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I'm a free-market anarchist* and, not surprisingly, I enjoy writing sci-fi and fantasy stories about societies without governments. However, I do NOT want to write stories that only myself and those who agree with me will enjoy. I'd like to know what would make a government-less society believable for the typical reader of speculative fiction. I've given it a good deal of thought, but I'm sufficiently biased in this regard so it's difficult for me to evaluate what non-anarchists would think of it.

How do I facilitate a reader's suspension of disbelief when the reader likely believes that a world without government would simply be a dystopian hell-on-earth?

Is it simply that I need to include some of the possible negative consequences of anarchy, like perhaps slavery? Or include a protagonist who has been harmed by the system and advocates for the instatement of a just and fair government? I feel that Brandon Sanderson effectively executed the latter strategy in the The Way of Kings: Sanderson is a Mormon, but he wrote an atheist character (Jasnah) that really felt like a true atheist, using many of the arguments that a Dawkins might make.

If you've read and enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed or Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash or Vernor Vinge's The Ungoverned, feel free to describe what you found believable about those worlds. I enjoyed those books, and I know a lot of people did (the first two won Hugo Awards), so they must have had some success in creating believable worlds, despite describing worlds without governments that aren't purely dystopian.

*I know, I know, I'm not a "real" anarchist.

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    $\begingroup$ Read "The Dispossessed" by Ursula K. LeGuin. $\endgroup$ – Paul Chernoch May 13 '15 at 0:29
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    $\begingroup$ I suspect that, while the question is pertinent in a way to worldbuilding, what you're looking for is closer to writing advice. It isn't so much about what world you want to make, but rather about how to present it realistically, which I feel makes this at least half about writing techniques, so you may want to repeat it (properly worded of course) on writers.SE. I'll add my 0.02$ in another comment since I don't really have a full answer. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx May 13 '15 at 4:28
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    $\begingroup$ To add my .02$, you can already see from the answers that this is a pretty touchy issue. Perhaps optimally, you don't use terminology and let the reader decide what the society is by themselves (circumvent terminology bias - there's no reason to prime readers unless you're trying to prove the point that they are biased, which clearly you're not) and try to subtly and/or directly address as many points of potential criticism as you can, as well as adding predictable flaws and disadvantages. In the end, it is always going to be a risk and risks make for good fiction, when done properly. Kudos. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx May 13 '15 at 4:31
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    $\begingroup$ As long as you're not preachy, philosophical and anvil-dropping, it should work ok. Just remember not to lose focus of the story and unintentionally turn your sci-fi into a treatise in dramatic form. $\endgroup$ – mechalynx May 13 '15 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ British humourist Joyce Grenfell delivered a devastating one-line critique: "Anarchy is all well, but who looks after the drains?" - assuming you are describing a populous city, you need to cover, at least indirectly, how the basic infrastructure required for large numbers of people to live in proximity can work. $\endgroup$ – glenatron May 13 '15 at 10:59

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There seem to be two very distinct questions here, and it's probably causing the two distinct kinds of answers to appear.

Your title says: "How do I make an anarchist society believable?", and it's causing a lot of people to say "you can't" because they don't think it's believable.

However, you also ask "How do I facilitate a reader's suspension of disbelief when the reader likely believes that a world without government would simply be a dystopian hell-on-earth?" and this is a completely different question.

For example, people have no problem maintaining suspension of disbelief when reading Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, and these stories feature Orcs and Dragons.

The reason it works, is because the worlds are not just internally consistent but the main characters are also relatable. They have hopes and dreams like we do, they are born in a society, they are shaped by it, but they still do their own thing.

Perhaps one of the key ways to make a story about an anarchist society believable lies not in the society you describe, but the people who live in it. Make real, strongly relatable characters. Think about their upbringing, about what they dreams and desire, about the struggles they face in life. Think about how they will respond to those things, and how society responds to them in return.

Don't make these people shining beacons of good who are completely convinced by the system. Make them selfish doubters who are looking out only for the good of themselves and their kin, like many people in the real world are. Make sure that all of your readers recognise a bit of themselves in the character. When a character makes a decision, the reader has to think "yeah, I would've done that." especially when it goes against the ideas of your anarchist society.

Then, the other members of your society have to respond in a way that also seems reasonable and their motivations for reacting that way need to be explained, in the same kind of detail. (from their upbringing, their dreams, etc)

This response has to also make the reader think "yeah, I would've done that, too". This way, because he is relating not to the anonymous members of a big, homogenous society but relating to the individual motivations of these people he has been reading about, he will most likely accept the outcome better.

In the end I think it is far more important to have believable main characters than it is to have a world that makes sense. Readers are willing to tolerate a lot of nonsense as long as they feel that the character's actions and thoughts make sense within that nonsense. Doesn't matter whether the "nonsense" is dragons and goblins, a working communist society, a working capitalist society, or a working free-market anarchy society: whatever world you set up, whatever the rules are, make them consistent and make the characters acting in them relatable, and people will read it and enjoy it.

