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Jan 14, 2015

Why Decentralism? Assorted Rejoinders to the Idea that Bigger is Better

Stressing the anti-centralization impulse in libertarianism, D’Amato envisions a future without bureaucratic central planners—socialist or corporate.

In her book Decentralism: Where It Came From – Where Is It Going?, Mildred J. Loomis, close friend and acolyte of the consummate do-it-yourselfer Ralph Borsodi, encapsulates the decentralist impulse: “Decentralists heed Ralph Borsodi’s recommendations to keep units of production, ownership, control, education, government, and population small enough to allow persons involved to meet face-to-face, to know the facts, to really understand and deal with the issues at hand.”1 Decentralists desire a radical reduction in the power and prerogatives of large, hierarchical organizations, hoping to contract our political and economic forms in order to make them accountable to the actual, flesh-and-blood human beings they are supposed to serve. Our reasons for desiring this diminution of the size and scope of institutions is not arbitrary or mysterious, but based on a recognition of historically identified problems with massive, monolithic bodies—be they “public” or “private.” We are localists because we have observed the disconnect and polarity between those in power, the world’s ruling classes, and those subject to power. Today, libertarians ought to take great care to identify our political and economic outlook as distinctly “decentralist,” perhaps more even than we embrace labels such as “anarchist” or “libertarian” or “free marketeer.” In the last century, elites in centralized, hierarchical society, with its vertical, command-and-control relationships, accomplished their goal of abstracting the individual out of her own life, removing her mentally, physically, and emotionally from the things she must do to live—everyday activities like eating, working, moving about, and friendly engagement with her neighbors. Indeed, centralized, authoritarian institutions have attempted to destroy the very notion of neighbors, that unique identification with and affection for the groups of people with whom one interacts most closely and familiarly. Likewise, the huge multinationals of the corporate economy have increasingly rendered work a detached, wearisome affair, an exercise in the ability to stomach a soul-destroying, achromatic world of sterile “best practices” wherein genuine individuality, originality, and innovation are conspicuously wanting. Decisions revolve around small focal points of institutional power, removed from criticism or feedback, often enthralled to still larger hierarchies, or so interconnected to them as to be practically dependent. These impersonal and lifeless bureaucracies under which we live out our lives have left us alienated, wondering if there’s a point and increasingly convinced that there isn’t one. Libertarianism presents a resonant alternative, but only insofar as we hold dear its indispensible decentralist character, the part of our tradition which submits the possibility and potential of another way of living.

The Haymarket anarchist Adolph Fischer summarized anarchism’s opposition to “centralistic society” in a letter to Dyer Lum from Cook County Jail in early 1887, writing that “the real issue” is “centralism vs. decentralism,” with both “State Socialism and capitalism” representing the former, anarchism the latter.2 Today’s free market libertarians ought not summarily dismiss Fischer’s insight. In the middle of the twentieth century, Paul Goodman likewise noted commonalities evincing the kinship between the various “socialist alternatives” of the time and the capitalist, “corporate liberal societies”—“gigantic statism” and “dangerous and dehumanizing” top-down authority. Goodman was not taken in or mislead by the idea that there were meaningful, substantive differences between systems that all relied decisively on such “excessive centralization of decision making” (whether denominated progressivism, socialism, or communism).3 Identifying a pervasive “centralizing style of organizing” as the theme running through the twentieth century’s account of progress and modernity, Goodman’s anarchism suggests a return to voluntary association, to cooperative forms that give each member a stake and a say. No exception to the centralizing principle, capitalism as it exists today (and indeed always has existed) is a highly centralized, bureaucratic phenomenon, concentrating wealth and power where a free market would tend to disperse and disintegrate them. Rather than deviating from mainline libertarian thought, proceeding on some eccentric departure from its basic precepts, anti-capitalist libertarians are in fact continuing a long tradition that binds libertarianism to decentralism, arguably making anti-capitalism a necessary condition of libertarianism. “Capitalism,” of course, is an equivocal term used in different ways in different sectors of the libertarian tradition. The American individualist anarchists, for example, championed laissez faire and regarded unfettered free market competition as a form of socialism; these libertarians saw capitalism as a statist system of class rule which coercively privileges the owners of capital.

