Relitigating Decentralization: Response to M Black

I must confess no small horror on reading M Black’s contribution to this Mutual Exchange. A self-professed anarchist, defending centralization? I would normally let such arguments fall on their face alone, but if we are to platform them in this exchange I feel a moral obligation to reiterate basic reality. My response will be divided into two parts. I will first respond to M Black’s abrogation of basic anarchism in his acceptance of centralized democracy. Then I will respond to the specific claims as to the comparable inefficiencies of markets.

M Black rushes past the threat of “abuses of power” to admit some inefficiencies of central planners, but he immediately replicates Marx’s critique of the “anarchy of production”:

In a decentralized scheme, there may be no actual coordination whatsoever, and the movement and development of the organization could be thought of as complexity generated by the interactions of the organization’s subunits rather than conscious coordination, i.e. mutual readjustment of plans, as such. This is especially true in a context where there is no basis for cooperation, such as in a commercial market. 

It’s this overall “conscious coordination” that M Black wants, because “the competitive structure of markets necessarily inhibits cooperation and therefore also inhibits effective coordination toward common goals.” One imagines a harmonious meeting of the minds that just cranks some numbers and solves all the problems.

But let us pause for a minute and first rewind to the issue of “abuse of power.” One would think that any anarchist worth their salt would recognize that power itself is abuse; to control another person, to dominate and suppress their agency to the point where you can make decisions on their behalf, inherently violates the core of anarchist morality. While it is true in this world we are forced to navigate complex and repugnant contexts, sometimes accepting temporary tradeoffs, relationships of power are never positive or neutral, they are the very “archy” that we set our souls against.

There is a direct and inescapable sense in which social structures of representation violate anarchist values. Someone else — some committee or spokescouncil — making decisions on your behalf is itself objectionable. It takes agency out of your hands.

In his push for “conscious coordination” Black is trying to get towards overall clarity and predictability — an orderly plan — but there is a very real sense in which freedom is not and can never be highly predictable. We cannot predict developments in science or art — innovation never emerges from the boardroom but from the brain of an individual. Even the most incremental and cooperative innovation first requires the speedy leaps possible in a neural net, not the slow miasma of consensus discussion. And the creation of the new, by definition, on some level cannot be predicted or managed.

To desire a world of creativity inherently means a world of limited predictability. When everyone can generate at least one idea that changes everything the result is chaotic.

Anarchy is precisely about ceding control, letting the fountainheads of creativity that are individuals flourish and dance in wild ways no one can plan or manage.

Relationships of power are negative-sum in agency, the person deciding on the other person’s behalf may gain some broader choice, some influence upon the world, but the individual they deprive loses more.

However it is not just that relationships of power by definition constrain agency, positions of power incentivize further oppression.

Centralization in decision-making, representation, branding, resources, etc warps the landscape of choices, making autonomous action and development a less efficient investment towards any given ends than fighting for control over the center. At best this looks like the general assemblies of Occupy eating a hundred hours arguing about what actions should be certifiably branded “Occupy [City]”, but at worst it looks like vicious jockeying and coups that spiral out into an ever more hostile, fractious, and competitive environment. If you’ve ever been to an activist meeting of any size you thought wasn’t riven with status and position jockeying you were blissfully ignorant.

Power-seeking is a viral strategy that metastasizes into ugly dog-eat-dog or machiavellian landscapes without early intervention. Every institution or social configuration has game theoretic implications, and centralization is constantly a clusterfuck for activists because what it promotes isn’t “cooperation” but toxic, dishonest, and domineering competition over the center. For examples I need only point to virtually every activist group and non-profit on the planet. But if you need one in text from someone else, in The Utopia Of Rules David Graeber relays the anecdote of a New York activist group that, having been donated a car, found the bureaucracy and destructive incentives attendant to collective ownership of it so perverse they finally could only liberate themselves from the drama by setting the car on fire.

If you want to stop power-seeking, remove positions of power.

Like microbiota in an entropy gradient or particles around a black hole’s gravity well, monsters spring into existence wherever centralization exists. Power warps the social fabric.