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    $\begingroup$ While I complained that the answers on this thread didn't answer my questions, upon further examination I think I can take a little bit from all or most of them. This particular answer describes what I think will make the key element of my story: characters, and what it's like for them to live in that world. Not only does this strike me as an important thing for writing generally, but a believable world has not just "people" in it, but particular people -- it's them that I need to discover. $\endgroup$ – Logical Fallacy May 14 '15 at 3:56
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    $\begingroup$ @ElephantsonParade - And, as a supplement, keep in mind the most important (and hardest) part of this sort of story: show, don't tell. If you have to interject a block of explanation/philosophy, you will start to lose your readers after about the second sentence, and after three they will be sound asleep. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast May 14 '15 at 15:26
  • $\begingroup$ Then there are theorists who overanalyze the nonsense. $\endgroup$ – jkd Oct 26 '16 at 6:04
  • $\begingroup$ @jakekimds I'm not sure what you're referring to? $\endgroup$ – Erik Oct 26 '16 at 7:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Erik I just meant that some people try to make sense of the nonsense by saying the author was implying something through the nonsense. $\endgroup$ – jkd Oct 26 '16 at 7:59
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Edit: Re-reading the question I do think this somewhat misses the point. So I wanted to add something about making it more believable directly.

One big thing I think would be historical depth. Don't just tell me about your free market version of Yelp - I want the story about how it came to be, and how you kept it on the straight and narrow, and the computer app that aggregates free-market inspections and makes it simple and easy to use. Tell me about competing companies of inspectors, and certification companies that watch the inspectors (and each other) going back hundreds of years. Don't just tell me about EvilCorp polluting a river and killing hundreds of people, give me a story about how the city banded together, proved that it was them and took justice, and set up a schedule to keep it from happening again. Give me the bad side, the gritty details. There's an applicable quote to this effect:

Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made. - Otto von Bismarck

You need to show me the sausage - all the bad stuff, and how systems were built to respond to it. And how those systems then respond to adversity, and Bad Actors (I like that phrase).

Hope this helps.

Original:

I'm someone who reads stories like that and I think "this is a wishful fantasy" - most of them seem to have the same naivete as young adult fantasy (good guys always win, bad guys will eventually be punished, most people are reasonable and good at heart if the government would just get out of the way, etc).

These are the things you'd need to address to make me take your story seriously. I'm not saying that it's impossible to do so - just that you need to show me some sort of realistic mechanism that fits your philosophy. Or, I guess, you could just accept that bad things happen and live with it.

1. Slavery / Abuse.

As you mentioned, this is never shown. But I don't understand how it could be prevented. The usual answer in these books boil down to "good thinking people will step in and stop it" - usually through some mechanism like a self-organized militia, or calling out offenders in duels. But does that mean if someone comes in with bigger/better guns, they get to do what they want? Can a really good duelist basically go around raping, murdering and stealing with impunity, because he kills anyone who calls him out? It always feels unrealistic.

Another way this shows up is communities with differing values. I'll read a story about a free market/anarchy city, and it all works well because everyone is pretty much from the same culture. But I wonder what would happen if an extremist religious group set up shop next door, claimed the same rules and then started marrying 12-year old girls off to old men under the umbrella of religious freedom? How do you stop them from declaring that the girls are consenting adults, and no they don't feel like talking to you because they're busy in the kitchen? Try back later.

2. Consequences of zero regulation.

I'm more than willing to admit that, say, the current US government over-regulates and that causes harm. But no regulations at all seems even worse. If you have a perfect information society, it might work. Bob creates a restaurant and sells you bad chicken, someone eats it and gets sick. Everyone realizes what's going on and stops eating at Bob's, and he goes out of business. It's a nice scenario.

But what about in a non-perfect information system? What happens when Bob starts a misinformation campaign, and blames his supplier? If when he realizes what's happening he closes up shop and moves to the next city down the road, and starts his business up again where no one knows him and does it again?

3. Negative Externialities

This is an economic concept where the cost of an activity is, at least to some extent, taken up by people who don't benefit. And it's one of the big areas I believe in regulations for. Consider a business that's using an extremely polluting technique to create cheaper goods. This pollution is non-obvious (toxic dust or gases in the air, for example), but will have long-term negative health effects for everyone in the area. How do you address this without some sort of government body to do inspections?

You could have watch dog groups, but would they really be funded? If so, how do you manage it without basically re-creating a government? How do you prevent the corporation from taking Bob's strategy and using misinformation to counter that, or fake watch dog groups that give them a clean bill of health? How can you expect a random citizen to be able to sort truth from falsehood in this kind of scenario?

Comments:

These are, FYI, precisely the kind of solutions that I find to be incomplete. They work on the surface level but as soon as you consider them in depth, or consider what a criminal would do, they fall apart. They sound logical, but one of your assumptions is that it's a perfect information world - that everyone knows everything else - and that's simply not the case. Think about what happens when corporations, businesses and people lie and fake information. Your system has no way to resolve that type of conflict.

