Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Archeology and anarchy

In which I use archeology to explain why anarchy doesn't work.  In a bajillion words or less.

I've been reading up on archeology lately.  So.  Cool.  It started with the Iron Age and then I had to look up the Bronze Age and next thing you knew I was in the Stone Age.  (I highly recommend The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, by Richard Rudgley.  The thesis is that the stone ages, both paleolithic and neolithic, were much more developed than was originally thought.  And the newest archeological developments appear to support this, like this amazing find in the Orkney Islands.)

The major trait of the paleolithic period was that humans were hunter-gatherers.  They may have had a great deal of oral knowledge, but they didn't make many artifacts because anything they made, they would have had to carry.  We guess about them a lot, partly by looking at modern-day hunter-gatherers, and partly by their few artifacts and cave paintings.

The paleolithic period has a lot of fans, myself included.  Mark Sisson likes to talk about paleolithic diet and exercise, and Peter Gray about paleolithic psychology.  Their life sounds somewhat Edenic from what we know of it; they had few possessions, little violence, and basically no real government.  And they kept up this fairly stable system for a much longer span of time than the entirety of written history.  Kind of makes you think.

No one knows what made these nomads decide to settle down and start farming.  Farming entails more work, more risk of famine, and poorer health than hunting and gathering.  Did they just not realize this?  Were they lured by the promise of food growing right in their backyard?  Or was it just part of the curse of original sin, that we were going to have to start earning food by the sweat of our brow instead of picking it off the trees like we used to?

Whatever the reason, there was no going back.  Agriculture led to a population boom, and once the population had reached that size, it couldn't be supported on a hunter-gatherer lifestyle anymore.  Agriculture allows for dense food production, while hunter-gatherers must have a lower population density.  Furthermore, if your tribe was still hunting while your neighbors were farming, you'd be at a disadvantage.  They would come along and burn down your forest and plant corn in it, and it was pretty much farm or perish.  So people farmed.  We call it the Neolithic Revolution.

With the Neolithic Revolution, we get the concept of land ownership.  And from that point on, land ownership has been a necessity of life.  Unless you are a hunter-gatherer, you will need a patch of land for your very own.  (Nomadic herders might be another exception to the rule.)  This wasn't such a big deal in the Neolithic.  People staked out spots, but as far as we know, they don't seem to have squabbled over them much.  And small wonder: their best weapons were still flint arrows and stone axes.  These weren't much of a leg up over fistfighting.  Sure, you could do it -- but since you were as likely to be killed as your opponent, it wasn't a very good risk to take.  And anyway, everyone was too busy trying to survive by farming to do much fighting.  As a result, there was still not much government, and relative equality.

The Bronze Age changed this.  Bronze, you see, is not all that common.  You have to have both copper and tin to make it, plus specialized skill.  Someone who was a successful farmer and had some free time to spare, or someone with access to metals, or someone with secret knowledge, suddenly had a huge advantage over everyone else.  Why slave over the land when it was easier to make a bronze spear, head on over to your neighbor's farm at harvesttime, and just help yourself to their crop?

Suddenly Joe the Farmer was in a dangerous spot.  He needed the land to live -- but he needed weapons if he were to protect it.  And he needed time to patrol it, which he couldn't do if he were busy farming.  Naturally he looked over to the nearest, friendliest-looking guy with a bronze sword.  "Here," he must have said, "let's save ourselves some trouble.  I'll just give you a tenth of my crop right off, and in return you defend me against all the other sword-wielding guys."  That sounded like a good plan -- less bloodshed all around, and a living for the new "king" that didn't involve stealing peasants' entire livelihoods.  But it created as well a rigid social structure that relied on inequality.

And this, I feel, is the moment when anarchy, as a viable social theory, died.  (I do not mean anarchy in the sense of "chaos," but anarchism the political system, which sees everything as reducible to free association.  Real anarchists sometimes call themselves libertarians, but as an actual libertarian, I resent this.  I do believe in government.  Just limited government.)  It may well have been possible to have a stateless society in the Neolithic, and it appears that to some extent they did.  But I don't believe it is possible today.

