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aus: https://globalgovernanceprogramme.eui.eu/new-network-sovereignties-the-rise-of-non-territorial-states/ ˧

New Network Sovereignties: the rise of non-territorial states?

Introduction by Primavera De Filipi: ˧

https://globalgovernanceprogramme.eui.eu/new-network-sovereignties-the-rise-of-non-territorial-states/2/ ˧

Network Sovereignties in the Context of Macrohistorical Patterns

https://globalgovernanceprogramme.eui.eu/new-network-sovereignties-the-rise-of-non-territorial-states/4/ ˧

By Michel Bauwens, P2P Foundation ˧

In my response to Primavera’s excellent overview of where we are anno 2024 with the development of the ideas and practices around network nations, network states, and more generally ‘CoordiNations?’, I want to draw on historical precedents, as we can learn from them in the classic accounts of macro-historians. So the basic argument is that there have been previous ‘non-local’ forms of governance, and that it is likely that this previous historical experience is to some degree significant for what is happening or possible today. My focus will be on explaining key concepts of these macro-historians, and to see whether they shed a particular light on the issue of the relation between a world governed by territorial powers, and a world governed by non-territorial powers. ˧

For example, according to Arnold Toynbee, in his Study of History, the civilizational model, based on markets and state forms, is fundamentally different from the kinship-based tribal model in that ‘civilization’ is a specific ‘geographic response’ deriving from a mixture of local and non-local people. ˧

For Toynbee, the creation of civilizations are prompted by human responses to ecological challenges, such as climate change. In particular, the original Sumerian civilization is seen by him to be a creative response to the drying up of North Africa and the swampification of Mesopotamia. This forced human communities who wanted ‘to stay put’, to master nature, in particular the cycle of flooding in the delta’s. This was done so that they could remain in these places, where they had learned to practice agriculture, which allowed much larger surpluses, and thus larger productive populations as well as a division of labor to sustain various new types of expertise, generating more and faster innovation. ˧

The generic point I want to make here is that the civilizational model is essentially a geographic-based response, prompted by the decision for a population to stay in a particular territory, and with civilization being based on a particular relation between the sedentary farming populations and the cities, usually originally controlled by a ‘invading force’ of ‘nomadic’ origin. The latter is where the elites are based who will manage the overall productive system, based on a new division of labor, supported by armies that are separate from the population, most often recruited from the surrounding ‘barbarian’ tribes, and managed by a new class that masters the art of writing. ˧

If that definition of civilization is accepted, that means that the creation of a non-local digital layer of infrastructure, which allows for the massive self-organization and mutual coordination of trans-local projects, is in itself a fundamental challenge to the civilizational model as we have known it for the last five thousand years. ˧

(See in this collection, how Vitalik Buterin highlights the problems around visas, which is a permanent threat to digital nomads and remote translocal workers[1], and his proposal of how this could be solved trans-nationally with network nations acting on behalf of their members.). ˧

The nature of this 5,000 year shift is expressed brilliantly by Viktor Glushkov, who attempted, but failed to create a digital coordination of the planned economy in the Soviet Union: ˧

“In Vitaly Moev’s book-interview “The Reins of Power”, Viktor Glushkov proposed the idea that humanity in its history has passed through two “information barriers”, as he called them using the language of cybernetics. Two thresholds, two management crises. ˧

The first arose in the context of the decomposition of the clan economy and was resolved with the emergence, on the one hand, of monetary-commercial relations and, on the other, of a hierarchical management system, in which the superior manager directs the subordinates, and these the executors. ˧

Starting in the 1930s, according to Glushkov, it becomes clear that the second “information barrier” is coming, when neither hierarchy in management nor commodity-money relations help anymore. The cause of such a crisis is the inability, even with the participation of many actors, to cover all the problems of economic management. ˧

Viktor Glushkov said that according to his calculations from the 1930s, solving the management problems of the Soviet economy required some 1014 mathematical operations per year. At the time of the interview, in the mid-1970s, already about 1016 operations. If we assume that one person without the help of machinery can perform on average 1 million operations a year, then it turns out that about 10 billion people are needed to maintain a well-run economy. Next, we will present the words of Victor Glushkov himself: ˧

From now on, only ‘machineless’ management efforts are not enough. Humanity managed to overcome the first information barrier or threshold because it invented monetary-commercial relations and the pyramidal management structure. The invention that will allow us to cross the second threshold is computer technology. ˧

