In the distant past of 1992, Neal Stephenson published a novel called Snow Crash. Then, in 1996, he published another called The Diamond Age. Among other things, these books suggested that geographic proximity would cease to be an organizing principle of society, and that people would organize themselves into far-flung pseudo-tribal enclaves based around shared interests. Stephenson calls these enclaves “Phyles”, from the ancient Greek word for clan.
To get an idea what I mean, picture North America. Now picture, say, New York City. In our own present, New York City is a sub-unit of New York State, which is in turn a sub-unit of the United States of America (for purposes of illustration, we will leave aside questions of New York City's size and wealth giving it an outsize degree of influence in the state). Imagine instead that there are a dozen different groups within NYC's physical bounds. These groups identify not with NYC or the US of A, but some larger and more far-flung group, say the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam, as far it is concerned, is a sovereign entity. It treats with other entities – such as the Black Panther party, the NYPD, or the US of A itself – as an equal. It controls certain resources. Some may be physical locations (temples, soup kitchens), but others may be less tangible – money, or the loyalty of its believers, for example. It maintains internal discipline through written codes of conduct and various bureaucratic enforcement mechanisms. The physical location of any NOI member is a matter of chance; whether he resides in Oakland, New York, or Corpus Christi, he is a citizen of the Nation first. Now, multiply that a dozen times over, substituting any kind of group you can think of for the NOI – the Industrial Workers of the World say, or the Rotarians. That is the future Stephenson envisions.
Stephenson paints this picture with his tongue firmly in cheek, but it's a serious concept. The Nation-State as the basic unit of social organization, defined by geography and political centralization, is a relatively recent development (For a good treatment of this topic, check out Martin Van Creveld's Rise and Decline of the State). Srinivasan's book, The Network State is largely an attempt to envision how recent technological developments – mostly, crypto – might enable the formation of alternative societies that look quite a bit like what Stephenson envisioned.
I'll say up front: Srinivasan's book is good. I think there's a decent chance it will be remembered as historically significant a few centuries from now. I'm going to critique it here, but that's just because there's not much point in me sitting here and repeating everything I agree with. If you have any interest in long-term societal evolution and possible future civilizations, you should read it. All credit to the man in the arena et cetera.
The gist of my critique is this: Srinivasan does a good job describing the structural factors that are currently eroding the Nation-State’s supremacy, and he does a pretty good job of describing possible alternatives – in the abstract. That last caveat is important, because Srinivasan doesn’t put much effort into describing what shared identity a network state could actually be built on or exactly how one would emerge. His “Network State” is as mathematical and abstract as Hobbes’ absolute sovereign. This is a case where the specifics matter. Additionally, he makes assumptions about the ways in which a network-state would be like an existing nation-state, assumptions that I don't think are necessarily true
He defines a network-state thusly: “a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.”
Most of the book is dedicated to hashing out what this means in greater detail. But my own steelman version of the books argument would be something like this: New communications and information technology, combined with a series of high-visibility blunders by institutional authority figures, have undermined popular faith in “the establishment”/”the status quo”/”elites”/whatever term you prefer. The Emperor has no clothes, or least, is wearing a lot less than he's supposed to be, and everyone is able to compare notes about this fact and confirm their mutual impression. The obvious historical parallel here is the printing press and the Protestant reformation, though Srinivasan doesn't refer to it. Srinivasan is of course not the first to make this observation about the effects of new information technology.
Not all is lost, however! New technologies – again, mostly this means widespread applied cryptographic protocols – offer users a potentially unique combination of transparency (the blockchain offer high a degree of assurance against possible forgery, since every transaction is recorded in a public ledger) and privacy (you don't have to reveal anything you're not comfortable revealing). This in turn can enable the construction of new institutions. Better institutions, in which the consent of the governed is not just rhetoric but an actual operational requirement for collective action. In time, these institutions could be popular and powerful enough to disrupt the nation-state status-quo.
As a liberal arts grad who dropped out of econ cuz he couldn't hack Calc, I'm not competent to fully evaluate Srinivasan’s claims about exactly how secure the blockchain is and what it can do. But his abstract description dovetails with my own equally-abstract understanding of it. I'll also note that while I think the combination of transparency and privacy, and the ability of users to re-negotiate that balance as circumstances dictate is the “killer app” of blockhain technologies, he doesn't articulate in exactly those terms, though I think he'd more or less agree with my interpretation of his argument.
