Alice Turtle’s Guide to Anarchy: Defense and Foreign Relations

Alice Turtle hopes to fill a gap in Aristotle’s Politics by extending it to cover the anarchist polis. Today she considers foreign relations, immigration, and other such tricky issues.

Alice Turtle

Incompatible Understandings

I’ll start with a simplified example. Imagine your anarchy has in its domain a grove of trees that the community treats as common property. Anyone can gather firewood there, or even chop down some trees to build a fence if they want. But nobody chops down the willows. The willows are where the spirits and remembrances of people take up residence when they die. Chopping down the willows for fenceposts would be as disrespectful as going to a graveyard and collecting gravestones to pave your driveway with.

A stranger comes to town, or a group of nomadic people, or folks from the polis down the road who don’t have a grove of their own… and they don’t hold willows holy in the same way you do and they seem apt to start chopping them down.

Now you’ve got a collective problem on your hands. It’s a conflict of rights, certainly, but it can’t be resolved by normal means because your groups have utterly different ideas of ownership, commons, and what’s sacred. Is the tree “unowned” or “owned by those in the spirit world” or “owned by the community as a whole”? If the spirit owners of the trees don’t even exist to you, the whole question may seem ridiculous.

If you don’t have some way of finding common ground and resolving the conflict, because you do not have a common political understanding, things revert to a might-makes-right state-of-nature scenario.

Anarchist Foreign Relations

To prevent that, an anarchy has to have some sort of “foreign relations” policy. How do you coexist alongside other communities that have different and possibly conflicting understandings and policies? How do you welcome the stranger into your community and under what conditions? How does someone go from being an outsider to being an insider (or on the other hand, what conditions lead to shunning or outlawry)? Under what circumstances ought you to feel obligated to come to the defense of your neighbors against others, and under what circumstances is your neighbor on their own in their conflicts (or even ought to be surrendered for extradition if they have committed a crime against another group)?

What would it mean for an anarchic community to negotiate a treaty? Who would negotiate? Who would such a treaty be binding on? Could those who enter the community or mature to adults within it after the treaty is agreed to be said to be bound by it? Bound how?

Foreign affairs seem likely to be trickier in this way. It seems at first glance comparatively easy to negotiate with a king, get a king’s signature on parchment next to a fancy wax seal and ribbon, and be confident that the king can compel his subjects to go along with it. Negotiating with an anarchy means getting widespread buy-in that is genuine enough that the terms of the treaty become part of the consensually-agreed-to constitution of the anarchy. This is not impossible, or even necessarily more difficult, but it may be harder to understand or navigate for those foreign powers that are used to dealing with a smaller ruling class or a designated institution.

Anarchist Defense

How does an anarchy defend itself from outside aggression? History is full of examples of anarchies being preyed on by neighboring peoples with other forms of constitution, and anarchies have often fared poorly and have either been utterly conquered or have had to reorganize themselves as a sort of subterranean parallel constitution operating in territory that is formally under the control of another sort of state (see for example James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed).

Both traditional militia-style defense and the emerging science of nonviolent, civilian-based state defense can easily be imagined in anarchist forms. Indeed, the latter seems most likely to succeed in an anarchist population: people who are used to governing themselves and refusing the temptations of a ruling class are most well-equipped to make themselves ungovernable by an invading aggressor.

But both of these options are most likely to succeed if the population is well-trained, and, at least in the case of a militia-style defense, well-equipped. This presents another coordination problem an anarchy will have to solve if it wants to be able to defend itself well.

States rely not only on their actual defense capabilities, but on deterring aggressors by signaling their ability and willingness to inflict discouraging harm on anybody who attacks them. It may be harder for an anarchy to broadcast a legible signal of this sort. Aggressor states may not find it credible that an anarchy can defend itself or can inflict harm on them that they will regret. History is full of examples of powerful, arrogant states stomping confidently on poorer, smaller, less-well-equipped nations and underestimating the harm that will rebound on them. Defeating an aggressor state may be easier than deterring their aggression in the first place, which is of course the preferable option.

To be continued…

Index to Aristotle’s Politics