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Pirate Democracy?  

In our discussion of Berber society, we discovered that the Berber’s of the High Atlas Mountains democratically elected secular political leaders and even practiced a form of checks and balances by rotating the office in strict order across clans.

Another fascinating case of unlikely democracy is 18th century pirates. You might have imagined that a tough pirate like Bartholomew Roberts would have bullied and tyrannized his way to power. Not quite. In fact he needed a campaign manager “Lord” Dennis who entreated the crew

who by his Counsel and Bravery seems best able to defend this Commonwealth, and ward us from the Dangers and Tempests of an unstable Element, and the fatal Consequences of Anarchy

Answer: Roberts.

Instead of grabbing power, Roberts was elected on the basis of one-pirate-one-vote.

In his fascinating book The Invisible Hook, Peter Leeson shows that such democracy was the norm amongst pirate crews who ravaged the Caribbean and other parts of the world in the 18th century.

Pirate crews not only elected their captains on the basis of universal pirate suffrage, but they also regularly deposed them by democratic elections if they were not satisfied with their performance.

Like the Berbers, or the US constitution, pirates didn’t just rely on democratic elections to keep their leaders under check. Though the captain of the ship was in charge of battle and strategy, pirate crews also used a separate democratic election to elect the ship’s quartermaster who was in charge of allocating booty, adjudicating disputes and administering discipline. Thus they had a nascent form of separation of powers.

Leeson shows that these democratic procedures were sanctified in pirate constitutions that required unanimous support before they were ratified. The constitution ratified by the crew of Captain Robert, for example starts: 

I. Every Man has a vote in the Affairs of Moment; has equal Title to the fresh Provisions, or strong Liquors, at any Time seized, and may use them at Pleasure, unless a Scarcity make it necessary, for the Good of all, to vote a Retrenchment.

So pirate ships were nascent democratic societies. But they were not just emulating British democracy. Nor did they slavishly adopt it from the Ancient Greek idea of democracy.

Most pirates were men and all adult males did not get the vote in the Representation of the People’s Act in 1918. Of course Britain did not invent universal male suffrage then. Demands for it go back at least to the Diggers and Levellers, radical groups that emerged during the English Civil War of the 1640s.

And of course democracy as a method of making decisions goes back far before that, as indeed does the separation of powers (the principles of which were well understood by whoever it was that designed the Constitution of the Roman Republic as we discuss in Why Nations Fail).

Now it could be that everyone was borrowing all of these great political ideas from the Greeks, but this doesn’t sound very likely. Pirates weren’t exactly well read in the canons of Greek political philosophy. Nor were the Berbers.

Moreover, as we will see when we return to this topic in the coming weeks, the attribution of the invention to democracy to the Greeks flies in the face of a vast amount of empirical evidence. In fact democracy was invented independently in many parts of the world on many different occasions just like farming was.

There is a troubling aspect about Leeson’s account of pirate democracy, however. This relates not to his facts, but to his explanation for why pirates used democracy. He seems to accept what we have called the “efficient institutions view” namely that pirate democracy and constitutionalism arose as an efficient solution to a principal agent problem (namely that pirates were worried that if they delegated power to their captains, power would be abused).

This positive theory of institutions of course is very different from that proposed in Why Nations Fail or our previous book Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

Our approach is based not (certainly not) on the idea that democracy arose to solve some inefficiency. Rather, in our theory, it is all a matter of power. Democracy arises when nondemocratic elites are forced to cede power to the previously disenfranchised. This could improve economic efficiency, but it need not. Promoting efficiency is just not the motivation for democrats or their opponents.

Leeson doesn’t present any evidence on why pirates chose democracy and the separation of powers, though his argument will appeal to economists wedded to the paradigm of the Coase Theorem which applied in this context would mean that in the absence of (ill defined) transaction costs, the organization of pirate institutions would be economically efficient. (For an explanation of why the Coase Theorem should not apply to politics, see this paper).

We don’t have any evidence either on why pirates chose the institutions they had but Why Nations Fail is littered with examples of institutions from all over the world that cannot possibly be efficient. This at least suggests that assuming that pirate democracy promoted efficiency is dubious.