After all this excellent buildup, I was a trifle disappointed to find that Srinivasan is largely agnostic about exactly what shared identity these new institutions could be built around. At one point, he brings up keto enthusiasts as a potential candidate. After all, they have a common identity and a moral commandment: carbs are bad, fats are generally good. I presume he's being slightly facetious here. Because after all, we're talking about a group with a strong enough sense of itself and enough capacity for collective action to challenge the status quo. This, to me, is implicit in his description of the network state as attaining “a measure of diplomatic recognition.” Those with a seat at the table only admit newcomers when they have no other choice. Historically, challenging the powers that be has been a very dicey business. It's meant being thrown to the lions at the Circus Maximus, burned at the stake for heresy, exiled to Siberia, shot by the firing squad. I suspect most people won't endure that for the sake of fewer carbs.
This omission is all the more glaring because after about five seconds, I could think of one group of people who were widely scattered across the globe for thousands of years, often subject to the political, religious, and cultural hegemony of alien societies. In spite of this, they retained enough shared identity and collective-action capacity to violently establish their own statehood in the face of significant opposition. And they did it all without crypto! These folks get nary a mention in The Network State. To be fair to Srinivasan though, I think this omission is most likely because it's beyond the scope of his book, indeed worthy of a dozen books in its own right. There are public intellectuals who are unwilling to ask serious questions about what sort of things people are willing to kill and die for, but Srinivasan doesn't strike me as one them.
This problem is certainly worthy of further consideration, but if it was beyond the scope of Srinivasan's book, it's certainly beyond the scope of this post. I will only say here that the general trend of modernity is to erode traditional shared identities, which I would characterize as relatively narrow and deep (your church/mosque, your clan, your village/town) and replace them with broader-but-shallower identities (facebook interest groups, the motte?). The modern world’s substitution of relatively weak ties for more deep-rooted identities is probably a big part of the reason so many alienated people keep trying to blow it up. In spite of this tendency though, certain social ties endure. More on that in a moment.
My second major critique is that Srinivasan seems to assume that these new institutions will mostly resemble existing nation-states in key respects. His hypothetical “network state” openly controls territory, enjoys diplomatic recognition, etc. I myself am skeptical of the term “network state” and prefer “networked society” precisely because I don't think these groups will be exactly state-like. I think its more likely that as existing nation-states gradually decline in legitimacy and state capacity their supremacy will increasingly be contested by non-state actors.
It is entirely possible for the apparatus of a nation-state to exist without actually exercising the functions of a nation-state. Imagine a bunch of petty bureaucrats, collecting a paycheck and gaming the metrics their career advancement depends on while remaining willfully ignorant of the second and third-order effects of the policy they uphold, and you have a pretty good picture of the pseudo-colonial disaster that was the Afghan war. When the nominal state fails to meet the needs of the populace (most importantly dispute resolution according to some sort of legible code of justice), the populace will look elsewhere. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all. My own suspicion is that the future is not one where network-states build shining cities on a hill and supplant their predecessors by a process of meritocratic evangelism. Rather, I suspect the future is one where increasingly dysfunctional states are cannibalized by sub-state actors; tumors in the body of Leviathan. The “Crypto-Mafia” may be far more literal than expected.
Stephenson actually anticipated this possibility as well. Amongst the the phyles of the Diamond Age is a group called CryptNet, which specializes in infiltrating other phyles while continuing to pursue their own agenda. The details of CryptNet are left vague, but they seem to be regarded as something between a terrorist group and an organized crime syndicate, something which has any number of real-world examples
The question remains: what sort of shared identity could people found a network state on? While cracks might be appearing in the western liberal consensus, no clear successor has emerged yet. It remains to be seen if any of the would-be contenders will gain enough critical mass to supplant the established order. Under this scenario, I can think of two broad kinds of network-actors that might be relevant.
