49

Has there ever been a non-trivial, stable, and functional anarchy?

Sure there are lots of small groups that operate on personal relationships and don't have what could be called a government. I don't dislike such things. I just worry that they are not candidate models for a country big enough so that everybody does not know everybody personally. And lots of anarchic conditions arise through some kind of war or disaster or some such, but don't last very long, or are very grotesquely bad places to consider living.

Let non-trivial be defined as roughly the size of or bigger than Iceland in population. (About 350,000.) Or 100,000 for individual ancient cities if you have an example.

Let's be a little relaxed about the definition of functional. Maybe something like, if the country you currently live in was like that, you would not find it worth while to move to get away from it. This feeds into the stable thing. If a place is so horrible nearly everybody wants to leave then it can't be particularly stable.

Let stable be defined as at least 25 years with substantially the same arrangement. That is chosen to be about one generation.

So, no kings, no oligarchs, no junta, no elected law makers, no priestly leaders handing out punishment for transgressors. Only all voluntary, all the time. Anything like that?


An explanation of why I put in those requirements (though they might seem like very high standards):

There are currently a large number of countries, using other political systems, that satisfy the requirements I set. I certainly would not label any of them perfect, but then, they are jammed up with people. What are you going to do? There are plenty of countries that big. Many of them have been around substantially in the form they are now for at least 25 years. And there are many where people don't suddenly en mass abandon the place. So lots of other political systems exist that people can tolerate for at least long enough to raise children, and that involve communities of millions.

So, if anarchy was a model political system for those communities, it would have to deal with those limits. If, say, it only works for groups of a few 100, then it isn't a model for, say, the USA, China, or Europe. If it could only be kept together for, say, 5 years max, ditto. And if nearly everybody who tried it wound up hating it, again, ditto.

  • 16
    Anarchies in modern times are never stable outside of warzones or intense poverty because there is usually many incentives (investments, protection of the physically weak, healthcare, commerce, etc) to form some kind of stable non-anarchistic government system . And the first people to do so are more likely to be on top of the new social structure. – Mark Rogers Jul 6 '18 at 15:58
  • To clarify, in my answer I wrote of "high standards". What you mean by an "anarchy" is not what other people might mean. It might mean something more like Marxism. Anarchists of the 19th and early 20th century were not about a complete absence of law, but for a law written by and for the benefit of the proletariat. – James K Jul 7 '18 at 21:46
  • @JamesK Yeah, I've seen that movie. Spoilers, but... At the end, nearly everybody dies. – user21424 Jul 7 '18 at 21:48
  • 2
    @MarkRogers I am a cynic, I have to say we see it from widly different sides, heh. Not that you are wrong, I was just about to comment that there are many incentives (power, wealth, status) and many bad human traits (greed, dominance, vigilantism, religious idolatry) that certainly will degrade an anarchy to some sort of authoritarian regime quite quickly. – Stian Yttervik Jul 9 '18 at 10:18
49

No.

While it is hard to prove a negative, wherever two people come into conflict, either the stronger will come to dominate the weaker, or both will defer to an even stronger power, ie a government.

Consider the usual examples of anarchist societies such as The Paris Commune, Nestor Makhno's "free territory" all had systems of government. These might be "peasant councils". Besides the Free territory only lasted 3 years, and the Paris commune only a few months.

Local communes, like the Twin Oaks Community, are much smaller, but still have "rules" for dealing with conflict and are, of course, embedded into a country with a system of laws. You are not free to "do what thy wilt", you are expected to conform to the community standards and the laws of the land.

Unintentional anarchies, such as parts of Somalia are actually a network of microstates with a baron or war lord ruling such a region as he is able (it usually is a "he") by the threat of force.

You have set a very high standard for "stable anarchy" and there are no examples where this standard has been met. There are various lists of anarchies online, but I think none meet your standard.

