- A Progressive Case for Decentralization: Thinking Beyond the Past
Just now·15 min read
Photo by Lis Keffer (Unsplash)
The left/right, one-dimensional political spectrum isn’t some modern joke that fell off of the US’s unique two-party problem. In fact, this differentiation dates back to the French Revolution: those who stayed loyal to the King were right — to the right of his majesty’s throne — while those who were left had decided to rebel, no longer seeking favor with the ruling class. Tracing those ideologies over history through different countries, different parties (in the case of the Democrats and Republicans, even swapping platforms), and different eras produces really interesting lessons. Depending on how you frame your analysis, a few hand-selected examples from Eastern Europe might very well convince a reader that the leftist pipe dream is merely a path to authoritarian evil and re-education camps. Interestingly enough, that specific frame has haunted the American right for decades, forming deeply-rooted sentiments that systems like socialism or communism — as they know them, in a limited capacity — are very much enemies to the American Dream. Regrettably, the leftist, anti-fascist trends inspired by World War II did not sustain the anti-communist propaganda of the Cold War and beyond, convincing Americans who lived through bomb shelter drills and the fear of Soviet attack that Freedom was a proprietary invention by the US that must be protected at all costs. Better yet, that defense was perfect fodder for the intense nationalism we see now. Never mind the success of socialist policies like the New Deal, which, over time, handcrafted much of that American Dream — bringing never-before-seen access and luxury to the middle and working classes. The suburbs, public schools, and public parks were trophies of successful wealth distribution, injecting capital from the wealthy directly back into average citizens; never mind the progressivism that freed the slaves, led the women’s suffrage movement, unionized and established workers’ rights, marched with civil rights, and advocated for LGBTQ+ equality. No, Reaganism brought terrified Americans back to the rightwing lie that they must fight to conserve their way of life from the boogeymen that lie in wait to steal it from them — Arab countries controlling their oil and home-growing terrorism, immigrants stealing their jobs, criminals ruling their streets (hiding long-standing racism in more digestible, “tough on crime,” mentality), and, yes, the leftists coming to throw them all in gulags. Out of this chapter came Reaganomics, the modern, failing trickle-down attempt by the wealthy class to convince the population that smaller government will eventually and magically lead to more jobs and more money for everyone. Today, the DNC is more centrist than leftist, and the rightwing has seen immense success working as a conduit and vehicle for corporate interests. The public seldom has a grasp on how we’ve gotten here, the economic implications of such trends, and the bigger picture on how we get out of it (people on both sides often simply blame each other instead of thinking differently to solve problems and help build something new).
But the way things are is not sustainable. We cannot be apathetic, or settle for establishment parties to inefficiently clamor through playing government while real issues continue to surmount. The future ultimately requires something new, and it’s up to us whether that entails a smooth transition or a painful one.
Decentralization as a concept is still not widely understood by the general public, so it is completely fair to suggest we don’t actually know that much yet about how it will shape the future — and what that will mean economically or politically. However, the crypto space has suffered from a lot of politically-driven in-fighting, and I’ve often had to fit these sentiments into series of awkwardly-worded Tweets for the sake of brevity. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple: the progressive argument for decentralization is unique enough that you can’t easily frame it without the futurist context (i.e., thinking only in terms of today’s US politics and political assumptions doesn’t do the argument justice). Further, most of the general public may not ever even need to understand decentralization from a technical point of view, either; the same way they swipe their credit card to make purchases, deposit checks in their bank account, hail a rideshare to an appointment, split the bill for lunch with a friend, access their health records, or sign a deed to a house now without really understanding how those things work under the hood, they will most likely not ever need to grasp, “blockchain,” or cryptocurrency in any significant sense. They expect transactions to settle securely and quickly; they expect access; they expect transparency; they expect service; they do not expect us to meet them at the door of their grocery store with a whiteboard and a lecture pointer, hoping to learn the difference between Proof of Work and Proof of Stake. This leads us to an important lesson: decentralization matters for the public in terms of what it does for people; they care what it means for them. This is our entry point for a progressive platform of the future.
