Pluto takes 248 years to orbit the sun.
The most recent, and perhaps most important, network challenge to hierarchy comes with the advent of virtual currencies and payment systems like Bitcoin. Since ancient times, states have reaped considerable benefits from monopolizing or at least regulating the money created within their borders. It remains to be seen how big a challenge Bitcoin poses to the system of national fiat currencies that has evolved since the 1970s and, in particular, how big a challenge it poses to the “exorbitant privilege” enjoyed by the United States as the issuer of the world’s dominant reserve (and transaction) currency. But it would be unwise to assume, as some do, that it poses no challenge at all.
Clashes between hierarchies and networks are not new in history; on the contrary, there is a sense in which they are history. Indeed, the course of history can be thought of as the net result of human interactions along four axes.
The first of these is time. The arrow of time can move in only one direction, even if we have become increasingly sophisticated in our conceptualization and measurement of its flight. The second is nature: Nature means in this context the material or environmental constraints over which we still have little control, notably the laws of physics, the geography and geology of the planet, its climate and weather, the incidence of disease, our own evolution as a species, our fertility, and the bell curves of our abilities as individuals in a series of normal distributions. The third is networks. Networks are the spontaneously self-organizing, horizontal structures we form, beginning with knowledge and the various “memes” and representations we use to communicate it. These include the patterns of migration and miscegenation that have distributed our species and its DNA across the world’s surface; the markets through which we exchange goods and services; the clubs we form, as well as the myriad cults, movements, and crazes we periodically produce with minimal premeditation and leadership. And the fourth is hierarchies, vertical organizations characterized by centralized and top-down command, control, and communication. These begin with family-based clans and tribes, out of which or against which more complex hierarchical institutions evolved. They include, too, tightly regulated urban polities reliant on commerce or bigger, mostly monarchical, states based on agriculture; the centrally run cults often referred to as churches; the armies and bureaucracies within states; the autonomous corporations that, from the early modern period, sought to exploit economies of scope and scale by internalizing certain market transactions; academic corporations like universities; political parties; and the supersized transnational states that used to be called empires…
Our own time is profoundly different from the mid-20th century. The near-autarkic, commanding and controlling states that emerged from the Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War exist only as pale shadows of their former selves. Today, the combination of technological innovation and international economic integration has created entirely new forms of organization—vast, privately owned networks—that were scarcely dreamt of by Keynes and Kennan. We must ask ourselves: Are these new networks really emancipating us from the tyranny of the hierarchical empire-states? Or will the hierarchies ultimately take over the networks as they did a century ago, in 1914, successfully subordinating them to the priorities of the national security state?
– From the 2014 post, Networks vs. Hierarchies: Which Will Win?
Two hundred and fifty years ago, it was 1767, and the seeds of the American revolution were being spread across the 13 colonies. The Stamp Act became law two years prior, and many of King George’s subjects across the Atlantic had become enraged by this “taxation without representation.” A few years later came the Boston Massacre, followed by the Boston Tea Party. The rest is history.
Two hundred and fifty years prior to that, on October 31, 1517 (exactly 500 years ago today), Martin Luther sent his Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences to the Archbishop of Mainz, thus kicking off the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Church’s extraordinary influence over the religious and political life of Europe up to that point would never be the same again.
Both these eras were earth-shattering revolutionary time periods which massively transformed the Western world over the subsequent centuries. Taking on the Catholic Church in the early 16th century and Great Britain in the late 18th would’ve seemed like total suicide to people living at that time. Nevertheless, and against all odds, both Great Britain and the Catholic Church were successfully confronted and exposed as more vulnerable than anyone had imagined.
Although I don’t write on it much, I’m a big believer in cycles. In my opinion, it seems Western civilization finds itself in a similar state to where it was both 250 and 500 years ago. In other words, it appears we’re once again on the cusp of momentous paradigm level change regarding how the world functions.
Naturally, this stuff doesn’t emerge out of a vacuum. Whenever a system or way of organizing human affairs reaches a certain level of corruption and also refuses to reform (think crooked government responses to the financial crisis), you invariably get a reaction from the public. If this demand for change is not appropriately addressed and things continue to decay, some sort of revolution becomes inevitable. That’s where I think we stand today.
