Lonely sits the city
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princess among states
Is become a thrall.
Recently, I experienced a social novelty.
Anna Gát, founder of a roving social club and literary salon named Interintellect, very graciously invited me to one of her events. A dozen or so of us, some known to me but most not, gathered in the backyard of a tastefully restored San Francisco Victorian and drank and ate and discussed various topics of the day. It was a convivial and enjoyable affair, that crackling mix of novelty and familiarity among like-minded strangers and acquaintances that’s virtually impossible to find in coastal cities, outside the confines of the workplace at least.
As I walked home down the steep slope of Fulton Street afterward, I thought: This is like a synagogue, but without Jews or Judaism. Like many things nowadays, the seculars have reinvented a religious concept to cope with the very barrenness that secularism bequeathed us.
Synagogues aren’t the only legacy institutions with attempts at secular reboots: We’re on to nation-states as well. Noted entrepreneur and online provocateur Balaji Srinivasan recently published his intriguing tome, The Network State (available online in very readable format here). The first sections are an introduction to the World According to Balaji, which will seem familiar to anyone who’s followed the very opinionated poaster for any length of time. And for those who haven’t, and are perhaps unfamiliar with the canon of references inhabiting Balaji’s fervid mind, the text is absolutely jammed with esoteric references and links to outside sources. At times the book feels less like a book and more like a Wikipedia page; it’s not clear to me how you’d even read it in printed form, which is perhaps why there isn’t one (Kindle and online only).
The most interesting section is the one currently relegated to the end on the titular concept itself, the network state. It is not, as Balaji is quick to point out, some metaverse concept visitable only with virtual reality headsets. No, it’s an actual patch of land (or several of them) with a physical border and representation in the United Nations. As Balaji defines it:
A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.
The most radical (and underrated) change wrought by technology has been the decoupling of information from physical movement, the flight of bits liberated from the slow lurch of atoms. This dislodges human life from a geographic setting, making what you see, think, and experience independent of the colored shape on the map labeled “San Francisco, California, USA” (or whatever). It’s what the early media theorists like Marshall McLuhan puzzled over, the global wiring-together of the human nervous system. His “global village” however was one warmed by the blue tones of an old-timey television receiving signals from a centralized transmitter in a still geographically and politically unified state.
What the early luminaries missed, prescient though they were, was the unique many-to-many property of mobile computing; left to self-sort ideologically and aesthetically, consumers in a globalized society bereft of meaningful religious or cultural ties would organize themselves into patchwork quilts of belonging no longer limited by political borders. In the case of affluent elites, their self-organized state would look like an urban archipelago in a more rural and regional sea. (In the United States, the political color codings here are obvious.)
This network state idea could be dismissed as just another unworkable fantasy from crypto bros. Except that they’re not proposing some unlikely future, but rather describing a de facto reality that’s only accelerated with the post-COVID crackup. The network-staters are already here, we just don’t refer to them as such. It’s not like the long-term viability of normie liberal democratic nation-states has lots of champions these days. Over half of Americans think a civil war is possible in the next few years. Well, why don’t we find a more peaceable rupture? asks Balaji, who makes it very clear he is not fantasizing about some violent civil war.
It’s easy to imagine what that looks like: In my Jekyll-and-Hyde, blue-city/red-state dualism (I’ll let readers guess which I think is the evil one), I already bounce between being a rootless cosmopolitan who’s part of the Borg and a desert redneck with a Jeep and various bits of hardware illegal in California. In my blue Borg mode, I simply teleport between three to four neighborhoods in San Francisco, three to four neighborhoods in New York, and a similar patch of Miami, with perhaps detours to Austin or Seattle. I don’t even know where most of my friends (most of whom I met online) even live anymore; we just meet at various focal points like conferences held in the same areas of our network state. If we declared those areas (and people) to be part of the “Networked Crypto-Republic of Balajistan,” complete with U.N. representation and passports, would I even notice that it happened? Not really … since I’d never leave it.
Well, I might, but few other Balajistanis would. Today, I autopilot my Tesla 3 DoucheMobile from San Francisco, over the Sierra Nevada, to the Mad Max desert of Nevada. In our future network-state world, I’d cross some sort of border (perhaps we can repurpose those impossibly stupid “inspection stations”), and show my visa for the “Real American States” (or perhaps I’d hedge my bets with two passports). Then I’d see the first of several Trump flags flying on the way to my desert retreat in what’s now a foreign country. That world need not even exist for the Balajistanis. They can drop it completely from their consciousness, aided by Web3 social networks like Farcaster, where the app layer can just delete entire swaths of the network as if they don’t exist.