Market Freedom vs Free Market
One of the fundamental disagreements between right and left crypto enthusiasts is whether or not decentralization is a genius product of free market, or the response to its deregulated failings. Quite honestly, it’s most likely an annoying combination of both; it was the free market that both allowed the creation of such, “securities,” without immediate regulation — although regulation is surely here and poised to continue building up around the industry — and inspired people to think outside of the broken confines of an often corrupted and unfair existing financial system (designed by those in power, for those in power). In other words, the free market also got us into the original mess that led to individuals thinking outside of that centralization — centralization and power that unthreatened free market and late-stage capitalism proudly cultivated.
Ultimately, the rightwing crypto has often attracted has been more libertarian: fiscally conservative and socially liberal. They fear, “big government,” regulating their financial freedom to the point of no return, and by that same token, believe strongly in personal liberties. This can differ starkly from the types of fascist conservatism that ultimately still threatens some flavor of theocracy and/or authoritarianism, but these lines can blur all too easily. As an aside, we shouldn’t fail to mention that those loudest in the cryptocurrency space — early adopters and those who have benefited the most financially — were already doing fine in the current system. We are frequently tech-savvy and highly educated white men who had disposable income to risk on crypto to begin with, and certainly that privilege skews the demographic significantly. My personal hope is that doesn’t skew the intended function of the technology itself: to provide financial utilities and more democratic representation to those formerly abandoned by the traditional systems.
At the end of the day, progressivism doesn’t attack every ounce of free market. The smart, modern progressive understands it’s a careful balance of using what has worked from every pure system, while leaving what hasn’t, in order to build the hybrid, balanced systems of the future. In other words, what do we leave to the free market for the sake of competition, opportunity, market diversity, etc., and what do we stake in the ground as something better protected as a public service? How much regulation do we need to protect the inherent conflicts of interest the free market has when it comes to individual quality of life and access, and how much regulation is too much to the point of stifling progress? In no way is asking these questions centrism — clearly, a bad word for everyone with a spine — but it is fair to admit human beings have failed to find success with pure ideologies at either extreme end on their own. Most importantly, we can argue semantics all day, and we can sit stubbornly in right vs left camps, donning red, blue, gold, or green face paint like political Neanderthals, but we have real problems plaguing our system. Things aren’t working. Decentralization offers us the blueprints for a new internet and new economy, and while there is plenty of room for argument when it comes to governance — the intimate details of regulating, managing, and participating in socioeconomic and political systems of the future — there is little argument between sides in-the-know which technologies will be important as we enter these new rounds of discussion. Frankly, there is little argument in regards to what the underlying problems are that we’re trying to solve; the argument seems to be about what has caused those problems, and the social implications (i.e., the right seldom finds social issues as relevantly connected to systemic issues as the left, quite conveniently). The trajectory of Moore’s Law and emerging technology, within the context of our current systems, really doesn’t care what side of the aisle you’re most comfortable sitting, though; we’re all going to be wildly uncomfortable within the next few decades if we don’t make significant changes.
Work, Value, and Automation
While American culture seems to believe it has a patent on, “hard work,” as its ego waddles around like the torso in Monty Python, exclaiming at every blow that, “it’s merely a flesh wound,” we’ve been hemorrhaging working class jobs and even middle class stability for quite some time. Wealth gaps are unashamedly widening as trickle-down economics proves to be no match for the real culprit: automation. In our society, despite welfare programs in even the most successful social democracies, work is pertinent to quality of life. More jobs has almost always been the central goal in the developed world, in a democratic century. But what happens when work is no longer an option? We’ve certainly seen cycles before where critics of technological advancement warned it would replace jobs that people needed — and while they were right, they obviously didn’t have the insight to know new, unforeseeable jobs would be created in the process. The difference now — during this Fourth Industrial Revolution — is that technology has now threatened to overtake not just our physical ability, but our intelligence. The looming moment of Singularity threatens that while jobs are rapidly being replaced by cheap, capable technology, any other new jobs created by these advancements will also be filled by cheap, capable, and smart technology. Economists and futurists alike fear that society isn’t properly prepared for a moment where human labor is no longer needed — at all — because the system will be fully operational by a few human beings at the top profiting from it, and an entirely automated workforce underneath. It’s a post-apocalyptic vision where 1% of the elite own 99% of the world, with no obligation to invest back into those left behind. In the past, economic systems that produced this kind of wealth inequality were eventually overthrown — but they were overthrown by the necessary workers that system still relied on. Those at the bottom still had some amount of leverage.
