AFAQ and Medieval Iceland

David Friedman has produced a "critique" of what was formally section F.9 of "An Anarchist FAQ" (AFAQ). As main contributor to AFAQ, I think it is wise to make a few comments about his comments. As will be seen, Friedman's critique is more smoke than fire, misunderstanding certain words we use and significantly failing to address the issues the section raises. In essence, he nitpicks certain words while singularly failing to address the critique.

I will not address every issue Friedman raises here, just what I consider the key ones.

To err is human, to forgive is not an option...

According to Friedman, "the authors of the original version of the FAQ . . . were making it up as they went along. Now if they'll just read him, instead of searching for convenient quotes, they might learn something. Those interested in a still more expert voice on my side of the argument are referred to Jesse Byock's books." He argues that:

"What irritates me about this FAQ is not its conclusion -- with enough iterations and a little effort actually reading the literature, it could end up as a reasonable counterargument against my position. It is the irresponsibility of people who apparently do not care whether what they publish is true. If you go back to the early versions of the FAQ, you find a series of entirely made up facts . . . Apparently the authors' approach is to make up their facts, then correct the more blatant errors after I point them out, on the theory that they will eventually, by a process of elimination, come up with an account true to the facts."

Yes, the initial version of that section was full of errors. It was written in a rush, back in 1996 when we were getting what we had finished of AFAQ ready for release and was not checked before going on-line. That was a mistake, very true, which was corrected as soon as the errors were shown. However, making mistakes under pressure just shows that we are human. I do take objection to Friedman's claim about "irresponsibility of people who apparently do not care whether what they publish is true." That is nonsense, as can be seen from over ten years of work on the FAQ. Errors do creep in and are corrected. That we made one serious error in the very early days of the project is unfortunate, but to be expected in a task which is worked on by people in their spare time and who do not have benefits (like Friedman) of academic resources and posts.

As it stands, the initial section on Iceland was a serious error, but quickly fixed. Over time, the section was improved and more evidence added. However, this was low on our priorities as the FAQ was not finished yet and few people really are concerned about Medieval Iceland. So a mistake in one section made in 1996, in the earliest days of AFAQ, can hardly be used to pass judgment on the whole work nor its authors -- particularly as mistakes are retified as soon as we know of them. We are only human. Mistakes will be made in such a large project and we seek to fix them when they arise.

It is a shame that Friedman puts this mistake down to a disregard for the truth. Such a claim is false.

Incidentally, we must stress that the current version of the section provides more than enough evidence to support the broad outline of the initial version. Subsequent revisions have provided evidence to back this claim, based on valid references (we were not going to make the same mistake again!). As such, it has been a learning process as to be expected from a work conducted by anarchists in their spare time. In other words, while some of our details were wrong the actual thrust of the section was right, as can be seen from the current version.

Not a communal system?

What of the details of the later versions? Friedman objects to the idea that it was a communal society and had common land. He argues that the settlers "found Iceland almost empty, and claimed substantial chunks of coastal land (the interior is mostly uninhabitable). Later land was scarcer; the original settlers sometimes gave away chunks of their (presumably unused) land to new arrivals, thus getting neighbors. The holdings were 'communal' only in the sense that the settlers came as extended families, with the patriarch (or, in one notable case, matriarch) parcelling out the holdings and continuing to play a major role in family affairs. There were no villages, and I have yet to see any reference in the sagas to communal land ownership. Perhaps you can point one out."

Well, perhaps not in the sagas but definitely in one of Jesse Byock's books (Friedman's own stated "expert voice"). To quote:

"The status of farmers as free agents was reinforced by the presence of communal units called hreppar (sing. hreppr) . . . these [were] geographically defined associations of landowners. . . the hreppr were self-governing . . . .[and] guided by a five-member steering committee . . . As early as the 900s, the whole country seems to have been divided into hreppar . . . Hreppar provided a blanket of local security, allowing the landowning farmers a measure of independence to participate in the choices of political life . . .

