Never Been Tried? Part III: Fire and Ice

by Daniel Hawkins

0211_because_governments_fuck_upThere is a dichotomy that I’ve had on my mind lately. It’s one that’s been ever-present in metaphysics and mysticism since people have been around: the worlds of fire and ice. It’s in several creation myths. It’s the subject of a great poem by Robert Frost. It’s a primal juxtaposition, the classic example of opposites. We usually think that separate spheres, separate worlds, cannot and should not coexist or overlap. Similarly, we sometimes think that differing cultures usually do not have overlapping ideas, and if they did, those ideas would only be coincidental.

But, according to anthropological and historical evidence, there are far fewer “opposites” in the world than we thought. Particularly, I refer to the Horn of Africa and Iceland. You might think them unlikely cousins, what with one being home to hardy, pale Aryans and the other to equatorial African Muslims, but these two places, these lands of fire and ice, have much more in common than we thought.

As I discussed in the last installment of this series, Polycentric Law was a rather successful social organization in Ireland, (for those unfamiliar with the term, see: and The discussion about Ireland and its Brehon system may have left a lot of readers wondering if and how another society could replicate its success. Well, it’s really common sense to assume that when there is no State to speak of, there are a few inevitable disputes here and there, and that there must be some way to peacefully settle them. A system of competing judges and claims courts could, theoretically, handle any dispute involving natural law while at the same time having the wiggle room to accommodate for changing societal values. It’s really no surprise, either. When similar conditions apply, similar solutions are put forward. For example, ancient bows and arrows—useful for long-range hunting and combat—can be found on multiple continents where people had no way of contacting each other. Certain TV personalities might say that aliens came and gave everyone the same idea, but there’s actually a more plausible explanation: it was just efficient and necessary. The State, we know, is neither. Enter these two remarkable places, where, in the absence of a violent and coercive behemoth called the State, forged something beautiful.

Norway was changing fast in the 10th century. Up until then, it mostly resembled Greece. Direct democracy was the system used by Norwegian men and women who lived in a patchwork of petty kingdoms. Each state had an Earl, usually a wealthy aristocratic warlord who presided over a general assembly, where people from the area could come to discuss any (presumably pasty) issues and disputes of the day. Unfortunately, Earl Harald Fairhair grew ambitious and sought to unify these states under his banner of a unified Norway. While some saw his actions as an attempt to genuinely bring people together for common defense and peace, others viewed it as a brash, tyrannical power-grab. So, like many groups before and after them, the people who wanted freedom left their homes, sailing for a recently-discovered island to the west: Iceland.

The new settlers brought their traditions with them, as did other Irish settlers not long after. It’s still debated among academics about what exactly happened to create the new social order known as Godhordh. Some (more Statist) thinkers claim a group of warlords/chieftains banded together to create a new general assembly, like an ancient congress, that would lay the foundation for Iceland’s modern democracy. Others, like David Friedman and Roderick T. Long, contest that narrative and instead posit, with ample evidence, that Iceland was an anarchic paradise.

Like its landscape, Iceland’s political climate was bare, but beneath the surface, change was coming. There were no Earls or kings, no seat of power. But, unlike a certain group of fictional schoolboys, the inhabitants didn’t kill each other and burn everything to the ground. It’s surprising, but it was in their best interests to just get along. For one thing, the women of the time were relatively respected. This was likely a carry-over from Norway and Ireland, where women owned property, divorced their husbands, and fought in combat. And then there’s the fact that private property was sacred, as was reputation. Anyone who breached either was in immediate danger of shunning by his or her community as well as a lawsuit. The judges who oversaw these trials were called Godhars. While some say they were chieftains, they were more likely just elders who memorized social codes and passed them on to their families via oral tradition. Together with other officials, these men formed the Godhordh system. Godhars were not like the average judge. A Godhar could sell his position as judge (a scenario that might give nightmares to many), but the position also hinged on being able to gather enough supporters to keep his job.

This brings us to our next topic: in this system, there was no monopoly on justice. Not only were these seats temporary, private positions, but in sharp contrast to every other country (including Norway), there was no geographical monopoly. This created a competitive environment. Parties involved in a dispute could go to argue their claims in court, only after paying a fee to a judge (sometimes appointed by a Godhar). If one party couldn’t win a case, he had the option of appeal, going to a competing court, or finding someone with more money to protect him. This may seem like a radical and greedy system to some, but there were several checks and balances built in. In order for a judge to maintain credibility, he had to make sure the community saw him as a just and equitable man. Likewise, for a party to earn the support of moneyed folks to represent them, the party had to make sure his or her case held water, or else the reputations of his entire side were in jeopardy. So, logically, there was a explosion of firms that acted as both insurance and security companies (sound familiar, An-Caps?). So, as with Ireland, we see the maintenance of order as both an economic and social act, born out of voluntary cooperation.