A historical turn in the famous spiral of development takes place. When an automated state management system appears, we will easily grasp the entire economy at a single glance. In the new historical stage, with new technology, in the next turn of the dialectical spiral, we are as if “floating” over that point of the dialectical spiral below which, separated from us by millennia, was the period when the subsistence economy of man was easy to see with the naked eye.” ˧

But, paradoxically, the specific point we want to make in this response, is that there have been prefigurations of this non-local challenge, and though they were not based on digital technology, they were based on important advances in communication and transportation technologies[1]. We believe it is of interest to look at these earlier experiences, in order to better understand the challenge of the digital today. ˧

– Vasiliy Pikhorovic, paraphrasing Viktor Glushkov[2] ˧

Oswald Spengler on the Religions as Non-Territorial Entities

We start with the work of Oswald Spengler: the Decline of the West. ˧

An interesting aspect of Spengler’s classic work is his analysis of the role of religions as trans-national communities. The Caliph, and the authority figures like the Pope, are originally not territorial administrators, but governors of trans-national faith communities. It is only later that the imperial structures may force a fusion of both territorial and non-territorial governance, since a unified spirituality is a great aid in creating an imperial consensus around the central institutions. ˧

For background, Spengler considers civilizations to be ‘organic’ entities, which last about one thousand years, united around a common ‘spiritual’ response to the tragedy of human life, the so-called ‘prime symbol’. He divides their ‘evolution’ in a dynamic early period of 500 years which he considers as ‘Cultures’ (the spring and summer time of a civilizational entity, marked by innovation), followed by five hundred years in which they switch to the Civilization model, marked by the existence of a universal state which covers the whole civilizational area, but is no longer creative, but rather ‘replicates’ its model through militarism and commercialism (the autumn and winter period). Spengler discusses the local nature of the polis-based ‘pagan’ religious worship in the early centuries of the Hellenic civilization, with every polis having its own local deities that it must worship to thrive and survive. But as the civilization switches from its decentralized competitive era to its centralizing imperial era, new religious communities start emerging, which are meant to be non-local and scale across the empire, if not beyond it. And the paradox is that it is especially the imperial unity that creates the capacity for unifying trans-local religions to spread across these vast areas, using the pacified transportation and communication vectors, and operating across tribal and clan boundaries. There would not have been a St. Paul without the capacity for peaceful travel, maintained by the Pax Romana. ˧

Many macrohistorians, not just Spengler, but Toybnee, Quigley and Ibn Khaldun stress that civilization is always a mix between pacified (disarmed) sedentary and tax-paying farming and urban populations, and the nomadic barbarians that eventually capture these lands, becoming the new ruling class, until a new and more vigorous tribe from the (semi)periphery overtakes the power over the civilization. Toynbee adds a twist by outlining the particular combination of the invading tribes, with the emerging universal churches that are the result of the proletarian self-organization. Since the new rulers are not able to administer the conquered lands themselves, they rely on that portion of the former elite class which is in charge of the universal religious institutions. Hence the merger between the Franks and the Catholic Church, to take but one example. Toynbee’s dialectic between universal state and universal church, and the role of nomadic invaders. ˧

Toynbee’s The Study of History, originally in twelve volumes, gives a richer detail about the interaction between not two, but three actors: ˧

The declining civilizational elite, which morphs from being the creative minority that created the civilization, towards a dominant minority that increasingly uses violence to maintain itself, as it loses its legitimacy as well as its capacity to care for its core populations. It thereby creates an increasingly larger ‘internal proletariat’, itself a mixture of the declassed internal populations, and the slaves and their descendants which have been imported from the conquered territories. Toynbee echoes the Spenglerian thesis that the universal state form that takes over the civilizational area after the exhaustion of its competitive and decentralized era, eventually declines in turn. ˧

In the phase of the decline of the universal state or empire, the increasingly dissatisfied internal proletariat turns to the creation of new solidarity mechanisms through the creation of universal religions. These religions are often imported from the periphery, but spread easily because of the pacification of the Empire, finding a fertile ground because the tribal solidarities have already disappeared. At the same time, the weakening of the Empire’s defensive capabilities, and the internal depopulation, creates the conditions for new invasions by barbarian peoples, often those already previously hired as defenders of the Empire. Seeking a ‘civilizational upgrade’ themselves, in order to master the management of more complex societies, the nomadic invaders themselves, turn to the universal churches. A new synthesis is created, which may then create the basis for a new civilizational cycle. So notice here that two nomadic elements, i.e. the roaming people from the frontier, and the originally ‘trans-local’ faith communities, enter into some kind or merger of synthesis, which lays the groundwork for a new form of societal organization. ˧

