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Star Trek: The Next Generation briefly featured a species called the Chalnoth:

The Chalnoth were an aggressive species native to the planet Chalna. The Chalnoth did not believe in government so their society existed in a state of total anarchy, where only the strong survived.

How plausible is large-scale anarchy that lasts for long periods of time?

Since the show depicts this society, what's a plausible timeline for how this society came to be? How could such an anarchy form and what could keep someone from seizing power?

How could such a society have social and moral norms?

How would an anarchy interact with neighboring non-anarchy societies?

The Chalnoth seemed to have their own starships that were capable of faster-than-light travel. How would members of an anarchist society collaborate for decades or centuries to develop advanced technology? What would prevent scientists from fighting among themselves and sabotaging each others' work (or killing each other)?

How would you build this world?

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  • $\begingroup$ Anarchy will eventually calm down into tribal community and pseudo-governments where the weak gather under the strong for protection. At least, if they're communal creatures. There will be backstabbing and that will hinder long-term efforts toward anything. Even if there is a benevolent ruler, that will only last as long as the ruler lives, or else it won't be anarchy. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Aug 7, 2021 at 21:04
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    $\begingroup$ I don't buy that an anarchic society could man spaceships even if they stole them from someone else, let alone build such ships internally. As soon as there is an accepted leadership structure it's no longer anarchy. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2021 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ Capitalism seems a good basis for that. $\endgroup$ Aug 7, 2021 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ Anarchism is a respectable (even if only barely respectable) school of political thought. Anarchy does not mean chaos; a society which has rid itself of involuntary and coercive hierarchies could, in principle, be functional. Unfortunately, with humans such societies do not seem to scale all that well; but it may be different with chalnots. On the other hand, it is Star Trek, a show which eventually came to feature overpowered extradimensional beings and space travel by means of magic mushrooms... $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 8, 2021 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ 'Social and moral norms' is the only answerable question here. Why is kids picking up on 'inappropriate behavior' appropriate? – Parenting.SE. - Just as, 'Ice means civilization.', "Social and moral norms" means society. But if you're placing the self above the family then the answer is no. If it's family before country, then just pretend the Nazis won or Trump became emperor, and purchase the rights to 1984. $\endgroup$
    – Mazura
    Aug 8, 2021 at 20:37

7 Answers 7

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We, the Chalnoth, have a very specific and in many ways superior understanding of leadership. Many consider us to be anarchistic because we use violence to make decisions, but the common definition of anarchy, the brutal chaotic lawlessness, is far from the elegance of the Chalnoth decisions making process. We are a lawful people with strict traditions which govern our violent decision making.

In order to obtain the absolute highest quality of decisions from our leaders, each decision must be made by the person more committed to their side of an argument than those all who oppose them. Only when equal commitment stands on both sides of an argument do we resort to conflict. In most cases, simply possessing the willingness to fight to a particular commitment level of resolution is enough to decide a matter.

I know, this is a complex subject and can be confusing to those who were raised under a less advanced system of governance. So perhaps an example will clarify matters...

At this year's planetary budget meeting, I jumped up at the very beginning of the proceedings and announced that the Science Division requires 1 billion credits to continue FTL research. As is appropriate in such moments, I concluded my demand with a statement of my commitment, "I am willing to bleed for this!"

The other division representatives at the meeting were less than happy with my massive funding request and select among themselves a champion to face me. Dalmyr, an old colleague of mine from gladiatorial school stood up and proclaimed, "I am willing to bleed to stop this."

If that is all that he had said then we would have moved to the combat ring and resolved the matter with swords. But the canny old fool decided to test my commitment. "In fact, I am willing to bleed five times to stop this."

That was quite a rebuttal. To take five open wounds in a combat ring before seeking medical aid is a staggering level of commitment. In any other situation, I would have backed down and my budget demand would have been ignored. Further, I would have been banished from the meeting for cowardice and a lesser member of the Science Division would have to defend our budget. But this was not a normal year for our division. Just that morning, our dilithium research team had brought me an amazing report and requested 800 million credits to verify their finding. My department needed that money. So my decision was not whether to stand in the ring or stand down in shame. I needed to measure my own level of commitment to our species' exploration of space. I could match Dalmyr's announcement by settling this in five wounds in the ring, or...