"Through cooperation among their members, hreppar organised and controlled summer grazing lands, organised communal labour, and provided an immediate local forum for settling disputes. Crucially, they provided fire and livestock insurance for local farmers. . . [They also] saw to the feeding and housing of local orphans, and administered poor relief to people who were recognised as inhabitants of their area. People who could not provide for themselves were assigned to member farms, which took turns in providing for them . . .

"The hreppr was essentially non-political and addresses subsistence and economic security needs. Its presence freed farmers from depending on an overclass to provide comparable services or corresponding security measures." [Viking Age Iceland, pp. 137-8]

Byock also noted that:

"During the summer common lands and pastures in the highlands, often called almenning, were used by the region's farmers for grazing . . . Common lands were called almenning . . . these public lands offered opportunities for enterprising individuals to increase their store of provisions and to find saleable merchandise." [Op. Cit., pp. 47-48]

So, yes, "there were no villages" but there was "communal labour" and "common lands" which were controlled by "communal units." Perhaps Friedman objects to the term "communal" to describe this, but if so then he is nitpicking over words rather than facts -- and his own "expert voice" uses the term. In other words, our analysis was right, Iceland was a communal system.

Moreover, we should also point to the local, regional and national assemblies (the Althing) which passed laws and so forth. As anarchist geographer Elisée Reclus noted, in Iceland they "suceeded completely in maintaining their dignity as free man, without kings, feudal principles, hierarchy or any military establishment." They governed themselves through a process in which "the common interest was discussed in the open air by all inhabitants." [quoted by John P Clark and Camille Martin Anarchy, Geography, Modernity, p. 70] This form of communal self-organisation was typical in most pre-capitalist societies (indeed, the use of the state to destroy such popular forms of self-government has always been a common feature of the rise of capitalism).

All in all, Iceland was obviously a communal system, as the work of historian Jesse Byock shows

Not a model?

Friedman objects to AFAQ suggesting that he thinks it is an example of "anarcho"-capitalism:

"As it happens, I don't describe Iceland as either a utopia or anarcho-capitalist, as you would know if you had actually read either the book or the JLS article . . . I argue that it had some of the features of anarcho-capitalism, and thus provides evidence that some of the arguments against anarcho-capitalism are wrong."

Friedman is trying to have it both ways. He claims Iceland is not "anarcho"-capitalist, yet can somehow be used to refute arguments against his ideology. Using a society which is not "anarcho"-capitalist as evidence is not strong, particularly as it is the non-capitalist elements which made it anarchistic. How convincing is it to argue that a pre-capitalist and pre-industrial society, without villages but with strong communal institutions, can be used against arguments about an ideology based on an advanced industrial urban capitalist economy without communal institutions? Not very.

Moreover, the mistake we made is pretty common. Unfortunately for Friedman, other "anarcho"-capitalists make the same assumption that we made. For example, Bryan Caplan's "Anarchist Theory FAQ" states:

"Anarcho-capitalists' favorite example, in contrast, is medieval Iceland. David Friedman has written extensively on the competitive supply of defense services and anarchistic character of a much-neglected period of Iceland's history."

Strangely, I'm not aware of Friedman lecturing Byran Caplan for "making public statements about what they say, instead of deducing what they must say from third hand accounts." Then there is "Privatization, Viking Style: Model or Misfortune?" by Roderick T. Long in which the author states it was an "anarcho"-capitalist system. Then there is the entry on "anarcho"-capitalism in Wikipedia which has a section on "Anarcho-capitalism in the real world", listing "Medieval Iceland" as the first example. This entry does note the following:

"While not asserting that it was an anarcho-capitalist system, he argues that the Icelandic Commonwealth between 930 and 1262 had "some features" of an anarcho-capitalist society -- while there was a single legal system, enforcement of law was entirely private -- and so provides some evidence of how such a society would function.'

Which begs the question, if it were not considered as "anarcho"-capitalist then why would someone list it as the first example of "Anarcho-capitalism in the real world"? Indeed, why mention it at all? If "some features" gets transformed into "anarcho-capitalism in the real world" or a "favorite example" by "anarcho"-capitalists then why does Friedman object when anarchists point out the same thing (and that many features of the society prove it is not "anarcho"-capitalist)? If the FAQ has made a mistake, it is a very common one and one his own followers commit on a very regular basis.