The first kind, and probably the one that will be most familiar to Motte readers, is what Srinivasan calls a “proposition nation”, a group of people united by their shared quasi-religious beliefs. By “quasi-religious”, I don’t mean supernatural per se. I use the term because I don’t know of any good alternative; if someone offers one I’ll accept it. I mean by it a set of beliefs that purports to describe the nature of the world and the ultimately purpose of human existence. Perhaps a simpler way of saying it is a set of beliefs someone would be willing to die for. Traditional Christianity is one such belief system, but so is Revolutionary Marxism. Arguably so is Classical liberalism, if held sufficiently deeply. More contemporarily, I could imagine certain forms of deep ecology filling such a role.
I suspect that the most effective such proposition nations would be characterized by universalism and vanguardism. A universalist belief system is simply one whose message is to all mankind. Evangelical Christianity is probably the most obvious example. Because universalist belief systems have been common in the West for millennia, its easy to assume that they’re the norm, but this isn’t necessarily true. Orthodox Judaism, for example, is traditionally non-evangelical, and conversion is a difficult process. A universalist belief system would have a wider recruiting pool and would benefit from the relative “global flattening” of modern communications.
Vanguardism is simply the notion that a small but dedicated elite can effect powerful sociopolitical changes. Though usually associated with Marxists, the basic notion has been shared by diverse actors across the political spectrum. A politically-activist network society operating within the established order would probably be vanguardist by definition, and would be a potentially attractive option for the kind of frustrated would-be elites that Turchin describes.
The second kind of network actor would be united by little more than interpersonal loyalty in the pursuit of mutual-self interest. I speak, essentially, of organized crime. It turns out you don’t actually need a grand ideological vision to inspire people to cooperate against the state. Good old pack loyalty can do it.. Groups like the Yakuza and the Sinaloa Cartel have managed to assume (or usurp, depending on your point of view) government functions impelled by little other than market forces. So far as we have a good understanding of the internal dynamics of such organizations, they are held together by a combination of patron-client networks and fictive kinship. I can equally imagine a future in which the state has become a shambling zombie, with rival networks fighting each other for control of its organs. I suspect that such a situation would look like just one more oligarchy from the perspective of the man in the street. Possibly that’s why Srinivasan doesn’t give it much consideration. It’s boring, depressing even, to imagine a future that looks so much like our past. Between these two extremes, I think I prefer proposition nations. Ideological movements have their own problems, but they at least open the possibility of something beyond the status-quo.
Srinivasan's book, then, is practically begging for a sequel which considers these issues, whether from his own keyboard or some other's. That's not a dig. The most worthwhile books are the ones people are still responding to decades or centuries later. Part of my reason for writing this post is the hope that this will encourage someone to do that. I don't know what the future looks like. But I do know that there was a time before the nation-state, and I'm pretty sure there's gonna be a time after it. That's hard for us to imagine, but it would have been equally difficult for a Saxon peasant living under William the Conqueror to imagine liberal democracy. The Network State takes an admirable stab at that; I can only hope someone continues the work.
Affirmative Action Empire by Terry Martin deals with the Soviet Union’s nationalities policy in the period from 1923 to 1939. I picked it up based on my interest in ethnic politics in colonial and post-colonial states. While it seems well-researched and was very interesting at points, I’d call it a book for specialists rather than one of general interest. It filled in a lot of details, but didn’t have many surprises, and I finished it without gaining any wholly new insights into the broader topic of ethnopolitical competition.
Before I go further, I hear you ask: Wait a minute, was the Soviet Union a colonial state? I contend that for practical purposes, yes. The Soviets didn’t think of themselves that way – Martin says that Lenin was comparable to Woodrow Wilson for anti-Imperialist rhetoric. But the Soviet Union inherited the geopolitical boundaries and governing infrastructure of the old Russian Empire, a vast entity encompassing millions of square miles and numerous ethnic, linguistic, and cultural groups. For convenience sake, I’ll be referring to the non-Russian population of the USSR as “subject peoples”. Since the new government didn’t intend to grant any of these subject peoples political or economic independence, they were effectively sitting on the old tsar’s throne.
