Thoughts on Quantrill

Normally I like to do both the Anthropology Friday excerpts and my own thoughts at the same time, but this time I didn’t want to interrupt the narrative’s flow.

The first thing that struck me in all of this was that Quantrill had a considerable number of followers: he lead 450 men to burn and loot Lawrence, Kansas. Pretty good for a guy who wasn’t even in the army. We can explain Quantrill’s motivation in the burning by arguing that he was trying to earn himself a commission in the Confederate Army by proving to them that he was a good commander, but what about his followers? Surely most of them could have joined the (Confederate) army the regular way, without detouring through Kansas.

Even after the burning, when it was quite clear that Quantrill was not going to get a commission and most of his followers had left, he still had some. So did many of the other men we’ll meet in this series, from outlaw bikers to mob bosses. (And pirates as we’ve already seen.)

And while most people are not very fond of criminals, folks like Quantrill and Jesse James found plenty of “safe” places where the locals were willing to shelter them, help them, or at least look the other way and not report them to the authorities.

What was the difference, really, between Quantrill and a regular army commander? Or the guerrilla soldiers known as the Red Legs and Jayhawkers?

Although I was familiar with the phrase “Burning Kansas” from history class, I hadn’t grasped the conflict’s full depth until reading Dago’s account. I’ve never heard anyone from Kansas or Missouri speak ill of each other–whatever bad blood there was in the Civil War’s immediate aftermath seems to have worn off. In Dago’s telling, the Kansas/Missouri border was a burnt-out, lawless zone where blood feuds brought men down for decades.

And what was the difference between an outlaw like Quantrill and a conqueror like Genghis Khan? ISIS? The chief of a Yanomamo tribe? Queen Medb of the Táin Bó Cúailnge?

(The Tain, if you haven’t heard of it before, is an Irish epic that revolves around the attempts by Queen Medb to steal a particular bull from another Irish king, and the efforts of the Irish hero Cu Chulainn to stop her.)

After all, Quantrill, while officially an “outlaw,” had many followers–as did these other men (and woman.)

I propose a simple answer: Quantrill was an “outlaw” because the official powers-that-were declared him one. Had Quantrill been successful enough to attract enough men to his side to not only burn and loot Lawrence, but keep it, he would have been its ruler, plain and simple. Genghis Khan did little more than burn, loot, massacre, and rape, but in so doing he amassed an empire. But Genghis Khan’s enemies were probably much less well-organized and equipped than Quantrill’s–certainly they didn’t have railroads.

War is a universal feature of human society. Even chimps have wars, bashing each other’s brains out with rocks. Early humans had war; pre-agricultural tribes have war. (The horticultural Yanomamo have some of the highest homicide rates in the world.)

We moderns have this odd notion that “war” is an official thing which is officially declared by official governments (and what makes an official government? We could go in circles all day.) We believe that war has rules (or at least that it ought to): that it should be fought only by official soldiers on official battlefields, using officially approved weapons, and only targeting official targets. Anything not by the book, such as targeting women and children, using chemical weapons, hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings, or fighting on behalf of a group that doesn’t issue uniforms and pay cheques, just confuses us.

But I guarantee you that Genghis Khan did not conquer one of the biggest empires in history by refusing to slaughter women and children.

Similarly, ISIS is nothing but a bunch of outlaws who’ve conquered some territory, but in their case, they have an ideology that justifies their actions and encourages other people to come join them, boosting their numbers.

While tribal, pre-agricultural life was full of war and homicide, it seems that groups rarely got too much of an advantage over each other. Rather, conflict was nearly constant–every so often a battle would break out and a few people would died. When conflicts were particularly bad, small tribes would band together against larger tribes until they balanced out (or slaughtered their enemies.) When conditions approved, tribes split up and people went their own way (until they got into conflicts with each other and the cycle repeated.) But occasionally one tribe developed (or obtained) a distinct advantage over the others: armies mounted on horseback dominated less mobile units. Armies with guns massacred people who had none. Vikings, Spaniards, and later Englishmen built boats which let them conquer large swathes of the world. Etc.

Our present state of relative peace (compared to our ancestors) is due to the fact that all of this conquering eventually led to the amalgamation of large enough states with large enough armies that we now have few enemies willing to take the risk of attacking us. We have nukes; as a result, few formal states with formal armies are willing to attack us. This state of mutual balance is–for now–holding for the developed world.

This state of peace is not guaranteed to last.

I noticed back in The Walls Tear Themselves Down that borders are ironically places of disorder. As Dago notes, criminals take advantage of borders–and stateless zones–to escape from law enforcement.

On a related note, Saul Montes-Bradley has an interesting post about Islamic terrorist groups raising money via drug trade in Latin America:

The tentacles of Jihad extend further than most people realize. …

In particular in South American countries, long the allies of Middle Eastern Fascism, terrorist organizations find support and, most grievously financing. Indeed, the second largest source of financing for Hezballat[1] is drug trafficking and smuggling between Argentina, Paraguay and Chile, often under the protection of local government officials.

