What Do We Need a State For, Anyway?

Photo by Ramon Vloon

In a healthy society of non-human primates, there are no nations, no extended organizations, no supraterritorial forms that might resemble a state. Troops of primates do have a social cohesion about them, creating various temporary leaders or hierarchies according to the function at hand—one for fighting, say, another for vigilance, a third for feeding— and establishing customs and groundrules of permissible behavior.

But nowhere do these basically autonomous troops combine into larger associations, nowhere do members of the same species, though clearly knowing themselves to be essentially related, attempt to create large- scale units of social control. “Superorganizations, alliances made up of two or more troops,” as anthropology expert John Pfeiffer notes, “have never been observed among baboons or any other nonhuman primates.”

In a healthy brain, though there are many major processes operating at once, there is none, either physical or psychological, that is dominant. In the words of neurologist Gary Walter:

We find no boss in the brain, no oligarchic ganglion or glandular Big Brother. Within our heads our very lives depend on equality of opportunity, on specialisation with versatility, on free communication and just restraint, a freedom without interference. Here too, local minorities can and do control their own means of production and expression in free and equal intercourse with their neighbours.

Only in the diseased and malfunctioning brain does one process ever become dominant.

In a healthy ecosystem, the various sets of animals, whether themselves organized as individuals, families, bands, or communal hives, get along with each other without the need of any system of authority or dominance—indeed, without structure or organization of any kind soever. No one species rules, not one even makes an attempt, and the only assertion of power has to do with territoriality—the claim of one or another species to a particular area to be left alone in. Each community in the system has its own methods of organization, its own habits and styles and food supplies, and none attempts to impose these on any other or to set itself up as the central source of power and sovereignty. Predation there will be within such an ecosystem, and some basic wariness by the fly of the frog and the frog of the snake and the snake of the hawk, but there is no inter-special warfare, no pseudo-Darwinian war of all against all. On the contrary, there is balance and adjustment, the broad cooperation of nature’s communities with each other and with their particular environment. Independence, complexity, variety, flexibility—these are the characteristics of the healthy ecosystem, and, among all creatures, only the human has ever tried to transgress that principle.

When the crisis of “climate change” (or, as it is properly called, “overheating of the world’s environment) comes upon us in a few more years, for survival it will be necessary for humans to abandon both the political and economic systems that have characterized the earth for the last half-millennium.  Capitalism, and its fundamental tenet of growth-at-any-cost, and the state system which supports and protects it, must give way to a world of small-scale, non-pollutant, non-aggressive societies that can exist on few resources and human-scale self-government.

A world, in short, without the state and its accompanying economic resource destroyer.

It is not so fantastic.  I would argue that humans have lived that way since the very earliest beginnings of anything that could be called human, so long ago that there is a sense in which its patterns may be encoded in our genes. This is the way even more developed societies must have formed themselves since the beginnings of settled bands and tribes some 150,000 years ago. This is the way the greater part of all humanity must have lived even after a few isolated peoples began forming fixed hierarchies and chieftaincies and states some 5,000 years ago.

Examples of societies that have lived, and lived long and well, without the trappings of the state are surprisingly common, once one begins combing through the scientific literature. In fact they are so common, occurring right throughout the Indian societies of both North and South America, through much of North Africa and almost all of the great region from the Sudan to the Kalahari, and throughout the islands of the South Pacific from Sumatra all the way to Polynesia, occurring among patrilineal as well as matrilineal societies, settled and pastoral as well as hunting and nomadic, large and scattered as well as small and cohesive, isolated and ingrown as well as confederative and cooperative, occurring in such variety and profusion that it comes to seem from the anthropological evidence that this is indeed the basic natural organiza­tion of human societies. As British anthropologist Aidan Southall has said about the historical spectrum, “People with state organizations were exceptional.”