More likely, it arose because the distribution of de facto power was fairly equal among pirates. Maybe it was one-man-one-cutlass that drove one-man-one-vote and quite possibly was also the reason why income distribution was so compressed in pirate society.

On Roberts’ s ship:

The Captain and Quarter-Master [were] to receive two Shares of a Prize; the Master, Boatswain, and Gunner, one Share and a half, and other Officers one and a Quarter.

Democratic. Yes. Egalitarian. Not quite.

(Still one could advance other hypothesis about the roots of pirate democracy, the modernization hypothesis or the view that institutions just flow from human capital. Perhaps it was the high human capital levels of pirates that bred democracy. We leave this hypothesis to others to explore.)


The Reason Nations Fail

Enough said.

(From the New Yorker)


Clansmen into Englishmen?  

So is there hope for the emergence of a well-functioning, rational state in the Middle East? In the Congo?

The model for state building proposed by the great German sociologist Max Weber emphasizes the establishment of the state’s monopoly of violence and the transition from patrimonial to rational legal authority.

One of the most critical processes associated with these transitions was the role of the state in creating a “nation”. A famous study of this is provided by the historian Eugen Weber whose book Peasants into Frenchmen studied how the French state based in the Paris basin spread out throughout France, and gradually imposed, particularly via schooling, a French identity that had previously not existed in most of what is now France. The state came first and then a French identity followed.

This has become the canonical model of the emergence of modern institutions and the modern state. Many social scientists, on the basis of this analysis, now think that much of sub-Saharan Africa after independence was doomed to chaos and political instability because the countries lacked national identities. There were no Congolese, only Luba or Lele. The few odd cases of stability, such as Botswana, could be reconciled by pointing out that modern Botswana comprises the territory occupied by a number of related Tswana tribes who were able to similarly impose a national identity (after independence only English and Setswana were taught, not the many other languages then in use).

But is this “national identity”-building path to the modern world the only possibility? Can we not have modern institutions and the modern state without such a national identity? 

Consider the curious case of Scotland. In the Medieval and Early Modern periods the English state expanded and took over Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Scotland merged with England officially in 1707 with the Act of Union, a merger that had been on the cards since the accession to the throne of England James I, king of Scotland, in 1603 (Elizabeth I died without children and James was descended from one of Henry VIII’s daughters). It was only after 1745 and the attempt by Bonnie Prince Charlie (the ‘Young Pretender’) to re-claim the throne lost by his grandfather James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that England decided to rule Scotland directly. English administration was extended to Scotland, the clans (lineages rather like those of the Berbers in Morocco) were disarmed. It was even made illegal to wear highland clothing like kilts.

So England has controlled Scotland for 270 years, and has done so through a modern state, a perfect specimen of the Weberian rational state with a monopoly of violence. But next year there will be a referendum on whether or not Scotland will become independent. So after 270 years of direct rule by England, it turns out that there is no British nation state and no British national identity let alone a successful imposition of English identity on Scotland.

This suggests that perhaps the idea that a pre-requisite for a modern state is a homogeneous “nation” is exaggerated. After all, such a homogeneous nation is not a general pattern even in Europe (think of Spain). If the English couldn’t achieve that after 270 years of trying in Scotland, what hope have the Congolese or Nigerians?

But on the positive side, maybe they don’t need to achieve this, again as the English example suggests.


No Bourgeoisie and Greeks, no Democracy?  

There are a few more interesting things to point out about the nature of Berber political institutions.

One is about democracy. One of the most famous claims in political science is due to Barrington Moore who in his great book, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (it wasn’t just the title but also the analysis which helped to inspire our own 2006 book Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy), argued that it was the rise of the middle classes, what he called the bourgeoisie using Marxist terminology, which underpinned democracy. To be fair this was only in some circumstances, particularly when they were autonomous enough to avoid making coalitions with landed elites and simultaneously could avoid the threat of revolution.

Moore’s work, which was heavily grounded in the experience of European political development, was perhaps an incarnation of an old line of thought which traced the notion of democracy back to ancient Greeks who supposedly created democracy and also put forth the idea that democracy might be a feasible system of government. Indeed, Aristotle discussed democracy, though he did not really approve of it. So do you need to have a middle class to have democracy? And is it true that the roots of democracy as a set of political institutions can be traced back to the Greeks?