This feature of borders will be showing up a lot in the next few Anthropology Fridays.

Is Taxation Theft? The state vs bandits

Inspired by Infowarrior1’s comments on Theory: the inverse relationship between warfare and homicide, I got to thinking about “What is a state?” (Please note that I am sort of thinking out loud, so I can’t promise that I’ve got every detail worked out. Feedback is welcome and useful.)

I tend to take a pretty expansive definition of “government,” including not just the formally recognized thing people mean when they say government, but also the entire power structure of the entire society, including your boss, newspaper publishers, popular people, religious leaders, and even parents. (Note: most of the time when I use the word “government,” I mean it in the normal way that people would understand it.) Under the normal definition, the gang violence is just homicide, but under the expensive, gangs are a form of small-scale government (they exert power over others, after all,) and violence between them is warfare.

Gangs do many things that formal governments do: they engage in trade, regulate contracts, tax people, punish people who break their laws, control territory, and engage in warfare. The Mafia clearly has its origins in the family-based governing structure of Sicily/southern Italy, and creates a structure within which its family members benefit from government contracts and the like. The Japanese Yakuza “began as a temporary staffing agency on the docks of Kobe” and host “an annual rice cake-making event at the start of the year in which the gang distributes food and booze to the locals. … And after the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the great disaster of March 2011, the earthquake and tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, the Yamaguchi-gumi was quick to provide aid in the form of blankets, food, water, and shelter.” (source)

(It has long been somewhat of a mystery to me why the formal gov’t doesn’t just treat gangs like invading armies, and simply shoot everyone involved until they stop trying to occupy American cities.)

So what is the difference between such groups and formal governments? If we call a formal government a “state” and these other organizations “non-state governments”, then what is a state? Is ISIS a state? Yes, it seems to have enough of the normal characteristics of a state to call it a state. Is a gang a state? No, clearly a gang is not a state. What about Somalia? No, not a state so much as a state-shaped hole in the map where other states don’t want to go. The Somali government simply does not exert an organizing influence over its own territory.

Which got me thinking about the state as an institution that increases organizational complexity of a society/aids in its homeostatic maintenance within a specific territory.

By contrast, bandits, while they exert power over others, decrease a system’s organizational complexity by interfering with normal function in order to shunt other people’s wealth to themselves.

I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that “taxation is theft.” This has always seemed like a fallacious argument, especially since most things that taxes get spent on are actually programs that people want and support, and so such conversations generally lead to painstakingly laying out the fact that libertarianism doesn’t deal very well with multipolar traps yet again, which, sorry, starts quickly feeling like explaining to my kids again that, yes, things really do cost money and no, people aren’t going to just give you what you want in life because you want them to. (Not that libertarianism is all bad–just the vacuous repetition of certain catchphrases.)

At any rate, a legitimate government uses its taxes to increase the overall order of the system, while an illegitimate one uses its power to decrease order. The Somali government does not increase (or maintain) the overall order of Somalia, so it is not a state.

Let’s switch for a moment from Somalia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, ne Zaire, ne the Belgian Congo.

I have mentioned before Josephine and Frederick’s account of their attempt to drive from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa–a distance of about a thousand miles, or 1,500 km–in the DRC. It’s a great story, so I recommend you read it yourself, but I’m going to highlight a few relevant bits:

When the Belgians ruled the area, they built a lot of roads. Today, if you are brave enough to go there, you can see the condition the roads are in:

Photos by Frederick and Jospehine
Photo by Frederick and Jospehine

There are a few good roads in the country–built by Belgian-run NGOs, mining companies (I believe these are generally run by the Chinese), and Catholic missionaries, eg:

“That night we talked for hours with Frère Louis. Our little adventures here dissapear in the nothing compared to everything he went trough. He had been in DRC for over 40 years, he stayed during all the wars. He had to abandon everything and run for his live three times as teams were sent out to kill him. But he always returned. Many books could be filled with his adventures.

He is also responsible for most of the bridges Katanga. He build hundreds of bridges himself. He has a small working budget from Franciscans, but he funds most of it all by himself. He has put every last penny in the Congolese people. That is why his house in Luena was so rundown.

He also told us about the Mayi-Mayi rebels that still roam the jungle. We were not prepared for the horror stories we would hear. I still have problems giving these stories a place. They are not just stories though, he gave us a 100 page document with his interviews of victims. If you thought, like us, that cannibalism was something that belonged in comic books and dusty museums about Africa. You are wrong. :cry:” [source]

Not only do the Congolese themselves not maintain their own roads, they contribute to their destruction by digging holes in them to trap passing vehicles so they can demand money in exchange for helping them out. Likewise, many of the “tolls” charged of passing vehicles go not to road maintenance (a legit reason to charge people for using a road,) but to line the pockets of the people charging the tolls.

In other words, while many Congolese are trying to use the roads to conduct trade and transport goods, others are actively destroying the roads and sabotaging that trade in order to benefit off other people’s hard work. A man who charges tolls in order to pay for improvements to the road is contributing to the structural complexity of society; a man who charges tolls to line his own pockets is a bandit.

