Real World of the Decentralized Autonomous Society

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  • Article: The Real World of the Decentralized Autonomous Society. By J.Z. Garrod. Triple C, Vol 14, No 1 (2016)



"Although it is still in early stages, many commentators have been quick to note the revolutionary potential of next-generation or Bitcoin 2.0 technology. While some have expressed fear that the widespread application of these technologies may engender the rise of a Terminator-style Skynet, others believe that it represents the coming of a decentralized autonomous society (DAS) in which humans are freed from centralized forms of power through the proliferation of distributed autonomous organizations or DAOs. Influenced by neoliberal theory that stresses privatization, open markets, and deregulation, Bitcoin 2.0 technologies are implicitly working on the assumption that 'freedom' means freedom from the state. This neglects, however, that within capitalist societies, the state can also provide freedom from the vagaries of the market by protecting certain things from commodification.

Through an analysis of

(1) class and the role of the state;

(2) the concentration and centralization of capital; and

(3) the role of automation,

I argue that the vision of freedom that underpins Bitcoin 2.0 tech is one that neglects the power that capital holds over us in both organizing the structure of our lives, and informing our idea of what it means to be human. In neglecting these other forms of power, I claim that the DAS might be a far more dystopian development than its supporters comprehend, making possible societies that are commodities all the way down." (


JZ Garrod:

" I argue that by adhering to a neoliberal subjectivity, some supporters of the DAS have an obscured vision of: (1) class and the role of the state; (2) the concentration and centralization of capital; and (3) the role of automation. As I hope to make clear, the vision of freedom that seems to underpin Bitcoin 2.0 tech is one that neglects very significant forms of power and coercion; in particular, the power that capital holds over us in both organizing the structure of our lives, and informing our idea of what it means to be human. In neglecting these other forms of power, I claim that the DAS might be a far more dystopian development than its supporters comprehend, making possible societies that are, as Fraser (2014, 5) calls them, “commodities all the way down.”

Admittedly, my comments and reflections are anticipatory, as little of what is discussed has come to pass, nor is it likely to come to pass in exactly the way in which I've presented it. There are real issues of scalability, infrastructure, and regulation that must first be overcome before Bitcoin 2.0 tech can be widely adopted in the manner that DAS proponents suggest (Higgins 2015; Scott 2014). As de Sousa Santos (2004, 241) notes, however, a sociology of emergences is one that inquires “into the alternatives that are contained in the horizon of concrete possibilities.” By taking account of the “knowledge, practices and agents” (Ibid) involved in the development of new technologies, it becomes possible to “identify therein the tendencies of the future (the Not Yet) upon which it is possible to intervene so as to maximize the probability of hope vis-à-vis the probability of frustration” (Ibid). Consider this, then, my normative strategic intervention into the development of new types of societies. By offering some suggestions as to how we might better use these technologies to secure and mediate the commons (both digital and material), I conclude by arguing that there exists the possibility to create a more sustainable—and possible—future for all."

The Decentralized Autonomous Society

JZ Garrod:

"While the prospect of a washing machine that can order its own detergent is intriguing, the true draw of Ethereum is its potential to remake the social world. The central institution that makes this possible is the decentralized autonomous organization, or DAO. As the name suggests, DAOs are essentially digital organizations that manage themselves: “long-term smart contracts that contain the assets and encode the bylaws of an entire organization” (Buterin 2014, par. 2). Depending on how they are structured, certain members of the DAO might be able to spend its funds, or modify its code.

Buterin (2013, par. 2) has described DAOs as an attempt to extend the logic of the industrial revolution upwards. Where that revolution allowed us to “start replacing human labour with machines,” it only automated the bottom half of the equation, “removing the need for rank and file manual labourers.” DAOs are thus an attempt to see if it is possible to “remove management from the equation, instead.” With such technology, it becomes possible for selfdriving cars to autonomously make micro-payments to each other for the right-of-way, or to share data plans via mesh networks, making much of the internet infrastructure unnecessary (Pollen 2013).

For many true believers, however, smart contracts, blockchains, and the DAOs that might stem from them, are the building blocks of something much bigger: the decentralized autonomous society (DAS). While there are competing versions of this possible future, the predominant theme is a society in which technological development has disrupted the centralized and hierarchal forms of the nation-state system.8 In this society math, perfect information, and market mechanisms are supposedly able to solve the problem of organizational politics by removing humans from politics altogether.

Viewed as inherently corruptible creatures, the thinking goes that it is far more sensible “to base a future economy on the mathematical laws of the universe, outside the grasp of human error and manipulation” (Patron 2014, 102).9 Through DAOs, it is claimed, we might be able to augment human autonomy by automating the governance of all organizations, since DAOs can run “without any human involvement under the control of an incorruptible set of business rules” (Larimer 2013, par. 2). And since the code simply runs itself, these DAOs could run forever, making politics a simple problem of engineering.

