The Decline & Fall of Centralization

Here let us ponder a couple of truly momentous questions:

If centralization was the instrument that enabled the state to exploit and enslave much of the populace, would a powerful new surge of decentralization benefit and liberate them?

If centralization was the instrument that enabled the state to exploit and destroy nature on the large scale, would a powerful new surge of decentralization protect and restore it?

I’m praying with all my might that the answer to both these momentous questions is yes.

There’s a good case to be made for centralization, of course, and I’m at least willing to take my hat off to it by acknowledging the central state’s role in imposing and maintaining social order. For example, the rise of the central state in Sumer was powerful enough to quell the incessant localized violence that characterized early societies. Small tribal (kin-based) societies were fiercely egalitarian but also notoriously warlike, repeating cycles of violence endlessly. Then as now, humanity’s instinctual disposition toward aggression and violence needed to be repressed.

If you don’t want to take my word for this, maybe you’ll take Sigmund Freud’s. His book, Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), describes the fundamental tensions that exist between the individual’s desire for freedom and civilization’s requirement of order. According to Freud, the individual’s instinctual quest for freedom is at odds with civilization’s demand for conformity and instinctual repression. Many of humankind’s primitive instincts (for example, the desire to kill and the insatiable craving for sexual gratification) are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community.

As a result, the state creates laws that prohibit killing, rape, and adultery, and it implements severe punishments if such commandments are broken.

Order comes first, it always has, it always will. It must come first. “Better injustice than disorder,” observed Goethe ruefully in his old age, having experienced the chaos of the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars. This is a bitter pill for bleeding hearts liberals to swallow but swallow it they must if they expect to gain public support. When it comes to the maintenance of social order, the public feels pretty much as Goethe did.

Now, having taken my hat off to acknowledge the need for centralization, I put it back on. Oh, Lord God Almighty, what a price we have paid for

the benefits of centralization! Down through history, the force of centralization has been used to despoil nature, to subjugate human populations, and to oppress and exploit local communities.

Centralization’s brute force has been applied in every clime and culture. And when really bad people get their hands on the instrumentality of the state, then really bad things can happen. Here’s an example of just how bad it can get:

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“We must conquer nature,” declared Chairman Mao when he launched his Four Pests Campaign, one of the first actions taken in the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962). The four pests to be eliminated were rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. The last came to be known as the Kill the Sparrow Campaign.

Mao thought the birds were pests because they ate grain seeds needed by the peasants. So in 1958, he ordered all sparrows to be killed. For this purpose, millions of Chinese were mobilized to exterminate the birds. Children, some as young as five years old, were also summoned to participate in the campaign. All these people spent their days banging pots and pans and beating drums to scare the poor birds from landing, forcing them to fly until they fell from the sky in exhaustion. Sparrow nests were torn down, eggs were broken, and nestlings were killed. The birds were very nearly exterminated entirely.

Though Chairman Mao was venerated by his people as “the great leader, the great supreme commander, the great teacher, and the great helmsman,” he wasn’t smart enough to know that sparrows also consumed billions of crop-eating insects. Their near-extermination upset the ecological balance, enabling crop-eating insects to proliferate like mad. With no sparrows to eat them, locusts swarmed all over the country feeding off the rice crops and creating food shortages that led to the Great Chinese Famine, in which 20-40 million people starved to death.

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With dreadful tales like that to ponder maybe it’s a good thing that centralization — or, if you prefer, over-centralization — has fallen on hard times, at least in the estimate of a great many American voters. But while Trumpism is a negative manifestation of centralization’s sagging reputation, there’s the flip side which is positive. Let’s take a look at it, once again looking at the origin of  centralization.

From its beginning in Sumer centralization had a huge advantage over decentralization. Centralization, by definition, was connected to other things. Centralization brought things together. Decentralization, by definition, was disconnected, isolated, and therefore weak by comparison. For example, the elites sitting on top of hierarchies had more and better information about what was going on in the world than the dispersed, unconnected locals. The elites used this advantage to impose and maintain their dominance.

Now, for the first time in history, the connection advantage that centralization has enjoyed for millennia is swiftly being eroded. This is thanks to our old pal, human ingenuity. Or maybe our old evolutionary luck is making a comeback.  In that case, let’s thank heaven. Imagine, just when we have reached the end of our ecological rope – with the possibility of extinction staring us in the face – we’ve done what those clever Sumerians did. We’ve produced one whopper of a breakthrough.

We’ve invented nothing less than a new and higher form of social organization. We’ve invented connected decentralization.


We’ve pulled off a technological revolution that gives individuals and small groups a breathtaking ability to send vast amounts of data instantly, constantly, and globally.  Woe to poor old centralization!  This is its doom.

Connected decentralization is a hundred times superior to centralization. It has access to far more and far better information than elites sitting on tops of hierarchies. These elites are now often the least and worst informed people on the planet. The information that reaches them has been filtered by the hierarchical system, a slow, lengthy process involving committees and meetings. In the process, information is simplified, shorn of its complexity because hierarchies are immobilized by too much information. In contrast, connected decentralization can rapidly assimilate and process infinite amounts of complex information. It luxuriates in complexity.

Under connected decentralization, new ideas, new learning and new methods can be communicated instantly around the world. Entrepreneurs and tinkerers can easily test their ideas; they can easily find answers to their questions and solutions to their problems. They can locate partners, allies and markets. And they can do so on the cheap.

Connected decentralization is everywhere undermining big centralized institutions and, in the process, it is transforming politics, media, business, and almost every facet of modern life. Nothing is going untouched, and big centers of power are everywhere in decline.