And since it needs to be clarified, yes - governments also have all these problems. They are not perfect at preventing violence, abuse, slavery, pollution, or food poisoning. But they do have systems to handle these problems. Are modern governments ideal, in any way? No. But they at least have some way to handle these issues. Anarchy/Free Market just seems like it has hope.

1. Yelp:

If there are no regulations, what do you do when McDonald's buys Yelp without telling anyone and starts controlling reviews - posting better results for themselves and sabotaging their competitors? How do you prevent smaller-scale false information from corrupting the system? If there's no central authority, how does someone looking for a bit to eat straighten everything out without doing a week of research?

2. Factory Inspectors:

Who pays for them? Do you go around and try to convince people that they're sick and collect funds? What do you do when the factory provides documentation from another inspector stating that they're safe, and how do you convince a court (and what kind of court do you even have) which one is valid and which isn't? Why does the factory even let your inspector in?

3. Social Contract re: Freedom

Have you defined a minimum age of consent? And what gives you the authority to go into someone else's house/community and determine that they're marrying girls against their will? Is hearsay enough? How do you prove that it's happening?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio May 15 '15 at 3:52
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I suspect I am a disenchanted oldster who thinks that anarchy, as you think of it, won't work at least in a stable state.

Working Anarchy
In the The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, individuals obeyed social norms that hadn't been codified into laws. Violators weren't captured and prosecuted by a central government but rather arbiters and citizens who were able to perform those activities.

It portrayed a society acting as if it had a government with laws but without those instruments.

I feel that such a society is possible as long as the society shares a common sense of values (likely a monoculture). Citizens of this society will behave in most ways as if they did participate in a culture with government and laws so I'm not sure I see the attraction of adding the "anarchy" label.

Unworking Anarchy
Larry Niven portrays a different perspective on Anarchy in his short story A Cloak of Anarchy. He concludes that it doesn't work because small numbers of bad actors make living in that environment quite horrible. If they gain any sort of power, the society rapidly devolves into some form of authoritarian government.

Additional Reading
The article Not So Wild Wild West discusses different conceptualizations of what anarchy entails and applies them to a scenario in the American Wild West to see how it would play out. I recommend reading through these for additional thoughts on how different implementations of anarchy might work and what problems they might encounter.

I recommend also reading about The Price of Stability and The Price of Anarchy.

Other Thoughts
My opinion is that anarchy is an unstable state that evolves (devolves) into some other form of government. I form this suspicion because we don't see any anarchic states in the modern world. They simply don't survive encounters with non-anarchic states.

I think a "good" anarchic state would be wonderful but such states are completely hypothetical (except at the very smallest scales) and not practical.

There's LOTS of philosophical, game theory, and simulation work expended on this topic. If you are interested in the real answer, I highly recommend the reading above.

If you're instead just looking for items to make your desired society seem plausible to the reader, I strongly recommend you look at works like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and similar works for the things they have in common.

Not all of these are required in the same setting.

  1. empowered individuals
  2. environment which requires cooperation in which to survive
  3. society that doesn't tolerate "bad actors"
  4. society which highly values "honor"
  5. society in which the people most likely to suffer oppression have the ability to escape the situation
  6. smaller societies
  7. reputation is important
  8. society not squeamish about harsh penalties for bad actors
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  • $\begingroup$ anarchy won't work in a stable state. : pun intended? $\endgroup$ – o0'. May 13 '15 at 10:26
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    $\begingroup$ No, but I like it anyway :D $\endgroup$ – Jim2B May 13 '15 at 13:19
  • $\begingroup$ " small numbers of bad actors make living in that environment quite horrible. If they gain any sort of power, the society rapidly devolves into some form of authoritarian government" - that's not a problem with anarchy, that's a problem with ANY non-authoritarian government. $\endgroup$ – user4239 May 13 '15 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with you about the instability. I don't think The Moon is a Harsh Mistress would truly qualify as anarchist, though--while the people operated basically as an anarchy there was still the Lunar Authority. I do not believe they would have tolerated most of the ways an anarchist society would fail--thus at least moderating the instability. Note that they did not remain anarchist after the revolution! $\endgroup$ – Loren Pechtel May 14 '15 at 1:59
  • $\begingroup$ In general governments have (or try to have) rules, public institutions, methods of representation, systems of progressive taxation that help check individual power and stop the snowball effect. Anarchism lacks such institutions. $\endgroup$ – Fhnuzoag May 15 '15 at 10:43
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Disclaimer: I didn't reed any of the linked books. I have a degree in archaeology, so I'll try to exploit it.

I can't imagine a true anarchist stable society. However, I can imagine something very close, a form of direct democracy with very limited "government" with few real power. Dan's answer summarizes reasons why classical anarchy is unlikely to stay an anarchy.

What was closest to anarchy in the real history were some forms of tribal democracy. Yes, they usually had some chieftain and some elders' council, but often the chieftain had not much authority behind honor and others' respect for his war proficiency. I can't imagine an anarchy without this basic level of "government" - organizing even a small militia is impossible without someone with the authority to command, the same about stopping bad guys etc.