Some academics are irritated by Iceland’s competitive justice system. The Icelandic sagas even seem to be a chronicle of a wild, feuding society. But, we find that these feuds, on a larger scale of time, were few and far between, and when they did occur, they had very low casualties. Many sagas are actually about lawyers and farmers—the people who made up the backbone of Icelandic society—not like the pillaging Vikings across the sea. Not only did the fierce competition between courts and defense companies make it impossible for armies to be amassed, but feuds were almost always contained to families who just disliked each other. The farms and villages that subscribed to competing companies and Godhars were built alongside each other, pressuring each other to be peaceful. The result was a people who relied on trade and cooperation as opposed to theft and imprisonment. It worked for the better part of 300 years. Thought it didn’t live as long as other Anarchist societies (most of which we will discuss in future articles), the society known as the Icelandic Commonwealth survived much longer than most States. It met its untimely demise at the hands of a matured Kingdom of Norway in 1262.

6,000 miles away, something else was happening in the hills and savannas of Africa. Some historians place it around the 7th century, some before, and others still place it a millennium earlier. It was a voluntary, polycentric system that began in present-day Somalia, that today is called Xeer.

Yes, I know, I said the S-word. One could go into diatribes and dissertations about how misinformed the public is about Somalian politics and history (and how it’s really not an anarchic country), but unfortunately, there’s not much time or room here. What we do know is that at some point, Xeer (pronounced “hear”) was formed, and that it’s still very much alive today.

The structure resembles Godhordh in that there are judges, jurists, lawyers, detectives, and enforcers. Don’t let those titles fool you, Xeer is definitely private and definitely stateless. There are no uniforms, no licenses, and no offices. In fact, court cases are almost always held under the nearest acacia tree, where the people lay out mats and discuss the case. To make sure each party can pay, most communities urge every person to carry some manner of insurance before taking a case to court. This system is still practiced every day across Somalia (particularly in the north and west), and despite the war and poverty that have torn the nation apart, one can’t help but notice how little it’s changed.

There are a few opinions on how old Xeer is, exactly. Some say it predates Islam, while others say it followed, and others still say Xeer may have been the basis for a trade empire (using “empire” loosely) that spanned the continent. Regardless, we can conclude with solid evidence a few interesting things. Before there was even a Somali people, the tribes recognized Xeer. While Islam is also a unifying factor in Somalia, the introduction of it via both peaceful and aggressive missionaries did little to change the customs of Xeer. And, lastly, Xeer traditions are held even above Islamic law, for not only does it take precedent in cases where Xeer and Islam conflict, but in almost every case, someone who holds a position like a judge or detective cannot be involved in the clergy at all. Incredibly, people have managed to self-regulate their private law system without it devolving into some kind of dystopian film.

Aside from religion, Xeer takes a sharp digression from politics as well. Before the invasion by European powers around the year 1900, Somalia had never known a government. This is pretty interesting information, considering that there were several empires surrounding Somalia for centuries. But, eventually, the defenses of the tribes couldn’t stand up to the industrial might of the West. Britain and Italy both exerted heavy pressure on the population to adhere to written laws and costumed dictators. It was arguably these Europeans that, through a series of laws and codes, actually promoted Sharia in official courts, thus paving a road for the Islamic Courts Union.

Today, we see a similar situation, where Western powers and radical Islam rage over who will rule Somalia. It was the introduction of government itself that even made these wars possible. Archaeologists have yet to find any evidence of broad conflict prior to colonization. Recently, Somalia was ranked as the world’s most violent country. Some (again, more Statist) political analysts blame it on the weakness of Xeer. But is peace the same as weakness? How could Xeer last so long if it were weak? How come, even during colonization, Xeer was so popular that it was integrated into official laws? How come Xeer, a seemingly disorganized, decentralized, archaic, off-the-cuff social organization, has resisted the Leviathan?

The answer lies in one truth: people want freedom. Polycentric Law seems, at first glance, much too complex and organized to be real anarchy. But that’s exactly what anarchy is—anarchy is responsibility. Anarchy is social codes instead of prisons and police. Anarchy is organization instead of chaos. Is there any better definition of chaos than the poverty and violence created by the State? Is there any better definition of order than the peace caused by free trade and social cooperation? This is simultaneous invention. This is spontaneous order. What more evidence is there that anarchy is man’s natural state? What more evidence is there that anarchy is amazing?

Now, all we can do is hope that Somalia looks to Iceland. If we use history as our guide, we can understand how best to face the future. There are many places left to talk about, and I hope to show you—whether you’re a skeptic who has yet to be convinced of Anarchism’s merits, or a long-time supporter who’s just looking for more evidence—that anarchy can be realized, even today.