Over the last year I’ve done a lot of thinking about statism. I think that it’s safe to say that statism is the predominant ideology of our time. Most so-called revolutionaries don’t talk about eliminating the state, they talk about replacing current states with a more idealistic ones. Even a lot of so-called anarchists fall into this trap. For example, if you talk to an anarcho-communist, they’ll tell you that humanity won’t be truly free until every worker enjoys the same democratic control over their workplace. However, are you really free if your actions are decided by a majority vote? I would argue that you aren’t.
My thinking has lead me to look for historical alternatives to modern statism. If you read enough about human history, you’ll likely come across the fact that until very recently there has been two widespread societal ideologies: sedentary and nomadic. As James C. Scott notes in his book Against the Grain sedentary societies gave rise to statism. Throughout most of human history nomadic people tended to be healthier, happier, and, obviously, overall less centralized.
The health aspect likely comes from the fact that humans only recently figured out how to keep a lot of tightly packed people sanitary (it turns out we’re a filthy species). Until our species figured that out, disease was rampant in cities (COVID-19 was nothing compared to the plagues that frequented cities just a short while ago). Happiness is a harder thing to define and understand. However, nomadic people were able to pick up their entire lives and migrate elsewhere quickly, which made them much harder to oppress. If a tribe on the Asian Steppe didn’t like the conditions they were living under, they could pack up and move to greener pastures. It’s easy for me to see how that would make people happier.
So what happened? If nomadic people were healthier and happier, how did sedentary societies become the dominant societal form? I can’t answer that question authoritatively (I don’t think anybody can), I can only provide some hypotheses. I think the largest contributor to the domination of sedentary societies was the Industrial Revolution. Factories were necessarily centralized and factory jobs during the Industrial Revolution were often the highest paying jobs. It is also easy to see how the state was able to become more authoritarian as more and more people migrated into tightly packed cities (there’s a reason the most authoritarian regimes tightly control travel) and as the state claimed monopoly powers over critical infrastructure such as electricity, power, and sanitation. If you live in a city, the very things you depend on to survive are likely entirely controlled by the state and that gives it literal power of life and death.
However, I do have some home that the situation we find ourselves in is an anomaly. Due to the COVID-19 scare, I am working from home for the indefinite future. This hasn’t cause me any trouble since technology has evolved to the point where I can do my work from anywhere that has an Internet connection. Many people are in the same boat as I am. Moreover, technology is advancing in factory automation. In a few years factory employees might be able to do their job, which will likely evolve into programming the machines that do the actual manufacturing, remotely as well. Amazon is already experimenting with automated grocery stores and delivery drones. If drone technology evolves sufficiently, it may become easy to get even highly perishable goods in the middle of nowhere.
As technology improves nomadic societies may make a resurgence. If that happens, it might reestablish the greatest historical alternative to statism.