One piece of nuance worth stressing: It’s clear that Balaji does not align with the standard urban blue tribe in his thinking, dismissing that crowd as part of the “NYT” tribe, one in the trinity of players he feels will rule the world (the other two are the Chinese Communist Party and crypto itself). It is rather curious that this new crypto tribe geographically lines up almost exactly with the American urban blue tribe (itself a subset of the global neoliberal elite network). If you plotted the geographic density of The Economist subscriptions, it would overlap to almost 100% of the putative Balajistan sketched out above. You might need to narrow down the network states to individual neighborhoods within the concerned cities, drawing an international border between, say, Pacific Heights and SoMa in San Francisco, or the Upper West Side and the Flatiron district in New York City. The post-partition reshuffling of populations will be pretty lit.
Vitalik Buterin, founder of Ethereum and another crypto luminary who often opines on matters beyond the blockchain, reviewed Balaji’s thesis at length. Buterin also fixates on the motivating why? of such a novel state, and what glue could possibly serve to unite an invented nation.
Generally, I am used to the Big Compromise Idea being a leftist one: some form of equality and democracy. Balaji, on the other hand, has Big Compromise Ideas that feel more rightist: local communities with shared values, loyalty, religion, physical environments structured to encourage personal discipline (“keto kosher”) and hard work … This style of thinking is foreign to me, but I find it fascinating, and important. Stereotypical “wealthy white liberals” ignore this at their peril: these more “traditional” values are actually quite popular even among some ethnic minorities in the United States, and even more so in places like Africa and India, which is exactly where Balaji is trying to build up his base.
Ultimately Buterin is a liberal: The only conceivable binding ties among individuals in society, other than ground rules around human rights, are economic and regulatory relationships. After rejecting the binding agents of the right that Balaji floated (such as restrictive lifestyle customs, i.e., “keto kosher”), Buterin lists a set of wonky policy and tax proposals for which this new state could be an experimental test bed.
But that doesn’t seem to be how nations are forged. Consider one such nation currently straining to survive against a foreign invader: Ukraine. What exactly drove hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian civilians to take up arms and risk being blown to bits in Russian artillery barrages rather than submit to Russian rule? Surely it wasn’t disagreement with Putin on property-tax regimes. No, something else is at work.
Physical courage is realizing there are fates worse than death or injury, that there are events in this world that one would rather die than see come to pass. That’s what makes people give their lives—ideally in building, but often in fighting and dying—for a cause or nation. And that’s what nobody seems capable of mustering anymore, no matter how sophisticated the technology behind DAOs or novel cryptographic governance mechanisms. The how is there, without much in the way of why.
The reality is that the level of tribal affiliation requisite to birth a nation-state violates the universalism of contemporary liberalism, which refuses to countenance any form of identity that isn’t purely self-constructed and elective. To severely paraphrase Carl Schmitt, the fundamental task of politics is making the friend-enemy distinction that defines your group in opposition to the Other. That’s a distinction no longer considered legitimate, even where it’s feasible—as in the case of the State of Israel, which is why it catches so much shit from sanctimonious Western countries, many of them ethnostates themselves. It’s also why, as with salons, this new nation-state business feels like a secular version of a Jewish concept—Zionism but without the Judaism.
In his collection of letters On the French Stage, German poet Heinrich Heine recounted a visit he paid to the Cathedral of Amiens in 1837. His accompanying friend asked Heine why nobody built such marvels anymore, and Heine replied:
Dear Alphonse, in those days men had convictions, whereas we moderns only have opinions, and something more is needed than an opinion to build a Gothic cathedral.
Something more is also needed to build a state, whether of the network or regular variety. Our opinions alone, no matter how lit the resulting Twitter threads, simply aren’t equal to the task. Something must stir inside us that says: Here I will die so that my children may one day live. That’s what has motivated every generation of Israeli as it has marched off to a perpetual war of survival; it’s what motivates the fierce resistance of the Ukrainians against the Russian invasion now. Without that, any aspiring state is just a gated community for the working wealthy, much like the ones for old retirees in South Florida. San Francisco and Manhattan are already functionally that: Can modernity produce any new politics, or will our Enlightenment-era nation-state simply die a slow, sclerotic death?