If I were to summarize the Soviet nationalities policy in a single sentence, it would be: “a f*cking mess.” Throughout the period in question, the Soviets were torn between a) their desire to encourage national self-expression on the part of the subject peoples in the belief that it would enhance Soviet power and b) their intense mistrust of any possible social or political competitor to the central government. Martin differentiates between the “positive line”, associated with the first impulse and the “negative line”, associated with the second. The positive line fostered celebrations of national language, culture, etc, while the negative line brutally suppressed any unsanctioned nationalist activity. Critically, there doesn’t seem to have been a clear line between sanctioned and prohibited forms of national self-expression. Rather, the line was constantly in flux, as a result of intra-party conflicts and the changes in the geopolitical environment. More than once, Martin recounts stories of mid-level figures who were caught on the wrong side of the line by a sudden shift in the prevailing winds. Revolutionary politics being the cutthroat business it was, these figures usually paid a severe price for their miscalculation. At best, they lost their position. At worst, they went to the gulag or the firing squad.
The Soviet’s initially indulgent attitude towards national self-expression had several drivers. The first was Marxist ideology, which asserted that nationalism was one of the necessary stages on the road to communism. Second was the assumption that a pro-nationalities policy would make the subject peoples feel more invested in the new Soviet state. Lastly was “the Piedmont Principle”, the belief that encouraging nationalism amongst the Soviet Union’s subject peoples would actually help the USSR project influence beyond its borders i.e. the Belarussians within the USSR could be used to influence the Belarussians in Poland, etc. The Soviets would ultimately prove to be badly mistaken in this last assumption, and this realization would trigger a major shift in policy. More on that later.
The ”positive line” of the nationalities policy took several forms. First was linguistic preferencing, i.e. the right of the various subject peoples to be educated and conduct business in their own language. This point, seemingly minor in comparison to other measures like land redistribution, occupies a good chunk of Martin’s book, and also seems to have absorbed a great deal of attention from the highest levels of the Soviet leadership. My guess is that this is because it was a relatively low-cost way for the central government to signal their support for subject peoples. Material support, what we would nowadays call “development aid”, was expensive and the object of fierce competition. Political or economic independence was obviously out of the question. Ergo, linguistic preferencing.
In spite of numerous decrees and directives, linguistic preferencing never got as far as either the Politburo or would-be nationalists would have wished. Martin says this this because the Soviets never backed up these decrees with the USSR’s most effective way of signaling commitment to a policy: the gulag. Local officials naturally spent a good bit of energy on figuring out exactly what would and would not get them sent to Siberia. When they realized that failures to meet various linguistic targets (hire X percent of Y language speakers, publish X documents in indigenous language, etc) rarely led to more than a stern talking to, they de-prioritized accordingly. This tendency was exacerbated by the fact that the “negative line” occasionally did crack down on supposed “bourgeois nationalists” whose support for linguistic preferencing seemed a little too enthusiastic. Naturally, prudent officials chose to play it safe and give lip service to linguistic preferencing while putting little actual weight behind it.
Another component of the “positive line” was land redistribution. This took place mostly in the “Soviet East”, the region you now call Central Asia if you’re being scholarly or “the Stans” if you’re feeling snarky. Then as now, these countries were relatively under-developed and only lightly touched by western influences. A number of efforts were made to redistribute prime agricultural land from Russian settlers to the indigenous population in these regions. This went exactly as well as you’d expect. In my experience, the desire to hold on to what you have is virtually a universal constant of human nature; I can only presume this goes double for Russian peasants living close to starvation for generations. There was much discontent, and occasionally outright bloodshed, mixed in with forced relocation and ethnic cleansing. In the case of Kazahkstan the forced relocation was done with such a heavy hand that the Politburo
actually rebuked the local security services for their handling of the issue.
Martin identifies poverty, land ownership disputes, and a relatively recent date of colonization by Russian settlers as the major factors driving ethnic conflict throughout the USSR. Given that these conditions were so prevalent in the Soviet East, it seems unsurprising that the USSR’s “de-colonization efforts”, to include land redistribution ultimately never got very far. As Martin puts it, the Soviets inherited a segregated society in the region, and while they abolished legal segregation, they soon accepted de facto segregation – in living spaces, in work environments, and even in lines for rations – as the price of doing business. In one example, a Soviet factory inspector noticed that the workers barracks were broken down along ethnic lines. When he asked why, he was told that there were fewer brawls that way.