The revolution is already happening in many respects, but because we’re so busy living in the chaos of it all, it’s hard for many of us to recognize. Specifically, I think this time period will be remembered as an era during which a rapid decline in the forces of centralization and concentrated power occurred. Many of you will read this and think I’ve lost my mind. After all, aren’t multi-national corporations, oligarchs and political crooks in Washington D.C. and Brussels more in control than ever? In meaningful ways this is true, but I’d argue we are at or close to a historical peak in such centralized power. Looking back 25 years from now it should all make sense, it’s just tough to see the big picture while in the thick of it.
There are two things driving this revolution. First, there’s what’s going on under the surface at the grassroots level. To use the USA as an example, the vast majority of Americans can’t agree on much, but we agree that something is very, very wrong. While we can’t find consensus on solutions, we agree that there’s a big problem. Faith has been lost, deservedly, in the media, the financial system, political institutions, intelligence agencies, etc. These entrenched power interests have therefore resorted to unprecedented levels of propaganda, censorship and threats to hold on to their power. Thus far, they’ve maintained it, but it’s come at an enormous cost. Credibility is gone.
With the veil of credibility shattered, a power structure must resort more aggressively to coercion and even violence to maintain control. This can work in the short-term, but it’s ultimately a losing strategy. Here’s where the second driver of the revolution comes into play: technology. Specifically, technology has provided the public with tools to rebel against the status quo in a peaceful and effective manner.
For instance, media narratives used to be highly centralized within a few well-funded and powerful organizations, but thanks to the internet and social media we now have the citizen journalist who can influence tens of millions with a short video clip and a click of a button. Likewise, money has long been the domain of highly centralized nation-states and their shady central bankers, but we now live in a world with Bitcoin and various other crypto-assets. Just as a handful of media barons no longer control the human narrative, clusters of central bankers no longer have a monopoly on money. This is an incredible development and not one I believe can be reversed. The cat of decentralization is way too far out of the bag.
The one area that’s been lagging significantly when it comes to this decentralizing trend relates to politics and governance. Most of us continue to live in high-population, dangerously centralized nation-states that are extremely corrupt and refuse to reform. Burgeoning frustration with centralized, unaccountable, bureaucratic forces has manifested most clearly within Europe, first with Brexit and now within Catalonia. Politicians in Madrid and EU mandarins think they can just stuff this thing back in the bag and carry on, but they don’t see the bigger picture. This is much larger than the U.K. or Catalonia. Both these movements are just early manifestations of the overall spirit of our times. They’re mere symptoms of the revolutionary era we’re living in.
Going forward, I think people are going to want more autonomy for the regions in which they reside. As an example, people who live in Houston, Texas will, generally speaking, exist within a culture/worldview that feels quite distinct from the one experienced by those who live in let’s say Seattle, Washington. This isn’t to pass judgement, but to acknowledge reality. You can go ahead and apply this logic to any other nation-state with a large, diverse population. As national politics continues to degenerate and decay across the world, people will begin question whether it makes sense to centralize so much power in national capitals in the first place. Demands that power should be more distributed are likely to become far more widespread over the next decade or so.
In that regard, I recently read a fascinating article written by Paul Mason and published at The Guardian titled, Catalonia, Lombardy, Scotland … Why the Fight for Self-Determination Now? The paragraphs below specifically connected with me:
As calls for autonomy and independence proliferate, mainstream left parties are failing to understand the basic principle: in some circumstances, the national question is not a distraction from the fight for social justice – it is the frontline of it. And it is not going away.
Above the problems of economic failure and racial polarisation, the positive factor driving progressive nationalisms, from Scotland to Catalonia, is technological change. Information-rich societies reward the development of human capital; so the ability to study in your first language, to participate in a rich national culture, to create unique local selling points for incoming foreign investment is more important than ever. If the regions, peoples and nations currently demanding more freedom seem to be driven by “cultural nationalism”, that in turn is driven by technological change plus global competition.