If everyone knows everyone and all respect the same code of honor, it's not so hard to control the bad guys - even a good liar will likely fails acting his role someday. But you can't know so well more than few hundred or at most few thousand people. Bigger society can be a loose chain of such small communities, not a big city. Moving from one village to another means you will be a second class citizen in your new home for years, or probably for the rest of your lifetime. Also, the new neighbors will ask those who knew the person before for referrences, so it's close to the "perfect information society" assumed by most anarchy society authors.

Such a society must have some strong concept of honor, playing the role of laws in modern society. It's hard to earn the "honorable" status and easy to lose it, and people from outside are never considered "honorable" before proving themselves to the local community, which usually takes years. Strangers could completely miss the difference between both groups, but only "honorable" are likely to have real power and when any unknown person commits a crime, the "honorless" are likely to be blamed, no matter who really did it. Violating traditions (such as by preaching heresies like that there should be something like "religious freedom") is even worse, it may easily lead to casting away or even death penalty. It may get more dystopic than most governed states.

Honor also helps to defend the society from outside: if some enemy with a different culture comes near, it's not so hard to agree on a common war; not helping in it would mark whole village as "honorless". However, such a tribal militia is unlikely to be very organized. The units will be probably organized by village, not by weapon, it might be hard to make the militia practice except for few days before battle, when the advantage of this behavior is evident, using tactics not approved by tradition is risky etc. Violating any of those rules means risking that the men will kill you and elect a new, honorable, leader.

Well, we know only quite primitive communities governed like this. How could this work in a more advanced society? The higher the tech level, the more disadvantage such a state close to anarchy has. However, it could work under some conditions. I take "everyone knows everyone" (or better: "everyone knows all the important people and some who knows the unimportant") as a necessary condition of a stable anarchy/direct democracy, as well as a strong role of a common culture and code of honor. It can take some times between communities growing larger and collapse of the society, but the problems with "bad actors" is unlikely to be solved without some general sharing of opinions on the citizens.

I imagine an "archipelago state" in an environment preventing forming big communities - it can consist of small islands, small green valleys in arid islands, oases in a desert, stable spots in ever-changing chaos etc. The environment is hard enough to encourage cooperation and to block frequent contact - too frequent exchange of people will quickly ruin the common culture needed to sustain such a society.

Still there's problem with specialization. Advanced society basically requires this. First problem: you need to train the experts. Classical universities require too much people, so some anonymity is likely in those "academic communities". This problem can be bypassed if an important part of the starting exam will be approval of the sending community and thus "honorable" status. Also, being cast away from the academy for losing honor should be a real risk - the society doesn't want to get corrupted by spoilt experts. Other people will be trained by apprenticehood under established masters of their craft, perhaps supplemented with something like Khan's Academy. The education's level will be lower than what a true state can offer, but possible.

Another problem with experts is that they are too important and thus they can get power more easily. This is especially true for warriors (who can make it a state during wartime) and journalists and other opinion makers (the society wants to be informed on what happens in the other parts of their archipelago/planet/whatever, so the journalists can manipulate them to establish some form of a true government during a peacetime). But if anarchism is part of the culture's code of honor, it can resist such attempts to create a government for decades.

Problem nr. 3: for some trades, you need too much people on one place, who can't know each other (or at least they can't know each other and those who provide them with food and other basic services). This can be mitigated when such trades will be run only in few communities and the others will trade with them. Still, it's more likely to be a monopoly of a community producing all the bigger ships on the archipelago than classical "free market anarchy".

Also, some of such trades are almost impossible to start (train experts, build a factory) with only small communities around. In such a situation your only options is that the delegates of all the villages agree that they will invest in such a trade together. This can be done in some form similar to communities buying shares of a company (remaining in something similar to "free market anarchy", though more challenging companies are unlikely to ever start in this scenario), but it's easier and safer with a government, taxes etc. Anyway, in such big companies it's hard to enforce that everyone honors the rules. Anything that can't be built and maintain by a single community of few thousand people can easily become an "evil thing" breaking dystopic, but working status quo in the society.

The last problem is outside society. There could be no outside society - a planet colonized by people from another star system, who lost contact with their homeworld centuries ago is the optimal state. Otherwise you have two problems - any more organized society will either be or quickly become more powerful in both military and economy (and technology), so there must be a reason why the states tolerate the anarchy. Most obvious reason is that there's nothing valuable - as long as the state has enough space and potential resources for their colonists, settling some uninhabited area is easier than dealing with those savages, when there's nothing really valuable in their archipelago/desert/whatever.

