Most broadly, Social Futurism stands for positive social change through technology; i.e. to address social justice issues in radically new ways which are only just now becoming possible thanks to technological innovation. If you would like some introduction to Social Futurist ideas, you can read the introduction page at wavism.net and there are links to articles at http://IEET.org listed at the top of this post. In this post I will discuss the Social Futurist alternative to Liberal Democratic and Authoritarian states, how that model fits with our views on decentralization and subsidiarity, and its relevance to the political concept of a “Third Way“.
The following post is part of a series, and also related to two earlier posts about the political philosophy of Social Futurism:
The first post in this series offered some strong but necessarily brief criticisms of Liberal Democracy, essentially saying that not only does it not deliver the promised freedom and democracy but that it and non-Western Authoritarian regimes are united in a kind of Corporatist symbiosis. The aim of this second post is to discuss a few aspects of the Social Futurist alternative that I advocate.
1. The Virtual, Distributed, Parallel (VDP) State
One of the ideas proposed in the “Social Futurist policy toolkit” is known as the VDP State. The idea is described as follows in the article linked above:
We advocate the establishment of communities with powers of self-governance known as VDP States, where VDP stands for “Virtual, Distributed, Parallel”. ‘Virtual’ refers to online community, orthogonal to traditional geographic territories. ‘Distributed’ refers to geographic States, but ones where different parts of the community exist in different locations, as a network of enclaves. ‘Parallel’ refers to communities that exist on the established territory of a traditional State, acting as a kind of organizational counterpoint to that State’s governing bodies. Two or three of these characteristics may be found in a single VDP State, but it is expected that most such communities would emphasise one characteristic over the others. Alternatively, a VDP State may emphasise different characteristics at different stages in its development.
Given Social Futurist emphasis on voluntarism, VDP State citizenship must be entirely voluntary. Indeed, the entire point of the VDP State is to broaden the range of governance models which people may voluntarily choose to engage with, where they are currently told that they simply have to accept a single model of governance.
For the purposes of this article, there are three aspects of the VDP State (VDPS) idea to think about. One is the question of how a VDPS can avoid the problematic trappings of Authoritarianism, Corporatism, and Liberal Democracy. Another is the relationship between the VDPS and its citizens. Finally, we must also consider the matter of feasibility; How can such a thing seriously be established and maintained?
Encoding Social Futurist Values into the VDPS
Clearly, any Social Futurist state worthy of the name would have to be designed to systematically avoid the problems associated with Authoritarianism, Corporatism, and Liberal Democracy. The widely acknowledged answer to the problem of Authoritarianism is Decentralization; i.e. to design the state as a network of communities and services operating according to the principle of subsidiarity. As long as a common set of shared principles and goal states are recognised by all elements of the state, then a single authority tasked with making all executive decisions for the entire network is unnecessary, not to mention fragile, dangerous, and inefficient.
The question of decentralization and subsidiarity is considered in more detail in the second section of this article, so now we must ask ourselves what problems Corporatism and Liberal Democracy pose which are distinct from and additional to the threat of Authoritarianism. It would appear that if the essence of Corporatism is to deliberately violate boundaries in order to accrue centralised influence, then decentralization is the answer to it, also. Beyond these forms of creeping control, the remaining problem I’ve identified with Liberal Democracy is its inability to live up to its defining claim to exemplify freedom and democracy. Direct democracy fits naturally with the idea of a decentralised network of federated communities. Cross-community referenda and citizens’ rights can be guaranteed by a single set of principles shared by all parts of the state network (formal agreement with the principles being a minimum requirement for a community to join the network). Finally, the problem of structural violence can be solved with automation in combination with Universal Basic Income, being a transition phase into full technological Post-Scarcity.
I have tried to not only keep these proposals as simple as possible, but also to explain them in terms of traditional political ideas and themes. A key element of Social Futurism, however, is acknowledgement that we live in an era of accelerating technological development. All of the proposals offered above could in principle be encoded in the function of decentralised software and hardware tools, potentially making the “Social Contract” of a VDPS an explicit, tangible thing. The Zero State community has begun work toward implementing these ideas through the creation of a cryptographic Distributed Autonomous Community (AKA Decentralized Autonomous Community, Cooperative, or Corporation; DAC).
