Somalia — Is That Really All You Got?

Rachel Maddow, a popular liberal commentator on MSNBC, recently iterated — for the umpteenth time — the standard liberal talking point of Somalia as a supposedly unanswerable argument against anarchy.  The Somalia reference, when done according to formula, comes as the follow-up to a one-two punch —  usually preceded by the “drown government in a bathtub” quote from Grover Norquist.

Following a snarky allusion to the idealized “small-government conservative” vision of society (“which, you know, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of bucolic and awesome, right?”), Maddow went in for the kill:  “When you see it in action in a country that hasn‘t had a government in about 18 years, it actually looks like this.  This is Somalia.”

But this is dirty pool for several reasons.  First, no intelligent anarchist argues that the sudden and catastrophic implosion of the state will result in a peaceful, self-regulating society.

We’ve lived through centuries of the process which Pyotr Kropotkin described in “Mutual Aid” and “The State,” by which centralized territorial states suppressed bottom-up, self-organized alternatives, and caused civil society to atrophy. Under such circumstances, when the state suddenly disappears, the result is likely to be a power vacuum with nothing ready to take its place, and the proliferation of all sorts of social pathologies.

What most of us want to do is reverse the centuries-long process Kropotkin described, by building alternative social institutions, organized on a voluntary cooperative basis, to supplant the state.  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, conventionally regarded as the father of anarchism, described it as devolving or submerging the state in the social body.  And this by no means implies the anarcho-capitalist vision of a society where all functions are performed by for-profit business firms.  It could just as easily mean a society of worker and consumer cooperatives, common property, free clinics, community supported agriculture, intentional communities, urban communes and squats, and the kinds of mutual aid arrangement described by Kropotkin in “Mutual Aid” and E.P. Thompson in “The Making of the English Working Class.”

So it would make far more sense to look at a stateless or near-stateless society that’s been that way for a long time, under comparatively stable conditions (like some of the near-stateless areas in Southeast Asia described by James Scott in “The Art of Not Being Governed”), and the institutions by which people peacefully govern their lives.

Second, “Somalia” does not equal “Mogadishu.”  Most of the horrific, Mad Max scenes captured in Somalia are in Mogadishu, where the central state was most powerful before the collapse and the institutions of civil society were accordingly most atrophied.  As Roderick Long, director of C4SS’s parent body the Molinari Institute, put it, “the farther one gets away from Mogadishu, the more one gets into relatively peaceful areas that have always been anarchic or close to it, barring occasional intrusions from the statebuilders in the city.”  In other words, the further you get from Mogadishu, the less Somalia resembles “Somalia,” and the more it resembles the kind of stable society described by James Scott.

Third, the proper comparison to Somalia is not the United States and similar societies in the West, but to the actual state that existed in Somalia before the collapse of central power. Given that comparison, things in Somalia aren’t that bad at all.  For example:  a study by Benjamin Powell, Ryan Ford and Alex Nowrasteh took “a comparative institutional approach to examine Somalia’s performance relative to other African countries both when Somalia had a government and during its extended period of anarchy.”  And it found that Somalia, when subjected to an honest comparison — “between Somalia when it had a functioning government, and Somalia now” — is less poor, has higher life expectancy, and has experienced a drastic increase in telephone lines.

I’d also add, parenthetically, that while Somalia is often celebrated by anarcho-capitalist types, in reality it hardly fits the anarcho-capitalist stereotype (especially in those areas away from Mogadishu).   For example, there’s widespread communal ownership of land by extended families and clans, with only possessory or usufructory rights by individuals.

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