Another problem are goods from abroad. The archipelago is likely to produce something of value, so others will trade for it and sell lots of "evil things". Will the archipelago people get corrupt by this? If exploiting the "chieftain" (military leader, representative on the annual council where all the communities agree on common steps etc.) role to get more than few extra money and respect is risky, you need some extra motivation. Anything expensive enough that you must be must be much richer than your neighbors is such a temptation. When all must at least pretend that they follow a common code of honor, most drugs (prohibitted by the code) are likely not to be produced in big volumes. But if someone imports it in big volumes, some people will get accustomed to it and will likely break the code (even by an attempt to get more power and resources for themselves) being this the only way to get a new dose or even a stable supply. This is how the Europeans destroyed many other societies - offering alcohol and letting the native chieftains do things they would never do otherwise.

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Other people have posted answers that basically boil down to arguments why an anarchic society is not possible. While I don't disagree with them, I also don't see them as relevant to your question. Setting aside whether such a society is believable, the best way to make it plausible is simply to have all of your characters accept it without question.

As long as the novel is well written and internally consistent, people's willing suspension of disbelief will prevent them having any problems with it. I've read some books with really ridiculous premises and totally unbelievable settings (the Harry Potter series comes to mind) which are nevertheless good books, because we don't care about the setting. We care about the story.

If, after reading it, the reader realises it is completely impossible and could never actually happen, well, that's what we call Fridge Logic, and there isn't anything inherently wrong with it. Some fans might even enjoy the series all the more because of its internal inconsistency.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have to agree; it seems like this is the only answer that is actually an answer to my question. All of the other answers could be combined into: "In your story, address all of the objections your readers will have to anarchy." Not only is that not possible, it would make for a crappy novel. $\endgroup$ – Logical Fallacy May 13 '15 at 13:29
  • $\begingroup$ That said, @ivy_lynx is right that my question is half writing and half world building. Your answer is more on the writing side of things. I might have to bring this question to meta; probably this needs to be closed and re-asked on writing.SE? I dunno. $\endgroup$ – Logical Fallacy May 13 '15 at 13:54
  • $\begingroup$ Erik's answer is also to that point and I agree with them both. Unless your story is trying to explain the society itself (which isn't much of a story), you should largely leave it in the background and focus on the characters and their plight. It could absolutely tie into the problems in the society, but that should not be the focus unless their challenge is trying to change the world in which they live. $\endgroup$ – thanby - reinstate Monica May 13 '15 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ I think there's a variant on this, though. If most characters accept the status quo, but some question it, and there's some kind of threat to the stability of the system which is overcome, perhaps not necessarily to the satisfaction of all sympathetic characters, then you present your setting as a messy compromise that the reader can decide for themselves is long-term stable or not, But even if not it survived this time. Regardless of my ideology I can believe that almost anything is somewhat locally stable, and will survive some crises. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop May 13 '15 at 23:12
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    $\begingroup$ ... as against that, I haven't read Ayn Rand and I'm not claiming that she uses this technique, but I find it tricky to believe that all of her characters accepting all of her views without question would increase my suspension of disbelief if I were to read it and if it were like that! I'd just chuck the book across the room as not only implausible but deluded, if I'm predisposed not to believe it. So I think the technique as stated works well for nonsense but not necessarily for something that makes sense but is objectionable to the reader. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop May 13 '15 at 23:14
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Short answer: To make it believable, don't make it a utopia. Make it flawed. Like any real society.

I've read lots of stories that portray someone's idea of the perfect social order, and a very common problem is that the writer makes them too unbelievably perfect. G K Chesterton once wrote -- not an exact quote, I'm quoting from memory -- "The problem with most proposals for Utopia is that the reformer assumes that all the big problems have been solved, and then proceeds to tell us how he will solve the small problems. He simply assumes that no one in his society will want more than his fair share, and then goes to great detail to discuss whether his fair share should be delivered by automobile or balloon."

If you tell me that in your anarchist society, there is no need for the government to regulate the economy because everyone trusts each other and there is no fraud or false advertising or breach of contract, I just won't believe you. If you tell me that your society has some very effective method for dealing with dishonest people, that could be plausible.

I can believe that the right social structure could DISCOURAGE some types of bad behavior, perhaps by making it more difficult to get away with, perhaps by somehow convincing people to follow a higher standard. But if you want to tell me that your society has eliminated all dishonesty, greed, hate and cruelty, you can't just tell blithely tell me that it's because you have a better system of education or because your leaders set a good example or because there's no need for antisocial action because your society is so perfect. You've got to give me a very convincing, detailed explanation of how you intend to perform this miracle.

This could form the basis of the story. A group of people establish this anarchistic society. This problem comes up. Here's how they solve it. Throw in some action or a romance subplot or whatever and you could have a good story.

Another angle is to let the society not be quite a PURE anarchy. Let them have, say, some organization that tracks down and punishes dangerous criminals. Someone says, "But your society isn't really an anarchy. How are your Guardians any different from the police in my society?" And the anarchist gives some speech where he basically says, "Oh, okay, maybe we're not a pure anarchy, but we come much closer than any other society in history. Sure, some problems don't have obvious anarchist solutions. We're still working on it. Authoritarians have had thousands of years to work out their solutions to these problems, we're just getting started."

