by Birgir T. Runolfsson Solvason 


    The Commonwealth Experience 
    Anarchy or State 

      "It is as if the universe designed an experiment to test the theories of Hobbes and Rousseau and was kind enough to provide for the presence of intelligent and sophisticated observers, the saga writer1s, to record the results." (Miller 1990:5-6) 
      "The Icelandic Commonwealth is particularly interesting because it seems to refute Hobbes' contention. It was a stateless society in the Weberian, and Hobbesian, sense." (Gissurarson 1990:15) 
    The Commonwealth Experience. 
    I have in the preceding chapters presented an alternative account of the Icelandic Commonwealth. I began by discussing the concept of cooperation and its evolution, building on the work of Axelrod (1984) and Vanberg and Buchanan (1989). This evolutionary theory offered a more fruitful and convincing explanation of the rise of the institutional structure of the Commonwealth than the constructivist theory. Next, I put the theory to the test of actually explaining the rise of the institutional structure. I found that the theory was highly informative in application and was able to account for Iceland's institutional structure. Reciprocal behaviour on the part of the Icelanders initiated and created the cooperative institutional system.1  This system began shaping about 930 and was in place by 960-5 and for almost two centuries the structure seemed to be stable and manifesting certain behaviourial regularities. 
    The institutional structure remained almost unchanged for some 300 years, but its effectiveness deteriorated as time went on. The key to the stability of the system in the earlier half of the period are found in the encouragement of reciprocical behaviour, where the future repeated engagements are important enough to discourage defections. The system's main institutions were the þings, based on the Goði-þingmann or chieftaincy, and the Hreppur, a compulsory communal unit for collective action and decision making.2 Despite the system having some features of centralization, such as the Lögrétta and the Hreppar, the structure is thoroughly decentralized. This decentralization is best manifested in the voluntary choice of chieftain's by the farmers and the unanimous requirement of rectification of the changes in the law; the participation of the whole population, excluding slaves and women was therefore required for the structure's operation. The system in its earliest stages was also well balanced, in the delegations followed each chieftain were roughly equal in number. As the population expanded, deliberate attempts were made by the chieftains to accommodate this. The structure was therefore modified in the 960s, but the accommodation was only temporary and the balance it achieved was eventually lost. Along with expanding population, the chieftain's position as arbitrators and owners of temples/churches may have strengthened their position with respect to their followers. In the latter half of the eleventh century the system had likely become so skewed that the chieftains, at the Church's initiative, were able to force taxation upon the general population. 

    It seems that the chieftains had of necessity been keen on establishing good relations with their farmers, offering help in adjudicating, arbitrating and enforcing their legal cases and asking for little in return expect the equivalent of the chieftain's foregone cost. As time went by the chieftains realized the advantage of their privileged status and combined the sale of legal and religious services for their own benefit. In so doing the chieftains sought out a better paying opportunity form of rent-seeking and in turn defected on their long term obligations to the farmers. By the last decade of the eleventh century the chieftains were able to use their position to introduce the tithe, obligating all farmers of wealth to make a yearly payment to the chieftains, other richer farmers, and the Church, of one percentile of their wealth. 

    In essence, rent-seeking (defection) became more profitable for the chieftains than long-term reciprocical behaviour.3 Reciprocity, fruitful in establishing Iceland's institutional structure, lost its importance and such behaviour diminished. This is not to say that the chieftains were able to do whatever they desired without the farmer's approval. Rather, the farmer's support became less important to the chieftains, since their choice of another chieftain became meaningless. The tied sales of legal and religious services established the chieftains as local monopolies, as minimal states. These minimal states now competed for more territory, and population, and, most importantly, more chieftaincies and staðir. The minimal states became fewer and fewer as the surviving ones triumphed in their advancements. By the early thirteenth century civil war on a limited scale had begun on the island and the end was near. Through the struggle for wealth and power the chieftains mostly killed each other, killing some of their armed followers also, and by 1250 only a few chiefdoms and even fewer chieftains survived. By that time the king of Norway had established a foothold in the country, overtaking some chieftainships; the king became determined to overtake them all. The king triumphed in his endeavour by the voluntary choice of the Icelandic farmers, who were tired of the continuous struggle and outdated institutional structure. In 1262 the farmers in the North and the South confirmed the agreement with the king, the farmers of the Western Quarter in 1263 and in 1264 the Eastern farmers joined the others with some reluctance, since their area had for the most part escaped the war. 

    I have already discussed above what went wrong in the Commonwealth, but have not offered an overall judgement of its performance. Such an overall judgement can only be discussed in a comparative way; by comparing the level of cooperation in it to some alternative, whether of that era or modern. 

    Probably the most amazing thing about the development of the Icelandic structure is to be found in the people that formed it. The Icelanders were, for the most part, vikings and seafarers; a group hardly known for cooperative behaviour. In fact, though, it should not be all that surprising that this group of people developed such a structure. Modern historians have come to the conclusion that the vikings were not as barbaric as the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers would lead us to believe (Jones 1984;Sawyer 1971). Yet, medieval societies, as we know them, were relatively violent, with or without the vikings. In England, for example, the period from about 800 to 1200 is a period of continuous struggle; high in both violence and killings. In Norway, also, the period from about 850-1200 is one of continuous struggle, although less so than in England. A brief comparison of the Icelandic society, especially in its earlier half, suggests that it was more peaceful and cooperative than its contemporaries. In fact Icelandic society was no more violent than the modern U.S. (Friedman 1979). 