Generationally, even now, what qualifies as, “hard work,” has shifted dramatically with technological advancement. Our parents and grandparents couldn’t imagine a world where we get paid to post pictures of our lunch on Instagram. Millennials such as myself couldn’t imagine a world where Zoomers could dance on TikTok for 15 seconds and watch endorsement deals fly into their inboxes. There are children earning more reviewing toys on YouTube than entire small towns of people earn in a decade. We are no longer forming calluses on our hands, dedicating our entire lives to a single employer, or relying on some special moment to enter retirement and live between properties. We are no longer attaching sentiment to the fine China passed down through our family, displaying it proudly in glass cases in formal dining rooms. We are no longer hoping an appliance lasts ten years before we replace it, and yet, the working class — if they can find work — is still earning the same amount in dramatic comparison to inflation that has done anything but slow down. What we value, how we value it, and the distance between classes and generations is dynamic and ever-changing. No one was prepared for this, but we certainly aren’t prepared for what’s to come.
Blockchain offers us some significant utility in combatting this trajectory. For one, it gives us a method of contextually defining — and redefining- why or how something is, “valuable.” For example, we obviously abandoned the gold standard a long time ago, but in its place, a new data standard emerged. Now, the companies and assets most highly valued are those things which not only make money, but that are backed by the most data. Data that is often mined and analyzed about us, from us, without most of us being fully aware of or consciously consenting to that operation. The automated future will continue to rely heavily on these fundamentals, and blockchain returns inherent ownership, transparency, consent, and democratization to the people. It returns the means of production to the workers, i.e., those generating the data and maintaining the market for which their own data is valuable. That is an inherently progressive ideal. It also provides a means of UBI in some sense, because an important pillar of decentralization is the distribution of wealth to the network — to individuals — simply for participating, rather than to centralized entities and middlemen. It also goes without saying that distribution of wealth (trickle-up economics) is also progressive. Finally, we could argue the democratization of blockchain fundamentally gives equal, “voting,” rights and access to everyone regardless of identity politics — a goal of progressivism since the beginning, and the reason why progressives have often focused on identity politics as a means of securing such representation.
Automation may very well threaten quality of life for many within the confines of our current systems, but with blockchain, we can proactively ensure the design of an automated future will include distributed ownership and fair compensation, and simultaneously prevent dangerous consolidated, centralized power. The details of how we design such a system are, in my opinion, progressive. Perhaps not in a traditional big-government sense, though, which is why we need to discuss what decentralized governance looks like.
Governance is a pretty big topic of conversation in the blockchain space, and I’m going to avoid going into the weeds in regards to how it’s typically used. I’d like to examine governance in a broader sense, not a technical one (although its technical implementation is obviously still relevant to execution).
The final question we need to answer is: what does the government for a decentralized future look like? We understand the benefits in terms of individual freedoms, democratization, and so forth, but will the ruling elite ever let their established power be truly threatened by that democratization? Will the financial systems kneel to the idealism of blockchain in order to survive its impending public adoption, or will they simply use it to advance their own agendas and further stake their control? The good news is that progress always wins historically; the bad news is that it often finds success through painful transition. As the most powerful governments gear up to launch digital currencies of their own, as banking institutions fill storehouses with crypto assets, as taxation agencies buckle down to take advantage of increasing gains for average citizens, and as regulating bodies mull over whether to allow the public’s free reign over decentralized finance altogether, it’s certainly fair to question if true decentralization is possible at all without a fight. It’s quite interesting to watch a Renaissance begin to bloom with things like NFTs before the Revolution is officially organized — or decided necessary — but we simply don’t know what the future holds.
