Saturday, 19 January 2013

Freedom and Non-State Societies - 'Savage Minds'

I've decided to comment on another Savage Minds post, this time by Alex Golub (aka Rex).  Rex is reading through Diamond's book and blogging about it piece-by-piece.  In his latest post, I was struck by this comment: 
Let’s face it, people living in a world without the state, bureaucracy, police, and complex networks of material culture allied with these forces (fences, locks, concrete barriers) lived in a world of much greater freedom than those of us who have passports today. If you wanted to go somewhere, you went there.

Let's face it: that contradicts everything archaeology and ethnography tell us.  People living without a state could certainly decide to go and visit another place.  And they might even get there.  But would they be able to come back?

The idea that there was greater freedom of movement before states arrived on the scene is contradicted by all of the ethnographic, ethnohistoric, and archaeological studies that have ever been conducted on pre-state societies.  It is true that today, most people who live in New Guinea, eastern Indonesia, or Amazonia can travel between villages without fear of murder (although, of course, such things still happen in some places where state power is weak or non-existent, like Adonara in the Solor archipelago).  But this was not the case before states got involved.  It's a relic of colonial and post-colonial governments meddling in local affairs.  The ability to run free in Papua New Guinea, Amazonia, eastern Indonesia, and elsewhere is such a product of government interference, such a product of the modern state and its workings, that it would take a myopic, ahistorical approach to ignore its origins.

If you wanted to go to a village in eastern Indonesia before 1915, then you had to bring gifts, maybe even a wife, for a headman in the village, or else your head would end up hanging from the sacrificial pole and your limbs would hang from the trees nearby.  There were plenty of motivations to kill and almost none to let live.  If your head wasn't taken, then slavery would probably be your fate.  Moreover, you would have needed a guide; almost all villages in eastern Indonesia were defended by traps, especially pits of sharpened bamboo, as well as by their situation on peaks and by ravines, and by walls of logs or dense cactus.  This is a pattern found as well in 'Zomia', Scott's supposed wonderland of freedom, as well as almost everywhere else.

The exceptions to this trend might include foraging societies without clans or ranks, or sedentary societies focused on profit rather than warfare.  But even then, movement would be restricted in some sense - there would certainly be consequences to movement, and they would likely be worse than the ones people today endure (see below).  I'm not speculating here; this is all incredibly well-documented, and is found not only in the ethnographic but also in the archaeological record.  What we find in ancient Amazonia are not undefended villages of people living in harmony with nature.  What we often find are palisades and ramparts.

In any case, if you define 'freedom' as the ability to live unmolested, and 'freedom of movement' as the ability to move between different locations unmolested, then freedom has increased with the rise of states, especially modern democratic states.  This does not imply an evolutionary progression and it is not an inevitability, but it is a clear and obvious trend (there is a difference between these things).  If you define 'freedom' as 'absence of interference from a state', then non-state societies are freer by definition - and, in my health-loving, peace-appreciating position, much worse places to live, and much less free in the more reasonable sense.

You could certainly go somewhere else, living in a pre-state society.  You could decide to go down the valley to another village and saunter around.  Rex's point is trivially correct: if you decided you wanted to go somewhere, you could go there.  Or try to.

But we've got to accept that the point is also trivially true of modern state societies.  If you want to sleep in a park or on the pavement, or if you want to piss in the street in Manhattan, or if you want to enter a gated community, you could certainly do those things, or try to.

And there would be consequences - you might be fined, told to move along, and your reputation might even take a hit.  You might even end up unemployed as a result (certainly happens).  The same is true of Bolivian immigration into the US.  It is possible to enter the USA as a Bolivian below the poverty line.  It isn't that easy, but it can be done.  And once you're there, what will happen to you?  If you're found out, you'll be sent back, probably, hopefully, with all of your limbs and body intact.

