Part 1 Classical Decentralism & Technophobia
In this series I’m going to be going over a quick history of Decentralism in the 19th and 20th century and contrast it to the Decentralization movement that’s happening today. The two movements are very similar in nature but have a fundamental key difference. That’s why I’ve felt it’s helpful to slightly distinguish the two from each other referring to the past as “Classical Decentralism” and the present as “Modern Decentralism”. Having said that I simply identify as a Decentralist.
If you’re not familiar with the philosophy of decentralization, it advocates for reducing dependence on closed and coercive centralized systems of governance. Systems where large concentrations of wealth and political power have accrued. It calls for the redistribution of this power back to the public from where it was entrusted.
It argues that centralized systems of governance by design are a breeding ground for kleptocracy, corruption, and fiscal irresponsibility and that narcissistic & psychopathic personalities are naturally attracted to these systems of power. Decentralization is founded on the age-old axiom that “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
Modern day Decentralists argue to peacefully bypass these classical centralized systems and replace or integrate them with open, transparent, and decentralized systems of governance. These systems are ideally voluntary, open-source, auditable by the public, and mathematically fair.
It should be noted that the decentralized technology that can make this possible, has only become available since the revolutionary invention of Bitcoin and Blockchain Technology in 2009. These experimental forms of governance are sometimes referred to as DAO’s or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. I’ll be going over this more in Part Two.
A Quick History of Decentralism
Mentions of the term decentralization can be traced back to the early 19th century, when French Diplomat, Alexis de Tocqueville dishearteningly wrote,
“the French Revolution began with a push towards decentralization…but became in the end, an extension of centralization.”
Haymarket Anarchist Adolph Fischer echoed his sentiment in 1887, writing
“the real issue is centralism vs. decentralism, with both state socialism and capitalism”.
These decentralist pioneers invoked a vision of an alternative political axis. One that didn’t use the traditional left-right spectrum but instead used one with decentralization on one end and centralization on the other. They believed that it doesn’t matter which political ideology you’re fighting for, if you’re replacing one centralized system with another, it will always become corrupted.
This isn’t to say there wasn’t progress made or a coordinated effort. Democracy movements and inventions like the printing press made huge strides towards decentralizing monarch power in the West. Naturally, Decentralist values drew a deep parallel with the founding fathers of America.
In particular, Thomas Jefferson was a proponent for decentralized governance structure, where towns would self-govern themselves and no higher order would have power upon them, (which is ironic considering he owned slaves). Jefferson later inspired the Cascadian Independence Movement, a proposed bioregional country connecting the Pacific Northwest that would secede from the USA and Canada.
Throughout the 20th century, Decentralism developed alongside Individualist Anarchism and Social Libertarianism as an obscure political ideology and a way of living. Looking deeper, I found there was a surprisingly strong Decentralist movement in the 20th century, with perhaps the most prominent writings being 1958's “A Decentralist Manifesto” by Ralph Borsodi and 1973's “Small is Beautiful” by E.F Schumacher. There was even an International Decentralist Conference in 1996
Neo-Luddism in the 20th Century
I was surprised to find that the Decentralists of the 20th century lead by Kirkpatrick Sale and others, also identified as Neo-Luddites. Although they didn’t advocate for violence, they saw large-scale/complex technology as an ever-increasing means for centralizing monolithic power. They believed that as the industrial age grew, it robbed people of their sense of responsibility, and instead made them co-dependent drones who were voided of a free and fulfilling life.
Because of this, like Thomas Jefferson, they were interested in the relocalization of communities and fending off what they called “Giantism”. They saw homesteading as a way of devolving political power back to small communities that self-governed at a “human scale” and advocated for what’s now known as “appropriate technology”, or, technology that operates at the appropriate “human-scale”. They believed that reducing dependence on centralized power would give them a more empowered life because it would allow them to be responsible for their own destiny. They believed that if we gave into large-scale technology and modern city life, a new dark-age of centralization would be upon us.
Free / Open Source Software Ethos, and Ethical Technology.
The concerns and superstitions classical Decentralists have of technology might be expiated by the philosophy of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Movement. Stallman once wrote,
“With software, there are only two possibilities: either the users control the program or the program controls the users. If the program controls the users, and the developer controls the program, then the program is an instrument of unjust power.”
Stallman understood that, as we now have seen with the Snowden Revelations, closed and proprietary software could potentially give “the powers that be” (or hackers) an unprecedented amount of power over everyday people. Instead, Stallman advocates that software should be free to be shared as a public good so it can be replicated and modified between people and cultures as a means for increasing human freedom.
This is the same philosophy which helped birth Linux and the Open-Source movement, and in turn birthed the Wikipedia, Wikileaks, Creative Commons, Khan’s Academy and Craig’s Magnificent List!
Apart from software, the ethos of the Free Software/Open Source movement has also inspired the sharing of free and open designs for creating hardware and 3D printable items.
Even the original concept of “appropriate technology” from Decentralist pioneer E.F. Schumacher has naturally morphed into what’s known as the Open-Source Appropriate Technology movement. It’s described in Wikipedia as
“on the one hand, technology designed with special consideration to the environmental, ethical, cultural, social, political, and economic aspects of the community it is intended for. On the other hand, technology that is developed in the open and licensed in such a way as to allow their designs to be used, modified and distributed freely.”
Although I applaud the 20th century Decentralists for stressing the more human side of decentralization (something technologists often overlook), their technophobic stance is where I see the distinction between Classical Decentralism and Modern Decentralism.
I wonder how classical Decentralists would view technology based on the liberating spirit of the Open Source / Free Software movement. Technology is always a double edged sword but I would argue utilizing Open, Free, and Decentralized technology is probably the only practical way to decentralize big power.
In part two of this series I’ll be going more into detail about the Decentralization movement that’s happening today and how the Internet, Bitcoin and Blockchain technology has evolved Decentralism into the 21st century!