The End of Politics—Part Two
As humanity decentralizes, our moral norms will change, too
SEPTEMBER 03, 2014 by MAX BORDERS
This is the second in a two-part series. You can find part one here.
In the early 1990s, the nervous system of a new global order began to emerge. Twenty years on, a generation of children raised online has reached adulthood. What does this mean for the future of human social organization?
Three important things, among others, perhaps. Digital natives are:
- Used to the concept of “exit.” If you don’t like some product, service, operating system, or social media group, you can switch.
- Comfortable with forming and maintaining relationships online. These relationships can be intimate, casual, or impersonal.
- Cynical about politics as a process and means of making positive change. Give them a relatively low-cost alternative and they’ll be fine to adopt it—like downloading an app.
Once the bulk of digital natives come to think of today’s politics as obsolete, we’ll be in for some interesting times.
The architecture of the Web has already shown the world what’s possible in terms of upgrading our democratic operating system (DOS). This is true both in the sense that our new social technologies are like our online technologies, and in the sense that our online technologies enable new social technologies to emerge. Little platoons are already emerging on the spine of the blockchain, for example. And just as Lyft and Uber are showing taxi cartels how it’s done (or as Kickstarter is showing the NEA how it’s done, or as Bitcoin is showing the Federal Reserve how it’s done) new parallel governance structures will soon show State hierarchies around the world how it’s done.
What might the world look like when this process is further along? It’s hard to predict. But the network architectures show the way, and examples like the Morning Star Company give us an early look, perhaps. Inc. editor-at-large Leigh Buchanan writes:
Morning Star calls what it practices self-management. But it is also mutual management. Employees' decisions about what they will do are determined largely by their commitments to others. You know what you need from me to do your best possible work, and I know what I need from you to do mine.…
When he first learned of Morning Star's bossless model, "I thought it sounded pretty cool," says Brian Hagle, whose job involves evaporating water from tomato juice. Twenty-two years later, he still feels that way. "It's almost like every one of us is manager or CEO," says Hagle. "We set our goals high, and they're our goals, so when we meet them, there's a real feeling of achievement."
In other words, Morning Star has abandoned formal hierarchies. That doesn’t mean leaders don’t emerge. It means no one issues commands or lords power over others. The company's employees operate more as a hive brain. People have to persuade teammates to take this path or that. The hierarchical firm explained by the late Ronald Coase has been replaced by a dynamic company with radically different social technology. Once companies realize that Morning Star dominates tomato processing, other companies will try to emulate the model to dominate their own spaces. (Companies like Valve and Zappos have already integrated their own Morning Star-like models.)
Once one appreciates that networks are a superior social technology for handling increased complexity, one has two options: Try to make the world less complex or change your social technology. And that is one reason why I think decentralization—phase transition—is inevitable. Great hierarchical powers will have to accommodate and facilitate decentralization, or they will collapse.
Which leads me to my second reason for thinking that decentralization is inevitable. Call it “the great inversion.” As Foundation for Economic Education COO Carl Oberg puts it:
This is a development that turns the very logic of political action on its head. Thanks to technology and the distributed nature of networks, we are no longer beholden to the political process, majoritarian rule, and the so-called “fair” tax and fiat money regime. The more of the economy we move to the Internet, the safer we will be and the more distributed power becomes.
If democratic governance is meant to shore up hierarchies, but networks eventually supplant hierarchies, then democratic governance will only be as valuable as it goes toward sustaining these new social structures.
Accepting this evolutionary view for the sake of conversation, what if I then told you that a clash is coming? What if I told you we are in the process of fundamentally changing the way we organize ourselves in many different areas of life, and that the resolution of this clash will usher in a very different era? What if this clash will not only shake out the dominant players in various economic sectors, but yield new, superior social technologies for the 21st century? What if I told you that, if the transition successfully completes, we could be entering a new era of material plenty and social consciousness—perhaps with its own set of norms and mores?
“I believe there is going to be a great struggle between fundamentally different ways of organizing people,” said Whole Foods Founder and Chairman John Mackey in his Austin offices. “You can organize them, or they can organize themselves.” Due to this coming clash, Mackey agrees that transition might not be terribly smooth. But he intimated that, once things settle, the world will be a better place. And Mackey already applies this kind of thinking to his enterprise.
The resolution of this coming struggle may not be final. After all, human social organization is a product of the creatures that live in us. In terms of our genetic heritage, we are still very much those feral clansfolk who murdered each other over food and territory during the Paleolithic. But the cost of domination is getting higher. And the rewards of collaboration are immense.
If the world is indeed moving toward self-organization, what will happen to our moral world?
In part one of this article, I talked about the possibility that humanity may really be undergoing this phase transition, and that this transition could usher in a post-political state of affairs.
Now I’d like to turn our attention to the moral order.
Systems of survival
I follow Hayek to some degree in his theory of cultural evolution. Under Hayek’s theory, cultures embrace norms and traditions as far as these work to the benefit of those who adopt them. But such an embrace only goes so far, as norms and traditions have to run the gauntlet of change. In this way, formal institutions and moral norms can coevolve. Moral norms can change the rules and the incentives that give rise to such rules. And, of course, new rules can give rise to new norms.