The Social Futurist Citizen and their relationship to the VDPS
It is my belief that we cannot simply focus on the nature of the VDPS and ignore any consideration of its citizens. I have established in earlier articles that the voluntary nature of VDPS citizenship and a right to “free exit” must be enshrined in the core principles of any such state if it is to comply with Social Futurist ideals. This is the foundation stone of a growing list of Social Futurist state obligations to treat citizens fairly, and of course all citizens must abide by the core principles of the state if they wish to retain that citizenship. Beyond that basic obligation, however, what qualities might we expect such people to have?
Because Social Futurism seeks to avoid onerous restrictions upon people of the sort found (explicitly) in Authoritarianism and (implicitly in) Liberal Democracy, there can be no requirements of citizens beyond behaviour compatible with principle (and of course to comply with the law, which must itself be principle-compatible). Beyond the matter of official requirements, however, we might reasonably discuss ideals that citizens may wish to aspire to. Indeed, the very concept of the Social Futurist Citizen might be held up as just such an ideal. The Social Futurist Citizen would be a person who not only complies with principle and derived laws as a matter of course, but who also seeks to fulfill the spirit rather than simply the letter of those principles. Such a person would not only avoid crossing the bounds of unacceptable behaviour, but their example would demonstrate the true spirit of the principles to others.
Just as we would expect a fully realised Social Futurist VDP State to employ the most effective technologies available – to integrate them into its deepest infrastructure – we should expect the same kind of commitment from the Social Futurist Citizen. Most generally we could characterise this expectation in terms of the Transhumanist idea; that we can and should improve the human condition. Given our emphasis on voluntarism and evidence, I don’t think we can say much about ways in which people may choose to become “better than well”. For now, we can leave this matter with an acknowledgement that in Social Futurism both the State and its most committed Citizens would seek to evolve into a greater fulfillment of the same principles and ideals.
Establishing and Maintaining the VDPS
Ideals and hypothetical evolutionary processes aside, the single most pressing question about VDP States is how to realistically establish and maintain them. All I’ve said on this before now is that this is a serious issue, and that the answer would largely depend upon the nature of any given VDP State. For example, a primarily virtual state would be the easiest to build and maintain, including questions of defense which would mostly boil down to matters of information security. A primarily virtual state would, however, be the least satisfying when it came to meeting the needs of physical communities. There are certain things that a decentralised software environment can do to empower a distributed group of people – the internet has made that quite clear – but ensuring shelter, food, hygiene, and defence are not among them.
A primarily distributed state (i.e. a network of physically separate communities) has a different set of strengths and weaknesses, more or less the inverse of the virtual state. It can meet the physical needs of its citizens as long as supply lines and territorial integrity can be maintained, but defense is no longer merely a matter of information security, and requires serious resources. This is particularly true where such communities exist on territory claimed by another state, or where organised piracy is a serious threat.
The strengths and weaknesses of a parallel state are a more complicated matter, depending on the nature of both the new state and its host. Both may be considered to be more or less permeable, which is to say flexible about the integrity of their borders and what they allow within them. A relationship between a parallel and traditional state may be viable as long as at least one of the two is highly permeable (or both are moderately so). For example, a strongly enforced traditional state may allow an informal intentional community to call itself a “state” on its territory, and a weak state may even be obliged to tolerate a powerful microstate within its borders. But two low-permeability states cannot peacefully coexist in the same space; a strongly enforced traditional state simply will not tolerate a powerful microstate on its territory without some special mutual agreement (such as that between Italy and the Vatican).
Taking these factors into account, it seems clear that the most effective approach to establishing a VDP State would be to see it as a network, with different nodes within that network emphasising different characteristics. So there would ideally be a mixture of (1) highly permeable parallel state nodes in low-permeability countries, and (2) low-permeability nodes in high-permeability countries, together constituting (3) a distributed state of physical enclaves, plus (4) a network of virtual nodes providing communications support. Such a network would be resilient to local failures of supply lines or territorial integrity, and would of course be a natural fit for implementing the Social Futurist ideal of Subsidiarity.