But there would likewise be consequences if you decided to visit another village prior to state involvement.  The consequences might even be worse: instead of a fine, you might be killed, because there'd be no reason not to kill you (you'd have to supply one, in the form of gifts or offers of assistance or friendship or, for lack of a better word, trade).  Even if that didn't happen, at least there would be consequences of some kind, and there would be no rules from outside governing what happens.  Rex seems to see the consequences of breaking the law as absolutely different, rather than relatively different, to the consequences of entering a village in a non-state society, or travelling on prohibited land, or breaking a taboo.  I don't see this distinction as being at all valid.  Whether molested by a state or a single individual, it is still molestation.  States, especially the ones we have today, allow more people to travel further with less possibility of molestation, and they therefore increase freedom.  This may not be a politically-actionable point - and anthropologists are, of course, concerned with making politically-actionable points, due to the recent prescriptive orientation of the discipline - but it seems to be correct.

And it betrays an ethnocentric bias, to put it mildly, to see the state as inherently opposed to freedom.  Sure, if you live in America, then you're surrounded by gated communities and land on which you simply cannot trespass.  But if you live in Sweden, you might see things a little differently.  It is possible to have a state that protects human freedom - in fact, that is at least part of the function of the modern state.  Americans see the state as a threat to freedom, when in many cases it serves to promote it.  Certainly there's nothing inherent to the functioning of the modern democratic state that makes it a threat to freedom.

Also, let's put things in perspective.  Being frisked at the airport is annoying and can be degrading.  Being stopped by the police is, likewise, enervating.  Having any of these things occur simply because of who you are or where you were born is awful and shouldn't happen.  But being beheaded or shot through with arrows or penetrated by stones from a sling - these fates are a little worse, and were much more common before the rise of states (even the most bloodthirsty states have an interest in curbing such violence).  Today, you can travel from Europe to Thailand to Guam and beyond without much fear of death.  At the very least, your fear of molestation would be justifiably increased if you lived without the restrictions of a state, and that is true regardless of race, nationality, or anything else.  And that seems like such an elementary conclusion that its denial is tantamount to a rejection of the idea that you can learn anything from anthropological studies.

Of course it's awful that people from Bolivia or Iran cannot freely enter and work in the USA or UK or elsewhere - I have to deal with this unfortunate fact in my line of work.  I hate the UK Border Agency for denying asylum to many of my friends.  But in centuries past, they would have suffered much worse fates - and even after the denial of their asylum claims, the government still allows them to remain in the country (it just stops funding them and prevents them from gaining legal employment, which is quite a problematic double-whammy, to put it mildly).  It doesn't even deport them for entering the country on a false passport - this is, in fact, the accepted method by which asylum seekers and refugees enter the country, at least in the UK and, as far as I know, the EU.  I see the UKBA as an evil institution designed to perpetuate human misery, but it is astoundingly lenient in comparison to almost any society that existed before the last few centuries.

The perfect is the enemy of the good; I doubt we'll see the day when anyone can go to and live in any place that they choose (more's the pity), but at least we can take heart in the fact that more people can go to more places with less likelihood of harm than ever before.  And we can try to increase this freedom by improving the law and showing that migration and people-movement is very often a good thing.

Here are some other things I objected to in the post and discussion:

The idea that laws curtail freedom is flawed, and there is of course a large literature on this topic (positive/negative freedom, etc - I like Joel Feinberg's introduction to political philosophy as a source on this topic, but of course there are many more such works).  Rex seems to pursue the topic in ignorance of this literature, which I find a little unbelievable.  Furthermore, the idea that all trends are evolutionary is wrong; it is possible to identify a trend, point out that we are at some point in the trend, and endorse the moral goodness of the trend, without asserting that it is part of an inevitable or evolutionary trajectory that we are at the pinnacle of.  Positing a trend, even a trend we rather like, does not equal 'Whig' history.  And, naturally, it is an example of the genetic fallacy to assert that the origins of an idea are a factor in its validity; it is irrelevant whether Diamond's belief in the improvements given by the modern state can be connected to precedents in evolutionary social science.  Assess the idea on its own merits.

