It seems like these days you’re not much of a libertarian unless you’ve been told to move to Somalia – there has been a conflation of the political situation in Somalia from 1991-2006 with “anarchy” and statelessness. In this essay, I will systematically dismantle the idea that conditions observed in Somalia have any relevance to market anarchism and show why suggesting that people who don’t like centralised states should move to Somalia is a completely intellectually empty rhetorical gesture.

How Somalia became ‘Anarchistic’ – a history.

Medieval Period

Somalia has had a clan based, polycentric legal system called Xeer based on property rights and compensation for transgressions since approximately the 7th Century AD. This approach is not a purely voluntarist arrangement, because it only respects the rights of existing clans and does not allow a free market in judges – clan leaders monopolise these positions and use them to reinforce their position within the clan. The “universal human rights” approach of Xeer, however, means that within the system the clan leaders have limited power to abuse their role. These rights function as a sort of unwritten constitutional limit on the powers of the legal system that effectively stopped it becoming a state.

Despite this being a feature of the Somali clans, these clans were frequently vassalised to larger empires and sultanates. These empires and sultanates were more or less successful at extracting tax (especially indirectly through levies on ports and trade) from the Somali clans but were never powerful enough to dismantle the clan system.

Modern Period

The Italians and the British colonised Somalia in the 19th Century, with Britain gaining total control in 1941. As with previous overlords, the Europeans attempted to extend state institutions and taxation (with some success). The British, as part of their de-colonialisation process, setup a native Somalian state in 1960. All over the former British empire at the time (but especially in Africa), these colonial states were never engaged with the local population enough to properly exercise “soft power” and needed foreign armies to enforce compliance – the colonial successor states did not have this tool – with the offices and institutional layouts of western democracies they were completely inappropriate for the native population’s level of socio-economic development.

Communist coup

Somalia succumbed to a military coup in 1969 by Mohamed Siad Barre. The military government immediately implemented Communist policies and eventually began a war with Ethiopia in 1976. A policy of economic self-sufficiency was implemented that sabotaged the economy, which because of Somalia’s geography, had always relied heavily on foreign trade. Eventually the Somalis began to rise up against the government as it turned towards totalitarianism.

Descent into “anarchy”

With the Somali National Army unpaid and untrustworthy, the Barre regime relied on his elite bodyguard unit to defend the capital. When rebel forces successfully destroyed these forces in the capital, the Somali National Army disbanded, the soldiers returning to their clan groups with weapons and equipment. Somalia now returned to a polycentric clan based system, but one where 100 years of outside rule and 30 years of Communist rule had turned clan against clan – leaving many old scores to settle. The result was frequent outbreaks of violence and attempts to control territory by the different clans. In some areas, like the capital Mogadishu, violence was frequent. In other rural areas, autonomous “states” were set up (that were in fact mostly peaceful tribal coalitions practicing Xeer.

What can Somalia teach us about anarchism?

The lessons that Somalia can teach us about anarchism are limited, for several important reasons:

  1. A peaceful anarchistic system based on private property and non-monopoly law has never existed in Somalia, even though Xeer meant that its clan-based justice system had what amounted to a very strong ‘bill of rights’.
  2. The more “anarchistic” parts of Somalia are those with less penetration from colonial and post-colonial governments, which are also the parts away from transport networks and good information.
  3. Those areas that were heavily influenced by governments have had heavy levels of statist interference for hundreds of years, and the very least anarchistic system (Communism) for 22 years. – Most of the ideas that people have about Somalia come from Mogadishu, a statist hell-hole.
  4. The entire country had been impoverished by war and Communism (and civil society damaged by totalitarianism) before the government collapsed, stranding the society in poverty and without the resources to reconstruct institutions effectively.

The element that does stand out in Somalia’s history, though, is the resilience of their clan system. Whereas in many other societies, movements by centralised states (including colonial powers) to usurp the traditional roles of clans and tribes in justice and governance have been very successful, the clan system appears to have survived unscathed through empires, colonialism and attempts at totalitarian Communism. Why do the Somalis like their clans so much? Perhaps it is because the traditions of Xeer meant that the clans never became quasi-states and oppressed their members? Certainly it seems that the anti-tax, pro-private property aspects of Xeer are enduringly popular.

Beyond Anarchism

So much for why Somalia is not such a great historical example of anarchism. Even if it were, would its level of conflict or economic development be good representations of what would happen in any society that disbanded their government? Once again the answer is no.

  1. Since 1991, Somalia has been subject to more or less constant foreign armed interventions – from the UN, from the African Union and because of their Muslim population, foreign funded Islamic militias. These interventions have generally been costly and unsuccessful, but they clearly would not have been even attempted in a region without the same geographic and demographic factors. Foreign interventions are a problem that anarchistic societies would need to counter, but Somalia presents an extreme example of poverty and vulnerability that has prompted neighbours to interfere. Without these interventions, it is possible that the population, the vast majority of whom adhere to Xeer, would not have suffered as much violence and conflict.
  2. 22 years of Communism, Colonial domination before that, and Somalia’s position on the poorest continent in the world (limited trading opportunities) meant that Somalia had an incredibly impoverished economy before the government collapsed. Since the collapse, the economy has grown strongly without a central state, but is nonetheless impoverished. Violence and conflict, with its attended destruction and trading uncertainty, also have a dampening effect on economic development and it is impossible to separate out foreign interventions from this effect. It is the height of intellectual dishonesty to take the economy of an ex-communist region subject to constant warfare as typical of ‘market anarchism’!

Conclusion

So, no, Somalia is not a very nice place to live. Beyond the poverty, if I tried to move there, I’d likely have trouble with the language, religion and customs, too. What does this say about Anarchism? Nothing. So let’s move on. If someone brings it up, point them to this article.