Inherent in this view is the idea that political elites have too much power, and are a hamper on freedom. Billionaire Peter Thiel, for instance, writes that he no longer believes “that freedom and democracy are compatible” (as cited in Frank 2015, 27). Perhaps it could exist, “he imagined, in cyberspace, in outerspace, or on high-seas homesteads, where individualists could escape the 'terrible arc of the political.'” Similar remarks have been made by Roger Ver, the prominent Bitcoin investor, who argues that such technologies “will prevent governments from being able to just print money at will and then use that to buy tanks and guns and bombs to murder people around the world” (as cited in Dodd 2015, par. 4). While not all cryptographers share these views, Karlstrøm (2014, 29) notes that there has always been “a strong current of libertarian sentiments in the discussions about cryptography.” Indeed, the popular economist Paul Krugman (2014, par. 1) has confessed that his own uneasiness with Bitcoin stems from the fact that it is “intimately tied up with libertarian anti-government fantasies.”

Many, however, claim that these anti-government fantasies are unrealistic. More likely, claims Kosner (2014), is that DAOs intermingle with other, more traditional, centralized organizations, with each focusing on what it scales best to (Kosner, 2014). This point is echoed by De Filippi and Mauro (2014, par. 22) who suggest that it is more plausible to see a future in which “decentralized organizations with distributed models of governance, independent legal systems, or perhaps even autonomously governed communities . . . compete with both governments and corporations.” (


JZ Garrod:

"Outside of the real world issues that I have examined, there is good reason to question the utopian narrative of the DAS. While the example of a washing machine ordering its own detergent is sufficiently domestic to obscure other uses of this technology, it is important that we recognize the destructive potential. With the coming of autonomous machines, we might soon live in a world where drones hire other machines for military purposes, or where in-body nano-technology autonomously negotiates with other technology outside your body (and perhaps, without our consent). Indeed, prominent individuals in the science and tech industry such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Steve Wozniak, have already called for a ban on “offensive autonomous weapons” (Asaro 2015, par. 1).24 There is certainly no denying the potential of Bitcoin 2.0 tech, but it is this dark side that concerns me because it is necessarily opaque and hard to predict. Taken to its logical conclusion, however, the DAS can only appear as a utopia if one has totally expunged power and coercion from their analysis of social reality.

This is not to suggest, however, that all supporters of the DAS share this libertarian vision. There are many individuals who believe that Bitcoin 2.0 tech might better protect “the perimeter of the commons” by “empowering commoners to decide their own fate” (Bollier 2015, par. 21; see also, Clippinger and Bollier 2014). While there is no techno fix to the inherent contradictions of the capitalist mode of extraction, Bollier (2015, par. 22) notes that this technology could be used to leapfrog “over some of the dysfunctional politics and bureaucratic treachery that is rife in conventional institutions.” Furthermore, Bauwens and Kostakis (2014) note that many of these technologies are able to scale up and down, making it possible to create distributed collaborative organizations (or 'open co-operativism' as they call it) that could be used to help smaller, regional areas protect their own commons—whether they be in the form of healthcare, education, water, air, internet, knowledge, and so on.25 In other words, we might be able to use DAOs to automatically manage common property resources—and without many of the problems typically associated with those regimes.

While this world is still far off, I agree with Bollier (2015, par. 22) that it “is a rich horizon worth exploring.” But I think that we can only explore this rich horizon if we expunge ourselves (and the technology itself) from the type of thinking that views that state as an unnatural outgrowth whose only function is to restrict our inherent propensity to exchange. This view not only neglects that most technological innovation is state driven (Mazzucato 2014), but that the state can also be used to protect certain things from commodification, thus guaranteeing some of our freedoms against the tyranny of the market.

Indeed, as Franklin (1999,100) notes,

- 'what turns the promised liberation into enslavement are not the products of technology per se […] but the structure and infrastructures that are put in place to facilitate the use of these products and to develop dependency on them'

To make certain that Bitcoin 2.0 tech provides the basis for progressive human development, we must ensure that it is used to secure our social rights, as opposed to a means of avoiding the state by escaping to digitally-mediated private spaces. Indeed, as Harvey (2015, par. 33) notes, it is important that people on the left take this technology seriously to “make sure this is not orchestrated as a right-wing gesture as happens with something like Bitcoin.” As he continues: “Is there a way where we on the left can construct an alternative monetary system, which is actually much more democratic and much more socially constructed?” Only time will tell. But what is certain is that liberation will not come from a world subsumed by exchange relations, as many DAS supporters currently claim. It is in this sense that we must, as Franklin (1999, 133) writes, “protest until there is change in the structures and practices of the real world of technology, for only then can we hope to survive as a global community.” (