Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The old anarchists of Iceland

A while ago I made a post on Anarchy in History, on how most traditional societies didn't have governments as we'd understand them as some group with a monopoly on the use of force.  But just because a country exists as an anarchy doesn't mean that the people in it are anarchists.  They just have their traditions and laws and accommodations and don't hold their opinions on government as an ideology.  In the same way most people who have lived under monarchies haven't considered the alternatives in a way that would make them monarchists, you mostly find those in places like the 19th century or ancient Greece where monarchies and republics lived side by side.

There is one society, though, that I think you could reasonably claim was actually anarchist.  That would be medieval Iceland.  Iceland was settled by mostly Norwegians around 900 AD.  This was around the time the famous Harald Fairhair was unifying Norway under a kingdom.  We know most of what we do about Icelandic history and the way viking societies saw themselves from the sagas preserved in Iceland telling the tails of what happened back in the olden days.  In them many of the settlers were portrayed as fleeing from Harald's imposition of centralized rule and taxes and such.

Once on Iceland they rejected Harald's centralization.  There were laws but they were derived from custom instead of being set by a person.  There were courts but there was no executive apparatus to enforce them with violence.  If the courts declared someone outlaw, or in other words free game, it was mostly up to the friends and family of whoever had been aggrieved to extract punishment.  Just the same as in most traditional societies.  But the settlers of Iceland knew that there were other ways of doing things and decided not to.

Now, there's good evidence that Harald wasn't actually ever a historical person.  But what matters here is that Icelandic self conception was that they were a free people who weren't oppressed by a king.

There's things to quibble with.  For instance slave owners had a monopoly on violence over their slaves.  But I still think it's fair to say that Iceland was the one and only anarchist society I'm aware of, while it lasted.

1 comment:

  1. Haha, I didn't know you wrote a blog post about this.


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