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After the State: The Coming of Neo-Medievalism and the Great Decentralization

An Epic length essay of mine in which I lay out my theory of history and why briefly summarized: The Age of the nation state is almost certainly coming to an end under the corroding forces of decentralizing military technology and institutional decay.

The future will not resemble post French Revolution centralized governments asserting their control over each other, but rather will slowly come to resemble the Greek City states (misnomer) or the Holy roman empire's vast network of thousands of polities and war making entities.

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I'd like a citation on Napoleon saying "quantity has a quality all its own"; the paper trail on that quote is inconclusive but I'd never before seen a claim of it being pre-20C.

I first heard it attributed to Napoleon by Dan Carlin of Hardcore history

It's attributed to Stalin, usually, but source can only be traced to some US DoD consultant in 1970s.

There are apparently some sources for the Stalin quote (him only really paraphrasing Marx and Lenin) in Russian writing. The English formulation originates from the DoD guy as far as I know.

But it's the first time I'm hearing of it being attributed to Napoleon.

Apparently they found an earlier use in English (also from an American Cold War analyst)... but that use attributes it to Lenin. Hence my "inconclusive".

It was taught as part of Marxism Leninism attributed to Marx in the Eastern block. Roughly the accumulation of quantity leads to qualitative changes

It follows therefore that in proportion as quantity accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his quality high or low, must grow worse.

Around 2030 all Americans are going to have to turn on eachother and carve that missing million out of their fellow citizen… This might be millennials becoming even greater debt slaves, this might be boomers kicked out of nursing homes to beg in the streets, this might be ethnic conflict to either make the white middle-class pay 2x the income tax forever, or a violent assault on the black inner-city to destroy the millstone of welfare America once and for all and free up millions in real estate in now usafe cities… This might take the form of a communist revolution, the confiscation of all real estate, and the forcing of Americans into work camps, this might take the form of the mass slaughter of Federal employees and IRS agents so that no federal insurance schemes can ever be paid out and no pensions because the government employees are dead… This might take the form of mass Euthanasia of cancer patients, drug addicts, and the non-working… Everyone who shows up at hospital and isn’t expected to be net profitable, axe em.

Why are any of these extreme outcomes more likely than say, governments inflating away their obligations like so many have done before?

I encourage you to look up what happened in Weimar. Women being paid out on their husband's life insurance in a some of money that wouldnt buy dinner for 1 night. Mother's prostituting their daughters to afford food, the elderly starving in the street.

"Inflating it away" would be an effective default on all welfare, social security, insurance, and effective theft of all bank account balances.

It would be just as horrifying and violent an imposition it'd just be the elite and government imposing 100% of the cost on the middle class and poor. Most likely it'd result in civil war

what happened in Weimar.

Their obligations were denominated in gold marks and hard goods, and were impossible to inflate away with paper marks?

Screwing over our creditors and beneficiaries, and the middle class and the poor in the process (and the rich, too: capital "gains" taxes on purely-nominal gains still takes a bite out of people who can keep less of their savings cash-denominated, and the second-order effects are going to suck for everybody) ... obviously all that wouldn't be a good thing, but it would at least be an option.

Hyperinflation isn't a obvious and necessary conclusion of inflating away obligations. It's what happens when the government effectively goes utterly bankrupt, and can't pay any of their obligations in real terms. If your governmental shortfall is only 30-50% you can print enough to have massive sustained inflation without turning into Weimar or Argentina. It's still bad for everyone, and reduces 90% of citizen's living standards drastically, but plenty of nations have survived running double digit inflation for a decade.

Notably, hyperinflation isn’t a death knell either- Argentina is still ticking. It’s a crappier place to live than it once was, sure, but no dramatic collapse.

As Simon Kuznets' saying goes, there are four types of countries in the world: developed, undeveloped, Japan, and Argentina.

The latter two have defied the expectations of economists the world over for decades, recently in particular, and as we are now learning with the consequences of ZIRP in countries that do not utterly control the supply of their real estate, policies that justify themselves by the fact that these exceptionally weird economies have survived doing them are at best audacious and at worst ruinous.

