A History of Decentralization
Jun 11, 2019
14 minute read (full)

First let’s decentralize history…

This month’s thematic has been a real challenge for us and raised many questions in our minds. Why? The history of decentralization is complex and non-linear. But most of all, it is difficult to be considered from an objective point of view, stripped of the predominance of the state.

Talking about decentralization leads obviously to discuss about centralization; to find the ghosts of history, to cross-reference the victories and failures of social-political movements; to discover some contemporary alternatives to the generalized centralization of our lives. Unless we consider that a technology is neutral, in the end, we cannot talk about decentralization without talking about governancesuffragepolitics or apoliticismautonomyorganization… and the dominant model of centralization: the nation-state. Still, if a very vast literature and documentation concerns rise of states, it must be stated that the one granted to the opposite, i. e. the absence of a state, is almost non-existent.

If we consider human history in its entirety and through the births of the first social groups, state dominance is a very recent phenomena. In his book “Homo Domesticus“, published this year, James C. Scott writes, “The state is originally a protection racket implemented by a gang of thieves who overcame the others”. Could this be the explanation for this historical denial, through a “story” written by winners? Yet, as we shall see, there have been a number of attempts and this utopian dream, still very present today, often seems to be the last hope for a civilization running towards its own disaster. If there is one thing that blockchain allows us to experience again, in its very sensitive way, is this somewhat anarchist dream to be able to surpass state power, bypass its rules and create new ones.

A review of Nancy Huston‘s “The tale-tellers: a short study of humankind” reminds us that history is undeniably the “one” story  we choose to tell among a thousand others. As a consequence, this article is not a ready and obvious history of decentralization. We would like to consider it as an essay, and not a journalistic enumeration of historical and social facts. It is a choice, ours, to present “one” history of decentralization. We have no doubt that it would have been very different if others than us were involved in its writing.

Therefore, this article aims to propose a “certain truth”, but also to pay tribute to the history of decentralization, to describe social-political movements of men and women, whose names have been forgotten in the History painted by the winners/dominants. It seeks to pay tribute to all the areas that have been defended so far, and of course, to all the areas we will still have to defend.

This month, Black Monthly will not include any interview. With the same reserves we had in choosing the narrative elements of this “story” of decentralization, we preferred not to impose any “expert” view / analysis of this history.

Part One : Is Decentralization just a word?

When they founded Aragon, Luis and Jorge (see interview) decided to articulate it around a symbol and a political genealogy. This reference did not arise out of nowhere. Aragon is thus named in reference to the anarchist communities developed in Aragon during the Spanish War. This results in a personal and political topology of Aragon’s decentralization project. Here a political legacy of decentralization is arming a very recent technological decentralization.

Spanish Civil War Aragon Front, 1936-1939, Volunteer washing his hands, © The Working Class Movement Library.png

But, in order to draw a genealogy of the term “decentralization”, we have to go back further in history. The term itself appears in reaction to the word “centralization” that arise around 1790, during the phase of the French Revolution also known as the Directory. “Decentralization” will therefore sound like a “brother-enemy” of “centralization”, much more prominent, and as that period brings to its climax. As a matter of fact, the French Revolution is often reduced to the advent of a centralizing Jacobinism replacing the absolute monarchy. But the struggle between the Jacobins and the Girondins is not limited to a simplistic opposition between centralization and federalism ; the federalism advocated by the Girondins had nothing to do with a real project of administrative and political decentralization as what could be seen later in Spain or Germany. Besides, it was later exploited for political and historical purposes in a binary opposition between Jacobinism vs. federalism, Paris vs. province. Either way, the Jacobins, triumphant over the Girondins, led France towards bureaucratic centralisation (which was previously only political).

We are not going to make a crypto-history out of the French Revolution! Let’s just say that during strong political/historical events, in the spirit of the age, words and ideas flourish. The term “decentralization” gained usage in the 1820s. Tocqueville, in the middle of the 19th century, summed up the situation by seeing in the French Revolution a dynamic of decentralization that had given rise to an even greater centralization : “the French Revolution began with a push towards decentralization but became, in the end, an extension of centralization”. Interesting reflection that could be applied to the web: born for decentralization, instrument of centralization, challenge of redecentralization.

Centralization/decentralization is not only a French matter, of course : it should be noted that federalism is an idea as ancient as politics and really took shape with the United States or the Swiss Confederation. Let us also imagine that there was decentralization against which a desire for centralization was formed; one example of this being the Grand Siècle which sought to centralize French language by eliminating regional and dialectal singularities and thus, in an attempt to consolidate the absolute power of the monarchy. This led to the creation of the Académie Française and a rigorous codification of grammar. In short, more than decentralization, we should probably talk about redecentralization.

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5 replies »

  1. Jim is on target with ” TOO MUCH JARGON “. I’ve done a cursory reading of post, will need to re-read this in a more ” digestive mode “.
    Could this just be summed up as a Oligarchical morphing from a Vertically organized structure to a Parallel Lateral Same Old Same Old ?
    What’s New is really just Old repackaged ?

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