Discussing decentralist pioneers such as Herbert Agar, historian Dona Brown observes that, like Fischer at the end of the nineteenth century, twentieth century decentralists refused to give credence to the mainstream narrative, which pitted totalitarian fascism or communism on the one hand against American capitalism on the other.4 For decentralists, this was a false choice, a shallow and deliberate dismissal of the more interesting, penetrating claim that indeed “neither fascism nor communism was truly opposed to capitalism,” both epitomizing “a greater concentration of power and resources as the top.”5 Libertarians are taught to laud capital accumulation as the route to productive investment, and thus to innovation and general prosperity, but in doing so we have neglected those aspects of our tradition that demonstrate the dark side of accumulated wealth. This unfortunate tendency to commend concentrated wealth and economic power—and accordingly great disparities in wealth—glosses over the historical connections between economic power and its political twin, a close analysis of which disillusions the idea of the capitalist as a creator and engine of creative transformation.

Decentralists have always addressed the need to return purpose and meaning to human lives at once trapped and cast adrift in a regimented, stratified world of centralized power and what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs.” The anarchistic egoism of Max Stirner offers an incisive analysis of modern society. “Stirner was concerned with the alienation of the person from self,” with the innumerable, intertwined social forces estranging an individual from her own reality, interests, and desires—from self-realization and -fulfillment generally.6 Following Stirner, extrapolating his egoist ideas, post-left anarchists have made opposition to work itself a centerpiece of their thought. Repudiating the language and tactics of leftists, preoccupied as they are with the traditional labor movement and its assorted ideologies (e.g., socialism, syndicalism, communism, collectivism), egoists such as Wolfi Landstreicher have named work “the theft of life.”7 For most of us, the life-devouring reality of work in the corporate economy is a far more direct and palpable tyranny than are any of the actions of the formal state. The advent of work as we now understand it—a discrete object of study containing such elements as, for example, careerism, professionalism, credentialing, specialization—is a relatively recent affair.

New scholarship from political scientist Daniel Just continues to develop a “genealogy of the modern conception of work” and “the invention of work,” arguing that work has gradually taken on a new character as the cynosure of social life and the focus of a wholesale “recalibrat[ion] of individual existence.”8 The modern idea of work reinvents it as something more than merely those activities undertaken to provide ourselves with nutriment, raiment, and shelter. Rather it is the principal device, defined through job titles, relationships, emoluments, and academic degrees, through which we appraise our worth, character, and rank in society. Speaking of ourselves in the language of “branding,” we carefully curate and cultivate our various incarnations, overlapping versions projected through social media, résumés, and membership in both social and professional clubs; always at the center of all this careful posturing is the question “what do you do?,” that is, the question of one’s placement within the endless bureaucratic pyramids of the centralized, corporate economy. Largely passively or unconsciously, giving into the powerful undercurrent of centralized culture and values, we have relinquished the chance to self-define, to choose our own values and projects.

Relatedly many decentralists have criticized technology a force for centralizing and systematizing daily life, for disengaging us from one another and extending the control of large institutions. As philosopher Peter Kreeft observes, “[T]he chief effect upon our lives of all those millions of time-saving devices with which technology has enriched our lives has been to destroy leisure rather than to enhance it. No one has any time anymore.”9 Recent studies confirm that “Americans [are] working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept,” and that our economic system’s workaholic ways are linked to “a greater risk of heart disease, stroke and even diabetes.” Perhaps it is no coincidence that the twentieth century’s totalitarian statism, and the unthinkable slaughter and devastation it meant, followed (and attended) periods of great technological and industrial development. The marriage of war and technology gave way to a nightmare of mechanized slaughter, the deaths of tens of millions in two world wars.

Moreover Stirner’s insights on alienation are necessarily connected to ideas explored in Ivan Illich’s “Disabling Professions,” notably, the delusion that experts and technocrats in “monopolistic oligarchies” know best, the rest of us falling in line behind accepted wisdom enunciated from on high.10 Widespread confidence in and reliance on privileged experts depends perforce on the individual’s alienation. Only with such pervasive self-denial and alienation can a centralized, hierarchical society such as our own perpetuate itself, with its abysmal chasms separating individuals and communities from self-determination, self-sufficiency, and self-actualization. As a practical matter, inert, centralized institutions have made us childlike, their wards or dependents, our lives and livelihoods determined by a complex of top-down structures we had no say in building. Such institutions are naturally refractory to the forces of change and innovation; where horizontal organizational forms are flexible and capable of responding to external stimuli that affect their collective missions, rigid hierarchies are inherently, structurally incapable of such responses. Law professor Butler Shaffer has employed ideas from the study of chaos to analyze common assumptions about organizations and firms, revealing the “creative change and growth” which result from the turbulence and disequilibrium of seemingly chaotic and disorderly nonlinear systems.11 Shaffer shows that, perhaps counterintuitively, the fate of all “stabilized systems” is inevitable “entropic death,” the breakdown that occurs as a consequences of the system’s inability to “develop[] more complex patterns of orderliness,” to “respond creatively by moving to higher levels of order.”12 The Panic of 2008 offers just one recent example of the vulnerabilities created by the centralization and bureaucracy of the United States economy, its susceptibility to the processes of entropy Shaffer treats. For all of the obsessing and focus on “the economy,” crisis after crisis seems now to be an inevitable aspect of modern life.