The USA is neither Japan, nor Argentina, and has its own specificities (some of which the OP points at) that would have potentially catastrophic consequences for the entire world if it hyperinflated the dollar. The world hegemon that guarantees all shipping lanes, whose debt is the reserve currency, festooned with the most powerful army ever assembled, not to mention a competitive nuclear arsenal, suddenly unable to pay real wages to its legions? The fall of the USSR would be a cakewalk in comparison.

And, as I’ve said below, results into balkanization into smaller, poorer, but definitely in continuity regionally hegemonic empires.

The minimum inflation to keep the government from default is likely far less than Weimar experienced.

Your particular alternative doesn't work for the stated case. Inflating away obligations works if your obligations are for a specific number of a currency that you control. But here what is being claimed is an inequality between the amount of stuff produced and the amount of stuff required; no amount of macroeconomic black magic will turn 1 kg of meat into 2 kg of meat or 1 kg of steel into 2 kg of steel. If you devalue the dollar by half and don't double the nominal amount of welfare, this is effectively the same thing as cutting welfare by half. If you devalue the dollar by half and do double the nominal amount of welfare, then it still uses the same chunk of your budget as it used to and this doesn't help you get out of the hole. Same thing goes for military spending, or for civil service salaries. Interest payments on existing debt are the only thing that can be gotten rid of via inflation, because everything that cashes out in some form of real good or service scales with inflation.

The experience is Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell and in Argentina since forever shows that the state can just say - fuck you we give you 10 cents on the dollar to their citizens and they will take it and the state won't disintegrate.

"Cut spending" is definitely a real solution to deficit, and one that Kulak straight-up noted. Whether doing so would be peaceful or not I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable to comment on.

I won't address the argument about whether or not the USA is about to become the HRE because I tapped out before I got to the part about how the Pritzker Khaganate is going to protect me from the unbearable tyranny of Joe Biden. Mostly because I immediately find the historical argument dubious and somewhat hard to follow. I have attempted to summarize the proposed theory of history as follows:

  1. There are centralizing eras, characterized by state formation and the centralization of power, and decentralizing eras, characterized by state collapse and decentralization of power.
  2. Centralizing eras occur because "technological and social gaps" (unclear what this means, as you don't elaborate) and "finicky, barely technological, advances that A) are not evenly distributed and allow the powers which have them to dominate the powers that don’t, and B) require vast numbers of hierarchically organized people working together in sophisticated coordination to make it work at all". Though you also say you don't really know why centralizing eras happen.
  3. Decentralizing eras occur because of "sophisticated capital and skill intensive weapons that can be utilized by relatively few people, and which are widely distributed", such as knights and castles.
  4. Centralizing eras are extremely rare (in fact, there are only two), decentralizing eras are very common.

I don't think this is a particular compelling model of history. The core concept relies on two gerrymandered categories and the basis for these categories is doubtful (being, essentially, technological determinism). If you want to argue that there are times and places in which centralization is happening and vice versa, that’s fairly trivial. This argument goes beyond that and makes the case for a sweeping theory of technologically-driven centralization/decentralization.

The understanding of centralizing eras listed above is borderline tautological: centralization happens when a particular polity musters enough state capacity to subjugate competing power centers. True, but not a remarkable observation. That is what centralization means. You point to transportation and communication technologies, and this is a fair point, but, in what is part of a wider pattern, you put the cart before the horse. The Roman Empire doesn't collapse because they forgot how to build roads; the Roman road network falls apart because the Empire responsible for maintaining it collapses. These empires generally collapse for institutional and political reasons, not because of disruptive technological changes. Alexander's short-lived empire fractured upon his death because it didn't have the political infrastructure for a stable succession. Likewise, the British Empire fell apart after WW2 because Britain no longer had the will or means to keep ahold of its overseas territories (i.e. it was broke, exhausted, and had America breathing down its neck), not because technological diffusion made it no longer viable.

