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.