The Dynamics of Decentralisation

Systems of governance flow from tendencies of cooperation iteratively, scaling upward from smaller units toward integrated structures. These movements of order creation are both partially spontaneous and partially constructed, flitting the borders between Hayekian evolution and grand planning. DeLanda describes these as assemblages, multi-scalar entities that exist in-and-of themselves in relations of exteriority to other units. Markets, cities, governments and other institutions can be described in these terms. The nation-state also exists as part of this matrix of relations, existing in a multiplicitous set of functions that interact variably and conflictually. They contain multiple crystallisations of power that develop alternative narratives and systems through which they compete and cooperate.

“One way to make sense of these different crystallizations is in terms of the dominant principle of societal organization, if any, and of its role in state (trans)formation. Among the competing principles are marketization, internal or external security, environmental stewardship, inclusive citizenship, the rule of law, nationalism, ethnicity, and theocracy. Any of these (or others) could – and have – become dominant, at least temporarily, and would tend to be reflected in the leading crystallization of state power. It follows that capital accumulation is not always the best entry point for studying the complexities of the social world, even though one might later ask whether states that seem to prioritize, say, national security and nation building actually pursue policies that favour capital (e.g., East Asian developmental states)”[1].

Instead of clearly delineated hierarchies that neatly scale upwards, a variety of assemblages messily configure. Nation-states are not simply the collective representation of human goals, but rather a milieu through which a complex war of positions is fought based on different ideas and potentials. Beneath them are competing organisational concepts that define a paradigmatic collection of social, technical and economic governance. The modes of production and exchange that underpinned them ranged from those based around imperial conquest and plunder to those based around commodity production and capital (as in Karatani’s model). There are also sub-categories such as the distinctions between maritime and land-based societies, where the former developed a decentralised structure of governance dominated by merchant interests and lacking a settled centre of power, with it flitting between ports and cities as power shifted hands within merchant organisations.

“Actual social formations consist of complex combinations of these modes of exchange. To jump to my conclusion, historical social formations have included all of these modes. The formations differ simply in terms of which mode takes the leading role. In tribal societies reciprocal mode of exchange A is dominant. This does not mean the modes B or C are nonexistent— they exist, for example, in wars or in trading. But because the moments for B and C are here subordinated to the principle of reciprocity, the kind of society in which B is dominant— a state society—does not develop. On the other hand, in a society in which mode B is dominant, mode A continues to exist—f or example, in farming communities. We also find the development of mode C— for example, in cities. In precapitalist social formations, however, these elements are administered or coopted from above by the state. This is what we mean when we say that mode of exchange B is dominant”. “In a capitalist society, commodity exchange is the dominant mode of exchange. This does not mean, however, that the other modes of exchange and their derivatives completely vanish. Those other elements continue to exist but in altered form: the state becomes a modern state and the community becomes a nation. In other words, as commodity exchange becomes the dominant mode, precapitalist social formations are transformed into the Capital- Nation- State complex”[2]. It is a constant interactive process of value structures concatenating and entropically deconstructing.

Beneath all monolithic structures exist a seething variety of organisational principles and imaginaries. Looking at history, we do not see a current of progressive furtherance, but rather a genealogy of conflict and cooperation between fundamentally different power and value structures. By a genealogy, I mean a set of alternative understandings and discourses which place power and knowledge in question rather than as a practice of developed normality. “It is really against the effects of the power of a discourse that is considered to be scientific that the genealogy must wage its struggle”[3]. The genealogy that I am theorising here is the spectrum of predominant governing pathologies, centralisation-decentralisation. This is related to Jessop’s idea on the relations between governance and sovereignty. Governance “refers to mechanisms and strategies of coordination in the face of complex reciprocal interdependence among operationally autonomous actors, organizations, and functional systems. Governance practices range from the expansion of international and supranational regimes through national and regional public–private partnerships to more localized networks of power and decision making” while sovereignty, involving differential vectors, is constituted by four interlocking stages. “The first stage was that of the territorial security state (Sicherheitsstaat), which mobilized and deployed force to defend its boundaries and to impose order within them. Next was the constitutional state, based on the rule of law (Rechtsstaat), which relied on law to secure domestic order and to promote international peace. Third came the social state (Sozialstaat), which used taxes and state credit to promote the social security associated with different forms and degrees of citizenship. The most recent stage, according to Willke, is the Supervisionsstaat. This concept is hard to translate. It connotes both a state that exercises super-vision as a result of its relative monopoly over collective intelligence and a state that exercises control through its supervisory or disciplinary capacities”[4].

With centralisation, at its extreme it can be seen as the apotheosis of sovereign totality, involving a fully panoptic-bureaucratic mode of control. This goes beyond Hobbes’ state-totality concept[5] as it involves not just overt, coercive power but also the power of narrativisation and microcosmic power (i.e. the power to dictate and control in the most localised of contexts through things like nudges, prescriptions and regulatory regimes). Decentralisation at its extreme was shown by Tainter in his description of the Ik people of Uganda, a former agrarian community that due to societal collapse brought about by land displacement and famine, devolved into an individualistic society with minimal familial bonds and zero-sum competition for resources.