    Although it would be wrong to describe the Commonwealth as a democratic society, which it surely was not, it was probably more so than its contemporaries. There was of course a "democratic" tradition in the Germanic tribes, but the English, for example, had fewer rights and less voice in their society than did the Icelanders. The Commonwealth was also much more individualistic, this showing itself in the institution of private property and equality before the law, than were contemporary societies. In comparison with modern societies, of course, Iceland falls short; there were no voting rights, slaves and women were second class citizens, and there certainly was no right to privacy. 

    As for the Icelandic economy in the Commonwealth period the sources are mostly silent on that matter. Most historians, though, agree that the economy was fairly prosperous, at least early on, and even in the latter half it compared favourably with that of its neighbours (Þorsteinsson 1966). Because of the sources' silence, though, any generalization about the Commonwealth economy can, at this time, be no more than an educated guess. 


    "Was the old Icelandic Commonwealth a state? ....Max Weber conceived of the state as an authority holding a monopoly of power in a given area. Since there was no one such authority in Iceland, the Commonwealth was clearly not a state in a Weberian sense.... Hegel conceived of the state as the force or principle which unifies a group, makes it a coherent whole. In this Hegelian sense, the Icelandic Commonwealth was certainly a state. It was defined by its culture and its law; it was a coherent whole." (Gissurarson 1990:15) 

    An interesting question on the Commonwealth is whether we should consider the experience as an experiment in a stateless order or not. My discussion has shown that the Commonwealth did have, what we could call, legislative and judicial branches of government, but no executive branch.4  Does this lack of an executive branch qualify the Commonwealth as a stateless structure, or does the precense of the other two branches mean that it has to be considered a form of a state? 

    Measured against Max Weber's definition of the state as holding monopoly of power in a given area, the Commonwealth is not a state; it is in Weber's terms a stateless order.5 Anthropologists in studying primitive societies have come to the conclusion that societies made up of chieftainships or chiefdoms are not states: "Chiefdoms are neither stateless nor state societies in the fullest sense of either term: they are on the borderline between the two. Having emerged out of stateless systems, they give the impression of being on their way to centralized states and exhibit characteristics of both" (Y. Cohen 1978:73). Since the Commonwealth is made up of chiefdoms it seems that the anthropologist, too, would describe it as lacking a state. The only field that would consider the Commonwealth a state is philosophy, and then only some philosophers. 

    But whether the Commonwealth does or does not qualify as a stateless order according to the several disciplines, its structure was quite different from what we are accustomed to nowadays. The Commonwealth was a decentralized structure, based mostly on voluntary cooperation,6  and enforcements of judgements were private. In both these respects it is in sharp contrast to modern societies and it is in this that most of the interest lies on my part. This is also where I would expect that we could learn the most from. 

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    1 Jóhannesson (1956:71) had suggested that reciprocity was what initiated the structure. 
    2 It might be more proper to say that the Goðorð, the chieftaincy, rather than the local þing was base of the structure, since it was through the chieftaincies that the population was connected to the þings and the rest of the structure. It is also interesting to note that the Hreppar continued to be the forum for grass-root democracy in Iceland all the way to 1809. 
    3 In a sense the chieftains had become the ruling group that oversaw the enforcement mechanism of the law. The relations between the free-farmers no longer relied as heavily on continous dealings between the farmers, but rather on such relations between the Goðar. As Tullock (1972) suggests, this new situation relies overal less on reciprocity and continous dealings and there is always a temptation here for the rulers to defect on the dealings, even at the cost of lesser production. The temptation is greater here since larger amounts are involved. In essence, therefore, reciprocity and continous dealings are less important after a ruling class is established, than before, and the danger of breakdown, or rather defection, are more probable. The new situation is still Hobbesian, i.e. it is still a jungle. It may be that what is needed is for someone to police the police (the Goðar), i.e. a seperation of powers may be what is needed, but a lack of this is hardly a cause here. 
    4 The legislative branch, of course, is not the same as we have in the twentieth century. As we discussed in chapter 4 the Commonwealth's Law Council rectified the law, but did not create and pass legislation as modern day legislatures do. On this see Líndal (1984). 
    5 Others, like Taylor, define the state similarily to Weber: "I have said that a necessary condition for a pure anarchy is that there is no concentration of force at all. A society of the sort I have just described, where there is a limited concentration of force but no means of enforcing collective decisions, is the closest empirical approximation and I shall call it an anarchy. Some anthropologists have been unwilling to concede that even primitive societies of this kind are anarchies. This is because they give a functional account of the state, characterizing it by what it importantly does, and then argue that since these things get done in all primitive societies, including the alleged anarchies, they cannot after all be anarchic or stateless." (Taylor 1982:7) "Just as long as the occupants of the political roles which emerge in the early development of political specialisation are not backed by organized force, so cannot enforce their decisions throughout the community, I shall say we are still dealing with a stateless society." (Taylor 1982:9) 
    6 The exception was seen in the organization of the Hreppar; there cooperation was compulsory. In a sense it could be said that if the legal and judicial structure of the Commonwealth would qualify as a stateless structure, then the Hreppar within the structure would surely not. The Hreppur was to provide for all those within the unit that could not provide for themselves and had no relatives within the unit to provide for them. All free-men without landed property were also required by law to esatblish a "legal address" so that no doubt would surface as to who were to provide for them. Although the islanders were well-to-do they did live on a rough island were surival depended could be hard. The law on compulsory residency is therefore explainable and even justified. The Hreppar were to some extent minature states or mini-welfare states (see Gissurarson 1990:17). The forced cooperation through the Hreppar, within an otherwise voluntary associated structure, and residency requirement also make it harder for anyone to claim that the Commonwealth was in any significant way an example of libertarianism in practice. 
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