On the theoretic level, decentralization is required in order to pass the moral test which Authoritarianism and Liberal Democracy both fail so badly.
2. Decentralization and Subsidiarity
We can see that the Social Futurist idea is strongly interrelated with the idea of decentralization, on both theoretic and pragmatic levels. On the theoretic level, decentralization is required in order to pass the moral test which Authoritarianism and Liberal Democracy both fail so badly. On the pragmatic level, Social Futurist practice can only be implemented by establishing alternative, distributed, voluntary networks which operate outside the bounds of traditional institutions. This section will briefly explore how that could work and would affect modern society.
In a blog post last year I briefly considered how Socialists and Libertarians (or any traditionally incompatible pair of ideologies) could co-exist within a decentralised network of enclaves and affiliations, to the extent that they could all agree to respect a common set of principles. In that post I promised to extend those ideas to explore the Zero State idea of cooperative networks, how they might apply to networks of physical enclaves, and also how these ideas map on to models of responsible business and innovation.
I have previously argued that cooperative networks can accommodate disparate points of view, even apparently incompatible ideologies, by allowing different groups to govern their own affairs while remaining embedded in a wider confederation defined by a single set of unifying principles. Such principles act as the basis for cooperation across the entire network, and make a number of decentralised cooperative modes possible.
For example, clear principles can make it instantly apparent if the behaviour of one part of the network is no longer compatible with the whole. In other words, if a group “goes rogue” and starts acting in ways that clearly contravene the wider network’s principles, then the network’s response should be dictated by those same principles. In an extreme case, clear principles make it possible for the network to develop a kind of decentralised “immune response” to deal with both external and internal threats.
Where there isn’t good reason to do things differently, freedom of action should apply at all levels of the network where the principles are not being contravened. In other words the principles should apply to groups and organisations as much as to individuals, starting with the principle of free exit. This means that as long as any group satisfies the demands of principle then it should be able to manage its own internal affairs as its members feel is appropriate, and in turn the principle of subsidiarity is satisfied. That said, it is probably a good idea that the principles insist upon any networked group or organisation having a single self-chosen coordinator or point of contact. This is not necessarily a leader or democratic representative of any sort (Social Futurism would favour direct democracy within networked groups), but simply someone who can act as a spokesperson for the group within the wider network, and vice versa. The WAVE research institute operates exactly this kind of system, enabling various direct-democratic project groups to coordinate their efforts in line with a single set of principles, with no central controller telling everyone what to do.
It is useful to distinguish between organizational affiliates and geographic enclaves. Both are potential nodes in a cooperative network, but like the different forms of VDP State they have different strengths and weaknesses. Networked organisations (e.g. companies, activist groups, charities) can often operate internationally, and can sometimes establish significant physical presences, but those presences will usually be subject to the authority of a State of some sort. Geographic enclaves (e.g. colonies, intentional communities) are necessarily limited to acting in one location, but their activity can encompass the entire life-experience of participants. In order to achieve a degree of resilience, networks should try to spread their bets by including nodes of various types. Beyond a certain common interest these different types of node should be expected to have different concerns and priorities, underscoring the need to devolve decision making authority to the most local level practicable in any given matter.
3. The Third Way and Radical Centrism
Given this emphasis on diversity and subsidiarity across a resilient network, it is worth considering how such a network might encourage a balance of social justice concerns, trade, and innovation. If we think of businesses or trading entities as nodes in the network, then we can easily see that their right to connect with other nodes (i.e. other companies and communities of potential clients and customers) will be predicated on compliance with the basic network principles. Companies which do not comply with the principles will not be allowed to act as part of the network, which means no engagement with any of its nodes. If any part of the network tries to circumvent the ban and trade with a company that contravenes principle, then it too would be ejected from the network. This creates incentive both to comply with the principles and to only engage with compliant nodes, as long as network membership is valuable (e.g. for allowing trade access).