UPDATE:  This post is getting a lot of hits, thanks to Brad DeLong and Reddit.  Unfortunately, a lot of the discussion on Reddit (specifically, the Libertarian sub-reddit) is wrong-headed and confused, especially with regard to what freedom actually is.  As you'd expect, the libertarians conflate 'freedom' with the absence of state authority, which is just one more example of politics making people dumber.  It could only mean that if you already want it to - if you take the a priori position that life without a state is preferable to life in one.

I really don't have a political axe to grind.  I wish political philosophies that emphasise human freedom and autonomy, like anarchism and libertarianism, had some empirical backing, because they are truly appealing to me - I would love to live in a world where I could simply be, absent the state, absent arbitrary societal pressures - but the facts are against these philosophies.  I cannot endorse the idea that states inhibit freedom after actually studying life in non-state societies, much as I'd like to.  It is apparent - indeed, it seems to be an empirical matter - that states increase human freedom, in the sense that they allow more people to do more things than they could in non-state scenarios.

Here's one of the Reddit comments, from 'buffalo_pete':
Lovely. Another liberal arts degree holder trying to use anthropology to draw sociological and political conclusions. That's always good for a mid-morning laugh.

Nothing but an ad hominem: buffalo_pete thinks that I have to be one of those louche humanist douchebags libertarians love to satirise, and he seems to believe that my qualifications are so insufficient for discussing the point (an empirical point about non-state societies) that my conclusions don't even have to be addressed.

Again, this is what happens when you let your politics do your thinking for you.

Another comment seems confused about what a state is, and what trade is, and about human history in general:
People and nations traded over long distances, by and sea, for thousands of years before even empires or states controlled borders. Arab/ Saharan nomads; travellers on the Silk Road; Assyrian traders and Minoan boatsmen; trans-Scandanavian proto-Viking trade; the trade of jewels across the Indian subcontinent; precious metals/ gems/ mineral trade in the Americas; etc. Or, even, the movement of large obelisks across sea and earth for religious displays and ritual, as with Celtic henges. Christ's Apostles travelled thousands of miles to preach and prosletyze, as did Buddha and Mohammed.
Trade was relatively rare, expensive, and it was not a fleeting act taken lightly. But that is a matter of resources, not necessarily freedom or safety. Those who could promise reasonable guarantees of their own safety would make trade if they deemed beneficial.

Almost all of these groups and people lived in states.  Minoan civilisation was one of small states; the Assyrian empire was one of the largest and most powerful of the ancient Near East; the Sahel, Sahara, and North Africa in the time of the Arab conquests was run by states (native African city-states, the Byzantine empire, etc), and after the Arab conquests it was, of course, run by the Arab caliphates, which had large and powerful armies and plenty of regional clout; states existed in Scandinavia for most of the Viking age; Gautama Buddha lived in the age of the Indian city-states of the Ganga-Yamuna Doab, and was even claimed to have been a prince of Shakya, a state in what is now Nepal (although this is unverifiable, due to the lack of written evidence from before the Mauryan era).  Importantly, most - but not all - of these people lived in states of some kind.

If you want to know what pre-modern trade was really like - even between state societies with weak centralisation and no police - then I recommend Richard Hakluyt's collections of accounts by traders and explorers from the sixteenth century.  Many of the accounts speak of the difficulties of navigating poorly controlled terrains, and expeditions into the wilder and non-state-controlled areas of Central Asia were frequently attacked by bandits.  This was one of many difficulties in conducting trade before states assumed control of the entirety of the earth.  (You should also read Hakluyt because his work is so much fun to read.)

It is possible to trade over large distances without states, but it is much less safe and much riskier.  There were plenty of constraints on trade before the advent of European hegemony, and especially before the rise of state societies throughout the earth.  One of the most important of these constraints was the possibility of violent death at the hands of groups unrestrained by laws imposed by states.