Quigley will then show us what the mechanism is for this new synthesis to take root, through institutional innovation. ˧

Carrol Quigley’s Instruments of Expansion

Carrol Quigley’s Evolution of Civilizations, introduces the key concept of ‘instruments of expansion’, which can be applied to commons-centric institutions. Please note that Quigley does not stress, as I do here below, the specific role of commons-based institutions, in the civilizational recovery process. My argument here is that mutualized ‘instruments of expansion’ , which emerge in periods of particular deep crisis, are instrumental in regenerating the civilizational process at crucial moments in history, and in particular during what is generally called ‘dark ages’. But let’s first explain the dynamic process of civilization creation and destruction, as proposed by Carroll Quigley. ˧

He described a seven stage theory of the histories of civilizations which he tested successfully on about a dozen different historical civilizations. ˧

The first stage is ‘Mixture’, and that may sound strange, but the only way to break through traditional kin-ship based tribal custom is a foreign invasion, which forces the two contending groups to arrive at some kind of innovative consensus, and that means the customs of both side must be creatively adapted. Thus, a new culture response model is born, which will eventually define the core value of a civilization. The recent bestseller, ‘Selective Breeding and the Birth of Philosophy’ is an illustration of this process, as it shows how it is precisely the invading militarized aristocratic invasion which creates the conditions for philosophy to emerge, in Classical Greece. ˧

The second stage is ‘Gestation’ in which the new civilizational response is actually born, and the seed forms of the new order are emerging. For Europe, for Spengler and Toynbee, this was 998 AD or so, when the new Germanic dynasty of the Ottonians, created a new synthesis between their own Germanic tradition and their absorption of the legacy of Roman christianity, as expressed by the Catholic Church[4]. ˧

After Gestation comes Stage 3, the expansion. This expansion occurs when the civilization has come at a process which allows it to generate or extract value, and to re-invest it in the expansion of that very process. This is what Quigley calls an ‘instrument of expansion’ and it stops working when this process degenerates into an ‘institution’ which only cares about itself, and no longer focuses on the task it had on behalf of its civilization. Quigley gives three examples of working ‘instruments of expansion’ which worked for Western Europe, and each time degenerated. The first was feudalism, which became self-absorbed chivalry; the second was commercial capitalism, which became state-dominated mercantilism, and the third was ‘industrial capitalism’, which degenerated into monopoly capitalism. When this stage ends, it becomes stage 4, the Age of Conflict, as no new instrument of expansion is invented. ˧

I will take the period of formation of feudalism to make a particular argument, namely that these instruments can be commons-based, and that in this particular case, they were born from the originally trans-local faith-based communities, thus creating a particularly innovative form of dual sovereignty, a mixture of locally-based feudal sovereignty, based on the logic of military power of the aristocratic class, descendents of the once invading Germanic warlords, and a trans-local sovereignty, based on the trans-local faith-based communities which had evolved into the networks of the Catholic Church. ˧

What I also want to show here is how instrumental commons-based instruments of expansion in creating the conditions for a restoration of the European continent from the devastation of the ‘Dark Age’ after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. These commons-based organizations were religious communities, which, while being instrumental for the geographic expansion of the European cultural sphere, were just as much non-territorial, since obtaining and exploiting territory was at the service of spreading and consolidating a particular spiritual worldview. It would lead to the co-existence of what was an intensely localized civilizational order, the domain-based feudalism, to a trans-national spiritual organizing force, the Catholic Church, aided by its mutualized congregations. ˧

In the fifth century, the imperial structure of the Western Roman Empire had broken down, but many political structures of Roman times persisted and were used by the new Germanic overlords[5]. However, in the 8th century, when the Muslims armies took the control of the Mediterranean, Western Europe’s collapse accelerated, the premature dream of Charlemagne’s re-unification collapsed, with the Muslims reaching Poitiers, south of Paris; the Vikings coming all the way to Normandy, and the Avars, a Turcic nomadic people, coming from the East. The response to this collapse was feudalism, a distributed system of local defense, which created a class of fighters, the knights, supported by the tribute of the now land-bound farming populations. This new structure, aided by the continental unity of the Catholic Papacy, turned the situation around, and created the potential not just for defense, but for expansion, eastwards towards the Slavic lands, and southward towards the Muslim lands of the Middle Eastern shores. This in turn served to recreate the conditions of safe commerce that would regenerate the Italian cities. ˧