  • 26
    I think defining anarchism as 'no rules' is a bit simplistic. I also think that eg peasant councils are not incompatible with anarchism (eg anarcho-syndicalism is considered to be a branch of anarchism). But I agree that OPs standard for "stable" is too high. The free territory or revolutionary catalonia eg seem to have been stable and functional internally, but were brought down by external forces. – tim Jul 6 '18 at 9:58
  • 22
    "No rules" would be anomie, not anarchy. Anarchist groups tend to have quite a lot of rules that are enforced by (almost) all group members in the absence of police, and this automatically limits the group size as rules still need to be agreed on. – Simon Richter Jul 6 '18 at 12:34
  • Now you got me wondering. Did Machno actually claim that his territory was "anarchy"? – user4012 Jul 6 '18 at 18:49
  • @tim yes, but those are the standards that the OP set "just voluntary, all the time" I think Machno would call himself an anarcho-communist following the tradition of the 19th century anarchists. – James K Jul 7 '18 at 19:01
  • @JamesK - I'm making a difference between what Machno called himself vs. what he called the territory he held. (think Communists vs. Socialist Country distinction) – user4012 Jul 7 '18 at 21:09
36

Iceland during the Icelandic Commonwealth period is itself one of the closest examples.

For a lengthy period of time in the Middle Ages, it had an island-wide legislative/judicial body but not an executive branch. The legislative/judicial body would decree when laws were violated by someone to maintain basic honoring of contract, property and personal freedom from violence rights, but would merely authorize private enforcement of their decrees by the victim and the victim's allies.

There was little or no taxation in this period other than in kind contributions of time to attend the legislative/judicial body somewhat akin to jury duty.

It wasn't pure anarchy, because village chiefs had some authority in supervising their villages and seizing property or impressing labor while doing so in their local villages, but people could leave one village for another if they could find a new one that would take them, or could live in the wilderness if they wished, if they could survive on their own.

So, no kings, no oligarchs, no junta, no elected law makers, no priestly leaders handing out punishment for transgressors. Only all voluntary, all the time. Anything like that?

There were volunteer legislators selected by some means from each village decreeing punishments (largely to prevent blood feuds or terminate them), but not actually handing them out. Also, the number of legislator/judges per capita was very high by modern or historical standards, not quite Athenian democracy proportions, but a few thousand people per rep (many of whom would have been children) at most v. tens of thousands for a typical modern state legislator or big city city council person or county official.

Still, this is one of the closer historical examples.

In general, the default situation, when the state collapses, is a society based upon extended family based clans and warlords who rule by might without few checks or balances on their power. See, e.g., Somolia and Afghanistan in recent times. Historically, the Scottish borderlands in the early modern period, and China in periods of disorder between dynasties would be relevant examples of clan and warlord systems.

  • Being 'feudal' in the Middle Ages doesn't make it anarchistic: "There was little or no taxation in this period other than in kind contributions of time ...." It just makes it typical feudal. Europe was suffering from a devastating inadequacy of specie, so the (somewhat) fungible "day of labour" had to substitute for it. – Pieter Geerkens Jul 8 '18 at 14:51
  • 1
    @PieterGeerkens The Icelandic Commonwealth wasn't feudal. The relationship between village chiefs and village residents was not a lord-serf relationship, and the village chiefs had no superiors to themselves other than the collective All Thing which didn't have an "ownership" type relationship with the villages or the land outside villages. It demanded time of participants but not tribute. – ohwilleke Jul 8 '18 at 22:16
  • Thank you for this very interesting information which was entirely unknown to me. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Jul 9 '18 at 4:45
24

Short Answer - no

Slightly longer answer

It is really dependent on your definition of anarchy. For most of human history, societies have been organised without the existence of a centralised bureaucracy. To quote Robert L. Carneiro from "Political Expansion as an Expression of the Principle of Competitive Exclusion" (1978)

For 99.8 percent of human history people lived exclusively in autonomous bands and villages. At the beginning of the Paleolithic [i.e. the stone age], the number of these autonomous political units must have been small, but by 1000 BC it had increased to some 600,000.

In fact, there is an interesting case study in the archaeological remains of the Indus Valley Civilisation. It has been argued that the IVC could have been a vast, federated society (though that is obviously speculation).

The reason why I answer no to your question is your wording "only all voluntary, all the time." The idea of voluntary association is a relatively new concept, formed in reaction to observations specifically of capitalism; anarchists view our associations under capitalism involuntary due to the threats of violence or starvation for lack of cooperation. I'd even argue that the concept of voluntary association can lead to nonconstructive albeit interesting philosophical dead end discussions i.e. how can someone retain their reproductive rights and adhere to the idea of voluntary association?

I don't believe there have been any instances of anarchism that absolutely follow the concept of voluntary association. Prehistoric societies would still have been subjected to many pressures that would not have been solved in adherence to the foundational concepts of voluntary association. Any more modern examples may have emulated something close to voluntary association, but were too short lived or too small in population to reach your required threshold of "non-trivial, stable, and functional anarchy".