Friedman argues that "the stability of the anarcho-capitalist institutions I argue for there depends on economies of scale in law enforcement being low enough so that you have a substantial number of competing enforcement agencies. The corresponding condition was met in Iceland for about the first two hundred and fifty years, judging by what we can tell of how the system was working." And he objects to us suggesting he sees Iceland as an example of "anarcho"-capitalism working in practice! So, to get this right, a pre-capitalist, pre-industrial, pre-village system with only "some features" of "anarcho"-capitalism can be used to show how "anarcho"-capitalism will be stable? And he objects to people suggesting he uses it as an example of "anarcho"-capitalism!

Moreover, how convincing is his argument? Given that Iceland was non-capitalist, pre-industrial, pre-village, communal it staggers belief that "economies of scale" can explain its political system. If this "condition" was met it was because of the society and economy in which its institutions existed. Change that society and economy and the political system will change -- which is precisely what happened. With the rise of inequality and tenant farming, the system degenerated. What is surprising is that Friedman thinks that a pre-industrial, pre-capitalist society can tell us anything about applying his ideology in an industrial, capitalist economy riddled with massive inequalities and wage labour.

Friedman stresses this point:

"Perhaps you can quote where in The Machinery of Freedom I assert that 'Medieval Iceland is a working example of 'anarcho' capitalism.'"

So sorry. There I was thinking that raising an example of a society as evidence to support "anarcho"-capitalism would imply that this society would have something to do with "anarcho"-capitalism! Or taking seriously the fact that other "anarcho"-capitalists do point to it as such an example (using Friedman's work as reference). As another critic put it when Friedman pointed out the same thing:

"Once again, I apologize for misinterpreting David Friedman's use of another example from a 'village' (or whatever he wants to call it) society. It looks like David Friedman and I agree again! Of course it is ludicrous for us to use this as an example for today. I don't know why he brought it up."

No trade of products?

Friedman objects to the FAQ's comments on artisans:

"You are now back with imagination. Where in the primary sources do you have accounts of artisans and farmers trading labor for protection? Where, for that matter, do you have any account of anything describable as a class of artisans? What do you think your imaginary artisans were doing?"

So the Godi provided no defence (protection) services? What happened when someone aggressed against a farmer? Did the Godi send them flowers? And did the Godi receive no income from the people they represented? As for artisans, there were no blacksmiths or carpenters? No trade of any kind in the products of labour? It is doubtful. Byock talks of "saleable merchandise," after all.

So artisan production seems to be the best description of the economy. Friedman is nit-picking over the term "artisan." We use it to describe a pre-capitalist form of economy, one in which workers owned their own tools and land. Perhaps we should have used "peasant"? But then he may have nit-picked over that too...

Changing social relations are important...

Friedman objects to the fact that we point out that the system had a "fatal flaw":

"There is one minor detail missing from this telescopic summary -- the dates. Norse settlement of Iceland started about 870. The legal instituions were established in 930. The civil conflict that led to the final collapse began about 1200. Or in other words, despite its "fatal" flaw, the system functioned reasonably smoothly for longer than the U.S. has so far existed."

What to say? Slavery "functioned reasonably smoothly for longer" than the US has, as have governments as a social institution. The Roman Empire lasted much longer than the US. The length of time a society survives is only relevant if it is considered as an example or a model to be followed. Yet Friedman denies that this is the case. As such, the dates are really irrelevant if you do not consider it as a model. After all, its length of survival are unlikely to be the result of "some features." As such, it appears that Friedman is trying to have it both ways, denying Iceland can be considered a model but also stressing how long it functioned for. The latter is irrelevant if it is not considered a model.

The key is, as the section argues, the economic and social system changed over that time in Iceland. As the system became more "capitalistic" (rising inequality and tenant farming), it became less anarchic. Surely this is of some interest? Yes, the political system did last a long time but once the economy changed it quickly degenerated. Thus Friedman misses the point. Not that Iceland is considered a model, of course...

He wonders:

"Why did this only start happening two centuries after the system was set up?"