Therefore, we conclude that these mutualized processes, linked to a vital trans-local element, played a vital role in the rebirth of this new civilization in Western Europe. ˧

The reason is simple: a mutualized structure, a commons with shared infrastructures, keeps the surplus invested in the process of expansion and is not lost to private luxury expenses. ˧

Think of it this way: ˧

First, the military congregations, like the Teutonic order in Eastern Europe, and the Templars for the Crusades, ‘clear the land’. Similarly, when the Cossacks learned to master the maritime defense of the large river systems on what would become Russia, allowed them to stop forever the nomadic Mongol invasions, and it is this securing of a safe space which created the new civilization that would become dominated by Russian Orthodoxy. Toynbee stresses the ‘congregational’ nature of the Cossack military. ˧

Second came the craft-agrarian congregations. When Rome lost access to the Egyptian granaries, the Italian population starved, but the Benedictines restored agricultural production all over Italy, in a few decades, virally expanding the monastic congregations through ‘swarming’; Five centuries later, the Cistercensiers repeated this process for the whole of Western Europe, creating enough surplus to allow the resurrection of the cities, such as those of Italy, northern France, the Low Countries, and in Germany and the Baltic region. These cities were very frequently ‘free cities’ run by the guilds, the mutualized organizations of the crafts. It is only later that merchant guilds, and then individual merchant families such as the Medici, would create the system of capital, and the new instrument of expansion that was ‘commercial capitalism’. But this new instrument of expansion occurred after five hundred years of preserving and regenerative activity in the period of the dark age interregnum, and then in the commons-based ‘extractive’ phase starting in the 11th century. ˧

As we indicated before our disgression, it is when this process of recreating an instrument of expansion fails, that Stage 4, the Age of Conflict ensues. Think of the period of contending states in China, the wars between the Greek city alliances in the Hellenic Sphere, and the wars between Italian city-states in the 14-15th century as well as the first Hundred Years War. ˧

The answer to this crisis is imperial unification, Stage 5, the creation of Empires as ‘universal states’ that cover the whole of the civilizational sphere, and are usually dominated by forces that emerged from its periphery, as often, the core areas are already exhausted through their recurrent conflicts. By this time, the real civilizational creativity is already gone, argues Spengler, but there is a process of replication. Note that in the Western sphere, any unified attempt at a ‘universal empire, such as Napoleon or Hitler, failed, and the imperial phase took the form of democratic nation-states organized around the hegemonic power of the U.S. ˧

Eventually, these Empires will decay in turn, that is Stage 6, and it will then be eventually subjected to an invasion which destroys it, Stage 7. How this helps us explain Crypto ? ˧

I am offering a phased interpretation of the role of crypto-based institutions, to make my thesis clear,and I will relate this interpretation to potential analogies with macro-history. ˧

Dating from the invention and development of the microchip technology (from the 1970s onwards), digital technologies are initially used by corporate and state institutions, laying the groundwork for the coordination of global supply chains by large private commercial firms, aided by trans-national financial flows and the neoliberal institutions of the Washington Consensus. ˧

In 1993, the invention of the browser and the Web democratized the conditions of access to the internet, and created a massive push for the mutualization of shared knowledge, code and design. This is the emergence of ‘commons-based peer production’ as first defined by Yochai Benkler, and of the open source / free software / open design ecosystems, which succeeded in creating global ‘holoptical’ ecosystems[6] for the global coordination of associated labor. But the open source paradigms, with its copyleft licensing scheme that allows the entry of large corporations, while leaving the core of the network collaborators and maintainers unpaid or underpaid, create the conditions for the corporate influence in these corporate ecosystems. Nevertheless, the creation of a joint set of infrastructures for the global coordination of labor outside the control of single firms and governments, is a major pivot in the history of the productive forces. ˧

The invention of Bitcoin, as the first globally scalable and socially sovereign currency, with its blockchain and then all the other crypto-based derivatives, is a major second step. Whereas open source allowed for the distributed coordination of labor, crypto-based self-infrastructuring created the conditions for the payment of that open source and community-based cooperative ‘neo-Venitian’ labor and capital. Paradoxically, its ‘capitalist’ and speculative elements at the same time insured a flow of capital. In a second step, forces in the crypto economy, found solutions to finance their own commons-based developed, inventing techniques for the financing of ‘public goods’, often using partially ‘anti-oligarchic’ systems of collective choice. ˧