Clearly any method of living that has been so widespread and so long-lasting must have something going for it, must be considered in some way successful, even if largely for “primitive” people in “pre­historic” times. Its success in almost every instance seems to be due to a very simple mechanism: the social control exerted by those who feel themselves part of a single, cohesive, multi-entangled social group such that the transgression of one is likely to threaten the well-being of all. It needs no parliament to decree that my act of theft or murder is going to be wrenchingly disruptive of a community, and that if I have even a minimal sense of self-preservation I had better not commit such acts. It needs no chief or ruler to tell me that I must at times tend my neighbor’s cattle and help him in his harvest, for it is perfectly obvious that my own survival depends on his doing the same for me. It needs no policeman or soldier to prevent me, nor prison to scare me, from acts of social disruption, for the social well-being that I shatter, the social peace I destroy, is my own. There is nothing to keep me, strictly speaking, from mayhem; yet there is nothing to propel me either, and everything to restrain me.

As Southall puts it in his important entry in the International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences:

Fundamental responsibility for the maintenance of society itself is much more widely dispersed throughout its varied institutions and its whole population in stateless societies. . . . In stateless societies every man grows up with a practical and intuitive sense of his responsibility to maintain constantly throughout his life that part of the fabric of society at which at any time he is involved.

Or, more bluntly, Peter Farb about the Basarwi:

They have an intuitive fear of violence because they know the social disruption it can cause in a small group. And they know that because of the poisoned arrows always at hand, an argument can quickly turn into a homicide. This explains why the Bushmen attach no honor or glory to fighting and aggression. Their culture is without tales of bravery, praise of aggressive manhood, ordeals of strength, or competitive sports.

What’s missing from such societies, and what makes them seem so strange to our eyes—as to the eyes of the first Europeans who encountered and usually misreported them—is the concept of power, and hence of hierarchy, control, obedience, all the elements that are necessary to contrive a state. No one here has power, no one wants it, no one even thinks about it—or has a way to think about it. Competence, yes, ability, skill, these are all desirable, even the talent to lead in battle or in dance or in harvesting or in magic. But never does it imply power. French anthropologist Pierre Clastres has described the pathetic turn of Geronimo’s career, after that Apache warrior had been a successful leader of troops in battle and tried to make himself into a chief with political power, demanding that the Apaches join him in further wars against the Mexicans: “He attempted to turn the tribe into the instrument of his desire, whereas before, by virtue of his competence as a warrior, he was the tribe’s instrument.” Quite naturally, the Apaches would have nothing to do with him, and he spent the next twenty years in silly, futile battles with a handful of followers, becoming a chief, and heroic, only in the eyes of the white myth-makers who never understood. Clastres’s conclusion for the Apache, as for the dozens of Central American cultures he has studied: “One is confronted, then, by a vast constellation of societies in which the holders of what elsewhere would be called power are actually without power; where the political is determined as a domain beyond coercion and violence, beyond hierarchical subordination; where, in a word, no relationship of command-obedience is in force.” Even those tribes that create leaders of a kind, people we might call chiefs, do not invest them with power:

The chief has no authority at his disposal, no power of coercion, no means of giving an order. The chief is not a commander; the people of the tribe are under no obligation to obey. The space of the chieftainship is not the locus of power, and the “profile” of the primitive chief in no way foreshadows that of a future despot. . . .

Mainly responsible for resolving the conflicts that can surface between individuals, families, lineages, and so forth, the chief has to rely on nothing more than the prestige accorded him by the society to restore order and harmony. But prestige does not signify power, certainly, and the means the chief possesses for performing his task of peacemaker are limited to the use of speech . . . the chief’s word carries no force of law.

Even the word “chief,” it should be noted, is European. Such cultures as these have neither the word nor the concept.

Nor should one think that it is only among archaic peoples that forms of statelessness exist. One can encounter much the same sort of thing, sometimes with a few more touches of formality, often enough in the histories of peoples of acknowledged sophistication.