The second impact of these forces is the emergence of successful big cities and devastated small towns. In large cities with dense networks of information and culture, you can survive globalisation. In small towns it is harder. So the logical economic strategy is to create a “region” or small nation focused on one big city, and develop the suburban and rural economy in synergy with that city, not the bigger unitary state. If Barcelona were not a massive global success story, the impetus behind Catalan nationalism would be smaller.
If you were to ask me what I think our current massive nation-states are likely to morph into over the coming decades, I think that last paragraph summarizes the situation quite well. A proliferation of numerous smaller, largely autonomous regions with one or perhaps two urban hubs seems quite plausible several decades from now. Just as we’ve seen an explosion in local food scenes focused on farm-to-table, I expect there will be an increased emphasis on local governance and decision-making going forward. One size fits all solutions crafted in far away national capitals will become regarded as not just inappropriate and ineffective, but as a downright insane way to organize human affairs.
I also think political decision-making will move increasingly in the direction of public referendums and direct democracy, as opposed to technocratic bureaucracy and representative democracy (voting for someone to vote for us). In this regard, I found a recent pledge by someone running for city council in my adopted home of Boulder, Colorado kind of fascinating. Here’s what he pledged to do according to Motherboard:
If Camilo Casas is elected to city council in Boulder, Colorado, this November, he doesn’t plan to make any decisions himself. If he wins, Casas will instead give up his vote to Parti.Vote, a “liquid democracy” app he built to change how government functions.
This is how it will work: If more than 50 percent of people in his community vote “yes” on an issue through the app, Casas will vote the same way they do. Only in the event of a tie would he be forced to make a decision based on his own beliefs.
Parti.Vote could be used to help create a “liquid” or direct democracy, where technology is leveraged to place power among citizens rather than representatives. Before the advent of the internet, it was too cumbersome for every citizen to vote on every single government issue.
Casas nevertheless says Parti.Vote is designed to make the US’s representative government system more equitable. The idea is that if politicians commit to voting the same way the people do, they’ll be less susceptible to the desires of big business, interest groups, or deep-pocketed donors.
“I personally am convinced that when you have to lobby a constituency rather than an elected office you will on average get more democratic and consensual outcomes,” Casas told me on a phone call.
For Casas, creating a liquid democracy using his app is more important than the race in Colorado. In fact, he doesn’t even expect to win. “It’s rather unlikely,” he told me.
The real goal is to hopefully convince other politicians to adopt Parti.Vote, which is open-source and free. Later down the line, Casas wants to create a political party that will support any candidate, as long as they commit to making decisions based on what their citizens want.
Parti.Vote will come with several novel features that allow citizens to participate even if they don’t have time to learn about every issue. For example, there will be an auto-vote mode, which aligns your vote with a particular council member’s every time. You can also assign your vote to another member who serves as a delegate. They then have the ability to put it toward an issue for you.
I don’t highlight the above to imply that we’re going to move toward such a governance system tomorrow or the next year, but to provide an example of the general direction I see things heading in. People around the world feel justifiably unempowered, and at the mercy of corrupt forces making decisions thousands of miles away from where they live. Human beings will increasingly look for ways to escape this suffocating trap and empower themselves as well as their local communities.
This desire will serve to reinforce an already occurring and powerful trend toward decentralization which has been thus far primarily driven by technology and mainly affected information flow (the internet, social media), and more recently money (Bitcoin and crypto assets in general). The next big wave of decentralization I foresee relates to politics/government, with Brexit and Catalonia representing mere tremors ahead of the big event.
When people hear the word “revolution” negative feelings often come to mind. Images of pitchforks and torches; of violence and chaos. Although I’m not going to tell you the next ten years will be a cakewalk, I want people to understand that the revolution is already in progress and it isn’t the stuff of nightmares. This revolution is not about simply tearing down what already exists, but about creating something better in its place.
We can all agree that both big business and big government are out of control, corrupt and dangerous. That much is obvious. What we need are both the will to say no, and the consciousness and creativity to build and embrace something better. Don’t stand on the sidelines, don’t embrace the lesser of two evils, and don’t imitate the unethical practices and tactics of your enemies. Stand tall, choose awareness and do your part to help humanity move forward. The future will be shaped by what we do in the coming years.
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