Suriname and the Chaos Problem
Column by Alex Schroeder.
Exclusive to STR
Upon their initial consideration of market anarchism, most react quite viscerally, quickly contending that a society without a coercive “central command center” would inevitably descend into chaos. Such a reaction is indeed a partial testament to the extent to which we have been inculcated by the state apparatus. A plethora of societal institutions have bombarded us since birth with a multifaceted array of justifications for the essentiality of the state. Never do we seem to take into account the significant number of peoples throughout the world who, for all intents and purposes, currently live beyond the realm of state authority.
Last month I had the unique and enriching opportunity to visit the Republic of Suriname, a small country in South America. The population of this obscure country is heavily concentrated along the northern coast, particularly in and around Paramaribo, the capital. While the city was certainly enjoyable, the most rewarding segment of my sojourn was a visit to Foetoenakba, a small village nestled in the rugged jungle interior. This part of Suriname is largely inaccessible; one must travel hours by automobile from the capital to Atjoni, from which travel by boat for a couple of hours to reach Foetoenakba is required.
This area is largely outside the control of the central law enforcement authority. While it is a part of Suriname and the laws of the country technically apply, the de facto legal environment of the villages is determined by norms and customs, enforced by community pressure. For example, alcohol was widely available in Botopasie, a mere 20 minute walk from Foetoenakba, which is alcohol-free. The young lady with whom I was staying informed me that there is no formal law proscribing the consumption of alcohol in Foetoenakba. The villagers abstain from doing such because they wish to avoid being shunned by their neighbors, which would make it fairly difficult to peacefully carry on with their daily routines. Of course, it is always possible for thirsty villagers to venture to a neighboring community where alcohol is both widespread and acceptable. Clearly, these villages have their own institutional idiosyncrasies, which determine residents’ patterns of behavior.
This is not to say that if, for example, one resident murders another resident, official law enforcement authorities will not get involved. They will. However, the inaccessibility of this area is such that there would be a considerable length of time between the point at which the murder was reported, and the point at which the authorities actually show up. It appeared to me that the pleasant and peaceful atmosphere that characterized the village was more attributable to a shared desire to conform, which facilitates fruitful human interaction, rather than to a fear of state-sanctioned punishment. That is, villagers abstained from murder, rape, and theft for the same reasons they abstained from drinking alcohol. Few likely contemplate the role of the distant state security apparatus, based in Paramaribo and largely comprised of individuals who do not understand their way of life.
The nation-state with a strong central authority is largely a Western phenomenon, historically superimposed on developing countries during the age of colonization. Western statists fail to realize that much of the world lives in areas marked by informal, decentralized governance, where the dictates of remote authoritarians are of little significance. Informal communal norms and the opinions of village-based leaders are immensely more consequential to daily life. That anarchy should not be regarded as a pseudonym for chaos can be demonstrated by the virtual presence of the former and almost total absence of the latter in the Surinamese interior.