In her book Systems of Survival, urbanist Jane Jacobs unpacked two “syndromes” or value clusters. According to Jacobs, these clusters exist in order to preserve systems of human survival, hence the title. One cluster, which she calls “guardian syndrome,” is more or less a set of human values that tends to preserve hierarchy. The other, which Jacobs calls “commercial syndrome,” tends to coevolve with emerging networks.
Now, let’s take the 30,000-foot view and add another syndrome. Call it “clan syndrome.” As I alluded to above, clans were smaller communal groups that had to share to survive in the Stone Age. Prior to their phase transition to hierarchy, these clan groups had their own cluster of values that might looks something like this:
- Shun hoarding; share surpluses and tolerate foraging failures
- Expect others to share surpluses
- Be gracious
- Venerate the family/clan
- Participate in cyclical feasts and ceremonies
- Signal that you care and that you’re good
- Keep the wisdom of ancestors and the elderly
- Avoid shame
- Fear other clans and protect your own
- Don’t leave the group or get ostracized
- Understand that private property is limited and transferable
- Contribute work; monitor and punish shirking in others
Respect totems and taboos, including gift giving (totem) and hoarding (taboo)
The tendency of certain values to coevolve with survival systems has interesting implications: Most human beings possess all three syndromes to varying degrees. From the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, we’re still clan peoples. Rather than recreating the nature/nurture debates here, just suppose I’m right and we’re all still saddled with these moral dispositions. In some people, clan syndrome is going to be stronger—to feel stronger. In others, guardian syndrome will predominate, and some people will exhibit commercial syndrome traits far more readily. Of course, as syndromes overlap, we might get even more interesting moral species.
We are not fully at the will of our genetic programming. As we’ve said, at the level of the group, moral syndromes probably coevolve with survival (incentive) systems, as people will often revise their commitments in the face of strong incentives. The instincts are still there, but perhaps buried. And, indeed, many of us will suppress syndrome traits as we are impressed by rhetoric or rational argument from masters of other syndromes’ moral languages. Marx and Engels will offer alternatives to Smith and Ricardo even though the former are writing in support of older syndromes and less sophisticated social structures.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt reminds us:
If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense. Keep your eye on the intuitions, and don’t take people’s moral arguments at face value. They’re mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly, crafted to advance one or more strategic objectives.
In all of our political wrangling, moralizing, and wars, commitments within multiple syndromes operating all at once mean humanity undergoes no seamless phase transitions. Ideas become complex intellectual latticeworks around these evolving phases and their accompanying values. In some sense, this is the power of ideology: Ideas and our very human affects operate in close tandem. And that’s one reason why people will fight for ideology—either in jungles or in politics. Ancient syndromes can reawaken in us. And phase transitions proceed in fits and starts.
But they do proceed. And as these transitions reshape the incentive structures of humanity, the moral universes of humanity get reshaped, too. And, of course, moral universes can affect the incentive structures, too. With due respect to Dierdre McCloskey, each can pull the other along. This co-evolution of institutions and moral syndromes should make us pause a bit before accepting notions of transcendent virtues, moral foundations, or universalistic theories of the right and the good. Without rekindling debates about the relationship between institutions and ideas, or debates about the existence of moral absolutes, I will instead suggest that taking a systems view of morality and human progress can lead us to appreciate what lies ahead.
A new syndrome
With a new structural reality emerging, a la Jane Jacobs, a new syndrome is likely to emerge. This largely transpartisan, post-political state of affairs will not be some techno-utopia. It will come with its own set of problems. Human history, however, despite some fits and starts, will at the very least bring the phrase “all politics is local” back into fashion. People increasingly will exercise “voice” within tighter communities of practice to convince members to go along with their way of seeing things. But as we build a great, conceptual open-source layer over the globe, the mores of a new syndrome will come to dominate our behavior both online and in meatspace. We can already see shoots of this new cluster of moralisms. Perhaps it will look something like this:
- Shun politics
- Be experimental
- Share (and prepare for) abundance
- Be open and tolerant of diversity
- Use collaboration and creativity
- Join communities of agreement
- Use “voice” and “exit” to change
- Criticize by creating
- Be empathic
- Cultivate trust systems
- Invest both consciously and wisely
- Connect easily with strangers
- Promote experience and flourishing
Some aspects of the prior syndrome will seem at odds with network syndrome, but it might just be a more conscientious version of commercial syndrome: commercial syndrome 2.0, if you will. In any case, there will be less and less room for guardian syndrome—and somewhat paradoxically, perhaps, more room for clan syndrome at the local level.
Whither democracy: opt-in governance
In one sense, decentralization is a form radical democracy. That is, at any given moment, someone can fork a social technology and start something new. People can migrate to the new system, voting with their phones, their boats or their feet. But in another sense, this is not the king-of-the-mountain democracy of Democrats, Republicans, and Tammany Hall. It’s radical federalism. It’s opt-in governance. It is a fluid order of shifting values, continuous innovation, and the power of lateral relationships. It’s Tocqueville’s nation of joiners on steroids. And in this fluid order, politics and hierarchy—at least as we know them—will soon be obsolete.