What The Occupy Movement Could Learn From Somalia

December 2nd, 2011   Submitted by Davi Barker

It’s time to acknowledge that the Occupy movement began as an anarchist movement. Adbusters, the magazine that started the ball rolling, describes itself as “anti-consumerist,” but it’s arguably anarchist, or at least heavily influenced by anarchists.

The hand signals now commonplace at Occupy originated with the Direct Action Network, a confederation of anarchist groups formed to coordinate WTO protests in 1999. And the whole concept of the consensus process used at the general assemblies comes straight out of anarchist organizing manuals.

Mainstream commentators are baffled, because they are trying to define how this horizontal, leaderless movement intends to influence top-down, authoritarian politics. They don’t realize that the movement was designed from its outset to replace mainstream politics with a horizontal, leaderless society — building a new society in the shell of the old, as the saying goes.

There are no demands, because the movement is the demand.

Most of the occupiers probably don’t even know this, but it was those familiar with anarchist thought who picked up on these themes and became the early adopters of the movement. Anarchists still represent a minority, but they hold many key organizing positions.

Admittedly, most of them are social anarchists, not market anarchists; but I’m still hoping that the movement expands into a full-blown autonomous anarchocommunist experiment, because nothing spoils someone on communism quite like actually trying it. (Or I could be proven wrong. Either outcome would be excellent.)

I do have one piece of advice. It strikes me as strange that the “social-justice” crowd focuses on legislative processes like democracy, when justice comes from a judicial process. The movement needs to develop a judicial branch for dispute resolution. I suggest that the Occupy movement look to the existing anarchist judicial method in Somalia, which anthropologist Michael van Notten calls “kritarchy.” It could easily be adopted with or without approval from the general assemblies.

Kritarchy is a judicial process in which justice (“krito” in Greek), rather than written law, is the ruling principle. A kritarchy does not form a court of law. It forms a court of justice, which is completely compatible with the horizontal, leaderless nature of the Occupy movement.

There are two types of justice, commonly symbolized as the sword and scales. The sword connotes punitive justice, which assigns punishment for breaking written laws. The scales connote restorative justice, which holds that a person is liable for the damages they cause another person. Kritarchy is only concerned with restorative justice, not punitive justice.

Until someone claims to have suffered an injustice, all behavior is permissible. Disputes are mediated by judges, but it’s important to understand that judges do not enjoy any special status. They serve only at the request of the disputants. Anyone in the community may serve as a judge, or request a judiciary be formed, so a court of justice is truly a people’s court.

A simple kritarchy involves just three people: two disputants and any third person they approach to help them resolve the injustice. The judge investigates the conflict and attempts to discover the justice between them — to balance the scales. This could be as simple as mediation or as complex as weighing evidence and witness testimony.

The judge decides a case based on the normative customs of the community and the reason and conscience of the disputants. This judicial model is elegantly suited for the Occupy movement, because it’s not based on written law, and it can accommodate a wide diversity of philosophies.

The seeds of a simple kritarchy are already developing in the movement. Normative customs emerge out of people’s natural respectful conduct without any written law or central coercive authority; and there are already individuals in the movement developing a reputation for diffusing conflicts. They are commonly being called “peacekeepers.”

Peacekeepers are already engaged in the first phase of the judicial process in a kritarchy, which van Notten calls “segmental opposition.” Whenever there is a physical altercation between two individuals, those around them move in to establish a stalemate so that the dispute must be settled with words instead of fists. All that would need to change to make this a simple kritarchy is to transition from having proactive peacekeepers who break up fights to having proactive disputants who seek out peacekeepers to act as judges.

A recent conflict that occurred at OccupySF (San Francisco) could easily have been resolved by a simple kritarchy. Someone left his guitar in the common area while he went to the restroom. While he was gone, another Occupant used it without permission and accidentally broke one of the tuning pegs. This erupted into shouting. Segmental opposition prevented a physical fight, but justice was never satisfied.

A court of justice might have decided that the guitar player was liable to replace the broken part, or that the guitar owner was negligent in leaving the guitar in the common area. But either way, the discussion would happen in public, which facilitates the development of normative customs.

Hopefully the disputants honor the decision of the court, but if they refuse, they do so with their own names and reputations on the line.

Enforcement of a verdict requires a more complex level of kritarchy, and it would likely require the participation of the general assemblies. Somali society is organized into extended clans, called xolos, each composed of many subclans, called jilibs. Somali clans are unified by family ties, but they could be replaced by self-selecting groups based on common philosophies or goals. The regional occupations, for instance, could replace extended clans: Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Denver, Occupy Phoenix, and so on. And the autonomous groups within each occupation could replace subclans.