The argument that decentralizing eras occur because of the aforementioned capital/skill intensive weapons doesn't seem to hold much water either. The militaries of the Greek city-states, which you cite as an example of a decentralized era, were defined by citizen-militias. The hoplite was not an elite warrior-aristocrat; in most cases he wasn't even particular well-trained. The same is often true in other times and places as well - Anglo-Saxon armies, for example, had better equipped warrior elites, but the body of the army was comprised of militia. This pattern holds to a lesser degree even after the Norman conquest and into the early modern period - English armies are generally less aristocratic than their continental counterparts (this is painting with a very broad brush – there were comparably plebian continental armies). So, I don’t think you can say that decentralized eras are particularly defined by capital and skill intensive weapons. Sometimes they have them, sometimes they don’t.

Conversely, centralized states have forms of warfare that are almost unfathomably more capital intensive than their decentralized counterparts. No medieval polity is going to field a Romanesque army, not because they don't want to but because they can't. They can't afford to pay (or feed) hundreds of thousands of lavishly equipped professional soldiers and they couldn’t organize it even if they had the money. And as we move towards the modern era the preeminence of the knight starts to fall away - not merely because of gunpowder (though it doesn’t help), but because the re-emergence of disciplined heavy infantry and political structures capable of supporting increasingly large and increasingly professional armies. Those capital and skill intensive weapons are more likely to be found in the hands of centralized states who can afford to maintain specialized soldiers (e.g. gunners) and their equipment than decentralized entities, who are often stuck buying sophisticated weaponry if they can field it at all.

Lastly, as I said, I don't think you can sensibly talk about broad eras of centralization or decentralization without engaging in categorical gerrymandering. You cite only two examples of centralizing eras: the Alexander to Caesar era (no dates specified, so I'll just say about 334 BC to 116 AD, though I am unconvinced this marks a coherent 'era') and the modern era (1700-1945 AD). But this is what I mean when I say categorical gerrymandering – you’re arbitrarily excluding all manner of counter-examples for unclear reasons. Why only these? We've had the same two polities in the Iberian peninsula for the past 500 years after a centuries-long Reconquista, the Qin/Han Dynasties lasting for about 400 years (in fact China, despite no lack of turbulence, usually managed to pull itself back together fairly quickly), Turkish expansion, multiple Persian Empires, etc... In many cases you have periods of rapid centralization followed by rapid fragmentation (e.g. Alexander’s conquests, the Carolingian Empire). Should we count these as decentralizing or centralizing?

You acknowledge a few of these but then casually dismiss them: 'But the fact I’m giving individual dynasties or empires as “the era” kinda tells you how much these were one offs' despite the fact that many of these lasted longer than the Alexandrian-Roman era or the modern era. It’s hard not to see that as a handwave to a gaping hole in the theory. It seems like a big deal that you have centralization and decentralization in temporal and technological proximity, and it seems like eras of centralization are a lot more common than you say.

To loosely summarize: while you can point to technologies having an impact on state capacity, this theory has a tendency to reverse cause and effect. Many are as much a product of centralization (or decentralization) as a driver. Technology can allow you to exert more central control over a large territory, but centralization makes it far more viable to engage in mass infrastructure creation. Likewise, the division of history into (rare) periods of centralization and (common) periods of decentralization doesn’t match real history (a ubiquitous problem with grand theories of history), where centralizing and decentralizing trends coexist and where rapid swings between one and the other are common.


I also find many of the historical anecdotes suspect. There are too many to address systematically (and I lack the knowledge in many cases), but I wanted to pick on one I do know something about:

Fighter Jets, nuclear submarines, and Aircraft Carriers are actually far more analogous to a knights horse and armour or castle… capital intensive expensive assets that can be operated by what are historically very small groups of people. The thing currently stopping someone like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or El Chapo from owning a Aircraft Carrier or two + airfleet, or a few Nuclear Submarines + cruise missiles, and carving out a network of private enclaves isn’t capital cost or expense (on paper any of the 3 could afford the 10-20 Billion expense + 2-5b annual cost)… It is just that the US is currently maintaining its monopoly.

