In the previous blog I came out very strongly against anarchism. It’s simply wishful thinking to believe that anything good can be achieved by abolishing the state. Yes, people can leave in stateless and elite-less societies (and have done so for tens of thousands of years). But they suffered from warfare in a really bad way. Read again my blog on War before Civilization on the cost of having many small-scale societies without any overarching political authority that pacifies them.
The ideology of anarchism is something that can flourish only in relatively well-run state societies, although it’s probably more likely to gain popularity when these societies decline in one way or another. On the other hand, the 1.5 billion people living in fragile or failed states understand very well that what they need is a better state, not absence of one. Fragile states are also poor ones, as is shown by this data graph, put together by Tom Currie:
State instability is closely correlated with poverty. Source
It’s not quite clear which way the causation goes. Does poverty breed anarchy? Does anarchy breed poverty? Perhaps both. More likely, they are a consequence of a deeper underlying dynamic. Cooperation is what brings about both strong and vibrant economies and strong and just states.
The other thing we forget is that democratic small-scale societies could be extremely oppressive to the ‘deviant’ minorities. ‘Witches’ were actually quite safe from the Inquisition. The overwhelming majority of witches were actually burnt by their own communities, who decided to do so in an entirely democratic way – by the rule of majority.
The most productive way to think about hierarchy is that, first, it’s a general social law (sometimes known as the Iron Law of Oligarchy). Complex societies inevitably acquire hierarchies and elites (remember, the elites are the small proportion of population who concentrate the social power in their hands).
But second, although we are stuck with hierarchies, they come in all kinds of flavors. There are good hierarchies, and there are bad hierarchies. The elites can behave either in a prosocial way, which benefits broad segments of the population. Or they can act in ways that only advance their own selfish interests.
We, the 99 percent, collectively have a say in what kinds of elites we are going to have. At least, in principle. In practice it may be difficult to generate concerted political action that could restraint elites to behave in prosocial ways. New developments in information and communication technologies may give us better tools for organizing and getting things done (this could be an interesting topic for future discussions).
However, I would be remiss not to point out that historically the most important process that weeded out the selfish elites (‘bad hierarchies’) was competition between societies. As elites become more selfish, they lose any remaining support from the general population, then start bickering among themselves. This makes a society extremely vulnerable to external conquest. As Arnold Toynbee famously said, great civilizations are not murdered, they commit suicide. And the road to suicide is for a society to lose the ability to cooperate.
This is what happened to the Late Roman Empire. In the fifth century AD Italy had a tiny number of super-rich landowners and vast numbers of poor and powerless peasants. Relatively small armies of Germanic tribesmen could go where they pleased and pillage what they wanted, without encountering any organized resistance from the Italians. The heart of the Roman Empire, central and southern Italy, became an ‘asabiya black hole.’ And the selfish elites bear most of the blame.
They also paid the price. The peasants endured, but most of the late Roman nobility was dispossessed of its wealth, and those who managed to fit in the new order were subordinated to uncouth, hairy, and dirty barbarian chieftains.
Roman patricians before Alaric (source)
History, thus, shows that mismanagement by the selfish elites is a self-correcting evolutionary process. It’s a costly way to ensure elite quality, and it would be better for the elites themselves if they could get their act together. Most of the time they can’t. My favorite example is the French Revolution which was triggered when an elite body, the French Assembly of Notables, frustrated attempts by the royal government to fix the state fiscal crisis in 1788, because they did not want to pay taxes
There are also historical examples when the elites managed to implement reforms that brought about more equal societies: the abolition of the serfdom in Russia, the Chartist Era in Great Britain, and the Progressive Era/the New Deal in the United States. It must be admitted that in each case there was a combination of internal and external pressures that forced the ruling classes to bite the bullet. Russia lost the Crimean War of 1853–56 and there was a wave of peasant upheavals during the 1850s that lead to the Emancipation Act of 1861. The American elites were badly frightened by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the wave of political violence around 1920.
Alexander II Proclaiming the Emancipation of the Serfs by Gustav Dittenberger, c.1861 (source)
It would be fitting to end this post by quoting the Russian Tsar Alexander II (1855–81), who addressed the Russian nobility with the following words: “We live in such an age that it will happen sooner or later. I think you are of the same mind as me: it would be better to begin to abolish the serfdom from above than to wait until it abolishes itself from below.”