"I am willing to die for this!" a shudder rippled though the meeting room.

To his credit, Dalmyr matched my commitment and the fight which followed was legendary. I left the ring victorious, having taken far more than five crippling wounds, but my blade was soaked in the last blood of an old friend.
I had won.

I am now retired from active decision-making and will serve the Science Department in only an advisory position. There is talk that they may even name the first FTL starship after me.

It was a good day to win.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice but that would end in a puppeteer society, where the true rulers are those who avoid challenges and violence but have enough social skill to intimidate, blackmail, bribe, or otherwise pull strings on those foolish enough willing to bleed for a cause that isn't their own. In the end, the puppet masters would seek to change society rules so they can't be challenged, and then you get a variation of a feudal society. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Aug 8, 2021 at 18:17
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    $\begingroup$ @toolforger, my point was that violent decision making and anarchy are completely separate things. From here, it is up to the author to evolve the Chalnoth parliamental process to defend against puppeteering. This could be as simple as allowing each petition to be fought for only once per meeting. So if my science advocate had lost his fight, his department would have received no funding in the coming year. Such a simple enhancement would guarantee that only the best warriors are allowed to fight for their departments and avoid fools from being allowed into the arena. $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2021 at 21:42
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No king but the law.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9Eingvellir#Founding_of_Iceland's_parliament

The structure of Icelandic society was two-fold. There was a strong community of people with shared norms, values and source of income—culminating in a nation—and following from this there was no executive branch. It was a phenomenon most poetically described by the 11th-century historian Adam von Bremen when he said that Icelandic society had ‘no king but the law’.

The anarchic society shared interests and values. They have laws. No-one is the boss but they agree on rules and how things should be done. If someone decides to break the rules and steal or kill, the others will punish him. The community enforces the law. It is in the common interest that they all cooperate and they value this long term cooperation.

You are not the boss of me. But I will help you bring in your crop and you will help me put up a new building on my farm. We are comrades. We might pool our resources to buy a cider press we both use. We will grab our neighbor and his kids and go together to help put out a fire. If there is a smart guy who is figuring out where and how to dig a mine, the community could feed and house him while he figures it out in anticipation that the proceeds from the mine will help all of us.

Compared to central governments, anarchy makes for an inefficient society. But it can work.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually anarchies can be as efficient as central governments. Decisionmaking between peers isn't necessarily slower than decisionmaking between (rivalling) administrative branches. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Aug 8, 2021 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting info. Thanks for sharing! Are there mechanisms for faster group decision-making in emergencies? For example, if there was a big fire and people didn't agree on where to start putting out the fire or if there was an invasion by a neighboring country and people didn't agree on the defensive strategy, what would they do? $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2021 at 20:29
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    $\begingroup$ You could use an adhocracy. If there is a building to be put up, the old mason is in charge. He is not our king but we all know he is good at putting up buildings. If we need to fight we agree who will lead us. He is a jerk, that guy, but he is our jerk; he is good at strategy and when we need him he will step up. If there is science to be done, we might not have the smartest one in charge. Her head is in the clouds and she is not good at giving orders. We let her think and come up with ideas, and a practical person is put in charge. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 8, 2021 at 20:39
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A convincing fictional depiction of a "functioning" society of violent psychopaths appears in Worth the Candle, in the Doris Finch arc. Your setting probably does not allow for quite this kind of dystopia, because it relies on magic. But there is a lesson to learn from it, which could be used in any world including those without magic. Key points about Doris:

  • Doris Finch is a person with the ability to instantly duplicate herself, including her items. The duplicate has the same ability.
  • Doris Finch is a nasty, self-interested psychopath with trust issues. Each duplicate has an independent mind that is just as self-interested as the original.
  • Doris has populated an area the size of a country with copies of herself. No one else lives there, due to the nature of Doris.
  • The duplicates can't trust each other. They often break out in violence among themselves to decide who is in charge.
  • They are restricted to a wasteland with little natural food or other resources. As a result they will often duplicate themselves and immediately murder the duplicate to get their items. This is an unlimited source of food and items.
  • They have managed to find enough time for organized magical research projects, often based on a great deal of coercion.

