My grandfather used to love the old 1960s Westerns with stetson-clad men swaggering around the American deserts, six-shooters slung low, rescuing gasping maidens in masses of frilly calico. This world of circled wagons and whooping Indians, smoke signals and the last-second arrival of perfect blue-uniformed cavalry was a familiar background to my childhood. It also seemed dated and cliched, so that by my teens I had little interest in the genre and paid no attention to the occasional revived efforts in the 1990s and 2000s.
Over the last year I have been living in a house with quite limited access to TV channels, so I find myself watching things I might otherwise avoid, including several old Western films. Reading a lot lately from the Why Nations Fail blog, and thinking about the origin of states, I've begun to place these Western stories into a kind of political-historical narrative which has gradually led to an appreciation of some of the underlying meanings of apparently shallow Westerns. The Wild West, in this narrative, is a pre-state anarchy in the process of being absorbed and stabilised by the American state.
This is actually something argued by Lawrence H Keeley in War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage in which he says that the expansion of the American colonists into the Old West was much more violent than the equivalent expansion of Canadian colonists westwards to the north. Keeley explains that in Canada, the Canadian military conquered territory first, defeating the Native Americans and then arranging reservations where they would be allowed to remain. After the Canadian government had subdued the Native Americans and absorbed them into a legal framework, Canadian settlers would move westwards into this new territory. When settlers sought to infringe on Native American reservations, government agencies stopped them. Law was administered fairly so that either Natives or Whites who broke the law were punished. In Canada, law and order came first, settlers followed.
In the United States the opposite was the case: settlers expanded west into Native American lands and gradually the US Army followed. Thus the white settlers encountered Native Americans in a lawless anarchy, causing justice to be arbitrary, brutal and chaotic. White police, as they emerged, were unwilling to punish settler crimes against Natives, while Indian tribes were likewise unwilling to punish their own for crimes against the whites.
Because of these legal deficiencies, a state of primitive war often arose between the Indians and the settlers, as these groups' war parties and "militias" exchanged murders, raids, and massacres in cycles of retaliation.... The frequent resort to vigilantism by American settlers indicates that their own legal systems often failed to provide them with adequate redress for crimes committed among themselves.... Even decades after the first Euro-American colonization, the American West remained in a virtually stateless (or tribal) condition.
In the US, the settlers got there first, and law and order (and government) had to follow, slowly extending US government authority into the Wild West. The sneering gunslinger of many Westerns, with his gang of drunken thugs holding isolated towns in terror, along with chaotic raids of Indians and Mexicans, indicated the lawless, anarchistic aspect of the Wild West. The upright lawman with gleaming sheriff star pinned on chest, bristling with moral confidence and a moustache you could draw lines with, and the arrival of cavalry in flawless blue, represented the slow conquest of that anarchy by the order of the American state. In the absence of a bureaucratic legal structure, individuals in the Wild West reverted to a kind of feudal chivalry. The Wikipedia article on the Western genre:
The Western depicts a society organized around codes of honor and personal, direct or private justice (such as the feud), rather than one organized around rationalistic, abstract law, in which social order is maintained predominately through relatively impersonal institutions. The popular perception of the Western is a story that centers on the life of a semi-nomadic wanderer, usually a cowboy or a gunfighter.
Freedom in a lawless anarchy that required a white knight to rescue the vulnerable from the predatory, in the absence of legal justice: the Westerns depict both a fantasy and an interesting historical reality of a time when government was barely able to assert control over its own territory. All the racial and nationalist narratives of white settlers conquering the Native Americans aside, Westerns often depicted the bloody development of government out of violent tribal anarchy.