Land ownership is taken to be a very minor point by most people.  For instance, when they say, "Oh, I'd grow a garden, but I live in an apartment."  But it's actually a very major issue.  Access to natural resources is necessary for survival.  If you do not have direct access, you will be reliant for your survival on those who do have that access.  That is to say, you rely on the grocery store, and on its continued willingness to accept scraps of paper in exchange for food.  You also rely on the owner of your apartment to continue to let you live there.  Since anarchists like to say that you are free to do whatever you want on your own property, it does seem to follow that your landlord is free to restrict your rights while you're living there -- as in fact landlords do, when it comes to quiet hours and indoor paintball parties.

So, you have to have land to be free from anyone's control.  Fine.  You buy a piece of it for $100,000 and say to yourself, "Now I am truly free.  I call no man master.  I will build myself a house, grow myself food, and pay no taxes, because after all I didn't agree to the social contract."  If you do this, anarchists freely admit, the IRS man is going to pay you a visit, so you really can't get away with it.  But, they say, you should be able to.

All right, so say the United States government agrees to grant you sovereignty.  Your 40 acres is now the sovereign nation of Yourland, and you can do whatever you want with it.  It is no longer part of the United States.

Immediately emissaries from Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and China all arrive on your doorstep.  All would like to invite you to become a protectorate and enjoy the many benefits of being a citizen of their nations.  And there is a veiled threat apparent ... if you don't comply, one or another of them is going to make you.  After all, they have missiles and you don't.  You have a shotgun.  It's not going to cut it.

Okay, so that won't do.  Let's just get rid of all governments.  Everywhere in the world.  There is now no government everywhere; we will work completely on the basis of free association.

Things are great.  But a very large group of people, known as the Walmart Corporation, decides to build a store right on the other side of your property line.  Fine.  No problem.  Their land, their choice.  But you wake up one morning and your fence doesn't look right.  It's been moved twenty feet over to make room for a bit more parking lot for Walmart.

"You can't do this!"  you announce to the representatives of Walmart.  "You are aggressing on my property, therefore by the Non-Aggression Principle, I now have the right to use force to stop your aggression!"

Walmart replies, "You and what army?"

So you leave, downcast, but when you get home you start calling your friends.  (Presumably you've figured out a way to string phone lines that everyone has agreed to; anarchists aren't dumb, they've thought of this.)  They are indignant, realizing of course that if it's you today, it might be them next.  But Bob can't help you because he doesn't even have a shotgun; he had a bad year in his business and can't afford it.  And Tim is laid up with the flu.  And Steve could help you, but he won't, because he wants to take his own chances.  Billy has seen pictures provided by Walmart that make it look like your fence was always in that spot.  And so on and so forth.

You get together what coalition you can, which ends up being more people than Walmart has.  But Walmart still has more money than you.  They have better weapons, helicopters, missiles, the works.  Odds are good that you will lose, if not this time, then next time, when McDonalds encroaches on Steve's farm.  Some people have access to better resources than other people, and better resources translate to better weapons.  Also, some people put 100% of their efforts into weaponry and make stealing their main form of sustenance, whereas people who fight defensively have to arrange for other forms of sustenance and can only put a smaller percentage of their efforts into fighting.  It does seem to me that the bad guy is always going to win in this scenario.

The facts are these:
1.  Life is not possible without access to the earth's resources.
2.  Access to the earth's resources is not possible without the ability to defend them against attack.
3.  Free individuals are at a disadvantage to states or corporations when it comes to defending their resources against attack.

It seems to me that, even if we have no other government, we're going to need some form of army.  Just a little one, properly equipped.  But equipment has a price tag, and where is the money going to come from?

Anarchists believe that the government has no right to tax, because taxation is just stealing under another name.  After all, I didn't agree to join the club that is the United States.  So why should I have to pay the club's dues?

I answer that taxes are not dues.  They are rents.  This is why I am a believer in property tax even though I don't much hold with income tax.

