In the pantheon of successful anarchistic communities, Cospaia has to be included as it is a seminal example of what can be accomplished when the state steps out of the way for 385 years (yes, you read that correctly). Anarchism can, has and does work!
While I take exception with some of the descriptions of their economic system, it is difficult to argue with their system of governance’s success. My only bone to pick with the story of Cospaia is the characterization of their economic system being that of capitalist. It wasn’t as simple as mere capitalism, while their community profited greatly from the economic and governmental shortcomings of the bordering Papal States and that of The Republic of Florence, internally they didn’t practice capitalism; it was closer to that of communitarianism. Being such a relatively small group of interconnected households already with between 250-375 people over several centuries situated on ~1.3 mi² (3.3 km2), there was an intense internal social dynamic that provided for and ensured no one went without. This is not a capitalistic model and even though so-called “an-caps” have tried to glum onto this community as an example of successful (and even the existence of) anarcho-capitalism, it remains that there is no such thing. Sorry.
Another example of this in modern day would be Trumbullplex in Michigan. While internally they are firmly anarchistic, their interface with the external world must operate on the terms of the society they find themselves surrounded by, namely that of capitalism.
The same went for Cospaia. They interacted with the surrounding states on their terms, trading goods across their tax-free, open borders. Yes, they profited greatly from this over the centuries but, never was that wealth concentrated into the hands of one or two families. Never were there battles between the families to gain resources or “buy out” the other families land. Internally they operated on their own guiding principles that seemed to place them at, the very least, into the territory of “communitarianism” and even possibly somewhere heading toward socialism.
A little background.
Cospaia unexpectedly found independence in 1440 when Pope Eugene IV (who was in the middle of an internal battle with the Council of Basel) ended up taking out a loan from the Bank of Medici, used the territory as collateral, ended up defaulting on said loan and as a result the Republic of Florence took ownership.
This is where things get interesting…in the process of surveying the land a mistake was made. A river was used as the line of demarcation for the territory but both parties neglected to take into account the point where the river diverged into two separate streams leaving a strip of land down the middle before joining back up again further downstream.
The Florentine representatives, hailing from the north, considered the northern most stream to be the line of demarcation while the Papal States from the south considered the southern most stream to be the territorial border. This formed an official terra nullius, creating an opportunity that the residents seized and declared themselves independent. It may have taken a few decades but in 1484 this independence was formally recognized.
The Cospaiesi founded their new “Republic” (it was called this but it was a republic in name only) on one simple principle: Perpetua et Firma Libertas (Eternal and Firm/Secure Liberty).
They had no central government. No jails, no police, no army. For administrative and executive purposes they had the “Council of Elders and Family Heads” and they utilized barter and basic socialist principles for their internal economics. They completely lacked a traditional “hard currency”. Any disputes were settled by heads of families or local Priests, who were specifically chosen based on their perceived integrity rather than political connections.
One side-effect of no longer being the property of the state, they could no longer be conscripted. Their men remained safe from being forced to fight in Florence and Rome’s wars. Left to their families and their lives, they flourished.
Being a tax-less and law-less land meant that they had significant advantages in the foreign marketplaces. In 1574 the people of Cospaia found a profitable use for their tax-free land; growing a crop from the New World, tobacco, soon becoming known for their high quality product.
In 1624 Pope Urban VIII declared use of tobacco to be grounds for excommunication (which remained in effect until 1724 – Pope Benedict VIII). With the declaration of tobacco being illegal within all “holy” places the price shot up dramatically and Cospaia saw their opportunity, setting up many warehouses to process and store the tobacco.
One of the other side-effects of not being a state run society and having minimal law was that there wasn’t systemic persecution as there was in many other areas of Christendom. So as a result of persecution at the hands of Christians, Jews from all across Italy fled to Cospaia and began running the warehouses for them. People flocked to Cospaia for the opportunities and freedom it could afford them.
Unfortunately, like most stories of anarchistic communities/societies, this one comes to an end at the hands of an external force. In this case, in 1826 both Pope Gregory XVI and the Grand Duke of Tuscany had had enough. Cospaia had grown far too wealthy, too successful and (though admittedly this is pure speculation) both the Pope and Grand Duke might have come to fear the idea of anarchy spreading to their collective “subjects”.
So…Cospaia had to go. By any means necessary.
Being a peaceful and anarchistic community, this made for easy work. They simply blockaded the small territory and starved them out.
That same year the remaining 14 heads of households were forced to sign what is know as “The Act of Subjugation” ending their 385 years of independent rule. As compensation, each region was allowed to grow up to half a million tobacco plants (while growing was still being prohibited elsewhere) and the residents were given a small silver coin adorned with the Pope’s image. It became known as a “papetto”, meaning pope and small, in reference to how little they had received for their freedom.
If you ever find yourself in San Giustino, Italy be sure to stop in in the village of Cospaia and say hello to the descendants of those ground-breaking anarchists. If you’re lucky, you may even catch the Feast of Cospaia.