Black thinks that separating domains of influence is enough to check power, and gives the following hypothetical:

Consider a regional anarchist confederation as an example. The confederation may have a central body with discretion over the publication of a collective journal chronicling member organizations’ theoretical output and practical activities. Although effectively centralized, such a structure would not be usurping control over local issues from member organizations, nor would it be dictating anything to them.

But the inevitable failure mode should be obvious to anyone with any organizing experience. The collective journal has an impact on all the member organizations, beyond loose psychological impressions of prestige attendant to control over the journal, it inherently certifies some contributions over others. Which activities and how they are represented makes admission to the central administration of such a journal a gateway to outsized influence. If the chapters have conflict with one another, managing who is on the journal could be of stark importance to how that conflict plays out. Even if the administrators of that journal are each proportionally drawn from each chapter there are all sorts of political power games immediately in play. At the center in the journal there’s who has standing and influence, who is charismatic and neurotypical, who has what connections and friendships, who is emotionally aware and sharp at manipulation games… you might want to work to ensure that representatives from other chapters fit the sensibilities and allegiances of those already overseeing the journal. If chapters are embroiled in long-term conflicts or tensions you might want to use the journal as a tool to ensure that the representatives from the other faction are less skilled in consensus and other machiavellian skills. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Even when there seem to be no stakes, five months later someone’s friend will get called out for rape and then see how the established patriarchs and old boys networks and shieldmaidens of patriarchy spring into existence to manage and massage what gets into the journal and how.

Centralized information flows may not “dictate,” but they do provide opportunities for disproportionate influence.

Anyone who denies that these games immediately and constantly break out in anarchist organizations is either an astonishingly blind rube or being openly dishonest. I bitterly wish it were otherwise, but anarchists in practice tend to fall for simplistic modes of organizing that leave in their wake a cruel mockery of our aspirations for a world without power.

Ultimately this is why anarchism must strike at organizationalism itself, because the inside-outside hierarchies or centralizations of group membership create a host of problems.

Black might respond that the nasty maneuverings and informal (or formal) hierarchies in nearly every activist group or non-profit can be prevented with the right culture and institutional “checks and balances.” But however good it starts out, a group’s culture is eventually shaped by institutional incentives, and the most efficient “checks and balances” to a central committee isn’t a laborious process document but more choices and, yes, competitors.

If the centralization of collective process drives brutal machiavellian power-jockeying it is actually the decentralization of parallel “competition” that can encourage altruism and cooperation. A popup marketplace where participants have roughly equivalent wealth will see vendors collaborating in setting up or breaking down stalls among other tasks. Because vendors are in an N-iterated game with one another — they will see one another again and again — they know that cooperation is more optimal than knifing one another for a few extra bucks, better to leave the competition purely in the jovial realm of differing products. But add a central organizing committee and the politicking emerges to gain the upperhand in seating charts and new policies.

The “archy” that anarchists set ourselves in absolute opposition to is wider than just centralization — just in terms of social network topologies it’s not enough to merely shatter power loci into “many centers,” we seek to also have a topology distributed in an egalitarian sense and both fluid and highly connected. And of course this doesn’t even begin to touch on the ethics of interpersonal relationships entailed in an-archy.

Anarcho-capitalists infamously only embraced decentralization, ignoring the vast additional dynamics that anarchism speaks to. Their movement was an obviously and laughably doomed clusterfuck as a result, often collapsing to something morally indiscernible from fascism. Black, by not even embracing that minimum, and writing apologia for centralization, kicks so far off from any recognizable anarchism there’s almost no discernible difference with Stalinism. Indeed he literally echos the most standard authoritarian communist critique of anarchism:

Our insistence as anarchists on decentralization at all costs may have us in an ant mill of our own, unable to confront growing authoritarian movements and powers, flailing from ideological fad to ideological fad, and unable to speak of any lasting victories since the heyday of anarchism in the nineteenth century workers’ movement.