  • 5
    Re: definition of anarchy. When I get up the courage I will ask the same question about has there ever been a libertarian organized society. – user21424 Jul 6 '18 at 14:21
  • @puppetsock - Sealand? :) – user4012 Jul 7 '18 at 21:11
  • Re your statement about reproductive rights, have a look at article 20.2 in the UN declaration of human rights here un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights - didn't the authors reflect upon the consequences of that sentence? – d-b Jul 8 '18 at 15:13
7

There is a body of work in anthropology that describes anarchist societies.

One of the most famous works in this tradition is "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropologist". Although the author is principally interested in a theoretical argument, he uses some case studies of the Tsimhety culture in Madagascar. Based on their population alone (about 700,000 - 1 million) they aren't trivial. According to wikipedia, their success is because they didn't fight the establishment of a state, but their system coexisted with the colonial governments. One quote from the aforementioned book:

To this day they have maintained a reputation as masters of evasion: under the French, administrators would complain that they could send delegations to arrange for labor to build a road near a Tsimihety village, negotiate the terms with apparently cooperative elders, and return with the equipment a week later only to discover the village entirely abandoned—every single inhabitant had moved in with some relative in another part of the country.

  • But they are "trivial" (per the OP, " I just worry that they are not candidate models for a country big enough so that everybody does not know everybody personally.") because, as you cite in your example, "every single inhabitant had moved in with some relative in another part of the country." The OP was specifically not looking for " lots of small groups that operate on personal relationships and don't have what could be called a government". – user23715 Jul 6 '18 at 21:53
  • @user23715 The OP defined trivial as less than about 350,000, so this is well above that limit. Also, I don't think the quote means that everyone moved in with the same relative (i.e., that one person suddenly had a million relatives move in with them). Everyone, even that Potter kid, has relatives to move in with. FWIW I had read that statement as hyperbole anyway. – indigochild Jul 6 '18 at 21:57
  • 2
    @user23715 If that is really what OP means, then the question is self-contradictory. They want a government without having a government. I'll leave this answer up because I think it contributes a meaningful answer to the question, but I can recognize where you are coming from. – indigochild Jul 6 '18 at 22:14
  • 2
    Hmmm... Food for thought. I will need to read up more on these folks. Interesting note right off. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philibert_Tsiranana They don't seem entirely averse to political hierarchy. – user21424 Jul 6 '18 at 22:23
  • 1
    Agreed. Hence @ChrisW 's answer and the apt quote from V for Vendetta. – user23715 Jul 6 '18 at 22:24
5

Kowloon Walled City (KWC) aka the "City of Darkness" was a Chinese territory surrounded by British land. An article entitled Kowloon Walled City: A place of anarchy from the South China Morning Post describes it as a largely ungoverned, megablock of urban/architectural configuration. It's 6.4 acres had a population of over 50,000 when it was demolished, making it the most densely populated area on earth.

According to Wikipedia, KWC was originally a Chinese military fort which became an enclave after the New Territories were leased to Britain by China in 1898. Following the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during WWII, its population increased dramatically.

A fire broke out there in January of 1950 that destroyed over 2,500 huts, home to nearly 3,500 families and 17,000 total people. These ruins gave new arrivals to the Walled City the opportunity to build anew, and with no government enforcement from the Chinese or the British aside from a few raids by the Hong Kong Police, the Walled City became a haven for crime. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was controlled by local triads and had high rates of prostitution, gambling and drug abuse, although most residents were not involved in any crime and lived peacefully within its walls.

Though it doesn't meet your population requirement of 100,000 people, it seems close on other aspects.

  • 1
    Not going to kick about the population. It seems unlikely everybody knows everybody in a group of 50K, even in an area so small. I will need to be reading up on them. It seems to have made the time limit. Probably it would still be there if various external politics had not intervened. I've been to the modern Kowloon a few times. It will be keen to read up on the history. – user21424 Jul 8 '18 at 4:18
  • 1
    The Triads (aka chinese mafia) ruled KWC for a long time, there was no anarchy in the question's sense, but simply the absence of official government structures. Afterwards, HK police took them out, and there was official government. – janh Jul 8 '18 at 7:25
4

Maybe.