Because the fact is, you don't own the land your house is sitting on.  Not absolutely.  If you are an American, that land was stolen from Indians (hate to say it, but it's true) and defended against outside attack by the United States government.  The government then sold or gave it to certain citizens.  Those citizens sold it to other people, who sold it to other people, who sold it to you.  But when it was sold the first time, it wasn't sold complete, with full rights to sovereignty.  You were sold the use of it.  You can use it for pretty nearly everything you want.  But the understanding that went along with that gift or sale of land was that you would pay the government forever for its defense of that patch of land.  And you would follow a few basic rules that the government would set.

If you "opt out," you have to stop "renting" that land.  You can't keep it.  You are going to have to get a new patch, and it turns out all the patches are claimed by somebody.  This is the perennial anarchist problem, and it's why anarchists are theorists only; it's never been tried.  There's an idea now to build a platform in the sea somewhere and make it into an anarchist paradise.  I do wish them luck with that.

The only true anarchist paradise was feudalism.  Yes, at its best, it was a system of renting land and following the landlord's rules.  Each time the owner of the land died and his son took over, he too would have to go down to the landlord and swear fealty to him.  It's an individual social contract for everyone.  And the age-old transfer would take place: a percentage of my crop for your protection.  That portion of my crop goes to feed everyone who doesn't have the time to farm because they are busy training so as to protect me better, and to buy weapons for them.

We've gotten too far from the land to see it, but I really see all governments as simply a form of this ancient transfer.  The question that must be asked afterwards, then, is this:  Is the government a fair landlord, or an oppressive one?  Who is to protect us if our landlord oppresses us?

Ah, look at the time.  Thanks for plowing the whole way through this epic.  I'll address limited government... someday.


Enbrethiliel said...


I went through a rebellious "libertarian" stage in which I opposed taxes of all kinds, but I grew out of it without thinking my way through anything. This post sends an arrow back in time and hits the bull's eye. =)

Belfry Bat said...

More of my undocumented but probably-documentable hearsay; agriculture isn't quite all that new, though of course Man has done with it what he does with most things Man and beasts share: added the complications of Reason and Obsession.

Even what nomadic herders do is only slightly different (mostly, it's sneakier and gentler!) than what lion and hyena do with the big migrations in Africa; agriculture has interesting parallels among leaf-cutter ants (they 'farm' fungi; the leaves are just fertilizer), bees (harvest nectar, keep the flowers in seed), and lichens (fungi that host endocytic algae which they occasionally tear apart). There may be other examples; lichen have an interesting parallel in all eukaryotic cells, which actually don't use sugars directly, (much too sticky!) but convert sugar's energy to assemble amino-triphospates; and that job is done in eukaryotes by mitochondria, tiny organelles that look an awful lot like unsheathed bacteria and keep their own cyclic DNA.

The thing that's really weird about human farming is that it's not instinctual, which is probably why it takes so much work and is more prone to failure; but it's not an unusual development in general.

Anyway, there's some twopence worth of hearsay rambling. Enjoy!


Sheila said...

At that point, I'd question whether we're defining agriculture the same. Agriculture, as defined by the archeologists, includes staying fixed in one place and usually involves grain farming specifically. What you're talking about, I'd categorize more generally as "stewardship" -- something animals do to some extent, but we do as part of our nature. We tend, manage, and change our environment constantly.

I mean, I like plantain to grow in my yard; it breaks up compacted soil, which I have a lot of, and it's also edible. So if I see any seed heads while I'm out there, I grab them and toss them around to spread it a bit. Is that "agriculture"? Yes, in some sense. But really a very paleolithic sense. The neolithic revolution involved plowing, settled cities, pottery for food storage, etc. It was much more involved, so it definitely was a huge shift in the economic base of the people who practiced it.

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, I'm not saying those things "are" agriculture; just that symbiotic predation occurs before Reason (as do settled colonies and silage, like bee-hives), which means it must worth trying out occasionally. The nifty thing about Man doing these things is, as you say, there was a time when we did none of them, and now we're the only thing around that does ALL of them.


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