Clans serve two basic functions for the judicial process. First, judges emerge from the confidence of subclans. So if a dispute occurs between individuals in different subgroups, they may select a judge from each subgroup to decide the case. Second, clans maintain communal funds that members voluntarily contribute to. This fund serves many purposes. Among them, it operates as a social insurance for every member against liability. If a person owes restitution that they cannot or will not pay, the responsibility falls on the subgroup to cover the liability with the communal fund.

This ensures that victims can always be made whole, and also incentivizes clans and subclans to enforce verdicts on their own members, because they are ultimately liable for the damages. The regional occupations already have substantial communal funds of donations that could easily serve this purpose.

A conflict at Occupy Oakland can help illustrate how a complex kritarchy operates. During one of the marches, the windows of Tully’s Coffee were broken. This was particularly egregious because the owner of Tully’s Coffee had been a substantial supporter of the occupation. The cafe is adjacent to Oscar Grant Plaza, and the owner had allowed activists to use her restrooms and Wifi Internet, and she had made donations of food and money.

The specific activists who broke her windows are unknown because they cover their faces with bandannas, but the subgroup is known and had a regular tent site. In a kritarchy, the owner of Tully’s Coffee could serve a claim of injustice against the offending subgroup. A judge representing Tully’s Coffee would approach a known judge inside the subgroup and request a Court of Justice be convened, and the two judges would attempt to find agreement over the liability.

If the individuals who broke the windows will not take responsibility, the damages can be paid by the subgroup collectively. Holding them accountable for their actions would incentivize them to be more judicious with their tactics in the future.

But imagine that an agreement could not be reached. In that case, a third judge would be approached from the extended clan, meaning the general assembly of Occupy Oakland. If this third judge awards damages and neither the individuals nor the subgroup will abide by the verdict, the restitution would come out of the occupation’s general fund.

First and foremost, this prevents the movement from losing the support of its productive members because of the injustices of its destructive members; but also, by placing the burden of injustice on the general fund you express clearly that the movement will not tolerate injustice internally, and you cause a huge hit to the reputation of those activists who refuse to balance the scales.

If the price of injustice becomes too great, and reputations become too poor, an individual may be cast out of a subgroup, or a subgroup may be cast out of the occupation to preserve justice. Social ostracism is sufficient to enforce the vast majority of verdicts in Somalia, and it would likely be the only mechanism available to the Occupy movement. (Also, in a kritarchy, an outcast no longer enjoys the protection of any court of justice until they offer restitution.)

Developing a judicial branch of the movement also has exciting and powerful long-term potential. If a simple kritarchy can become a normative custom and a complex kritarchy can become as firmly established as the general assemblies are, then we will be able to begin developing a real alternative to the state monopoly of the courts.

Tags: , ,

19 Responses to “What The Occupy Movement Could Learn From Somalia”

  1. Before we had police in the uk we had what was known as a tilthing system, where everybody had to be a member of a group of 10. There where no police to drag someone who was accused of an injustice (where there was a real victim), before a judge. So instead the tilth was held responsible if an accused did not submit himself to one of the traveling judges. And hence the group would be fined . This was community policing at its very best.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      So the “community” forced people to join a group of 10? What would happen to a person who did not want to join a group of 10?


      • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

        I can’t speak for the UK, but in Somalia people are free to leave a group at any time and to form new ones. I suppose they are also free to not join a group, but the consequence would be that people would be reluctant to do business with them because they are not covered for liability, which is largely why Somalis are reluctant to engage in foreign trade.

  2. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    What was the result of the broken window at Tully’s Coffee Shop?

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

      Nothing happened. It got some bad press that made the movement look bad but no action was sought against those who did it. In fact the General Assembly passed a proposal expressing the legitimacy of “diversity of tactics” which is code for destruction of property. That’s part of a list of reasons why I don’t go to Occupy Oakland anymore.

      • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

        Are you aware that I recently moved to New Hampshire from your neck of the woods? The San Francisco Bay Area is doomed, my friend. Doomed.

        Any chance of you jumping ship and heading to the Shire?

        • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

          I want to desperately. I’m a FSP signer, in fact I did the calligraphy on the Shire Society Declaration. It’s my wife that needs convincing. She loves California. Although we agreed that if I land a good job there we’ll go, so the hunt is on.

          I am coming to Liberty Forum.