This is such an obviously laughable critique that I’m quite deeply disturbed to find it leveled from a self-identified anarchist. Let me swallow down the cold horror in my belly and try to get through some anarchism 101s:

1) Centralization doesn’t beat centralized authorities, it replicates them. Centralization inherently creates a new monster to fight — a monster that through its own internal logic and the logic imposed by fighting the state in its own language becomes more like the state, even eventually functionally collaborating with the state. At the very best all that such organizing does is kick the can down the road a little bit. Why create the very thing you’re going to have to destroy. And how exactly do you think you will ever get it to self-abolish?

2) Decentralization is far more efficient at fighting centralized authorities. A central authority is forced to defend fixed territory from all points on the compass, whereas decentralized attackers only need to have one attack slip through. Centralization also creates centralized and brittle dependencies that are not sufficiently distributed to be resilient. Decentralization allows for a great breadth and depth of strategy, each individual evaluating and finding opportunities for themselves.

3) If the question is “how will we fight and win against decentralized enemies” well the immediate follow-up question is what on earth do you see us doing with a centralized organization that’s such a miracle cure? Do you think we can gulag and reeducation camp the fascists? Do you think we should go around exterminating every single person with fascist views? Donald Trump got 62 million votes. 62 million. What exactly is the thing we can do with a centralized organizational apparatus that we are not presently doing with decentralized crews and networks? And the same could be said of “capitalists” — it is no secret that the left will never have the numbers to break the backs of the petite bourgeoisie and redistribute all the wealth. Tens of millions of people will defend their wealth against popular uprisings. The only way the left might directly expropriate from them all is not with mobs but with an overwhelming state apparatus, police, prisons, black bags, etc. Beyond being a directly morally repugnant slaughter and repression of human beings (whatever their infractions), it is also completely and plainly irreconcilable with the long-term goals of a free world. The centralization necessary to ‘directly put down’ tens or hundreds of millions of adversaries would only harden into self-reinforcing tyranny. The only answer to stopping our decentralized adversaries is to make sure there are no positions of power for them to hold, undermine through distributed means any institutional/organizational centralization they attempt, and of course to autonomously defend ourselves. Evaluating and securing self-defense involves a host of particulars and local contexts that no central planner or centralized system can assist. Solidarity is critical, but having a wide pool of allies to call is not the same thing as a centralized body acting as 911 dispatch.

4) To say that anarchists haven’t had lasting victories since the fall of classical anarchism is preposterous. It was — if anything — classical anarchism in its more embarrassingly centralized modes that secured fewer lasting victories. Projects like CNT regional collectives in the Spanish Civil War were very state-like structures and all-or-nothing bets that ended up swept away and erased. Whereas when anarchists focused on contesting more decentralized cultural and technological issues in the 60s on, we saw profound and lasting impacts across the entire planet. From radical queer currents to the proliferation of cryptographic tools. Indeed the few lasting positive legacies from classical anarchism came as the result of decentralized struggles.

5) Lastly, it’s not like any other approach has had “lasting victories” by any metric anarchists care about. State socialism has been nothing but a serial parade of unmitigated disasters, murdering revolutions and churning out misery and atrocities. Occasionally these monsters might roll over on one of their slightly more reactionary allies or shit out some dreary housing blocks, but the only lasting successes the twentieth century saw have emerged out of the anarchist laboratory or from liberatory movements deeply similar in decentralized structure.

I know even suggesting that Black could see state socialism as having achieved victories worth celebrating much less envying is perhaps a line too far. I don’t mean to strawman him but to at least preemptively respond to other possible reads of his argument. Yet I will admit I do wonder.

So far I’ve been studiously trying to present Black’s defense of occasional centralization in the most generic terms, charitably assuming that he’s talking in terms of centralized projects that utilize consensus or another anarchist mode. But this steelmanning is itself a misrepresentation. Black is not talking about anarchist decision-making processes, he’s explicitly talking about democracy:

In an organization in which every member has voting rights, the centralized democratic body containing all members of the organization, making a decision in common, represents the effective merger of decentralization and centralization. What we must avoid is not centralization, but bureaucracy: the creation of a centralized decision-making power separate from the general membership whose business is to run the affairs of the organization.