This analogy doesn't make sense. (Also, you later contradict it, citing an aircraft carrier as an example of a centralizing technology)

The knight is a product of decentralization, not a driver. Heavily armored cavalry was not some post-Roman revolution in military affairs. What made the knight was the breakdown of centralized government. As I mentioned above, a weak polity with a limited state apparatus doesn't have the ability to train thousands of men or source the necessary horses and armor in order to provide for a professional corps of heavy cavalry. What they do have is a nominal claim to land, which they can parcel out to loyal followers in exchange for military service. Rather than being the sharp end of a very large centralized military, knights are mostly responsible for their own training and equipment. (Variations on this pattern of military organization are pervasive in Medieval Europe, not just for knights - it's easy on organizational overhead, but you make tradeoffs in terms of efficiency, quality, and scalability).

Jets, submarines, and aircraft carriers, on the other hand, are products of an integrated economy operating under centralized states. It is not a coincidence that only a couple of countries are capable of building these, and it’s not just about money – the Gulf States have plenty of money, but they’re still buying all of their stuff (and the specialists needed to maintain them) from the people who can actually put these systems together.

Relevant OSD post that I only dimly remembered just now:

Per a comment on your Substack post, I think you missed a bit of a trick: the shrinking of the material power gap in the modern era bears a similarity to that of the Bronze Age, and will be why a coming decentralization era might be short-lived: say that the Western hegemony does collapse, the US Navy is longer able to project power across oceans, and all because of weapons most anyone can have, what does happen when the supply chains that made those weapons are thus destroyed by the very same?

Pickup trucks are fairly simple, but still rely on a somewhat complex supply chain of materials, parts, and even labor that might be difficult to piece back together after a collapse. Drones rely on tiny electronics that are not easy to manufacture, and microchips are horrendously rather centralized at the moment. And, of course, whither missiles and aircraft, you better hope you have some smart cookies in your area to be able to design these weapons. Manufacturing is more capable of being decentralized nowadays, but I think it's still mostly pretty concentrated in certain areas for good reasons.

ETA: I suppose, if anything, you could always go back to the trope, as seen in 40K and BattleTech, of old technology still being used that has been long out of print, but I imagine that, in reality, it's horrid to be in a state where you're relying on aging hardware with an ever-dwindling supply of spare parts.

Assuming you're correct do you think schools will still exist in the near/far future?

I think you’re leaving out that everyone wants services from a ‘big state’- stable currency, long range security, access to markets on favorable terms, etc. And America has, quite helpfully, lots of medium sized governments with major economies attached which can fill the void- bigger state level governments.

The median outcome for the federal government’s decline into irrelevance is federal assets defecting to Texas, California, etc which then become regional hegemons and solidify into major countries on their own right by cannibalizing nearby smaller communities. The ‘civil war’ then looks like conflicts defining the edge of each SOI. In the long run this is probably likely enough that it would be foolish for bigger state governments not to have specific plans to capitalize on it. But it being particularly likely in the next decade or so as opposed to the US being in for a rough couple decades? Maybe. I think we probably have enough assabiyah to pull together through another major crisis or two, and if rural areas have increasing control by non-state actors the system can deal with it in practice. I wouldn’t count out balkanization when the social security bill comes due either, but I still think you’re looking at regionally hegemonic empires which happen to be smaller than the current expanse of the USA.

I think you’re leaving out that everyone wants services from a ‘big state’- stable currency, long range security, access to markets on favorable terms, etc.

Well, part of the contention is that runaway government spending will destabilise the dollar.

However the details play out, the bottom line is the population is aging: the old people aren’t going to vote away their entitlements, and the young people/immigrants are going to become increasingly hostile to the idea that their labor is being siphoned into making sure boomers have a comfortable retirement. Yeah, yeah, maybe the robots will solve all this. But in the event that they don’t, this is indeed a recipe for instability.

This dynamic is only exacerbated in a world where young people increasingly feel entitled to comfy white-collar work, rather than anything contributing to real industrial productive capacity.