BTW I've read many articles by libertarians that discuss how a pure libertarian society would solve some of the problems that their opponents bring up. Like, how would a libertarian society have local roads? If a private company owns the road in front of your house, what happens if they decide to impose a $1000 toll every time you leave your driveway? Etc. And my response is: Perhaps interesting as an intellectual exercise, but our present society is so far from being libertarian that these small number of hard cases are just not the issue. When you've eliminated government subsidies to favored campaign contributors, government control of education, government-run healthcare, government-run charities, all the absurd government regulations on how far toilet seats must be from the wall and what kind of light-bulbs people are allowed to use, government intervention in the media, etc ... THEN is the time to start thinking about whether it's possible to privatize local roads and the police force.

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The most immediately obvious characteristic of a free market anarchy (from the perspective of a reader) is that there aren't any around.

In order to make a free market anarchy (or anything really) plausible, you have to ask yourself two things: why are there no such things in our world and what would be a few things that could plausibly change about our world that would make it more likely and more plausible for such societies to exist and survive?

Perhaps you decide it's the issue of enforcement of contracts, or the issue of punishing the powerful who do wrong. Either way, something could happen that could turn what appears to be a near-insurmountable problem today into a trivial problem tomorrow. Given mankind's history, the most likely solution is technology.

The problem with technology is that it tends to have cascading effects. Sure, you invented Y to solve X, but now that Y is here, Z is trivially simple. So you must be careful about your Deux-ex-technologia

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As a sceptical reader I'd be looking for an answer to the question: what is the force stopping governments (or government-like authorities) from forming naturally in this fictional reality, as they always seem to have done in the real world?

The common pattern in the real world is that an authority emerges with a monopoly on the use of force within a certain territory - so the power to use force and call it "legitimate" under normal circumstances is associated with certain territorial borders. (We know this to be the case because the exception has a special name: "war").

Maybe this is human instinct; we might be the kind of ape that understands and expects there to be an authority figure controlling a territory. The strength of this instinct varies considerably between the other species of Great Ape, and like anything in the genome it could also vary between individuals within a species.

The scale of these bounded territories has grown as the technology of war and communication have progressed. In any situation where no such authority exists in a given territory, there is a messy struggle, out of which one authority emerges.

So in your story, what is stopping that happening?

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You won't. It is impossible.

The only non-fictional pure anarchist society we have today to compare it by is pre-civilized societies, which I doubt is what you're going for. Even post-apocalyptic societies have groups working together towards common goals that are not purely anarchical or free-enterprise focused.

This isn't the fault of anarchy or the free market - it is the fault of assuming any pure ideology can exist on its own.

Ideologies Do Not Exist In Vacuums

Pure anarchy is unrealistic, but it is only as unrealistic as the idea of any 'pure' societal construct. It is no more unrealistic than a pure Democratic society, or a pure Christian society, or a pure anything society. It works only as a construct, because the littlest amount of imagination can form a disruptive force that would tear the construct apart.

This is why dystopian and utopian societal constructs seem unrealistic - no such society exists today, and it would be in opposition of many other societies if it did. The world is much too complex for such a construct to survive.

Write The Conflict

But people do write dystopian and utopian societies, all the time in fact, and it is not for lack of implausibility that they write them, but in spite of it. The interesting part of any societal construct is not what happens when it stands alone, but when something stands in opposition to it, like we would expect in the real world, to show how such a society handles disruptiveness.

To make your anarchical/free market society more believable, you have to address that conflict - you have to write how such a society would function in the face of people who want to buy slaves, of people who want to form a government to regulate the anarchy, of people who want to form a religion, of all the various things that can disrupt an ideal society.

It's not likely that you will end up with a completely believable 'pure' anarchistic society, because that's counter-intuitive to the way human nature works. People will embrace it, but also oppose it, and it will not come out of that opposition without some type of change - not unless you want to suggest that this type of conflict is perpetually happening in your society (which is valid - if it is clear that your hypothetical society always drives those who create conflict off or into submission).


In short, your anarchical society has to account for human individuality, and adapt accordingly. The better you can account for things that might disrupt that society, the more 'believable' it will be.

But in doing so, it will become increasingly difficult to support such a society's existence in a realistic way, and you may have to sacrifice some of the purity of that society to get a more realistic image of what you want to portray.

In the end, some part of it will have to be sacrificed, at the very least to acknowledge that there will be those who oppose it.

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If you've read and enjoyed Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed or Robert Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress or Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash or Vernor Vinge's The Ungoverned, feel free to describe what you found believable about those worlds.

Well, since you asked...

In The Dispossessed, the anarchic society on Anarres is believable because, on some levels, it does not work the way it's supposed to. It is supposedly a society without structure or hierarchy. However, like in many real-world grass-roots organizations, the denial of structure means that members work under informal, poorly defined structures. In the Anarresti society, individuals obtain greater influence due to their social approval, or renown for their achievements, or their access to certain privileges or resources, but this influence is not apportioned out in any designed or directed way. The people of Anarres would no double claim to embrace equitability in all things, but they have not actively organized a system to promote fairness. It demonstrates many of the problems described in Jo Freeman's early-1970s essay "The Tyranny of Structurelessness", which addressed feminist movements but which can easily be applied to any group that ostensibly functions without hierarchy. These are real problems that many readers will be familiar with from their participation in informal organizations, and likewise, those readers will recognize the opposition Shevek faces on Anarres.