Voting! Actual fucking voting! Black isn’t using an esoteric and tortured definition of “democracy” in terms of “societal openness” or “the unruly rabble,” he’s talking about voting. Even if the voting system in mind is something other than pure 51% majoritarianism, you only vote rather than use consensus when a majority of some kind seeks to rule over a minority. Such democracy clearly and self-evidently has nothing to do with an-archia. Take it away Malatesta:

It would be closer to the truth to say, ‘government of the majority of the people.’ This implies a minority that must either rebel or submit to the will of others.

As anarchists we seek not the collective rulership of all over all, but the abolition of rulership. I’ve covered this in great detail before.

Democracy is not reconcilable with anarchist values unless they are watered down to nothing but a muddled afterimage.

I know my defense of markets is a relatively strange one in the anarchist tradition and many would instinctively fear that the mere act of setting up a cart and hawking fish for sale in the town square creates similarly objectionable power dynamics to a collective voting. But I do think it’s worth really covering Black’s own level of deviation here. The implications are quite dire.

We must start by shaking out what our values are because while there can be failure modes of certain patterns of decentralized self-organization, the “solution” is often far worse.

It is trivially the case that decentralized emergent systems can go wrong, spiraling out — at various speeds — into catastrophic conclusions. But such catastrophic spiraling is always the case with centralization.

Black gives the analogy of an Ant Hill, where the complex emergent structure of an Ant Hill from individual ants following very simple instruction sets can derail into an Ant Mill where scents align so as to lock all the ants into an endless spiraling death march.

But to jump from that example to a defense of centralized democracy depends on an implicit introduction of an intelligence of far greater capacity than the individual ants — a human scale one that might plan and edict the ants into a better arrangement. The proper comparison would be how capable a single ant or an ant committee might be at designing a better Ant Hill. In our actually existing world there is no singular cohesive entity smarter than a single human being. A committee is in most ways less intelligent than every individual that makes it up because a collective discussion cannot process information at the speed of neurons firing in a single unified human brain. A democracy, taken as a collective intelligence, is a reduction in net intelligence. By forcing individuals towards a unified singular collective decision, that decision is pressed into the logjam of human-to-human communication.

Humans making autonomous evaluations and choices for themselves, freely associating insofar as the inherent limits of human-to-human communication are not a constraint, is the better path. But this cannot and does not look like centralized democracy. (And, to be extra clear about alternatives, a single tyrant, while avoiding the internal logjams in decision-making, is gonna be catastrophically disconnected from the desires and contexts of the people they rule.)

And this brings us to Black’s critique of markets specifically.

Black objects to the compressing of information involved in prices. This is a standard objection to markets, but one that rarely gets far. The price system reflects some portion of aggregate desire in relation to tradeoffs, which of course ultimately means the resolution of complex information sources into a “more” or “less” evaluation. But any system at root is going to have an energy potential that directs flows, whether in brains or economies. There is always some bare essential level of prioritization going on and the price system attempts to get at that.

Prices are hardly the only information transmitted in markets, just the baseline that other information flows ultimately try to collapse into. Markets set up incentive structures to convey not just prices and price changes but a host of other, far more contextual or particular things. Investors, speculators, local actors, etc — in a market near egalitarian distributions everyone has a stake in getting relevant information and making good predictions, and information longs to be free, so on the market any relevant information quickly gets leaked through various competitive pressures.

What’s important to note about this self-correction tendency is that it’s broadly incentivized and is allowed to take place at the individual level rather than getting bottlenecked in forced collective decisions.

It’s trivially true that a price change in isolation may not reflect the full universe of useful information to an investment, and there is even some minor latency in the propagation of price changes (although much of current latency is more of a technological artifact). What it is, however, is a concise way to aggregate relevant information and — through emergent secondary dynamics like futures markets — incentivize further aggregation of relevant and truthful information.

