Seeing Like an Anarchist

How former slaves built an autonomous, self-sufficient, and nearly stateless society in the mountains of Haiti, and how they lost it


Maroon Nation: A History of Revolutionary Haiti, by Johnhenry Gonzalez, Yale University Press, 302 pages, $40

"In media and popular consciousness, Haiti has become identified with hunger," Johnhenry Gonzalez observes in Maroon Nation. But in the 19th century, after the revolution that drove out the French slaveowners and before the invasion that brought in a U.S. occupation, the country saw "a free system of decentralized, small-scale agriculture that allowed for unprecedented demographic growth." In the century that followed Haiti's 1804 declaration of independence, the country's population more than quintupled. This, Gonzalez tells us, was "the steepest and largest instance of demographic expansion in Caribbean history" to that point.

This was not because the revolutionary state pursued enlightened policies. Slavery was formally abolished, but forced labor initially continued: Cultivators were still compelled to work the fields, were denied the right to leave without permission, and were legally restrained from choosing their own employers, let alone striking out on their own. To enforce these rules, post-revolutionary rulers pioneered new forms of state control, creating what Gonzalez, a historian at the University of Cambridge, says may be the world's first "mandatory system of identification documents for all citizens." They also conscripted soldiers, seized the former slaves' property at will, deployed brutal forms of corporal punishment, and cracked down on "vagrancy"—that is, on freedom of movement. "In practice," Gonzalez writes, "the universal declarations of equality and liberty that grew out of the Haitian Revolution were universally violated by all early Haitian regimes."

It would be wrong to treat these post-revolutionary leaders as a unified group with a common vision. They differed, for example, on whether those sugar fields should be directly owned by the state. But nearly all of them thought it necessary to prop up some version of the plantation system.

Yet they couldn't, because they weren't ultimately in control.

In Haiti, unlike so many other rebellions around the world, the revolution didn't stop when a new ruling class seized power. The people kept resisting—sometimes indirectly, just by fleeing to the island's mountainous interior, and sometimes directly, by burning the sugarcane fields they left behind. And eventually, mostly, they won. The plantation economy was not restored. Hoping to avoid further unrest, the government stopped trying to restrict free movement and free contract, and it slowly started to recognize at least some of the populace's informal land claims. With both free labor and free land in play, the plantations were doomed.

What emerged instead was far from flawless, and Gonzalez refuses to romanticize it. But "for black people in the nineteenth century," he argues, "it was the closest thing to a free country that existed anywhere in the New World." Space was plentiful, and land prices plunged. An economy of self-employed farmers, fishers, loggers, and smugglers emerged, with a pronounced tendency toward privacy, polyculture, and less labor-intensive work. In the towns, an urban elite ran a meager state that Gonzalez describes as "little other than a commercial taxation apparatus that supported an inward-looking military." But in the countryside, power belonged to an anarchic meshwork of secret societies, Vodou assemblies, family compounds, informal marketplaces, and other grassroots institutions devoted to production, protection, pleasure, worship, trade, and mutual aid.

Runaway slaves known as maroons had been settling in remote regions for centuries, and parts of this social order evolved from their older institutions. Gonzalez called his book Maroon Nation because he sees most of 19th century Haiti as a vast maroon zone, a place where the sorts of social organization that ordinarily are confined to a country's crevices became the nation's dominant institutions.

Foreigners frequently viewed this process with distress. "To North Americans and Europeans who visited the early Haitian republic," Gonzalez recounts, "nothing had ever looked so tragic as a crumbling sugar works being reclaimed by the jungle or a group of black people riding horses or napping rather than toiling in the sun." Those riders and nappers, working for themselves on their own terms, did not publish a rival account of their world, but Gonzalez gives us good reasons to imagine that they saw this life not as a tragedy but as well-fed freedom.

That said, there were limits to their liberty. Despite those smugglers, for example, the urban elite had a near-monopoly on external trade. (Its controls faced outward as well as inward: The country's constitution barred foreign ownership of Haitian land.) And there were, as always, social problems, from illiteracy to public corruption. "Rather than an unmitigated victory for either side," Gonzalez argues, there was "a kind of prolonged, complex stalemate or war of positions." Ordinary Haitians carved a space for themselves, but the rump ruling class fortified its position too. "By denying the rural masses any hope of formal education and confining them to the rustic freedom of decentralized crop production and marketeering, the elite jealously guarded the foreign trade and state revenue that represented the wellspring of their privilege."

But those rural masses had far more room for free, autonomous activity than their counterparts in other post-emancipation societies. In his influential 2009 study The Art of Not Being Governed, the Yale political scientist James C. Scott—who also edits Yale University Press's Agrarian Studies Series, which published Gonzalez's book—describes a portion of Asia, dubbed Zomia, where geographic barriers allowed the hill people to escape the slavery, conscription, and taxes imposed by governments in the valleys. Maroon Nation shows something similar 700 miles southeast of Florida: a black Zomia in the Americas.

This social ecosystem persisted for decades, decaying only after two nearly simultaneous developments in the early 20th century. Just as the country's population was finally beginning to fill the available space, introducing a greater degree of scarcity to the island's resources, external forces intervened: In 1915, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson ordered an invasion of Haiti, and the troops stuck around as occupiers until 1934. (A few years into that occupation, future president Franklin Roosevelt, then serving as assistant secretary of the Navy, took charge of writing a new constitution for the country.) The puppet government adopted a number of repressive policies, including censorship, Jim Crow–style segregation, and—yes—forced labor. Elements of the old grassroots rural order persisted. But the balance of power shifted, and the corrupt and brutal regime in Port-au-Prince was able to extend its authority without doing much for the population in exchange.

The results are on display in that desperately poor nation today. But there isn't a direct line from the revolution against the French slavocracy to the poverty of the present. In between, the country took a long detour in a far more appealing direction.

Needless to say, more appealing does not mean perfect. Gonzalez cautions against viewing 19th century Haiti as "a tropical anarchist utopia, or an ideal libertarian free market." This is not just because of the statelet that persisted in Port-au-Prince; it is because the same people who avoided the vast hierarchies of the state and the plantation system sometimes set up mini-hierarchies of their own. Small-scale servitude persisted, and at times those grassroots institutions mimicked the forms of the state apparatus. (Some secret societies, Gonzalez notes, "adopted the ceremonial practice of controlling nocturnal travel in their areas by issuing special passports"—a distorted echo of the movement-restricting internal passports issued by both the French planters and the early Haitian revolutionary regimes.) Of course, the same topographic and social factors that allowed so many Haitians to evade the authorities and adopt a self-sufficient lifestyle may have also made it easier to break away from a more intimately situated martinet as well, helping to limit these smaller forms of domination. But we don't have the sorts of records that would let us know how common such circumventions were.

Yet we know much more than we used to, thanks in part to this rich book. By recognizing the agency of ordinary Haitians and exploring the world they built, Gonzalez reveals dimensions untouched by conventional historical accounts. "Like the very political leaders they study," he says, intellectual and political historians "often imagine that state authorities are somehow sovereign over larger processes of social and economic change. What is most interesting about the emergence of Haiti's counter-plantation system is not that it reflected the revolutionary aspirations of any particular leader but rather that it rose up in spite of all Haitian rulers' relentless attempts to reconstitute the plantation system." James C. Scott's most famous book is called Seeing Like a State. As he probes past the activities of the men who merely sat atop Haiti's governments and shows the activity taking place beyond their reach, Gonzalez inverts that: He lets us see like an anarchist.