In Snow Crash, the society in which Hiro lives becomes believable because of world elements which read as exaggerated extrapolations of actual presences from late 20th century America. It echoes many fears about privatization and the primacy of corporations in public life. Primarily, we see that concentration of power in business enterprises has led to a world where safety and well-being are only available to those who live under a corporate aegis. This is something that has become more poignant in the United States since Snow Crash's publication, in light of recent trends, such as libertarian elements in governance privatizing formerly public services, and corporations emphasizing contractual restrictions (such as binding employees and customers to third-party arbitration) that supersede legal rights and remedies.

Another fine novel to read on this topic is Richard Morgan's Market Forces. In that novel, like in Snow Crash, we see an anarcho-capitalist society with a strong emphasis on the capitalist portion, though - these societies are built with essential structure and hierarchy, but the structure and hierarchy derive from business entities.

The Ungoverned is a story which I greatly enjoy, but do not find particularly believable. The premise, to me, seems to be that governmental power can devolve to local power with a linear decrease of scale. It is not particularly relevant in The Ungoverned's worldview that the Republic of New Mexico is fielding a state army and the Michigan State Police are a private security contractor. They can exercise power in similar ways, as can any private citizen - they merely exercise more or less power dependent on their resources. The difference between the "sides" in this conflict is that one employs coercion and the other works via the free choice of those who opt into its system. There is more of a sense of collective here than in Snow Crash, because we see that individuals (outside of the Republic of New Mexico, at least) have free choice of which government-like entity they rely on, and can choose to be self-reliant (if they can afford it). The choices made are between business propositions, but the participants in a law enforcement contract must work together and resolve differences, which we see in the story. I think that sense comes at the cost of realistic conflict, though - the private law enforcement groups are seen generally getting along, and even the self-defending "armadillos" don't cause much conflict until the invasion occurs. The story is intended as a demonstration of how such a stateless society would properly function, though, so whether the lack of internecine conflict is a weakness depends on how willing your reader is to entertain those notions.

You may also care to consult the works of Paolo Bacigalupi; as well as his acclaimed novel The Wind-Up Girl, I would particularly recommend his short stories Pump Six and The Tamarisk Hunter. Environmental and technological themes aside, he often addresses the conflicts between state power and private (corporate or individual) power, and how these power relationships affect his protagonists.

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Having characters with depth react that consistently to your world (and having those characters react in line with their characters) will go a long way towards making the world believable. For example, I suspect there were a few points in Charles Stross' Accelerando that a savvier student of economics or political science might take issue with, but the characters were solid enough to carry the story through.

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The eponymous V, in V for Vendetta (the graphic novel, not the movie), claims towards the end, in reply to the question, "Is this anarchy?"

No. This is only the land of take-what-you-want. Anarchy means "without leaders"; not "without order".

With anarchy comes an age of Ordung, of true order, which is to say voluntary order.

This age of ordung will begin when the mad and incoherent age of verwirrung that these bulletins reveal has run its cource.

This is not anarchy, Eve.

This is chaos.

IOW anarchy means without leaders: not without order.


Also, Snow Crash is a poor example of an anarchy IMO. It has many governments i.e. each "franchise" has or is its own form of government ... it's just that the franchises' territories are intermingled in the same streets, towns, and neighbourhoods.

One element in the plot which helped make daily life in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress familiar to readers is that they had money/currency: which people could use to buy beer and so on.

Also, theoretically a reason for government is to interact with other countries: because other countries exist, therefore we need a government, a military, border controls, ambassadors, threat of war, newspapers, national unity, etc. Being on the moon (and nominally under the thumb of the Authority), the "loonies" didn't have such concerns.


Another possibility to consider is that (according a professor of ancient history I know) none of us currently live in a democracy; that the system of electing representatives leads to what used to be called an oligarchy; and that ancient Athens (the prototypical democracy) appointed civic officials from the demos by lottery. The President for example was the president for one day, there was about a 50% chance that any given citizen might have been president sometime in their life.

This isn't exactly "without leaders" but it's without an entrenched/habitual ruling class. If it happened in real life (i.e. ancient Athens) that might help to make it plausible (and you could read to see exactly how they actually implemented it).