To think about these questions let’s return to the Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. In our last post we talked about the state and the Saints, and how they related to society. Now the Berber tribes also had elected chiefs who ruled for a year with re-election precluded (so there were one year term limits).

Gellner in Saints of the Atlas describes the elections as follows (p. 81): 

The principals governing elections are rotation and complementarity, Suppose a tribe to consists of three sub-clans A, B and C. If this year is the turn of A to provide the chief for the tribe as a whole, then the electors will be the men of B and C. Next year the chief will be chosen from B and it will be A and C who provide the electors; and so on. You can be part of the pool of candidates, or have the vote, not both. The purpose of this mode of election are obvious enough. It prevents the emergence of real and permanent concentration of power in anyone’s hands.

In addition these rules were re-inforced by the election of several chiefs with different spheres of authority. So the Berbers didn’t just have “democratic elections” to choose their chiefs, they also had checks and balances (hold on, wasn’t it Montesquieu or James Madison who invented those?).

Gellner concludes (p. 82):

If one considers that by all accounts the main danger to most other Moroccan Berber societies outside the central Atlas, was the periodic if ephemeral emergence of petty tyrannies, one cannot but admire the elegance and effectiveness of the check-and-balance constitutions of the High Atlas Berbers.

So the Berbers had elected leaders and checks and balances (Berber elections are described by Gellner on pages 84-87 and are not exactly like modern democratic elections, for instance there was no specified rule about how many votes a winning candidate needed and the Saints, who supervised the elections, strove for unanimity around a particular candidate, a process which could go on for days).

Of course they might have borrowed this from the Greeks. When Europeans discovered the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in the 19th century, they couldn’t believe Africans could have built such an amazing city. So they tried to link it to the Egyptians or Phoenicians. In the 1960s the white supremacist regime led by Ian Smith even promoted this idea in history books!

But the truth is that, most likely, Africans developed the great Zimbabwe themselves, and likewise the Berbers developed these institutions themselves, and without help from the Greeks. It is also clear that they did so without a middle class, which did not exist in Berber society.

So much for the need for bourgeoisie and the ancient Greek heritage for democracy.


Inverse-Weber in the Atlas  

We have been reading and thinking about the traditional political institutions of the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

A key idea in Why Nations Fail is that one of the pre-requisites for inclusive economic institutions is to have an effective state, what we called “political centralization”.

According to traditional anthropology, the Berbers did not have a state. They were a segmentary lineage society and in the famous taxonomy of Edward Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes’s 1940 book African Political Systems, this was a stateless society. Instead they had the Saints, religious figures who mediated disputes and even oversaw the election of the holders of secular political office. The Saints ruled over a society divided into lineages and clans, groups of extended families.

But if we want to look at the closest thing that Berber society has to a state, it would be the Saints. If we thought of it in this way it would feature a peculiar inversion of Weber’s notion of a state. Weber argued that a state was the entity that exercised the legitimate use of violence in society. Yet the Saints had no coercive capacity; their authority relied on not having such capacity. They were revered for their peacefulness. Rather, it was the lineages and clans that had the legitimate use of violence, not the state. Thus if one argued that the Berber’s had a state, it would be characterized by the opposite of what Weber argued a state was, maybe an “Inverse Weberian State”.

This fact was pointed out by the social anthropologist Ernest Gellner in his seminal ethnography of the Berbers Saints of the Atlas. Gellner noted (p. 65):

It is curious to reflect that this hagiarchy inverts Max Weber’s famous definition of the state: here we have a state, if we were to class it as such, in which it is the subjects who have the monopoly of legitimate violence, and the rulers ere ex officio excluded from employing force.”

Now of course one could say that this is irrelevant because the Berbers did not have a state. So why all this pedantry?

Because, as we will see over the next few posts, it is arguable that Weber’s and Evans-Pritchard and Fortes’s analysis wasn’t quite on target: they had in mind a particularly Eurasian model of state formation and what characterized statehood. When they ran into other social organizations that looked different, they decided that they were not states. But as we will see, the type of “state” that the Berbers had is quite common in the modern world. Indeed, this is more or less what Lebanon looks like today.

And who could argue that Lebanon does not have a state?