Now, your setting probably doesn't allow for quite the same mechanic. But here is what I think we can take away from it, the essential reasons why Doris Finch-land is "functioning" despite her charming personality:

  • The "birth rate" is very high, making life cheap, so murders are less of a setback to society.
  • The time to "adulthood" is very short, again making life cheap.
  • The society has plentiful resources. More resources than needed. This allows society to thrive despite all the murdering, and have spare resources to devote to research projects.

So I would suggest, if you want a violent society of aliens, to include these factors. High birth rate, rapid maturation, plentiful resources, extreme bloody-mindedness.

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    $\begingroup$ This makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing! How vital is the plentiful resources criteria? If there were a high birth rate, wouldn't overpopulation occur and resources would eventually run out? Is there a way to have both high birth rate and plentiful resources? $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2021 at 20:15
  • $\begingroup$ The only thing I can think of is a very high murder rate that keeps the population low but not low enough to derail technological development. There would be random fluctuations in the murder rate from year to year - how could the murder rate be stabilized in order to maintain this delicate balance? $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2021 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @UnexpectedSupernova "There was a quite interesting phenomenon within the DFEZ called the ‘Conservation of Dorises’. The upshot was that there would only ever be as many Dorises as necessary, because if there were more than that, resource scarcity and general incentives would mean that the Dorises would kill each other. Therefore, if thirty Dorises were needed for talking to us and getting a cut, there would always be thirty Dorises, because any more than that, they would backstab for a position, and any less than that, and they would make clones" $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Aug 9, 2021 at 0:33
  • $\begingroup$ @UnexpectedSupernova in a non-Doris world, you might attain conservation of population by saying that the individuals are territorial and will kill rivals in their territory. That would prevent overpopulation while simultaneously giving a motive for more violence. The murder rate can be balanced by the birth rate so the total population could plausibly be as high or as low as you want. $\endgroup$
    – causative
    Aug 9, 2021 at 0:35
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The Riddle of Steel

John Millus, I think, invents the Riddle of Steel for the 1982 movie adaptation of Conan the Barbarian.

Crom is a popular god in the region. Crom only appreciates strength.

The riddle of steel is not articulated. All that Crom's followers are aware of is this: when they reach the afterlife, Crom will ask the dead person "what is the riddle of steel?"

Only those who answer correctly will enter paradise.

There are several answers offered as plausible ones:

  • Intellect (Conan's father, a blacksmith) : with my intellect, I can shape steel. Intellect is stronger than steel.
  • Reality (young Conan) : what I can perceive, touch, and interact with is all that is trustworthy. Reality is steel.
  • Faith, Flesh, Armies (Thulsa Doom, the bad guy) : armies can break steel. Faith moves flesh (people) in armies. Armies (and being a leader of armies) is stronger than steel.
  • Strength (middle aged Conan) : I and my friends are stronger and tougher. Strength is the riddle of steel.
  • Will (Conan at the end of the movie) : strength, intellect, and armies can fail. Reality can become distorted. But will is the only thing you can trust. Will is the true steel.

How Does This Apply to a Sci-Fi Society?

You can see, above, that thinking about strength leads some to some unexpected parallels with what we humans come up when they turn their minds towards "the great(er|est) good".

However, there are some differences:

  • There is no system of justice. Justice is an attempt to give the weak a hand up. That would not do at all in a social order that values strength -- instead, the strong take what they want, and the weak try to figure out ways to take it back, or get revenge later.
  • Cities of arbitrary size may exist. These dense population centers will behave like Paris before the invention of police. Read Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" for an detailed example. Or pre-Empire Rome (very close to the fall of the Republic). In broad strokes of descriptions: the city will constantly be in turmoil. Neighborhoods will be at war with eachother like steet gangs. There will be barricades and checkpoints between blocks. Surprisingly, very big cities can survive and even thrive in this condition.
  • Villages may also exist. Settlements of a few dozen, with a handful of people throwing their strength around at any one time, might even be pleasant.
  • Travel will be like it was in the Renaissance. Any strongman along the way will "collect tax" by hiring thugs to rummage through the stuff of travelers. Without an idea of justice, there will be no Templars or equivalent orders serving as an international security force. Therefore, travel from one place to another will take one of three forms:
    • A solo adventurer of great strength and/or skill (Conan alone)
    • A small group of strong men who can take on dangers (Conan with his companions, or Cortez with his conquistadors)
    • A person, and his/her small army for security (Richard the Lionheart)
  • Travelers will stay with whatever lodging they can take. There MIGHT exist a tradition of hospitality. In which case,
  • Information flows from the stories travelers tell to the people they stay with.