Like governance and sovereignty, the relationship of centralised and decentralised units are collibrated along different spectrums, presenting various methodologies of governance and forms of potential for alternative systems (both historical and future-oriented). They can work in lockstep as Milton notes: “Human nature plays a formative role in the tribal dynamics which so often occur when these systems collapse. But that same human nature drives cooperation and invention when things are arranged properly. That makes the symbiotic feedback loop approach to centers and peripheries a powerful mindset for states to have. Each allows humans to cooperate in a uniquely advantageous way. A stewardship approach allows states to responsibly order and govern these systems, and consider them holistically rather than as mere units of tribalized political warfare. Decentralization is often an effective tool to route around and supplant failed institutions or obstructive mid-level political actors. But that efficacy is determined by how well it serves the overarching goals of the country”[6]. The history of technological innovation, from railroads and roadbuilding to the internet are examples of these collibrated centralising-decentralising tendencies, matching scale and size with experimentation and adaptability.

However, this picture is too simplistic in its descriptions and ignores that conflict isn’t simply between state and civil society or between the elite and the people, but that conflict is also developed between structures and within dynamic systems of governance. It is between value structures and their organisational modes. In the case of the early internet, developed from ARPANET and the US Defense Department, parallel technologies were developed from alternative sources, such as Usenet and CYCLADES, that had different infrastructural foundations. One should not confuse the monuments of history with a non-genealogical path, particularly when decentralised alternatives were present and possible. In this case the spectrum of decentralisation-centralisation that birthed the internet was a cooperation of their dynamics, but with an overlaying conflict of structures with alternative potentials. Milton notes this structural conflict himself when discussing ways of harnessing a state-led decentralisation policy. “The dynamics of American governance would start to resemble a barbell model, with central and local institutions taking precedence over certain state governments or outmoded federal agencies. Local policy experimentation on matters like housing and land policy, voting strategies, data sharing, and the like could accelerate under the aegis of streamlined central coordination, rather than multiple layers of state, federal, and alphabet agency regulation”[7].

These conflictual dynamics were also present throughout much of the European history of governance, from the end of the Roman Empire to the 18th and 19th centuries. “In Europe the Dark Ages after the Roman Empire were regarded by Victorian historians as a historical waste land ravaged by barbarian hordes and baronial bandits. But these ages were also in fact an interlude during which, in the absence of powerful centralized authorities, the decentralist urge appeared again, and village communes established forms of autonomy which in remote areas, like the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Apennines, have survived into the present. To the same “Dark” Ages belong the earliest free city republics of mediaeval Europe, which arose at first for mutual protection in the ages of disorder, and which in Italy and Germany remained for centuries the homes of European learning and art and of such freedom as existed in the world of their time. Out of such village communes and such cities arose, in Switzerland, the world’s first political federation, based on the shared protection of local freedoms against feudal monarchs and renaissance despots”[8].

Thus, the feudal era and the subsequent Middle Ages bred systems of significant decentralisation, as well as birthing the templates for nation-states and modern empires. The Germanic and Swiss free cities, which organised into the Hanseatic League, combined private law and decentralist governance outside the systems of a concentrated nation-state, instead containing similar dynamics to maritime societies such as those in ancient Southeast Asia. Federici showed how during the transition to capitalism from feudalism, there existed a range of alternative governance structures that ranged from the workers and guild-members’ revolts in Ghent and Florence to the heretical Christian movements such as the Anabaptists and the Cathars[9] in Europe. It included economic ideas of a just price[10] and a peasantry and workers movement that had a significant grasp on its political and economic rights and duties[11]. Within it existed early ideas of polycentric, private law and the concepts of mutuality and heterarchy. Cities, regions and villages all developed into different, pluralistic settings that do not fit the characterisations of modern nation-states.

“As national states began to form at the end of the Middle Ages, the attack on decentralism was led not merely by the monarchs and dictators who established highly organized states like Bourbon France and Cromwellian England, but also by the Church and particularly by the larger monastic orders who in their house established rules of uniform behaviour and rigid timekeeping that anticipated the next great assault on local and independent freedom and on the practice of mutual aid; this happened when the villages of Britain and later of other European countries were depopulated in the Agricultural Revolution of the eighteenth century, and their homeless people drifted into the disciplined factories and suffered the alienation produced by the new industrial towns, where all traditional bonds were broken, and all the participation in common works that belonged to the mediaeval villages became irrelevant”[12]. The conflict riven throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period of European history is not so much a conflict of differential structure as it is a value conflict between different organisational methodologies. Common vs Roman law, nation-state versus a plurality of city-states and regions.

A history of the spectrum of centralisation and decentralisation emerges, presenting its conflicts and cooperations through multiple economic structures present at the time in the form of guilds, merchant networks and the monetary anarchy of the Middle Ages. The genealogy of governance present can be understood not as a binding, thoroughly regulated totality, but rather as a system of different norms, infrastructures and power relations that was constantly evolving, revolting and revolutionising technology and politics.

Chris Dillow wrote of a centralising-decentralising axis being the main source of political and economic division within the British polity today[13]. Such a split also crossed much of British political history as I’ve explored[14], as well as crossing and intersecting the spectrum of governance structures of European history as it evolved out of the shadow of the Roman Empire and spread out into a range of interconnected systems. This axis relies on an acute understanding of power structures and where one wants the relations to lie. The simplistic picture of a cooperative dynamic between centralising and decentralising forces ignores the conflicts of structure and values that have been present both historically and in the present day. The history of paradigm construction, institutional configuration and the messy reality that inhabits and borders the nation-state suggest a much greater spectrum of conflicts and cooperations through a prism a non-linear history, marked by cycles and modes of predominant and subsidiary organisational loci in a constantly moving war of position.

[1] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future

[2] Kojin Karatani, The Structure of World History

[3] Marieke de Goede, Virtue, Fortune, and Faith

[4] Bob Jessop, The State: Past, Present, Future





[9] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch

[10] E.P. Thompson, The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century

[11] Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England




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