the government this time, however, didn’t lead to a sudden change in administration. Instead a civil war ensued between the different opposition groups, lasting to 2000. It’s in this era we find the lawless era the objection is consciously or unconsciously referring to. If we’re to take it at face value, what do we see? The ones presenting the objection might say that it shows that a collapse of government must lead to chaos, but they would ignore the context and the causal relationships. I think an important factor to look at here is how the operations of the government changes preceding the collapse of the government. In the case of Somalia, the operations of the state became increasingly authoritarian, fuelling rebellion as authoritarian states always do, though they often try to repress them as much as they can. The collapse of the State, in the eyes of the Somalis, didn’t mean that it was gone. For what is a State? One of the founders of the American Libertarian movement, Rose Wilder Lane, proclaimed (p. 10) that “… no State, no Government, exists [except as abstractions]. What does in fact exist is man, or a few men, in power over many men.” The State was now instead conceived of as the opportunity of yourself and your faction to attain the kind of power that had been ascribed to the predecessors in power. A “power vacuum” was present, as it is commonly called. Thus, it’s an arms race to who’ll get there first. What the objection actually gets right is that a collapse of government can in certain circumstances lead straight to chaos and misery. And to be even more generous, as in most countries the State has so much influence, for instance with large welfare systems and tons of bureaucracies and regulations, it’s no wonder that people think that chaos will ensue if the government were to magically disappear or collapse tomorrow.

So, are there any circumstances where a transition to an Anarcho-Capitalist society could be practicable? I think the most likely case is one where the State would decrease its powers little by little, with the privatization of one thing after another, first education, health care, pensions, roads, etc., at least down to what Jacob Hornberger claims are the three legitimate functions of government: “(1) to punish people who initiate force against others, such as murderers, robbers, rapists, thieves, burglars, and the like; (2) to provide a judiciary for people to resolve disputes; and (3) to defend the nation in the event of a foreign invasion.” This is the Minarchist position which I myself would prefer, but Anarcho-Capitalists want to take it even further. I won’t here take on the practicability of competing courts and other complications with the system, but if they figure out away to do it, that’s at least the most plausible way to get there in practice. As Hornberger recalled an Anarchist friend say after a long discussion on the topic, “Let’s call a truce. Let’s work to achieve freedom by getting down to the night-watchman state. At that point, we’ll decide whether or not to dismantle it.”

Stability still matters, of course. It would be very different if the process mentioned above happened in Somalia or in the contemporary United States. It takes time for people to change their perception of what the State is and what operations it should or should not account for. Decreasing its powers before an eventual collapse, rather than the opposite, however, makes the likelihood of such a “power vacuum” much less likely. As Andrew Breitbart observed, “politics is downstream from culture,” and power-hungry people in such a system would be required to themselves have to try to build up the institutions and expand them from scratch, an FDR, an LBJ, can always — and will always — come around the corner, but if the public don’t perceive them as legitimate, or the State to have legitimate authority, what army would the leader have if all soldiers dissented; what tax collectors would there be if they all saw it clearly as an unjustifiable act of theft; what would the enforcement of unjust and reprehensible laws and regulations if the enforcers saw them as such?

One may say that Libertarians are idealists for hypothesizing and daydreaming like this, but is it not a legitimate question to ask where and why the actors of the State obtains the legitimacy to coerce their fellow beings, whether they present themselves as authoritarian or democratic ones? Does a vote for the least-bad candidate justify all the acts of its recipient? Steven Pinker claims Democracy is the best of all choices, while Hans Hermann Hoppe claims it’s a “god that failed”. The American founders were critical of the system because, in the words of John Madison, it could turn out to become like two wolves and a lamb voting what’s for dinner. But the Constitutional Republic they set up still developed over time to have its powers increase exponentially, most notably in the aftermath of McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) where the “Necessary and Proper” clause was interpreted to give the federal government powers that were “implied” in the Constitution but not specifically stated. Anarchists see this and infer that the State is like a cancer that keep spreading and increasing anyways, and that one would be better off without it. Hornberger counters that the Constitution established by the American founders was like a sea wall blocking off incoming waves, and that it would make it more difficult to expand the scope of the State’s activities, but that when the big tsunamis come, like FDR and LBJ, the forces would be too big for the wall to hold. Whoever is right, the Anarchist-Minarchist debate will continue, but a far more important one today is the Libertarian-Statist one. Only the latter discussion will today have the real opportunity to further the cause of Liberty. The former is relative trivia in comparison.

Somalia indeed serves as a case in point for what Anarchists shouldn’t do, but not as a proof that it wouldn’t work.


Update 12.11.18: Someone sent me an intriguing Foreign Affairs article on the issue yesterday. I recommend giving it a read as a supplementary.

It is true that the country offers lessons in the dangers associated with a lack of central government. It also shows how people respond to collective problems without government, too. In many parts of the country, society has organized itself to effectively solve collective problems and provide public goods. Somalia’s nearly ten and a half million residents maintain daily routines not too dissimilar to those in more developed countries. Basic utilities and services, such as garbage removal and clean water access, are offered by private-sector firms and small local governments fulfilling the jobs normally left to the state. One example is the energy sector in Somalia. …in Somalia, a lack of government has not led to a lack of governance: when considering many issues of public goods and collective problems, Somali society has been able to step into gaps left by the absence of state institutions. This is particularly true at the local and municipal level: Davidson College Professor Ken Menkhaus has argued that cities and municipalities in Somalia have been remarkably effective at delivering “flexible, inclusive, hybrid governance. … Organizations should not assume that an absence of government means an absence of public goods or systems designed to resolve collective needs and issues. To be sure, many of these institutions are insufficient, but others may function fairly well.

2. Update 12.11.18: The clan-based legal system of Somalia, called Xeer, albeit collectivist in its nature, seems potentially to be relevant for an analysis of the practicability of competing courts in an Anarchist society.

3. Update 09.12.18: Here are two additional intriguing columns on the topic.

4. Update 13.12.18:

Life expectancy increase in Somalia under its stateless period of 1991–2000: 5.609 years.

Life expectancy increase in Somalia in the period of 2000–2015: 5.009 years.

In other words, life expectancy grew 12% more in stateless Somalia over 9 years than 15 years with the state.

Source: https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/SPDYNLE00INSOM

See my article on the topic here: https://misesrevived.home.blog/2018/12/13/life-expectancy-grew-almost-twice-as-fast-in-somalias-stateless-period-as-its-historical-record-with-one/ 

5. Update 28.05.19: 

Also see the study Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse
by Peter Leeson, as well as Jeff Berwick’s reflections of his visit to Somalia.

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