Black complains about speculative bubbles leading to centralized wealth, but the genesis and scale of bubbles under capitalism is primarily rooted in misallocations caused by central planners (wealthy capitalists). The centralization of investment and credit decisions into the hands of a few planners leaves them disconnected from shop-floor/etc realities. One need not look very far to see examples of absurd evaluations by venture capitalists today — clearly the product of their own insular remove. Further, because the capitalist “market” is so far from an egalitarian/competitive distribution, the pressures to return to accuracy are weaker and market corrections lag. This is worlds apart from a situation of truly distributed evaluations of investment, opportunity, and risk.

Of course there will always be unpredictable shocks and upsets in any economic system that will require restructurings in response, but centralization magnifies the catastrophe. In a non-capitalist market with far more egalitarian wealth distributions, smaller scale firms/coops, and more diverse individual income sources, there would be more fluidity and resilience in the face of necessary restructurings. Black complains that markets dislocate — severing some economic relationships and forming others — but it is precisely this dynamic that is critical to resilience.

When consumption patterns dramatically changed in the early days of COVID-19, resources went to waste because capitalist supply chains were relatively rigid and centralized, incapable of laterally shifting. Pallets of goods like toilet paper piled up in warehouses because corporate behemoths needed to restructure their entire distribution in a centralized way. Cases of warehouse employees stealing the unused or rotting products they were supposed to be responsible for and selling them in ad-hoc black market distribution channels did a better job than supposedly impressive logistics operations. When workplaces and schools are suddenly not buying toilet paper, how are centralized planners supposed to quickly map out exactly where consumers now most require them? The new answer is too complex, too messy, too distributed, and the central planners are too limited in cognition and attention.

In general Black implicitly appeals to the old myth that competition is fundamentally different than cooperation rather than often two sides of the same coin. This is unsustainable. Two children competing to see who can chop more firewood are cooperating, they cooperate in generating the competitive game itself and the contest results are themselves mutually beneficial. The same can be true for market competition. There is no deep psychological breakage between competition and cooperation, most play and human sociality involves both simultaneously. What matters is the specific incentive structures built up in a context.

Insofar as Black has a substantive case about “competition” it is just Aurora’s “secrecy” argument, which I’ve previously addressed. Will competition between, say, producers necessarily create an overall reluctance to share information?

To put it briefly, there’s first the fact that natural markets historically were more of the public ledger form (making it costly to hide that you’re purchasing X widgets from Joe or any other transaction). Second, there’s the fact that competition between firms leads to constant leaking of information from employees (a large part of why silicon valley was initially so successful). Finally, there’s almost certainly going to be a more robust reporting/etc ecosystem under anarchy. There are many many reasons to think that, but for empirical evidence even the partial and temporary stateless (not the same as anarchist) period in Somalia saw the emergence of an incredibly diverse and proactive local journalist sector. In an environment of radical openness the attempted exceptions are strongly suppressed. The only coop on the market which refuses to fully open source its recipes and make public its internal finances to competing auditors and consumer reports groups is going to look like an absolute monster.

I think the mistake that people like Black are instinctively making is taking an isolated situation of competition as emblematic of aggregate competition over multiple actors and repeated interactions. But as the anarchist Michael Taylor and many other game theorists made explicit a half century ago, in a large enough limit such tendencies can flip. While from a selfish perspective it may make sense to fuck someone else over in an isolated thought experiment, when you add more and more competing players into consideration and have any way to take into account prior behavior, then betrayals, dishonesty, violations, etc often become suppressed. Cooperation is an emergent feature when enough options are in competition. Booksellers at a bookfair are in competition for attendee dollars, sure, but they are also driven to certain detentes and collaborative agreements with one another that limits that competition to certain agreed upon domains, that checks it within certain implicit rules. While murdering another bookseller may appear in isolation as a great strategy for maximizing one’s share of the market, it alienates and mobilizes others against you, making it actually a far less optimal approach than just selling books to net social benefit. Same with dishonesty or other infractions.

This is not to say that certain catastrophic configurations can’t be stumbled into akin to an Ant Mill, but centralization is always a catastrophe, proper solutions to such problems must be built in decentralized, distributed, bottom-up ways.

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Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory