Recently I had a few interesting discussions during which I realized that “capitalism” isn’t exactly what we should try to overcome, but that the problematic aspects of that system are those that could be labelled under the term “centralism”. It’s the concentration of money and power that creates the real problems. When money and power are concentrated in one place, in the best case, they can do a lot of good there, but in the worst case, it can also do a lot of harm. And in both cases, money and power is then lacking in the periphery where most of the action happens.
And the problem is not so much that money is accumulated in certain locations, because sometimes that’s actually needed in order to fund capital intensive projects like huge factories or space flight projects. No, the problem is that this accumulation proceeds in a top-down manner, in a pyramid of power with the top in command and the rest being mostly disempowered. These hierarchical structures work to some degree, but they are dehumanizing and alienating. They minimize engagement and creativity, they disrupt flow and bottom-up initiatives. They do not allow real freedom or autonomy. So, they are a hindrance to the fulfilment of basic human needs, and therefore human performance is way below its full potential in such centralistic hierarchies.
The real tragedy is that people haven’t realized these problems. In the past centuries it was not centralist systems vs decentralist systems, but different flavours of centralist systems against each other: The private property capitalist centralist system versus the public property “communist” centralist system; the monarchy centralist system versus the central parliament centralist system.
What are the hallmarks of centralist systems?
- Central planning: One entity makes a master plan and everyone else are just there to implement it.
- Central control over resources: The top of the pyramid determines how resources are used and for what purposes.
- Central gathering of information: Information flows from the bottom up, but rarely the other way around.
- Central points of failure: Infiltrate the centre of command, and the whole structure becomes compromised.
- Rigid structures instead of flexible self-organization: There is not only a central master plan, but also a scheme devised by the centre for the procedures that should be applied everywhere (whether that makes sense or is appropriate or not)
- Flow of resources to the centre: Resources tend to accumulate at the centres of power, whether that makes sense or not.
During the early years of the industrialization, this centralization made a lot of sense, because it allowed for a certain level of efficiency and automation that wasn’t economically viable for small organizations. Capitalism could make use of the economies of scale. Then statist communists saw that this method works and thought about making the system even more central and efficient by introducing state planning in some kind of “state capitalism”. More planning and centralization might have sounded like a good idea, but it has made the system even more dehumanized, so that more force was required to make humans conform to the requirements of the system. And of course more centralization increased the disadvantages of centralization even more. So, in the end, it’s not surprising that the efforts to implement “communism” failed.
So, we need to look into a different direction to find the solution: Decentralized systems. They are based on principles that are opposed to those of centralized systems:
- Little planning, especially no centralized planning: Agility is the key. Moving towards a goal that is agreed upon, but with no rigid plan to get there. Instead, swarm intelligence is used to solve problems as soon as they arise.
- Flexible access to resources: Resources are used when it’s a good idea to use them, not when some authority thinks they should be used. Every part of the system can use all the resources of the system, as long as the system doesn’t disagree.
- Free distribution of information: Relevant information is available everywhere where it is needed. The flow of information is free.
- Redundancy: No single point of failure exists. When problems appear in one part of the system, they can be easily contained and don’t massively impact the viability of the rest of the system.
- Flexible self-organization: Subsystems can decide on how they operate, as long as they don’t directly contradict agreed on values or goals of the larger system.
- A mix of resource equalization and a flow of resources to where they can do most good: When there is no clear centre, the most logical distribution of resources is an equal distribution. Unless in some parts resources can be used much more efficiently than in other parts. But it is expected that more resources flow back some time later on.
It seems like markets can play an important role in decentralized systems, especially when they are free. But markets are not enough. Markets have their limits even in the best circumstances. In a zero marginal cost situation markets stop making sense, because selling things which should be available for free makes no sense. For those situation we need other modes of economy, for example commons and reputation economies. Also, markets don’t guarantee that resources go there where they do most good, because money is only loosely coupled to what we see as “good”. To really optimize the distribution of resources we would need modes of economic operation that haven’t been developed, yet.
Decentralized systems do not only have advantages. Some of the disadvantages are:
- It is harder to reach globally coherent agreed on goals and values, if they are not imposed by one central authority.
- Organizing and understanding a decentralized system can be a more complex task than organizing and understanding a centralized system.
- The redundancy that is required may be hard to achieve and to maintain. It also may be quite expensive.
- Information leaks are more likely, so that competing factions who guard their information strongly may have a certain strategical advantage.
- Decentralized systems require more advanced technology to work than centralized systems
- Decentralized systems require a higher level of consciousness to work than centralized systems
I think the last two points of the key reasons why decentralized systems haven’t been very successful before: We simply didn’t have the right conditions for them to become massively successful. But now we have at least the technological basis for them to work: Most importantly the internet and now also decentralization technologies like the blockchain. Also, universal prosperity through basic incomes, as well as universal education with online courses, world-wide immersive real-time communication, AI assistants, and sufficient spare time through automation make it possible for people to expand their understanding and consciousness, so that they can take full advantage of decentralized systems.
So, ideally, we should be about to enter the era of post-centralism where we will have overcome the chains of centralized systems in order to fulfil our full potential. It will enable the re-humanization of the world after the dehumanizing injuries that have been caused by previous eras of centralization.
is this an anarchist manifesto? I’m not sure. Anarchism is quite a vague term. Just like “democracy”. Post-centralism is simply the next level of our development after having gone through so many dysfunctional permutations of centralism. It could be called “anarchism” or “actual communism”, but only incidental.
Anyway, “post-centralism” might be the core of what the system X is all about which is opposed to centralist capitalism in the Second Cold War in our sci-fi world building project.