All of that being said, establishing the ideal — aiming high — is important no matter how a progressive future is attained. Our goals should be to make sure that human quality of life, financial access, the ability to earn a living wage (whether through UBI or otherwise) for participation in the system, and proper democratic representation are baked into our governance. And while realistically, certain gaps in wealth may always exist by way of human nature, we have admittedly gotten better over time at bridging those gaps with both clever bandaids and sheer luck. Overall, our species as progressed, and this shared progress has arguably set our baseline of poverty, suffering, etc., at much more palatable levels. If we are intentionally designing a decentralized future where poverty and suffering are further diminished by way of guaranteed access to and participation in a system for and by the people — everyone — then governance of that system, inspired by, “ideal,” leftist utopias of the past which have quite obviously failed due to human ineptitude and greed better take hard lessons for those failures. My opinion is we can’t centralize power or regulation, and the jobs that we on the left have often trusted bigger government with under the assumption that a true government-for-the-people infrastructure can’t fail themselves must be allocated to more decentralized utilities. In other words, the scaffolding for governance can take advantage of decentralized and other emerging technology such as AI — kept in check by distributed networks of real people whose votes and efforts act as legislating bodies. We no longer need to rely on parading politicians with no qualifications other than political careers and law degrees, who can’t possibly understand the full breadth of needs and concerns in every subject, for every one of their constituents. Ample regulation is still necessary, but the education and full transparency of the system’s details will be readily available to the public, whom, with the help of the decentralized set of ledgers and Smart Contracts that construct the fabric of their society, can adequately make collective decisions in place of bloated, inefficient, and disconnected centralized government. This is where the olden battle between right and left fails to remain relevant, since those camps have often relied heavily on trust in their corresponding leadership, trust in the information selectively given to them by centralized media release, and trust in their own developing assumptions based only on those fragmented windows into truth. Both right and left have often just been used as packaging or marketing for centralized power to gain or retain that power, and both regrettably have plenty of examples where that has backfired miserably on those who were along for the ride. When you remove that potential for misinformation and abuse of the public’s trust, because the public is the one truly controlling its own system for the first time, there is no longer small government vs big government; there is no longer those who sit to the right of the King in hopes of conserving, “the way things are,” vs those who now stand firmly to the left of the King in order to fight him off of his regressive throne and usher in a more progressive system — one in which those same leftists may ultimately just use as a means of starting the cycle all over again. Decentralization breaks us out of that recursion and gives us a realtime way to simply focus on progressivism and democratization, as well as dynamic tools for keeping up with change immediately rather than reactively. Governance will finally be about functional governance, and not politics. Blockchain solves the trust problem, not just for banking and technology, but for government — and it does so by removing those in the middle who cost way too much and do way too little, while we as individuals hold all of the risk.
Thinking idealistically about the future is a difficult exercise, and admittedly, it’s a privilege to be able to do so. There are very real problems — both natural and systemic — that are actively impacting billions of lives around the world. Most do not have the luxury to look up from their current battles and ponder a future where everything is magically fixed. However, for those of us who are in the blockchain space, imagining the future drives how we design things now, and fuels our passion for the why behind the madness. There’s clearly a lot of buzz around cryptocurrency, and opinions are becoming more and more polarized — as they do in today’s climate. What I want to emphasize is that builders of the future and investors in the future should care more about what something does for people and how it pushes society forward than how much wealth they can gain, how much notoriety, power, or clout they can garner from their work, or how clever their little geomatic shapes look on charts. Caring about blockchain does and should carry some socioeconomic significance, and its all of our responsibility to think outside of the current broken system — not within it — if we’re going to prevent a dystopian nightmare in lieu of collapse or critical failure. We must think progressively, not fight to conserve the previous ways of thinking which have run their course.
That being said, beware of the masterclass, guru-style public figures who shill this unrealistic idea that traditional secondary education and 9-to-5’s are now pointless and that going all-in on cryptocurrency will save us without any extra work; our society would crumble if everyone dropped out of school, quit their jobs, and relied solely on crypto gains to earn a living tomorrow. We still need healthcare professionals, workers along every step in our supply chain, accountants, engineers, service workers, and so on. The more immediate progressive agenda is to improve what we can within this system, even though many on either extreme end of the political spectrum have other ideas on how to burn the whole thing to the ground instead (accelerationism). The fact is, we still need educational institutions, we still need jobs, and we still need students and workers, and not everyone can magically escape those realities simply by buying the right course from a self-proclaimed millionaire on Instagram and be driving around in their own Lamborghini tomorrow. Crypto isn’t a golden ticket out of today’s conditions. However, decentralization is revolutionary, and it’s going to be a vital part of both our improvement of the current system, as well as how we design the next one; by that token, based on everything I’ve outlined above, it’s a vital tool for futurist progressives who aren’t turned off by the fact we’re shoulder-to-shoulder with boyish Libertarians and rightwing coworkers along the way. Their inability to see how progressive this whole thing is simply isn’t our problem; making sure we’re an important part of the conversation is.
- Date of publication:
- Tue, 05/04/2021 - 14:31
Click on the link - it will be copied to clipboard