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  • $\begingroup$ I like your post. But i fail to see how it is an answer to the question? $\endgroup$ – Burki May 13 '15 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ Hello and welcome! I am pretty sure that it is supposed to be spelled "Ordnung" (the phrase got way more hits on g00gle that way - so it must be true ^^, and as a both "Ordnung" and "Verwirrung" are german words, while "Ordung" is not I guess that's the way it should be). Unfortunately I am not able to edit just two characters. (Long live the rules!) $\endgroup$ – Ghanima May 13 '15 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Burki I guess it's meant to be an answer in that if people think that "anarchy" means "without rules" then an "orderly" or "attractive" or "harmonious" anarchic society might sound implausible or impossible. So saying that an anarchy might have rules might help to make it more plausible. There were various customary rules in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress: marriage customs, for example, schooling, jobs, etc. $\endgroup$ – ChrisW May 13 '15 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ @Ghanima Yes I wanted to spell it "Ordnung", but "Ordung" is what's written in the text. $\endgroup$ – ChrisW May 13 '15 at 15:42
  • $\begingroup$ If the primary source says so it'll be ok ;) In this case it would however seem that it has been referenced wrong quite often. $\endgroup$ – Ghanima May 13 '15 at 19:57
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Based on my personal experience as a non-anarchist, I find one of the most effective ways to get another person to consider a belief to which they may be hostile toward is to illustrate the parallels to their currently held beliefs.

The challenge is, from birth, we as both readers and writers have only known a soceity under the leadership of others. Part of the culture of government is the notion that all people are capable of doing evil acts and justice is best administered by an impartial third party swiftly following an injustice to preserve order. Justice is also a social interaction and therefore subject to human error.

So, I would think that you would endeavor demonstrate and describe the anarchists' "soceity" approach to justice in general where the characters themselves have flaws. As you joked, some anarchists are not true anarchists. Show us how flawed people can administer justice (great and small) without the force of government. It is the subtle imperfections that promote realism.

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You won't be able to convince readers who have studied history and human psychology, because it simply can't happen. This isn't to say that a free-market-anarchist system couldn't be created, but it would never be stable for long enough to become a coherent civilization.

If you look back through history, up and down and across the world, everywhere and everywhen you look, you always see social organizations shaped like pyramids. From a family tree, to a business, to a club, to a church, to a nation, there are always a few people at the top with decision-making authority, and a greater number under their authority, and as the total number of people grows, extra layers of hierarchy are added. It would not be an exaggeration to call this The Great Pattern Of Human Nature. The only stable social structures we see where the Great Pattern does not hold are very small ones, such as a circle of friends. (And when the group of friends grows large enough, one or a very few from among them will emerge as their leader.)

There have been attempts to consciously reject this system from time to time, which, if they become notable at all, tend to be notable for their failure. Perhaps the most prominent in recent memory is the Occupy Wall Street movement, which rather notoriously gathered significant amounts of manpower and resources and accomplished next to nothing with it because they consciously refused to organize and have leadership.

It would seem that, just as nature abhors a vacuum, human nature abhors a power vacuum, and where one exists, it will be filled, generally by someone with the will and means to seize it. And the problem with such people is that they aren't content with building a stable civilization; a conqueror's kingdom must always be expanding through further conquest. (This has been true throughout history; it's said that Alexander the Great wept when he realized how much of the world would forever remain outside his authority, no matter how many victories he won!)

The idea that "a world without government would simply be a dystopian hell-on-earth" isn't just an idea that we've been taught; it's experience. Heck, it's not even history; it's current events. Just look at Somalia! (And look at how much less misery there would be in Somalia if the various petty warlords could simply be satisfied with ruling what they've siezed, instead of always trying to take over the rest of it as well. But they don't.) Or if you prefer history, just look at any number of brutal succession wars in any number of ancient kingdoms, especially following the death of a great conqueror. Power exists, fundamentally, as something objective, completely independent of the holder of that power. When the holder of power is removed from the equation, the power he held does not magically evaporate into happy sparkles and more liberty for everyone, and it never has. Instead, it creates a power vacuum, which creates a dystopian hell-on-earth until the dust settles, and generally for a while after that. The greatest achievement of the Founding Fathers of the USA was without a doubt the creation of a system in which power transfer, even between rivals, could be accomplished in a stable, predictable, peaceful way.

This all derives from fundamentals of human nature, so it would seem that the only way to have a believable, stable anarchist society would be to have them not be human. I've seen this done well a grand total of once, in the Trilisk series by Michael McCloskey. The Vovokans were an alien race whose nature was such that a set of principles that were essentially anarcho-capitalist produced a stable society. They thrived right up until they met other spacefaring races and had some dealings with them that included reversals of position that the Vovokans considered natural, rational self-interest and their former partners considered cold-blooded betrayal. This led to a war that wiped out the Vovokan species almost entirely.

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Also see And Then There Were None for a famous story of one culture understanding another, or Voyage From Yesteryear which explains how such a society might emerge (as well as that usual outsider-is-befuddled narrative)

First, you don't have to follow the stereotypical playbook of the philosophy. As you design the culture and the future containing it, you'll find unique variations.

Throwing in new "game changers" like nanotechnology, post-scarsity, mind uploading, benign super-AI, etc. will also give an "out" as "that changes things".

Finally, address the objections that would hinder believability by the general population. Find out what questions pop into their minds, and not only answer that but turn it into a plot point!

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