In response to a comment in the thread–“Absolutely great to read you ! Belgians in the Congo ! You must be nuts ! “–Frederik responds:

I presume you are referring to the “not so nice” role Belgium has had in the history of Congo. For a while I thought that would be a problem as well, but it isn’t. Just about anything that still exists in Congo is made by the Belgians. The older generation who had their education from the Belgians really have fond memories of that era. And at the moment Belgium is still one of the main funders of the country (via aid). The dark pages of history during the Leopold 2 era is not what the Congolese people think about. All in all I think being Belgian was actually a plus. As a matter of fact, a lot of people asked how things were going with the “war” in Belgium :-o” [source]

Also on the subject:

“Occasionally (and I must admit, it was a rare event) we meet nice people. Like this guy on his bike. [picture] He stopped to say hello. He was a well educated person who previsouly worked as an accountant for a big company. The company is no longer there so now he survives like everybody else by trading a few things. [picture] He was a good example of the older generation. They grew up in a prosperous (relative) Congo and have seen it go downhill. They still have the pride every person should have. The younger generation grew up in disastrously f*cked up country and lack the pride. Why should they, they know they do not get any chances?
It is that old generation that longs back to the colonial time. They acknowledge there were a lot of problems in that period and that they were discriminated by the white colonisator. But at least they had a functional country. They had roads and schools. They had jobs and could buy supplies. And above all, there was stability. Now there is nothing but uncertainty.. waiting for the next war to start.” [source]

And on a related note:

If there is any thing you can find anywhere in the world it is Coca-Cola. They should know how to get their goods in the country. We had no response on mails, so we called them up. Their answer was pretty short: They do not have a distribution network outside the major cities in Congo 8O And it proved to be true, Congo is the first country we have visited were Coca-cola is hard to get once you leave the major cities.” [source]

Someone else–Christian P.–comments on his own experiences,

Before entering the country, we did not really know what to expect and we had the same exact nervosity as you were reffering. And it never went away.

The place is hard to imagine and describe. I have travelled a lot in Africa but the DRC is like nothing else. And I have only spend a few days there….

The look on people’s face is different. The vibe on the street is intense. It seems like everything is on the verge of exploding. I had never seen that many guns in one place. There is no bank, no guidebooks, no backpackers, no tour bus, no hotels, nothing. It truly still is the dark side. [source]

And I haven’t even mentioned all of the times random villagers tried to hack Frederik and Josephine to pieces with machetes, which is a definite deterrent to trade!

Like Somalia, the DRC isn’t a country so much as a country-shaped hole in the map. What government there is tends to be local, tribal, or run by folks like the mining companies or Catholic missions, and much of the time, what authority exists is actively undermining any larger systems of social/economic complexity for their own short term gain.

But what about states that are clearly “states”, but are clearly bad for the people under their rule? Soviet land collectivization in Ukraine, for example, killed 2.5–7.5 million people. Collectivization caused mass famines throughout the USSR; the exact number of lives lost is unknown, but estimated between 5.5 and 8 million deaths. The previous Soviet famine of 1921 had killed another 6 million people. Depending on whose definitions we use, communist regimes are generally blamed for somewhere between 20 and 100 million civilian deaths during the 20th century.

(How is it, then, that some of the nicest people I know are communists? Are they just idiots?)

Communist governments, I think it is safe to say, are state-level bandits.

Thoughts?

Moldbug

So I hear Moldbug was dis-invited from a tech conference (where he was to present on tech-related subjects) because someone didn’t like his politics.

If you haven’t read Moldbug, his main schtick seems to be that he thinks the French Revolution was a bad idea and we should go back to having a monarchy. (To be fair, I am oversimplifying a guy whose blog is >2x as long as War and Peace. I should probably also throw in that he coined the term “Cathedral” and described Progressivism as a religion and is generally opposed to it.)

I understand that most people think Moldbug’s ideas are weird, but if you let guys who think Stalin was an okay dude into your conferences, (and they do; actual communists face very little discrimination in modern America, as evidenced by the fact that many of them are happily employed at major universities and tech companies,) then you really ought to extend the same political agnosticism to a guy who wants to reinstate the Stuarts.

I converse regularly with people who openly refer to themselves as international communists and count them among my friends, despite believing that they are kind of wrong and that their ideology leads to mass murder. They mean well, I suppose. Of course, if they start looking funny at the Kulaks, I may have to change that assessment.

Likewise, I would have no objection to conversing with Moldbug; he is an interesting guy with an obviously expansive intellect, traits I admire in people. I doubt he means anyone ill-will, and he certainly doesn’t have the political power to put any of his ideas into motion. Republicans can and actually do bomb people in Iraq or Iran or Syria or wherever they feel like when they happen to have power, which is fairly frequent. Moldbug isn’t going to reinstate the Stuarts or any other part of his agenda (whatever that is.)

Shame on those who made it their 5-minute mission to try to ruin someone’s career just because he has some wacky political ideas.