To me, however, the most interesting aspect of the “positive line” was a campaign of “affirmative action” that corresponds almost precisely to the modern use of the word. The Soviets made a concerted effort to recruit members of the national minorities to jobs within the administrative state – in other words, to bring them into the professional managerial class as we now call it. In effect, it was an attempt to manufacture a new elite, one which was presumably more loyal to the state, system, and party which had given them their position. Martin doesn’t explicitly say this, but I think we can infer it.
To me, this raises all sorts of fascinating questions. Was this new elite actually more loyal to the USSR? (The fact that when the Soviet Union eventually collapsed, someone like Heydar Aliyev could transition seamlessly into an Azerbaijani nationalist after 28 years as KGB officer suggests that they probably weren’t). Did they clash with traditional elites within their own communities, or they mostly recruited from said traditional elites? (Given that elite=landowner in most societies up until very recently, and that the Soviet Union was notoriously not fond of land owners, I suspect the former, but I could be wrong). Et cetera, et cetera. Unfortunately, Martin doesn’t share my fascination with intra-elite competition, so he doesn’t explore these questions very much.
There are some insights to be gleaned, however. For example, there is some discussion of the “Red/Expert problem.” In a paranoid state like the USSR, which prioritizes loyalty above all else, how do you deal with the fact that certain highly-technical enterprises can only be run with the assistance of specialists of dubious loyalty? For a striking example of this problem in action, consider Sergei Korolev, who after six years in the gulag, rose to become head of the Soviet Rocketry program, because the USSR could not afford to fall too far behind in the arms race. The Soviets faced an analogous problem when trying to promote individuals of the desired nationality into leadership positions in technical departments.
One answer, apparently, is to have figureheads who hold the title, but leave the actual work to others, nominally lower-ranking. In one example, neither the head nor deputy of an oblast (an administrative unit that seems to correspond roughly to a county, I am happy to be corrected on this because I’m really not sure) agricultural ministry actually had an office or desk. Instead, the ministry was de facto being run by a non-party specialist. Martin draws a parallel with Malaysia’s “Ali Baba businesses”.
This whole thing caused me to reflect on a deficiency in the “simple model” of societal hierarchies. There’s a tendency to think of hierarchies as strictly linear, something like this:
Applying this to the USSR, we might construct a model with the central committee at the top and rural non-party members at the bottom. In fact though, an examination of the structure of the USSR would reveal a complex web of different agencies and officials whose authority and responsibility overlapped in complex ways
[I can't post the diagram on the site for some reason. Take my word that's a mess)
I’m oversimplifying the the hideous tangle that was the CPSU, but that only reinforces the point I’m trying to make, which is that hierarchies don’t actually work like this in practice. The reality of power relationships is that they’re always in flux, and that multiple parallel hierarchies can coexist and intersect in surprising ways. A more accurate model might be something like:
[Another diagram I can't post]
I can’t find any information about whether Korolev himself ever became a member of the communist party; for the point I’m trying to make, we’ll assume the answer is no. As a non-red expert, Korolev was in theory subordinate to the party apparatus. But as a key leader in an area of vital strategic importance, Korolev presumably enjoyed access and influence well beyond that of most low-ranking party members. The likely outcome of any conflict between Korolev and a party member would depend on who that party member was, what their connections within the party were relative to Korolev, the nature of dispute, et cetera. Whatever the theoretical great chain of being that bound the Soviet Union together, in practice there would always be room for competition. This room for competition is exacerbated by the fact that the upper echelons of any hierarchy, by their nature, tend to be dominated by fiercely ambitious individuals who are quick to exploit any opening to advance their own agenda. In the words of that great strategic thinker, Jack Sparrow, at the end of the day, the only rules that really matter are what you can do and what you can’t. The true balance of power was thus constantly being re-negotiated.
