All Commentary
Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Are National Hierarchies Becoming Obsolete?

An Interview with John Robb

Today we’re talking with John Robb, blogger at Global Guerillas and founder of Resilient Communities. Robb is a polymath whose career has taken him from military theory through software innovation to consulting on the development of resilient communities. Robb currently helps people by “providing the support, knowledge, insight, and encouragement needed to help you and your community thrive, despite adversity.” He’s known for taking the insights of complexity science and decentralization and applying those insights both to predicting macro trends and to adapting locally. 

The Freeman: Welcome, John.

Robb: My pleasure, Max. 

The Freeman: We’ve seen another round of massive demonstrations in Egypt, protests against corruption in Brazil, demonstrations in Turkey, and much, much more. What factors do you believe are leading to these spontaneous uprisings? 

Robb: First off, people don't believe they are getting the quality of opportunity they expect. What are they getting? Corruption and misallocation, from the prevailing methods of societal organization. 

The Freeman: The paradox of peer-to-peer interconnection is that we’re simultaneously becoming hyperlocalized and hyperglobalized. It’s simpler than ever to pull new communities together. And what we think of as being “local” is not always determined by geographic proximity. One might feel closer, for example, in ethos and interests to people from around the world who are members of their Facebook group. What do these phenomena tell us about the status quo with respect to large nation-states? 

Robb: Yes. The technology is changing and so will the methods of organizing life. Until recently, we've relied on “bureaucracy” and “markets” to manage and allocate resources (more or less depending on the ideology employed). Those organizational forms aren't well suited for a globally interconnected world. Technology makes it possible to build systems that are much more fluid and innovative. 

One of the “new” organizational methods we see will likely be based on P2P (think in terms of BitTorrent and Bitcoin). Our inability to go beyond markets and bureaucracy is stopping us from actually entering an information/creative economy that is as qualitatively better as democratic capitalism was an improvement over feudal agrarianism.

The Freeman: There is something of a disconnect between people’s perceptions about the role of governments—even big governments—and their behaviors with respect to our inevitable trend toward interconnection. That is, most demonstrators just want to switch out the bad guys for the good guys. What do you think it will take for people to see that P2P integration can do much, much more than getting people to organize so as to staff old government systems with the “right” people? And will this be a conscious awakening or an unconscious process of decentralization (or both)?

Robb:  Governments are a legacy system for managing physical space, and they will be around in some form well past our lifetimes. However, as new systems emerge that deliver more, we'll likely see people use these systems to opt out of the current failures. In fact, most of the wealthy, connected people today won't really understand why they are left behind, any more than that nobility of Europe did when feudalism was eclipsed.

The Freeman: Part of your work has to do with helping people weather exogenous shocks due to large macro-economic factors and dumb, big-government policies. Do you see this preparedness as part of the larger process of self-organization?

Robb: Yes. Indeed. It's more than surviving shocks though. It's part of a reorg of social structures that's underway. Technology is making it possible to build a home that can actually produce a surprisingly large amount of what you need to live well. Combine that with inexpensive information connectivity, and you have the re-emergence of a household that can take care of itself and network with others that can do the same. In fact, these technologies actually reverse the thinking on the value of the suburbs. If you have some space (sun, rain, and land), you have access to true independence. 

The Freeman: At The Freeman, we’re very interested in the idea of changing social technologies (laws and governance) so that people can thrive. But it’s hard to dislodge entrenched interests. Do you see the way forward in peer-to-peer networks for dislodging rent-seekers?  

Robb:   Actually, it's better to avoid approaching the problem head on.  Instead, set up ways of getting things done that cut out the middlemen—from finance to government to retail.  Early example: Kickstarter. 

The Freeman: John Robb, thank you very much for your time.


  • The Freeman is the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education and one of the oldest and most respected journals of liberty in America. For more than 50 years it has uncompromisingly defended the ideals of the free society.