Etymology:

The word anarchy comes from the ancient Greek ἀναρχία (anarchia), which combines ἀ (a), "not, without" and ἀρχή (arkhi), "ruler, leader, authority." Thus, the term refers to a person or society "without rulers" or "without leaders"

If you understand it to mean "without rulers" or "without leaders" (rather than "without laws"), then maybe would a place like Classical Athens qualify?

It was a democracy -- with laws; and at some point in their history they tried to ensure there were no leaders -- no king, no tyrant.

Citizens were selected for public office by lottery. I was told that the overall leader was a figure-head, also selected by lottery ... and changed every day? -- I don't have a reference for that, don't know the details myself, but for example see e.g. here:

Although the process of the next transition is unclear, after 487 BC the archonships were assigned by lot to any citizen and the Polemarch's military duties were taken over by a new class of generals known as strategoi.


V for Vendetta more-or-less explains "anarchy" like this:

  • Eve: All this riot and uproar, V... is this Anarchy? Is this the Land of Do-As-You-Please?

  • V: No. This is only the land of take-what-you-want. Anarchy means "without leaders"; not "without order". With anarchy comes an age or ordnung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order... this age of ordung will begin when the mad and incoherent cycle of verwirrung that these bulletins reveal has run its course... This is not anarchy, Eve. This is chaos.

  • I considered ancient Athens. But my knowledge of it is pretty much limited to what I know from reading the works of Plato and Aristotle, and from reading about the Peloponnesian war. So, I'm not really well enough informed to know. They seemed to have courts and elections and such. – user21424 Jul 6 '18 at 14:48
  • Yes I'm relaying what I was told by Classicist/Historian. His point was that "democracy" in Athens was different from "democracy" these days. These days, even allegedly "democratic" countries have something like a "ruling class", professional politicians, professional civil servants, even dynasties. Whereas Athens' system of a) Everybody voting (so not "representative" democracy), and b) Using lotteries to select the executive (councils, magistrates), and c) Making these executive appointments temporary, helped to ensure that no-one person, no family, and no class of people, could take power. – ChrisW Jul 6 '18 at 14:59
  • 6
    Though you could consider the "free citizens" of Athens the rulers / ruling class and the large number of slaves those they ruled over. – janh Jul 6 '18 at 16:15
  • 3
    @janh -- Worth noting that ancient Greek democracy was largely limited to property owning adult males who were also citizens of the local community. – user23715 Jul 6 '18 at 21:57
  • Given that "anarchy" is a greek word (ἀναρχία) we would know about it if the ancient greeks had lived under such a system for any considerable time. – Tom Jul 7 '18 at 6:39
2

We do have the biblical book of "Judges".

From Wikipedia's article on "Book of Judges", section called "The Deuteronomistic history":

A statement repeated throughout the book "In those days there was no king in Israel" (Judges 17:6, 18:1, 19:1, and 21:25)[...] this statement is accompanied with the statement that "every man did that which was right in his own eyes"

Oddly, that Wikipedia article doesn't seem to discuss a length of time, but another does. Wikipedia's article called "Biblical judges": section called "Historicity and timeline" estimates this to be about 300 years.

  • Interesting example. Is there any estimate on the population size? (to check for non-triviality requirement). – Alexei Jul 8 '18 at 13:58
  • 4
    The Bible is not really a reliable historic source. – Philipp Jul 8 '18 at 14:09
  • Alexei: Wikipedia's "Historical Jewish population comparisons" gives 611.730 when they left Egypt (under Moses). Then there was Joshua as a leader, then the time of the judges, then Saul, then David. The same Wikipedia article gives a partial population of 1,300,000 and probably a full population of about 5 million by David's time. So, presumably between 600k and 5,000k, thereby meeting the 100k or even 350k 'non-trivial" requirement posed by the question. – TOOGAM Jul 8 '18 at 16:21
  • 2
    @Philipp : Regardless of whether you accept the reliability of the bible as a whole, Israel was a theocracy, and so the bible was not just a supernatural guide but was also their nation's primary official history records (e.g., including a lot of birth records). Even if you choose to try to discount all of the book's supernatural claims, this remains the nation's official historical log and if the nation's log books say there was a judge named Debra, I see little reason to reject such claims (or other historical security records) unless there is some contrary evidence. – TOOGAM Jul 8 '18 at 16:31

You must log in to answer this question.