Whether things will collapse in exactly the way Kulak predicts, god knows. But something, sometime, is going to give. You can’t just indefinitely accumulate parasites on the backs of fewer and fewer productive people.

Notably, I did point out that 'big state' services can be provided by entities smaller than the current USFG. California issuing its own stable-enough-to-be-an-improvement-over-decentralized-solutions currency is not a thing California is likely to do, but it is a thing that California, and probably a dozen other states, are eminently capable of doing.

Yeah, reading this post and encountering the section about the HRE, I'm surprised that Kulak did not simply predict that the US would devolve into a patchwork of "tollbooth kingdoms" just like what the HRE became.

Fundamentally, I think the challenge for the US in the future, and the solution to said challenge, ultimately comes down to culture, cf. the Noah Smith complaint about us not being a culture that builds. I think where I diverge with Kulak on this whole concept of "US dying of DEI globohomo" is that I think it eminently possible for culture to shift and for the US to get on some sort of "healthier" path of governance, of ditching unproductive ideas and ideological frameworks, before the US has to ditch them the hard way via total collapse.

I agree. The thing is, Kulak craves a collapse, he yearns for it. I've seen this before 100 times on /r/collapse and many other places on the right and the left. They couch it in concerned terms but what they really want is total collapse quickly so they can step out of their boring lives and into whatever post apocalyptic power fantasy YA literature has lead them to believe.

All roads lead to collapse in Kulaks eyes, because that is what he wants to happen. Zerohedge and Michael Burry and Silverbear, peak oil, clathrate gun, rapture, global warming, hard core preppers -on and on and on; they all suffer from the same sickness.

Sometimes it is because they build their brand and their income on it, sometimes it is just a wish for a different more exciting life free of the normal drudgery, sometimes it is because, "My ideology will arise triumphant from the ashes of the old world". It never happens like they predict, even when things get shitty in this world, it happens slowly in a larger area or quickly in an isolated location like a war or natural disaster.

All this is true. And yet, collapses actually happen, have happened recently, and are likely to continue to happen.

With a worldwide technologically advanced society, it is a much different ball game. It is exceedingly unlikely that everything will collapse everywhere all at once. If that doesn't happen it is more of a setback rather than a collapse, unless you're the one getting collapsed on I suppose.

Consider Rome and the "Dark Ages", and likewise the Bronze Age collapse. It's happened before, and it will likely happen again. Will it happen soon, as in before 2030? I wouldn't bet on it, but I wouldn't bet strongly against it either. It seems like a distinct possibility, especially given the obvious trends in weapons technology. The tech that enforces our current peace is badly senile, and it looks to me like there's a lot of overhang for a really serious military disaster that I'm not sure the existing order could survive.

Those were under entirely different circumstances and the whole world would have to collapse at the same time to really set humanity back, not just one empire somewhere. We can't forget our technology, too much is recorded.

"Collapse" as in a rapid slide into warlords and mad max is just a fantasy for people who don't like how things are, don't understand how terrible that would be, and think they would be king of the ashes. Collapse aware people are just a secular doomsday cult. They always say "next year" when the appointed disaster never arrives.

I would like to agree with you, but I absolutely must push back on something:

We can't forget our technology, too much is recorded.

We can and we most certainly fucking will unless something is done in the near-ish future. Right to Repair is somewhat of a live issue now, and that it's a live issue at all is a sign of deep trouble--same with video games. We will actively create new problems or un-solve solved problems simply because it helps enrich the pocketbooks of executives. If anything, I expect a collapse to push us back to anywhere between the 1980's to the early-to-mid 2000's in terms of what technology will be left, and that's assuming things aren't quite so total that we can still set up factories and maybe reverse-engineer the more proprietary stuff.

I'm not terribly, 100% convinced that we'll see the collapse of the USA in our lifetimes, but I can easily imagine that it will start, not directly via fire, explosions, coups, civil war, or turnkey tyrrany, but it will start with numbers on balance sheets and lines on charts going down, which will cause a cascade of various services mysteriously (heavy sarcasm tone indicators optional) becoming unavailable, as people in suits order servers to be shut down, following a cold, contextless logic driven by numbers and lines.