Discussing the work of political economist Maurice Dobb, Timothy Shenk notes the emergence (or perhaps “invention”) of the economy as something that “existed apart from society,” an independent item that “could (and should) be measured, modeled, and managed by economists.” The birth and development of this notion of the economy, a departure from the tendency of classical economists to treat economic issues as aspects of broader social, moral, or political philosophy, corresponds with the more general trend of specialization in the academy. Academic specialization, in turn, proved useful to the growing central state and to modes of social planning that more and more implicated collaborations between the formal state and corporate power.13 Such collaborations have been a feature of the way that the centralist idea has developed in the “liberal democracies” of the Western world. Centralization is thus also closely wedded to what political scientist James C. Scott calls “high modernist ideology,” the coopting or misappropriation of “the legitimacy of science and technology” in the service of a new faith in the ability to comprehensively and centrally plan human society.14 High modernism embraces a specific understanding of progress and order, one in which human beings—leaders and experts in particular—are capable of calculatingly mastering nature and social institutions, bringing them into conformity with distinct, utopian designs.15 High modernists, typifying centralists of all stripes, believed that science could replace the political process and its traditional questions, that with an adequate level of technical knowledge, expertise could obviate the very need for politics. In a similar way, the invention of the economy removed inquiries traditionally regarded as political or philosophical to the demesne of economics experts, an attempt to reduce political economy to the “hard science” of economic models and blueprints.

Describing the growth of centralized modern government and its expansion into ever more areas of life, C.S. Lewis remarked that now “[o]ur whole lives are their business,” all of us “tamed animals” and subjects of a government run by technocrats “in the name of science.” Lewis thought that we are so fully tamed indeed that we “should probably starve” if we ever were to escape the cages of the modern state. James C. Scott wonders similarly if the state has succeeded in fully destroying the natural, decentralist impulses of mutual aid, cooperation, and horizontal association, if it is possible today to successfully break away from hierarchy, bureaucracy, and authority.16 But decentralists nevertheless have reasons to be optimistic. Decentralist arguments and insights transcend traditional political divides, pointing to a way out of an alienating existence spent negotiating the passages of huge anonymous corporate and government bodies.


[1] Mildred J. Loomis, Decentralism: Where it Came From - Where is it Going?, Black Rose Books (2005).

[2] In his introduction to Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott likewise observes that “large-scale capitalism is just as much an agency of ho­mogenization, uniformity, grids, and heroic simplification as the state is … .”

[3] Paul Goodman, Drawing the Line Once Again: Paul Goodman’s Anarchist Writings, PM Press (2010), 62-63.

[4] Dona Brown, Back to the Land: The Enduring Dream of Self-Sufficiency in Modern America, University of Wisconsin Press (2011), 174.

[5] Ibid. Brown’s work on decentralism makes a nod to Kevin Carson’s mutualism: “A clever phrase used by an anarchist website in 2009 sums up the decentralist position in the 1930s: they were ‘free market anti-capitalists.’”

[6] John F. Welsh, Max Stirner’s Dialectical Egoism: A New Interpretation, Lexington Books (2010), 24.

[7] Wolfi Landstreicher, The Network of Domination, The Anarchist Library (2005), http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/wolfi-landstreicher-the-network-of-domination.

[8] Daniel Just, “The Invention of Work in Modernity: Hegel, Marx, and Weber,” Journal of Historical Sociology (2014), 1.

[9] Peter Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings, Ignatius Press (2005), 92.

[10] Ivan Illich, Disabling Professions, Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd. (1977), 12-13.

[11] Butler Shaffer, In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918-1938, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2008), 37-39.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Edward J. Dodson, The Discovery of First Principles, Volume 1, Writers Club Press (2002), 4-5.

[14] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press (1998), 4.

[15] Ibid, 5.

[16] James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism, Princeton University Press (2012), xxi.

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