Avoiding The Argument From History and Normality

Often times in political debates, market anarchists may find themselves pressured to produce historical examples of stateless market-based societies. Typically, the market anarchist responds to this by refering to particular periods of medieval iceland or ireland, certain aspects of fuedal Europe and the wild (or not so wild) west. And, no doubt, there are interesting case studies with regaurd these societies or historical periods demonstrating the effectiveness of a decentralized and polycentric legal system.

That being said, these are not examples of pure anarchy, they are close approximations at best, and it is dangerous for market anarchists to fall into the trap of defending these societies, many of which had a rather despicable cultural framework and questionable content to their customary laws. There is a danger of the market anarchist lapsing into a sort of primitivism or a general romanticization of the past. It begins to appear as if the market anarchist simply wants to return to some older form of social organization, and this leaves them open to be misunderstood and misaracterized horribly.

I think it's important to reject the premise upon which the argument from history is based, which is the assumption that something must have existed or functioned in the past in order for it to exist or function in the present or future. This isn't to completely deny the value of empirical examples, but to avoid the fallacy of ruling things out simply because they have never been done yet. All progress throughout history inherently has involved deviation from the norm, and expecting people to appeal to the norm in order to prove the possibility or viability of something that is a relatively new idea and blatantly outside of the norm is simply nonsensical.

For example, if such an attitude was taken in the 18th or 19th centuries, one could just appeal to the historical normalcy of slavery to argue that its abolition is impossible and slavery is simply the inevitable "natural order". And precisely this same attitude is commonly taken with respect to anarchy. The more reasonable response is not to sift through history for obscure examples of quasi-anarchic societies, but to point out the problem with the argument from history to begin with.

Beyond the fundamental problems with the argument from history, there are questionable elements and incoherancies to the historical examples that market anarchists often find themselves giving. For one thing, these are mostly pre-industrial societies, and market anarchism in the present or future is in the context of an industrial or post-industrial society. This isn't necessarily to say that market anarchism cannot contain some agrarian elements to it, but nonetheless it makes no sense to act as if the economic framework of these societies is remotely resemblant of what the framework of a modern market anarchy may look like.

Another problem is that, by and large, many of the cultural attitudes and customs of these societies were very unlibertarian, or by the very least simply archiac. It could hardly be said that the bulk of the people that existing in these societies were particularly a bunch of "rugged individualists" who valued non-aggression. And the content of some of their customs would make just about any modern man, libertarian or not, very weary.

I do not mean to deny that case studies into these historical examples can be insightful in some ways, but they should not be held up as solid examples of a libertarian anarchism, because they simply aren't. I'm not necessarily pleading that libertarians give up these historical examples altogether, but perhaps they should be more careful and selective in their use of them and be weary of opening themselves up to be strawmanned horribly.

Published Thu, Oct 9 2008 11:34 AM by Brainpolice


# Cork said on 09 October, 2008 01:01 PM

Excellent post!  I agree 100%.  I've always thought that these supposed historical examples are extremely dubious and murky.  Every time I've tried reading about these supposed examples of "anarchy," I run into a bunch of crap that isn't anarchistic at all.

Almost all of the authors eventually say something like "sure, the whole system was closely monitored by a state, but it's still pretty much anarchy!"  Ummm...no.  It's either anarchy or it isn't.  If there is any state, in any way, shape, or form, it is not anarchy.

# wombatron said on 09 October, 2008 01:45 PM

Very good post.  Now I have something better to say against the standard "Why don't you move to Somalia?" attack.

# Stephan said on 25 October, 2008 07:43 PM

very insightful post Brainpolice, I like it. Great stuff