  3. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    Many of the protesters do not respect private property. There have been protesters who have gathered in banks and businesses and disrupted theitr business and refused to leave. Some of the parks they have protested in are privately owned and the protesters have trashed the prroperty. Ther are businesses that have said that protesters have come into their business to use the restroom and shaved in the sink leavuing hair they did not pick up. They wash up in the sinks leving filth behined according to the business owners and leave the restroom in a mess and they don’t buy anything.


    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      I used to share your disdain for those who would trash or vandalize business property, claiming that it was private property. But since my conversion to anarchism, I really don’t see corporate property as private property any more. Once a business has incorporated itself with the state, it is no longer private.

      The only private businesses in existence today are those that operate without government permission or protection. They are agorist businesses.

      • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

        My position is someplace between these two. I think of incorporation much like intellectual property. I am against it. Philosophically I don’t believe in it, and I never plan to engage in it. But I understand why some businesses use them for self defense in a largely corrupt business environment. For me it’s when a business actually uses these tools of the state for ill that they forfeit their property rights.

        For example, Tully’s is a corporation technically. It was probably a necessity for her to avoid state aggression as she conducted her private business. But I have no knowledge her her misusing that legal fiction. Any bank on the other hand is complicit in natural rights violations by design. So I have no objection when activists target them.

      • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

        Didn’t you Seth join the FSP? The FSP is a corporation. Am i correct in assuming that you also don’t consider business owners who pay protection money to the MAFIA because they fear harm being done to them and their family not legitimate business owners and their business not private property as well?


        • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

          I signed the FSP pledge and moved.

          I’m not saying that corporate business owners are not legitimate businesspeople, I’m just saying that they are no longer private once they incorporate themselves with the government.

          So, when the government tells them how to run their business, the typical minarchist line is that the government shouldn’t be telling business owners how to run their private business. But in reality, they aren’t private businesses anymore. They are public businesses. In return for limited liability, they lose control over their business.

          In essence, they traded liberty for security. That was their choice. They could have chosen a more dangerous route of agorism, and had complete control over their business, but they didn’t. End of story.

          • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

            The FSP is corporation. Is it your position that the FSP is thus not a private organization? I believe that property owned by the owners of a business or corporation is private property. You position is like saying that a busimess owner who gives into the demands of the MAFIA does not own private property because his business is not free of MAFIA coersion. Is it your position that people do not have to respect the property (land building etc…) that a corporation is conducting business on or the property rights of the owners? If sio then I strongly disagree with your position. This btw is not a minarchist vs anarchist position. Either one has property rights or they do not irrespective of the coersion that others may impose upon them.


            • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

              When a private, unincorporated business owner gets raided by the government, then they are getting screwed. But when a business owner incorporates with a criminal organization, in order to avoid the threat of the criminal organization, they shouldn’t be surprised when the criminal organization runs roughshod over them.

              Imagine if we lived in a world where there were no government, just small criminal organizations. Now imagine a new business owner is afraid of getting held up by one of these small criminal organizations, so he goes to them and tells them he will incorporate with them if they promise to only take a certain percentage of his income instead of all of it.

              So, instead of figuring out ways to protect himself from the criminal organization he has decided to help make it stronger by submitting to it. That is essentially what happened before the government became so monstrous and pervasive.

              Truth be told it doesn’t really matter how big the criminal organization is, if you incorporate yourself with it you are only helping to make it stronger. It’s a shitty situation, I know. It’s like when the Nazis rolled into Belgium and forced Belgians to join the German Army and fight their wars for them. The problem is that when the Belgians did that, they essentially passed the buck onto the next victims they were attacking. My attitude is that if they were going to be forced to fight a war, they should have fought it against the Germans.

              • EddyKNo Gravatar says:

                I only partially agree with you here Seth. The major difference between Belgian soldiers and the corporations is that the corporations generally are formed voluntarily to gain the limited liability and other benefits that corporations enjoy. People that want to do business aren’t told at gunpoint to form corporations, there is no direct threat against them. Conscripts however are generally forced to join the army at gunpoint. I personally would not resist conscription directly. I would try to evade or desert if there was a good chance I could get away with it.

                I’m not aware of the full extent of your civil disobedience, but given the fact that you have not been imprisoned you are most likely still partially complying with the state. I see the conscripted soldiers in the same light. The corporations are different, though I would much rather people focus their anger against the state directly.

                As my conviction and anger for the state grows I might yet come around to your point of view. But I believe most anarchists are more moderate then you are. I think that until the time is ripe, aggression and violence can only work against us. So far I remain a moderate.

                • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

                  In this case, it’s even more damning to the corporations, if they willingly incorporate themselves with the state in order to receive benefits.