Scaling Up

There is nothing above that precludes the development of technology. Archimedes developed many of the basic principles of engineering, and a FREAKING LASER WEAPON under these conditions.

What happens if you reach the stars with FTL and have no concept of justice?

Nothing, I think.

Imagine this species' territory as a series of planets that are entirely the worst parts of Chicago or Los Angeles. Drive-by shootings happen all the time, and every member of your species expects to be caught in several during their life.

Politics is stupefyingly local. Most people outside of the neighborhood(s) at war with one another will not be able to follow the personages, orders, alliances, and disputes between parties. If you are traveling to a world of this species, it is not because some government invited you or granted you a visa. It is, instead, because you have your own reason for being there, and you have enough strength to force someone to let you stay.

Travel between worlds and stars will have rampant piracy, just as was true on the ground. Planets will be in constant turmoil (like big cities on the ground), and so on.

Expect significant, horrific, atrocities (like nuking a world sterile) to happen from time-to-time. But even though city-exterminating genocide was a not-infrequent thing in human antiquity, it still was the exception instead of the day-to-day rule.

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    $\begingroup$ But you've got to be careful with Conan. He was often comfortable as Captain of the Guards (even when he wasn't sleeping with the Queen). And as the King of Aquilonia he seemed like a reformer. $\endgroup$ Aug 8, 2021 at 20:33
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with your answer is that Conan is fiction and therefore the writer can do whatever he pleases (and ignore the messy bits of reality that are superfluous to his stories). $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Aug 8, 2021 at 20:51
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Clan based development.

People mostly only trust close family members, and will regularly pick fights with people not from their family. Villages form mostly around closely related people, with some limited tolerance for a small number of outsiders to avoid incest issues.

Some warlords would of course try to 'seize power' but they would quickly find their armies betrayed them and did other things as soon as they were out of sight, because people didn't believe in government.

You might think that technology would develop slowly, but constant warfare would encourage people to develop technology fast for that competitive advantage.

That said, they might take longer than humans as they nuked themselves back to the stonge age multiple times.

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Evolutionary pressure

Humans started forming tribes because defending themselves from big animals and all the other dangers and hunting their preys in group was easier. By doing this they also begun to evolve istincts that made easier to live in big groups. Until there was further territory to colonise violence and confrontations between tribes were probably limited, the losing tribe would give up and move somewhere else. Only when there was nowhere else to move to the fight between humans begun to get fiercer. So in the initial period of our evolution there was more pressure to help each other than to kill each other. With a completely different environment and evolutionary pressures the evolution might have been different. So your species might result from an environment without big animals like lions or wolves posing a challenge. An environment with an abundant staple food, I can imagine a tree with special fruits and nuts that can provide most of the necessary nutrients. Thus the population would grow quickly and quickly they would begin to compete with each other for the control of the staple food. Then the aggressive behaviour between members of the species would develop over time.

How plausible is large-scale anarchy that lasts for long periods of time?

Trade and specialisation and the subsequent sharing of knowledge require a limit to anarchy. The anarchy itself may last for a long long period of time, but your society would remain at a tribal level, we cannot say what would be the time limit because some tribal societies on earth disappeared only after a foreign invasion and as of today we still have few tribal groups.

Since the show depicts this society, what's a plausible timeline for how this society came to be?

Progress in such society would be much slower. So the timeline would be longer, but since humans appeared quite late in Earth history you can easily imagine a much older society.

How could such a society have social and moral norms?

Even with a more aggressive attitude they could develop a tribal system anyway. They would be tribes designed to mainly counter other tribes rather than the external environment though.

How would an anarchy interact with neighboring non-anarchy societies?

If their only concern is to defend their staple food they would be aggressive towards any foreigner.

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Look to our more or less anarchic areas on earth. Vor example, Gehttos in poor Citys in the USA. Gangs controle some parts of the citys and fight each other. Reasons, nor perspective and less money, corrupt cops, rassism, hate in the socity pushed by money fokused media. ... A broken socity, with almost no hope to become better one day.

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