This isn’t a new idea of course, though I’m not sure how often I’ve seen it formalized. C.S. Lewis wrote of the “Inner Ring”, the self-appointed clique which asserts itself through influence. I’ve heard that Foucalt liked to say that power was multifocal, and maybe this is what he meant. Once you start to look, discrepancies between official hierarchies and non-official ones are everywhere. Stalin himself is a textbook example of someone who rose to wield near-absolute power in spite of being nominally a mere administrator. His title of “Secretary General” literally referred to his position as someone who took notes at the meetings of the politburo. Under certain circumstances, I can imagine that these discrepancies serve a useful purpose – useful for someone, anyway. Deflecting responsibility for unpopular decisions, for one thing. Concealing key nodes/personnel from potential hostile actors for another application.
Where was I? Oh right, talking about the creation of a new elite. Unfortunately for the various nationalist actors, at a certain point, the USSR began to reverse course. Remember the Piedmont Principle? The idea that cultivating nationalism would allow the USSR to project power into ethnic minority groups in neighboring regions? Gradually, Soviet decision makers perceived that the current was in fact running in the opposite direction; cross-border nationalist ties were trumping loyalty to the Soviet Union. By 1932, the USSR was in the midst of the Holomodor, one of the most brutal famines of the twentieth century. Ukrainian cross-border nationalism was blamed, rightly or wrongly, as a major contributor to the situation. Additionally, the resentment of the Russian majority was reaching potentially dangerous levels. So, the USSR reversed course.
By the late 1930s, the “Great Retreat”, as Martin calls it, was in full swing. National institutions were gradually abolished, various symbolic policies such as linguistic preferencing were walked back, and Russian culture and identity were gradually rehabilitated. In the aftermath, the Soviet Union was reinvented as a largely Russo-centric entity. This does not seem to have been a crudely ethnocentric form of Russian chauvinism, but rather cultural nationalism. “The Russian language was the principal path for non-Russians to participate in that culture.” Assimilate and you could, at least in theory, enjoy the full status of any other member of the USSR.
So what can we learn from this book? Mostly, I think, that there’s a strong tendency on the left to underestimate the power of nationalism. Earlier in the twentieth century, a number of prominent leftists had declared that then-hypothetical Great War was just a clash of capitalist imperialists and that the workers of the world would unite and turn against their masters. This spectacularly failed to happen, and the working classes mostly turned out to be enthusiastic participants in the war effort, at least at first. Given the First World Wars contribution to the ultimate breakdown of the prevailing European class system, perhaps this was the right choice for them. I’m not sure why this tendency exists or how it developed. Both the political left and nationalism in the modern sense are in some sense products of the enlightenment. Revolutionary France certainly demonstrated that the two could be tightly fused. For that matter, so did Zionism. My best guess is that it’s because “left” ideologies tend to be universalist in character. Like, say, Christianity (as opposed to traditional Judaism), left ideologies offer a prescription for all mankind, one which is supposed to transcend the petty divisions of language, culture, or geography. Additionally, these ideologies naturally attract wonkish intellectual types who see themselves as transcending these same barriers, and don’t see why everyone else can’t or won’t.
I suppose we also learned that when position and prestige are at stake, vast amounts of fire and brimstone will be spilled over seemingly minor issues (language, various symbolic policies, etc). But I feel like we already knew that. We also learned that when you sort people into groups based off of any particular set of characteristics, they immediately start competing on the basis of those characteristics. But I’ve always felt like that was pretty intuitively obvious to anyone who bothered to stop and think about it.
Could a similar scenario occur today? I’m not sure. The USSR was, as mentioned before, the heir of a vast multinational empire. Various groups competed on the basis of language, ethnicity, and culture. Affirmative action programs today mostly seem to happen within a nation, along (arbitrarily defined?) sub-national identity categories. When those categories are sufficiently robust, robust enough to lead to significant conflict, sure, I could see a backlash. But I don’t think we’re there yet. My basic model for this is that affirmative action is a form of elite patronage, and that competitive elites engage in it in order to create or mobilize their own base of support. In times of elite overproduction, you naturally see patronage of all sorts materialize from rival elite groups. In order to face a backlash, enough elites would have to decide that affirmative action was causing more trouble than it was worth. I’m not really sure what sort of upheaval it would take for the American ruling class to walk back affirmative action policies or rhetoric. Competitive elites are willing to take risks, after all. That’s what makes them competitive. And as the existence of more or less the entire post-colonial world attests, elites are willing to accept quite a lot of collateral damage before they abandon identity-based mobilization of potential supporters.