This occurred at the same time as the exponential rise of mutual provisioning systems in the declining urban systems that we have documented in a report for the commons transition in the city of Ghent, Belgium, and which is creating a first generation of ‘cosmo-local’ productive ecosystems, which we have described in the ‘Cosmo-Local Reader’. Indeed, whereas most commons-centric city initiatives are still focused on the consumption side (mutualizing use of capital-produced goods), the new cosmo-local initiatives have started considering production itself. ˧

My suggestion is that what is missing, as the third stage of digitally enabled global productive networks, is the potential fusion of productive ecosystems with the coordination infrastructure developed by crypto communities. We are far from having achieved this, but there are some signs of initiatives going in that direction, such as a planned Gitcoin funding round on distributed manufacturing that will be coordinated by Sensorica. CoordiNations? ˧

This brings us to the concept of CoordiNations?, as pioneered by Primavera de Filippi et al. While the concept of Network States by Balaji Srivanasan has strong libertarian and venture-capitalist undertones, the CoordiNations? offers a broader canvass to understand the current evolution, which is not dominated by private city projects, but by a wide variety of cosmo-local collaborations. ˧

Following the pioneering work of Tiberius Brastaviceanu et al. on creating ‘Fourth Sector’ forms of collaboration, in which a networked commons becomes the meta-organizational structure of both the older 3 forms (state, private, non-profit) and of distributed productive associationism, different attempts are underway to finance the deployment of these new networks: ˧

<the “fourth sector”: a hybrid of the state, the market, and the nonprofit sector – including foundations and NGOs – all interacting in a system of open cooperation and operated by a network of peer-to-peer nodes. This network’s mission is to organize our public goods and our commons, using systems of cooperation and modularity that are interoperable between all these entities.>[7] ˧

One recent example is the proposal by Hugo Mathecowitsch, which proposes an appropriate financial system, based on a new type of agent with alternative sovereignties: ˧

<We are currently living in a system where economic flows are organized by the State or by private companies. We wish to establish sovereign bonds but for alternative types of sovereignties, such as consensual communities that establish their own nation and social contract. We seek to capitalize on the social capital, NFTs, real assets, and even GDP of these communities, using tokenization to finance these companies.> (ibid) ˧

So we believe this is the frontier today: a synthesis of local but interconnected regenerative production initiatives, but with a digital identity, associated with new forms of recognized non-territorial sovereignty, that can initiate flows of ‘capital for the commons’, and ‘reverse cooptation’ of the geographic-capital system (the Capital-State-Nation system identified by Kojin Karatani). ˧

The challenge of the new ‘fourth civilizational’ order, based on ‘fourth sector’ organizational models, is the new synthesis between geography and the trans-local, under the cosmo-local conditions of the meta-crisis, that can be tools for the emergence of a new type of planetary commons, going beyond the current ‘global commons’ based on inter-state cooperation. ˧


  • [1] https://disinformationchronicle.substack.com/ ˧
  • [2] Source: https://cosmonautmag.com/2022/07/glushkov-and-his-ideas-cybernetics-of-the-future-by-vasiliy-pikhorovich/ ˧
  • [3] This relation is outlined in: Innis, Harold. (2007) Empire and Communications. Toronto: Dundurn Press, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empire_and_Communications ˧
  • [4] Oswald Spengler’s theory of ‘Prime Symbols’ is dedicated to understanding these primary choices of a civilizational, as is the four-part comparison by Keith Chandler in Beyond Civilization. ˧
  • [5] The period between the 5th and 8th cy. are often considered as ‘Late Antiquity’ for that reason. ˧
  • [6] “Holopticism”is a combination of Greek words holos (whole, holistic, all), optiké (vision), and tekhné (art, technique). Much like the way in which a fly uses its special eye to view the world in a multi-faceted manner, holopticism expresses the capacity for players in a given organization (or group) to perceive the emerging whole of that organization (or group) as if it were a unique entity, be it in a natural physical space or an online space (virtual)… A holoptical space is a space in which each participant gets a live perception of the ‘Whole.’ Each player, thanks to his/her experience and expertise, relates to this “Whole” in order to adjust his/her actions and coordinate them with others’ moves. Therefore there is an unceasing round trip, a feedback loop that works like a mirror between the individual level and the collective one. Collective Intelligence Research Institute, Definition of Holopticism: https://cir.institute/holopticism/ ˧
  • [7] A system of sovereign bonds but for alternative types of sovereignties? Tools for interoperable, sovereign, digital, regenerative commons. By Hugo Mathecowitsch. Fourth Generation Civilization Substack, https://4thgenerationcivilization.substack.com/p/a-system-of-sovereign-bonds-but-for ˧