With his latest book, C4SS senior fellow and regular contributor, Kevin Carson, shares a radical vision of a not-too-distant future where networks replace hierarchies, and co-operation and self-regulation make both the state other forms of authority obsolete. The Desktop Regulatory State: The Countervailing Power of Individuals and Networks is the fourth in a series of books by Carson exploring these topics, each from a different angle. Its predecessor, the Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto, explored ways in which technology will allow home and small shop-based production to render large centralized hierarchical production systems obsolete. In his new book Carson picks up where he left off, shifting his focus from production to the ability of networks to bring out the best in humanity.
Carson created this book before an audience by making his early drafts and revisions available to anyone interested via his website. This allowed him to invite scrutiny and feedback on his developing work. Carson is an individualist anarchist of the mutualist tradition influenced by Benjamin Tucker. He sees voluntary exchange as the best means of achieving the egalitarian goals of the anarchist left. As such, his distaste for big government and big business, as well as admiration for horizontal networks and peer-to-peer organizations are common themes throughout his work. Carson tends to display an infectious optimism, documenting ongoing trends eating away at the shackles of government and big business and leaving us freer and more equal as we create alternatives.
Carson comes off as more of an evolutionist than a revolutionist, favoring building a new society in the shell of the old as we gradually replace the existing system. He lays out his vision, pulling from an assortment of sources, both contemporary and historical. This book often alternates between in-depth discussions of the tendencies examined, and stretches of commentary in which Carson lets more of his opinions and personality shine through. Carson revisits stigmergy, a concept explored in his previous books which he describes as “networked organization associated with wikis, group blogs, and “leaderless” organizations configured along the lines of networked cells.” He notes that stigmergic networks are superior to hierarchies, in that they are not slowed down by bureaucratic permission-seeking, communication asymmetries and problems associated with top-down coordination. Instead stigmergy allows individual contributors or cells to freely work within a shared platform, contributing to a shared goal as they see fit. The innovations of individual contributors can freely travel throughout the chain when others wish to adopt them.
Stigmergic organizations also have the great benefit of being hard to destroy or conquer. Nation states which tend to have capitals and seats of government which a foreign army can invade, claiming the entire territory in one fell swoop. In contrast, a dispersed network lacks any central base, and taking control of the whole network requires capturing all its individual units. In a related note, a system of communication or transport over-reliant on one or more central nodes can be easily disrupted by taking out any vulnerable link. Carson notes that when centralized institutions are under attack they frequently respond by making themselves more centralized and rigid, and thus vulnerable to further attacks. Beefing up security usually means subjecting personnel to increased procedural restrictions, and bureaucratic measures that actually make responding to threats more difficult. Carson uses the U.S government’s reaction to the Snowden leak as an example.
Decentralized networks and movements lack this rigidity, making them more flexible and agile. Examples Carson explores, often in great detail, include Freenets, Wikileaks, Wikipedia, Linux (and other forms of open source software), the Occupy movement, Anonymous, Spain’s M15, various elements of the Arab Spring uprisings, crypto-currencies, and medieval guilds (which he sees as a historical precedent). He makes clear that he sees many of the social movements that have emerged since the mid-nineties as being simply smaller instances of a larger growing phenomenon. As he states in the appendix “movements like the Arab Spring, M15 and Occupy all have ends as well as beginnings, the grand post-1994 wave of which they are a part shows no sign of even leveling off yet. Each major cluster of movements, like the post-Seattle globalization movement and the cluster that included the Arab Spring and Occupy, is on a larger scale than its predecessor”
Carson gives considerable focus to protesting the current system as well as live comfortably outside it. This is illustrated in his discussions on Freenet, and David De Ugarte’s concept of the “phyle,” which De Ugarte describes as “a confederation — which is to say, a network with no higher structure — of conversational communities with their own companies, which share a series of common funds in a transnational space: basically, “social security” and mutual economic support systems.” He also explores concepts such as “meshworks,” where existing hub and spoke style internet infrastructure is replaced with a system where the individual consumer’s devices become the infrastructure nodes. This would essentially mean a continuous and self-healing internet system, that would also be liberated from the big internet providers.
Carson does not hold back his own criticisms of the networks he discusses. In fact he notes that none of them fully embody the ideal. For example, he discusses Wikileaks as being constrained by a “personality Cult” centered around it’s founder Julian Assange, which Carson describes as an unhealthy dependency which has weakened the group’s functionality. Elsewhere he discusses Bitcoin’s quantity being fixed beyond a certain point, making it deflationary and encouraging hoarding and speculation rather the spending of it. That said, Carson expresses sympathy with Pirate Bay founder Rick Falkvinge’s statement that Bitcoin is “the Napster of Banking.” In other words, while it made important innovations and raised public awareness, it will ultimately be just a forerunner for a more widespread alternative currencies lacking its flaws. Ultimately such alternatives will limit the state’s ability to manage the economy.
Additionally Carson is willing to cite examples of groups making effective use of decentralized networks, that are clearly not the good guys from a libertarian point of view. A prominent example is Al Qaeda, whose decentralized nature gives its terrorists a significant advantage over the highly rigid bureaucratic states it seeks to disrupt. Carson indicates that it’s biggest weakness is not in its structure but in its lack of people actually willing to carry out terrorist attacks.
Ultimately Carson sees self-regulation and publicity (both positive and negative) as playing a major role in the networked world of the future. He continues to explore such ideas as using open-mouth sabotage, boycotts, leaked information, and various forms of consumer unions and agreements as ways to curtail bad commercial behavior. He also sees a more decentralized society as better able to incentivize beneficial behavior and defend itself against harms. This is due in part to the tendency of centralized systems to cause the harms needed to be defended against in the first place. As an example Carson gives an excellent history of US involvement in the middle-east and how western intervention is at the roots of most problems in the region. Examples include the support of the Saudi unification of the Arabian peninsula, the Reagan administrations support for fundamentalist guerrillas in Afghanistan, and the creation of the power vacuum now filled by ISIS.
It should also be noted that there are moments towards the end of this book where Carson’s usual optimism does let up and he makes it clear that as the current centralist system is further pushed to its limits there will be more economic uncertainty, chaos and joblessness. He indicates that times of collapse will necessitate much of the changes he would like to see and that the transition need not be a smooth one.
Overall the book is an enjoyable read that explores many interesting trends. Much of it is quite in-depth, which may be off-putting to some readers, and such a wide range of material is covered here that there will almost definitely be some parts that hold a given reader’s attention more than others. That said, the overall picture it paints is a fascinating one and like all of Kevin Carson’s output is an essential for any left-libertarian reading list.