According to the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, the transition from a society based on hunter-gathering to a modern state progressed hand-in-hand with the development of agriculture. Government protections and laws enabled trade, storage, and distribution systems. Surpluses resulting from agriculture funded government. Farm labor could be enlisted for government projects and wars. Government is needed both to protect private property and for the common good. Trade, specialization, wide distribution of resources, and public safety were some of the benefits of government.
Rousseau’s theory of the social contract held that people form governments when they freely and presciently realize that banding together and agreeing to subordinate their selfish aims to the greater good would raise everyone’s standard of living and well-being. But Diamond suggests that Rousseau’s theory is a fantasy. In reality, smaller groups of people (bands, villages, tribes, city states, etc) amalgamated into larger units under pressure of war (by being invaded) or under threat of war.
But even though Rousseau’s theory of the social contract is probably untrue, it is nonetheless true, says Diamond, that there was a form of “group selection” [my term] among political units: larger, organized groups out-competed the more primitive, disorganized groups. This was true both economically and in terms of warfare.
Furthermore, post facto, now that we have government, social contract arguments can be used to justify government, I believe.
Of course, the development of government wasn’t all for the good: oftentimes political leaders used government to enrich themselves, oppress the masses, and wage war. Oftentimes nations develop religions or patriotic ideologies that are used to convince or frighten the people into obedience.
In addition to the benefits that accrue from government and agriculture, there is another factor that explains the rise of the modern state. People who lived in crowded communities, and in close proximity to domesticated animals, were forced to develop resistance to diseases. (Hence the “germs” part of Diamond’s title.) When Europeans invaded and colonized other continents, they brought along contagious diseases which often decimated the local populations.
Diamond refutes another myth associated with Rousseau: the myth of the noble savage. In fact, most primitive cultures were quite violent, with many murders and many battles among neighboring groups.
I raised these issues of the historical origins of government because of the naive, Rousseau-inspired fantasies of anarchists and extreme libertarians, who imagine that without a (strong) central government we can maintain our quality of life. See Countering anti-government propaganda and Are Occupiers aiding Grover Norquist?.
Anarchism and Libertarianism
The May 13, 2013 issue of The New Yorker has an article by Kelefa Sanneh about anarchism, Paint Bombs: David Graeber’s “The Democracy Project” and the anarchist revival. Marx envisioned an eventual classless, anarchist society, but to achieve it, he believed the workers must first seize the state and transform it. Anarchists such as Graeber reject such “authoritarian socialism,” which led to the repressions of the USSR and Maoist China. Modern day anarchists, who were influential in the Occupy Movement, want a more direct transition to a horizontal, non-hierarchical society. But, says, Sanneh: “For anarchists, the major historical precursors [examples of successful, modern anarchic societies] are so fleeting as to be nearly non-existent: the Paris Commune lasted scarcely two months, in 1871; anarchists dominated Catalonia for about a year, after the Spanish revolution in 1936.”
What the Occupy Movement prefigured is an organic, non-hierarchical, localist form of society, “a kind of decentralized socialism, with decisions made by a patchwork of local assemblies and cooperatives.” The disorganization of Occupy, and its refusal to agree to “demands” and declarations, are seen as a feature, not a bug, of the movement. The fact that the movement dissolved, under the pressure of infighting, as well as substantial police suppression, calls into question the viability of such disorganized entities. Like it or not, organization works. Consider the success of corporations, which are highly organized, and the success of nations like Singapore, which combined capitalism with strong central planning, industrial policy, and law-making from a central (indeed, repressive) government.
Like libertarians on the right, Graeber argues that economic inequality is mostly due to the state’s actions in support of oppressors.
Sanneh draws the connection between anarchist Occupiers and the libertarian-inspired Tea Party. Though the Occupy Movement fizzled when it became clear that its effect on electoral politics would be minimal, “there is one anarchist would who could be considered influential in Washington… His name is Murray Rothbard, and among small-government Republicans, he is something of a cult hero.” Rothbard was an anarcho-capitalist. In contrast, many Occupiers are anarcho-socialists.
Anarcho-capitalists acknowledge and celebrate human greed and creativity, and think that in a free market (free from the interfering regulations and corruptions of the state), just distribution of wealth will emerge — or at least, as good a distribution of wealth as can be achieved by us imperfect humans. “Without government, people will .. be just as creative or greedy or competent as we are now, only freer. Instead of imagining a world without drastic inequality, anarcho-capitalists imagine a world where people and their property are secured by private defense agencies, which are paid to keep the peace.”
Sounds like Somalia with its warlords, to me.
I suppose anarcho-capitalists think that the cure (government) is worse than the disease (greed, anarchy).
Anarcho-socialists acknowledge human greed but think that humans can be perfected, so that everyone will treat others with respect, and people can cooperate freely and locally without hierarchy. I admit: I’ve read some articles about anarchism but I just don’t “get” it. It seems unrealistic to me, especially given the need for government to provide a counter-weight to corporations, which won’t be disappearing any time soon (barring catastrophe), and to provide for services such as education, public health, research, and public transportation.
Of course, most libertarians are not anarchists. Most libertarians believe in minimal government (sufficient to provide for policing to protect private property and little else). Similarly, most leftists in America aren’t anarchists either. My hope is to make clear the need for a mixture of private and public power.
Even Graeber supports socialized medicine and the taxes to pay for it. Sanneh teases Graeber for protesting against government budget cuts and for taxation: an anarchist wanting bigger government.
I thank Political Science Prof. Mark A. Smith of the University of Washington, who recommended that I check out Diamond’s ideas.