I was at my parents for easter and my mother had found her 8th grade science notebook. She wanted to show me becauase it was actually a very neat and comprehensive guide that she had created. I literally joked, "We could rebuild society from this thing if the end times come".

I mean shit I have all of wikipedia saved. Sure we might fuck up supply chains and some manufacturing, but the knowledge of how to retool and rebuild will be absolutely everywhere in the world, plus the whole thing isn't going down at once, or maybe not at all. Even an all out nuke fest wouldn't do it.

In terms of lines going down, that has happened catastrophically many places before, but tech and humanity grinds on and improves.

Those were under entirely different circumstances and the whole world would have to collapse at the same time to really set humanity back, not just one empire somewhere. We can't forget our technology, too much is recorded.

We don't have to forget it to stop being able to make it work because too many parts of the system break down at the same time.

"Collapse" as in a rapid slide into warlords and mad max is just a fantasy for people who don't like how things are, don't understand how terrible that would be, and think they would be king of the ashes.

I think that's a fair description of most people who talk about collapse. They have no idea what they're asking for, and will curse the day of their birth if they actually have to live through it.

Crucially, I think people not understanding the innate horror of such an outcome makes the outcome more likely, not less, and I do not think such an outcome is wildly unlikely in the first place. Revolutionary outbreaks enslaved half the world in the last century and killed ~75-100 million humans. We have nukes now. Every day that passes, technology accumulates that our society doesn't really have answers for, and in most cases hasn't actually thought about. We're coasting now on the inertia of previous generations, and our social structures are visibly decaying day by day. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we're going to get hit by something unignorable, and it's an open question whether our present society can survive a serious shock. Evidence from past shocks, IE COVID and the summer of Floyd and the 2016 and 2020 elections, are not encouraging.

Despite all of those revolutionary outbreaks and enslavement and death, total world war, actual pandemics (not covid nonsense) etc..etc... humanity marches on. Will we be replaced as workers by robots and computers? Yes, but I hope in more of a Star Trek or The Culture way way instead of a Elysium or Terminator, or grey goo way. Time will tell. But it isn't going to be some kind of American Civil War part II that brings down humanity, as much as that would please @KulakRevolt

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On a long enough timeframe the USA will collapse and Balkanize, that’s true. The thesis of this thread is that it’ll happen by 2030, which is less of an obvious statement(and that furthermore that Balkanization will result in a patchwork of tiny countries with no hegemon instead of massive empires with spheres of influence).

I do think that Kulak is guilty of wishcasting, for lack of a better term. On the other hand, 2030 doesn't seem like a wildly implausible date, and I think balkanization seems like a reasonably likely outcome as well, though not nearly so likely as invasion by foreign powers invited in by one faction or another.

Why is that true? I think if anything the USA is becoming more powerful by the day. Our complete dominance of tech is only extending our cultural and military hegemony. There is an end game where tech becomes the only thing in the world that matters, if you're on top when that might be forever.

Do you think the USA will be a country in 3000 AD?

Oh so this is some kind of deep time speculation thing now? Ok. I think by 3000 AD that question won't have any meaning, but I think whatever our decedents (human/mechanical or mixed) are up to, and how far across the universe they have spread, hopefully some bot has a nostalgic subroutine and ablates their hull with the ol' stars and stripes. Shit if things work out weird over the next 40 years, it could be you!

I think on a long enough time scale it's inevitable that the USA collapses because that's just a thing that will eventually happen. I think that a confluence of crises in the neighborhood of 2030 is the most likely(this does not mean probable) near-term scenario for this, but I assign a >50% probability to the USA making it into the 22nd century in a form that is at least recognizable if probably distinctly different.

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Tollbooth kingdoms already exist. Small towns control sections of highways where the speed limit decreases suddenly to waylay unwary travelers.

Is that all? I was taking the term "tollbooth kingdom" to mean that travel across districts and such was infeasible because of wildly-differing laws as well as literal rent-seeking behavior to fuck with outsiders.