From Empire To Nation-State to Decentralized Country

Living in the nation-state paradigm, it might seem very natural, as if it has always been and will always be the way human affairs are ordered. But modern nation-states only emerged a few hundred years ago, whereas the Empires of Ghana, Byzantium, and Rome lasted for 1,000 years or more In an essay he wrote in 2021, Mario Gabriele posits that technological change will result in a new paradigm for social organization, “The Decentralized Country.” He begins by explaining how a previous change in technology created the context for the nation-state system.

Nations – What, Why, and How

What is a nation? A nation as we conceive of it today is a body of citizens united with an ideology, terrain, and governance plus recognition from other nations. Why did they come to be? How did they arise? In Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson explains prior to the printing press, people could not read and get new information and were trapped in their social class. They had an entirely different sense of their place in “history” – not as witnesses to “an endless chain of cause and effect or of radical separation between past and present” but as people stuck in place in “an unmoving monolith connected to the divine”.

The Printing Press Changed Our Understanding of Time

The printing press and the decline of the power of the church allowed people to experience current events simultaneously, creating a “deep horizontal comradeship” with other citizens and a sense of being witness to a progression of cause and effect resulting in social change. This disruption drove societies’ transition from divinely decreed imperial rulers to more democratic nations united by common characteristics. Where once there was only a sacred language read by a few, the printing press opened up reading in vernacular language for the masses. We will see an analogous expansion of possibility and participation with the blockchain.

The Internet is Changing Our Perception of Space

The internet is changing society too. While the printing press changed our sense of time, the internet is changing our sense of space and truth. People and relationships are increasingly location-independent. Where “legacy media” – large institutions that produced “the news” once ruled in an oligopoly maintained by the barrier to entry of high production and distribution costs, the internet reduces publication costs to near zero and inherently distributes content with potentially infinite reach. The consequence is many potential sources of truth, a fragmentation of what was once a shared sense of reality, and a loss of legitimacy for governments that rely on media to create a shared understanding and basis for debate. What changes could this bring? Gabriele says we need to consider the changes blockchain is creating in economic relationships to make a prediction.

The Blockchain Can Create Vernacular Economies

In the past, the digital realm was clearly subservient to the powers that be in the physical realm. But the blockchain creates the possibility of a digital economy that cannot be censored. Despite skepticism, the idea seems to be catching on – blockchain assets have reached a valuation of three trillion, up from zero over 13 years.

Gabriele makes an analogy – the blockchain creates the possibility of a “vernacular economy” beyond the control of the current authorities, an expansion of freedom that is similar to the way the printing press expanded written communication from an inaccessible sacred language read and controlled by a privileged few to vernacular language read and created by all. According to Gabriele, this change is essential to the change he sees coming in society. No one, he asserts, would choose to belong to a society that can be forced to disappear. The blockchain makes it possible to create uncensorable societies.

From Nation State Citizenship To Promiscuous Nationalism

Gabriele believes that the combination of social change caused by the internet and freedom created by blockchain technology will result in new forms of social organization. Digital activity will become increasingly valuable and socially important. In this context, it is only natural that, according to Gabriele’s prediction, “the most influential civilization-scale entities will exist entirely online.”

Gabriele contrasts his own vision of “Decentralized Countries” (DeCos) with Balaji Srinivasan’s concept of “Network States”. While Balaji asserts that an archipelago of territory will be important to unite citizens around the globe and achieve diplomatic recognition, Gabriele believes Decentralized Countries can have a significant impact without ever establishing territory, asserting that “our digital lives are more real and valuable than our corporeal ones”.

United By Truly Shared Ideology 

To understand the nature of DeCos, Gabriele considers how they differ from existing countries regarding the three essential characteristics of ideology, terrain, and governance. DeCos unite people who share their particular ideology globally rather than having to try to fit an ideology to a specific local population that may hold diverse ideologies. Hence a DeCos’ population may be more strongly united by truly shared values. And easier ways to participate can allow DeCos to change their ideology more rapidly to correspond to citizens’ changing values.

Existing In Digital Terrain

Gabriele believes that physical terrain will only be important to DeCos inasmuch as traditional governments may pass rulings that are based on physical terrain; DeCos themselves will focus on “digital terrain”. Specifically, he believes they will create metaverse-type virtual environments. “Such a world would be exponentially more context-rich and culturally reinforcing than a Discord server and Snapshot page.”

Greater Participation In Governance Using Blockchain

Blockchains will provide reliable tools for participatory governance. Whereas traditional nation-state citizens implicitly support their government and accept the social contract by not immigrating, citizens of DeCos will have a much easier way to depart. Citizens can opt out as easily as they opt in with a click. Their continued presence as citizens shows they truly accept the social contract.

DAOs are not DeCos

DAOs are organizations, not nations. While they share the potential for true decentralization, “massive, distributed, censorship-free governance” they are bound by a narrow purpose rather than a shared ideology and a broad sense of “digital patriotism”.

‍Promiscuous Nationalism 

While nation-states are focused on physical territory, DeCos have no such limit. A nation-state citizen can only physically occupy one nation at a time, but a DeCo citizen can exist in many virtual spaces at the same time. Many nation-states limit citizenship, but Gabriele believes DeCos will not. Particularly in their early stages, we might expect them to be flexible and accommodating to attract citizens. Gabriele predicts that “as DeCos establishes firmer borders, cultures, and services, stronger allegiance may be required”.

DeCos Might Not Need Recognition

Will DeCos seek and receive the recognition necessary for legal status on par with nation states? Gabriele thinks it is not necessary: “Providing they leverage decentralized technologies, DeCos should prosper outside national paradigms”. That is to say, with or without the consent of nation-states. 

But Gabriele also thinks there will be some attempts by DeCos to engage with and participate in the nation-state paradigm. Representatives of DeCos may lobby or even run for office to try to pass legislation that is favorable to DeCos. DeCos might seek to crowd-fund territory, but Gabriele thinks this is going in the wrong direction.

Gabriele’s Prediction – Non-Terrestrial DeCos Influencing Nations

“If we believe that value will increasingly accrue to the digital world over the physical one, it seems that DeCos that devote themselves to the former will capture most power. In that respect, I think the most influential DeCos touch as little land as possible, and ideally none. Rather than outright exterminate the concept of nations, DeCos will sit above them, using their social and financial capital to guide terrestrial policies.”

How long could that take? Gabriele points out that Singapore went from nothing to the 4th highest GDP per capita in less than six decades.

Gabriele concludes:

“Half a century may be long enough to see the coronation of a true DeCo…Nations will not last forever. It is time we consider what comes next.”

What do you think? Join the Jur community on Discord to discuss DeCos, Network States, and the future of social organization and governance.