Of course, international companies have a tendency to play host countries off against each other for tax breaks and so on, and any company which wanted to trade within the network but not do so in accord with principle may well try to exert pressure on the network by taking its business elsewhere. In order to minimize this kind of risk, cooperative networks should (1) develop principles which reward responsible business and innovation, and (2) enlarge the network through growth and cooperative agreements with similar networks. The point of enlargement through cooperation or growth is to give hostile companies (or indeed any hostile entity) a smaller space of alternatives to work with. If refusing to trade with one network will come at too great an opportunity cost, then traders will think twice about doing so in an effort to avoid regulation.
Neither Left nor Right, nor “Liberal Democratic” Centrist
Our core concern is with balancing the engines of societal innovation (whether we’re talking about technology or businesses that develop it) with social justice. Of course, that is a concern shared with every political activist who isn’t so extreme as to believe that one thing should be pursued wholly at the expense of the other. We must understand that committed Left- and Right-Wingers invariably believe that their point of view is the best way to achieve such balance, while the “other side” has views that are inherently extremist and dangerously unbalanced. Sometimes such people will even have a point, as both the Left and Right have at least some good ideas which society ignores at its peril.
In other words, it is sometimes the case that the Left or the Right is objectively correct on some matter, but this is simply because they’ll be advocating an idea which happens to be correct. That does not mean that every other idea advocated by the same broad coalition of people and ideologies will also be correct (or indeed appropriate for any given society). Added to this, we mustn’t forget that ideas have a way of migrating, or being advocated by different factions at different times. For example the Right has for some time been associated with prioritising economic growth over social issues, but now that so-called “Austerity” is a touchstone of the Right, the Left has moved to promote the idea of economic stimulation as an essential societal goal. Taken together, these things show that it is a mistake to focus on whether “the Left” or “the Right” is best, and better to focus on the best ideas.
There is already a movement to advocate the best and most progressive ideas, whether they are currently “owned” by the Left or Right in any given country. That movement is as nebulous and multi-faceted as either the Left or Right, and is most commonly known as the “Third Way” or “Radical Centrism“. Personally I prefer Radical Centre over Third Way, simply because it is slightly more informative. Both labels speak to a balance between ideas from the Socialist Left and Capitalist Right, but the word “Radical” should in principle distinguish a true third alternative from the situation we have in Western governments these days, where all of the major parties blur into an indistinguishable mass of so-called Liberal Democratic centrism. As the Third Way Wikipedia page demonstrates, the mainstream paradigm of centrism is that of Tony Blair, David Cameron, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, even George Bush Jr. It isn’t a dynamic exploration of the best ideas for society so much as stagnation and entrenchment of a dysfunctional Capitalism and professional political class.
My first piece in this series was criticised for flatly rejecting the received wisdom and definitions of our current political paradigm. For saying that so-called Liberal Democracy is not half as Liberal or Democratic as we are all trained to assume. It’s true, I do reject the current system which is said by definition to be better than any other possible system, despite the evidence in front of our very eyes. I would prefer to see a system that more truly promotes social freedoms and citizen engagement in decision-making processes. I believe that a true Radical Centrism would indeed be Radical, and make a break with the historical dysfunctions of Liberal Democracy. In their place, a true Radical Centrism would attempt to build a better system from the ground up, drawing on the best ideas of both the Left and Right.
I have already written an article which identifies some of those ideas (“The Social Futurist policy toolkit”), and so will not dwell on them here. Instead, I will simply note that I believe Social Futurism to be a Radical Centrist position in the true sense. It is not the only possible true Radical Centrism of course, but it is the one I advocate, because it represents a mix of ideas that I personally support. I will discuss Social Futurism at some greater length in the next part of this series, but for now I would like to close by looking at an example of how a true Radical Centrism could integrate ideas from across the political spectrum and develop them into something truly innovative rather than the insipid balancing act which typically plays out in Western governments.