The Greeks, for example. From the eighth century b.c. on to as late as the fourth, the great majority of Hellenic villages and cities operated without kings, without ruling priesthoods, without fixed aristocracies, organizing their daily affairs through assemblies of citizens and popularly elected leaders. The Greek polis may have created more civic officers than the Dinka did, and it may have relied to a greater extent on codified law, but it had the same avoidance of authoritarian forms, the same distrust of chiefly powers, the same dependence upon popular assemblies for the settlement of disputes. Even Athens, probably more encumbered than most Greek cities because of its size and prominence, studiously avoided the governmental trappings of the riparian empires that had preceded it. It was governed not by imperial wizards and pharaohs but by a public assembly, the ecclesia, a regular gathering of all (male) citizens who wished to participate, which made all important decisions and set all guiding policies and then elected a rotating body of fellow-citizens, the Council of 500, and an assortment of citizen committees to carry them out. So far from having a permanent monarch, Athens until Periclean times generally selected a new “president”—in effect the mayor—every single day by lot from among the Council of 500, and his duties were totally symbolic and ceremonial. And none doubts the sophistication of that culture.

Similarly, the medieval cities were without anything that could be thought of as a state, certainly nothing recognized beyond their narrow borders. They did have their forms of governance, to be sure, somewhat more complicated than the Dinka, with town officers and magistrates and written charters. But they knew no authority beyond their fortified walls, no lord or nation or king (which is why even today the British monarch theoretically has to ask permission to enter the City of London). They were entirely self-administering, self-governing, self- adjudicating (in most places, until the fifteenth century, local priests and often local feudal lords were subject to the decisions of the city’s folkmote or juries). They recognized only the authority of their own citywide folkmotes, open to all citizens, which in turn generally selected the military defensor and the judicial magisters for the town (and it is precisely because they did not have such folkmotes that certain cities— Paris and Moscow for sure, and possibly London and Lisbon as well— were chosen by certain feudal lords and bishops to be the capitals of their growing dominions). And they regarded themselves as completely sovereign, even granting their own citizenship (as Braudel points out, each city “was the classic type of the closed town, a self-sufficient unit, an exclusive Lilliputian native land”).

Even then, the average independent city hardly resembled what we would think of as a “state,” so decentralized were the effective functions of municipal life. Especially in northern and western Europe, each neighborhood or parish normally had its own forms of governance for most day-to-day affairs, its own assembly meeting once a month or more, its own tribunal, priest, militia, and emblems. In addition each trade had its own guild to see to the welfare, protection, and health of its members, with its own assembly, its own courts and punishments, and its own military force armed with its own bows or guns. It was only disputes between the neighborhoods or disagreements among the guilds that went up to the consideration of city officers, and most of these were settled by schemes of local custom and adjudication….

There are many other examples of stateless societies to be found in more contemporary history. In sixteenth-century Ireland, we are told, there was “no legislature, no bailiffs, no police, no public enforcement of justice … no trace of State-administered justice.” The Swiss Confederation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was so formless that it had no central government at all but rather an obedient secretariat of two regular officials and a few aides that moved around the country from canton to canton (the entire apparatus of the “state” was once stuck in the snow in a single railway coach near Mellingen), and even though those cantons enjoyed almost total internal autonomy most matters of substance in them were in fact decided by “sovereign villages.” Such religious communities as the Quakers, Dukhobors, Mennonites, and Hutterites have lasted for centuries without any trappings of the state—nor do most of them formally recognize the civil states around them—and with their own law and governance as established by religion, custom, community, and popular democratic assemblies.

We do have to go back for some time in history—except for those few remaining examples of the archaic state in Africa and Australia—to find examples of societies without the state, that being the particular burden of the contemporary world. And yet when we do, through anthropolo­gists and archaeologists and historians, we almost never fail to find an extraordinary record of stability and equilibrium that suggests, and goes a long way to proving, that the human animal, without the patterns of the state and the pillars of authority, tends to peace not war, to self-­regulation not chaos, to cooperation not dissension, to harmony not violence, to order not disarray. Indeed, looking at the long human record, it is hard not to find an increase in all of the latter characteristics with the development of the state.

It is not to early to envision our life after the climate collapse that is pending.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of seventeen books.  A 50th anniversary reprint of his classic SDS has been published this fall (Autonomedia).