But this is only relevant if Iceland was considered a model. As Friedman claims is not a model, it becomes pointless to discuss why it lasted two centuries. But by stressing the time involved, Friedman is obviously trying to suggest it does have lessons for us, that some aspects of it can be considered a model. So he really is trying to have it both ways. Why mention it at all unless it has some relevance to "anarcho"-capitalism? As the section shows, Iceland was not remotely "anarcho"-capitalist so why it lasted two centuries is beside the point

The section, of course, discusses why the system failed. It points to changing economic relationships, based on the rise of tenant farming (i.e. the rise of capitalistic elements in that society). Perhaps it can be said that Friedman is confused by our terminology, using the term "artisan" to describe a system were farmers and craftspeople owned their own land and tools. However, the rise in tenant farming is noted the Byock. In the eleventh century, as "slavery all but ceased. Tenant farming . . . took [its] place." The "renting of land was a widely established practice by the late eleventh century . . . the status of the godar must have been connected with landownership and rents." This lead to increasing oligarchy and so the mid- to late-twelfth century was "characterised by the appearance of a new elite, the big chieftains who are called storgodar . . . [who] struggled from the 1220s to the 1260s to win what had earlier been unobtainable for Icelandic leaders, the prize of overlordship or centralised executive authority." [Byock, Op. Cit., p. 269 and pp. 3-4]

Surely this would be considered important in trying to understand why the system lasted and finally failed? Particularly if you are applying similar political institutions to an economy more like the Iceland at the end of the commonwealth than at the start.

On this subject, Friedman objects to our quoting Kropotkin's analysis of the breakdown of barbarian society:

"Or in other words, you are making up your facts to fit what Kropotkin wrote about what happened in a different society. What were the 'servile obligations' in Iceland -- a society which had no class of serfs?"

As we said, Kropotkin's "general summary of the collapse of 'barbarian' society into statism seems applicable here." He was talking of how growing inequality lead to the collapse of the system of village communities. Given that Friedman does not dispute that growing inequality lead to the breakdown of the Icelandic system, I fail to see his point. We did not suggest that there were "servile obligations" in Iceland but rather pointing to a general fact of history that anarchistic elements in "barbarian" societies were destroyed by inequality. So Friedman's nitpicking misses the point.

And it does seem strange, though, that Friedman uses Iceland as an example for what will happen "in a different society" (i.e. a modern "anarcho"-capitalist system) yet objects to our use of Kropotkin's general argument about very similar societies (at least culturally, economically and technologically).


Friedman states that:

"Private property existed from the begining of the system"

If Friedman were an anarchist, he would know that Proudhon analysed "private property" in the first anarchist book, What is Property? He noted that there was a significant difference between possession and private property. Thus peasant farming is different from tenant farming, producing different social relationships and outcomes. As such, Friedman totally misses the point of the critique -- as well as an essential aspect of anarchist politics at the core of AFAQ.

Marx, incidentally, makes the same point as Proudhon in Chapter 33 of Capital, noting that:

"Political economy confuses, on principle, two very different kinds of private property, one of which rests on the labour of the producers himself, and the other on the exploitation of the labour of others. It forgets that the latter is not only the direct antithesis of the former, but grows on the former's tomb and nowhere else." [Capital, vol. 1, p. 931]

In other words, Friedman "confuses, on principle, two very different kinds of private property." Glibly talking of "private property" does not really cut it, from an anarchist perspective. Particularly when discussing the evolution of political forms used (in some way) as an example for "anarcho"-capitalism.

That was the whole point of this section of AFAQ, to show how changing forms of private property produce radically different political systems. To show how a pre-capitalist, egalitarian society can have anarchistic elements due to its fusing of ownership and use (possession) and how the rise of inequality and the divergence of these (into private property) can lead to statism.

So what of Friedman's "critique"? Other than some nitpicking and a less that charitable perspective on the all so human ability to make mistakes, his "critique" does not amount to much. Iceland was a communal system, according to his own "expert voice." It was one based, initially, on "artisan" production (i.e. farmers and craftspeople working their own tools and land). It is used by "anarcho"-capitalists as a "favorite example" of their system working in "the real world" even if Friedman himself does not exactly claim so (in spite of him bringing up to bolster his claims).

In other words, much complaining but very little real substance.