Growth and the Marius Principle
A core belief of Market Liberalism which has all but become a defining feature of Western civilization is the idea that the economy must constantly grow. Aside from the degree to which this is a matter of ideology for some, there would certainly be serious consequences if our economies stopped growing for too long while our central institutions are utterly dependent on credit. In addition to this problem, we have become addicted to a kind of false growth, largely based on financial speculation and debt. The financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession made it abundantly clear that when a major institution is found to be insolvent, the consequences have the potential to wipe out large swathes of the banking system upon which society has become utterly dependent. In short, debt pushes us into a need for growth, and false growth based on debt breeds cumulative risk.
We cannot simply abandon the idea of growth unless we wish to court disaster, but we can try to seek healthier forms of growth, and to reduce the fragilities in our society that make any temporary lack of growth so dangerous. As to the question of reducing fiscal fragility, we could accept the Right’s call for fiscally responsible government, but at the same time we would need to reign in companies which create systemic financial risk – and certainly not bail them out when they fall into difficulties of their own creation. So far, this is a classic centrist position, if leaning a little toward Economic Liberalism and Libertarianism, but it is not particularly radical. The Social Futurist policy toolkit includes advocacy of Full Reserve Banking and other more radical ideas, but another truly radical thing would be to attempt solving the other half of the equation: To address the question of acceptable growth.
The idea of putting constraints of what kinds of growth are acceptable (i.e. prioritising social concerns over free trade) certainly looks like Left Wing policy, while the idea of prioritising economic growth at all comes from the Right. The issue gets considerably muddier when we introduce what we might call the Marius Principle. This is the idea that true growth, or healthy growth, can only be based upon resources that are either being created or made accessible to the system for the first time. Simply rearranging resources that are already available and not adding any significant functionality is not true growth, but merely speculation. In this model “fiat” money is not a true resource, as nothing is actually being created beyond an agreement to transfer potential control over extant resources. Invention is one way of driving true growth, as increased value correlates with an actual increase in the ability to do things which previously could not be done. In the old days communities would “make new resources available to the system” by invading their neighbours and stealing resources, or exploring new lands. I do not advocate the former, but the latter is an option in the form of space-based industries such as solar power production and off-world mining. Yes, it is easier in the short term to simply speculate and trade in debt than it is to open up new frontiers, but we as a civilization will pay dearly if we cannot grow out of this infantile phase and learn to look outward.
I call this the Marius Principle after the Roman general and statesman Gaius Marius, who reformed the Roman army by introducing the recruitment of landless citizens. These new soldiers were invariably poor, and they had to be paid in some fashion, so Marius promised them a share of land from any territory conquered under his command. In essence there was a need for resources to meet an obligation (to the soldiers), and Marius determined that the soldiers should therefore be directly motivated to secure those resources. In a single move this vastly increased the size of the Roman army, increased soldiers’ motivation and loyalty, and increased the reach of Rome. If we look past the military context of Marius’ situation to see his deeper strategy, we see that it can be applied to today’s economy: Give private enterprise serious incentive to innovate and explore (while disincentivizing speculative and parasitic behaviours), and you will get more innovators and explorers, with greatly enhanced motivation, and true growth for the entirety of society will be made possible. Of course, such a program is truly radical, and would require us to step outside the limited thinking that characterises current parliamentary centrism.
In summary, part one in this series criticised the current centrist paradigm of Liberal Democracy. In part two I began by discussing the idea of VDP (Virtual, Distributed, Parallel) States offering a Social Futurist alternative to Liberal Democracy. Such States would essentially stand outside the current system and be characterised by a direct democratic network structure. I discussed the role of principles, citizenship, and pragmatic concerns in creating such an alternative societal model. From there I addressed the importance of decentralization and subsidiarity, before moving on to consider how ideas from across the political spectrum might be balanced and incorporated in such a system. Finally I argued that Social Futurism is a truly Radical Centrist or Third Way ideology, and gave an example of the kind of policy we might expect from that ideology. In part three I will examine ways in which we might expect Social Futurism to relate to Techno-Progressivism, Natural Law, Resource Economies, The Zeitgeist Movement, and Socialism.