Another Reddit comment:
The author of the post most certainly took a few liberties with his definitions of "freedom".
Freedom, by definition, means NO CONSTRAINTS. It is Anarchy.
If living without 'no constraints' = freedom, then the fewer constraints there are, the more freedom there is.  Living with the possibility of being murdered during mundane activities is a constraint; the removal of this constraint represents an increase in freedom.  States enable the removal of this constraint.

Of course, the author of this comment doesn't believe that fewer constraints is equivalent to greater freedom.  (S)he seems to believe that less state interference is equivalent to greater freedom, meaning that freedom within a state is impossible by definition.  This is not a reasonable definition of freedom and, again, could only be upheld by someone who takes 'states=evil' to be a foundational belief.


  1. So, territory preceded the state. Okay, but what about nomadic societies? Not every pre- or non-state society comprised of permanently settled, xenophobic villagers. The migration of nomads was rendered 'immigration' by states and thus cast in a whole other light with respect to freedom of movement. So many of the problems in Africa involve people not being able to move around to avoid droughts and so on.

  2. The point is more about how states prevent violence and therefore create opportunities for travel that would have been impossible beforehand. Transhumance is a little different, you are right. But the same tendency for violence to dominate inter-group relations was also present among non-state nomads, and clearly had an impact on seasonal movements. The difference is that many states do seem to inhibit transhumance, unfortunately, and in that sense, you are right. A very different point to the one Rex was making, however.

  3. You've raised a good point. Many people dismiss slavery as a bad thing, but there are good benefits to living on a slave plantation. Food, clothing, shelter, healthcare and even freedom of movement upon the plantation were all things granted to the slaves by their owners. Considering the tribal life they came from (e.g. beheadings), nobody can dispute that it was an improved lifestyle for them.

    It's incomprehensible how anyone can imagine a system where the slave might prosper without an owner looking after his welfare. It's an undisputed historical fact that plantation slaves enjoyed more leisure time than a frontier subsistence farmer. The owner looked after the mundane task of life, whereas a subsistence farmer had nobody to turn to if he got injured or had a bad harvest. Collectivism is the proven winner when it comes to the daily comfort of life.

  4. You appear confused about terms; states are not necessarily collectivist, and living in a state is not equal to slavery. I am similarly not arguing that the replacement of non-state lack of freedom with state-controlled lack of freedom is a good thing; I am arguing that while states can inhibit freedom, they can also promote it, and that in terms of freedom of movement and freedom from harm, states appear to be necessary.

    The state is good insofar as it increases freedom; as it happens, states are quite necessary for freedom, and only someone blind to the evidence could believe otherwise (unless they had already defined 'freedom' in some ridiculous manner). In order to accept your claims, you'd have to believe that a person throwing acid in your face is not a threat to your freedom unless it is performed by someone in the service of a state. That is an absurdity.

    Your entire comment is an attempt to salvage your a prior belief in a political philosophy by misrepresenting my post. This is not a sensible thing to do. When you have to stoop to such a level, it is probably worth re-examining the beliefs you have bought into. They probably aren't worth it.

  5. Wow.

    If this was a basketball game, the score would be 99-0. . .

  6. It also appears that by "people" Rex means "men".

  7. Actually, he seems to means men with the power and means to protect themselves and their loved ones, often due to their ability and inclination to inflict fear, pain, and death upon others. Having no fear of death and low sensitivity to pain and/or being psychopathic also helps.

    I often wonder just how well Golub and their ilk would have fared in Dark Ages Europe, or, indeed, in modern age Somalia. If they truly believe that a stateless world is utopia, it baffles me why they didn't relocate themselves to Somalia a few years back to live in their dream society. . .

  8. I'm not sure Rex believes non-state life to be better in every way - just 'freer'. This isn't actually the case, of course. And New Guinea is a terrible example for him to choose (understandable, given that he's done fieldwork there, but still a terrible example). That's because of things like this:

    If I were a woman in the highlands, I certainly wouldn't want to put some sweet potatoes in my netbag and hit the road.


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.