Whereas philosophers define religion as delusion, the Athenians defined religion as the prerequisite to action. The orator Isocrates in the “Panegyricus”, writing in the year 380 BC, argued for Athenian supremacy over the Hellenic city-states by recalling the blessing of Demeter upon the Athenian founders:
When Demeter came into the country in her wandering, after the rape of Persephone, and was kindly disposed to our forefathers on account of the services they rendered her … she bestowed two gifts which surpass all others: the fruits of the earth, which have saved us from the life of wild beasts, and the mystic rite, the partakers in which have brighter hopes concerning the end of life and the eternity beyond (Freese 4.28).
The appeal to antiquity, convenient considering their defeat in the Peloponnesian war, contained a basis in reality so far as tradition was concerned. Athens had a reputation as the oldest Greek city-state, commonly noted among ancient historians and verified by modern anthropology. Calling this precedent to mind, Isocrates bolsters his country’s claim to antiquity by noting the yearly religious tributes submitted to Athens “as a memorial of our old services … and those that omit to do so have often been commanded by the Pythia [the oracle at Delphi] to pay the due proportion of their produce” (4.31). Ceremonial though these were, the psychological impact they provided resonated with Isocrates’ audience, “for we alone among the Hellenes have the right to call our city at once nurse and fatherland and mother” (4.25). In Isocrates’ view, martial prowess could not be solely relied upon in the struggle against the Barbarian. The principles of religion demanded an ancestral basis.
Empowered by this special confidence, Athens enjoyed one of the most storied periods of cultural preeminence the West has ever known. Under their unique form of democracy, any man regardless of class or wealth could make a proposal in the Boule, a council of 500 chosen annually by lot empowered to decide questions of policy. If he delivered his proposal convincingly, he then delivered his proposal to the Prytaneis, an executive council also chosen by lot which allocated public money and manpower to successful proposals. If he were particularly gifted, he could stand for election as one of ten annual strategoi, the generals, admirals, and administrators directly responsible for leadership on the policy of the Boule, though even at the highest echelon were elections still subject to final lotteries. This dynamism gave Athens its most storied statesmen, who in turn funded marvels of art and architecture whose cultural significance remain unassailable. Their novel equality could be described as a ‘startup government,’ since few countries since have tolerated such a high degree of spontaneity and held such preference for individual merit. Yet by a paradoxical conservatism, the average Athenian, in the example of Isocrates, justified their success with religion.
A coming parallel of collective action and innovation, termed the creation of ‘startup societies,’ is the subject of The Network State, a collection of essays by tech entrepreneur and commentator Balaji Srinivasan. Uploaded on 4 July 2022 for free and indexed in five parts, with an accompanying dashboard of existing startup societies, The Network State advocates for this type of innovation just as much as it plays a role in bringing it about. Defined as “the sequel to the nation state,” the ‘network state’ is “a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognized founder, a capacity for collective action … and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition,” on-chain describing a decentralized ledger (1.2). The capacity for collective action in particular is relevant, since that is a feature no other institution can leverage as well as a national government. Srinivasan argues this can be scaled via decentralized incentive structures enabled by blockchain technology, assuming technological forces can muster a feeling in the hearts and minds of man once required by religion (5.3.8).
Much about the intentions of The Network State can be gleaned from its structure. Parts one and five treat the mechanics of network states, arguing network states offer the fastest, least deadly alternative in conceiving new political entities (1.5.1). Because some of the more robust nation-states exist in terms of ‘propositions’ and not based solely on the founding ethnicity, creating new propositions and scaling them is not inconceivable (5.2.6). Some functions national governments provide might not require centralization anyway, such as currency maintenance, censuses, and facilitating governance procedures, if decentralized ledgers and smart contracts are both trustworthy and sufficiently resilient (1.5.4). Parts two, three, and four touch on conceptions of history, the current geopolitics, and the foreseeable future, however these are framed in standalone terms. These essays often catalogue the ideas of others rather than advocate specific positions, doubly constituting references as well as essays. Elsewhere Srinivasan has described The Network State as “a toolbox rather than a manifesto,” but taken together The Network State functions properly as a lexicon for his conception of the future. Rather than advocate specific works or ideas for the next stage of government, the intent is to articulate a medium for their expression.
There is a deliberate paucity of ideology other than the prescription that “every new startup society needs to have a moral premise at its core,” since at this stage there are few obvious means of differentiation (2.9.1). A ‘startup society’ believing everything the establishment believes could hardly be termed a ‘startup’ at all. A “one commandment” is required in lieu of a ready-made “ten commandments” that religion provides, since there are hardly any new religions around to be easily tampered with (2.1.4). Armed with this new commandment, a “moral entrepreneur telling potential future citizens about a better way of life” can deliver his message of “one specific issue where the history and science has convinced [them] that the establishment is wanting” (2.9.1). What exactly the establishment lacks is indeterminate. Srinivasan provides a handful of examples like a ‘cancel-proof society,’ referring to the recent atavism of media-enabled crowd behavior, a ‘ketogenic’ society, a society living exclusively on sugarless foods, an ‘FDA free’ society with no medical oversight, among others (2.9.7). Without investigating the viability of specific cases, there is an implicit constraint of whether a cause can inspire collective action. What signals are there for this caliber of causes? Srinivasan does not provide an easy answer, only that he believes ideas with such powers exist.
Perhaps some clues regarding the ideas of the successful ‘network state’ can be found within the psychology of the nation-state. In his 1966 work The Territorial Imperative, Robert Ardrey defines a biological nation as “a social group consisting of at least two mature males which holds as an exclusive possession a continuous area of space … which through joint defense of its social territory achieves leadership, co-operation, and a capacity for concerted action” (191). The ‘biological’ part is especially important, since it leaves room for other animals than man to form a basis for comparison. Ardrey observed as much in his travels to Madagascar, seeing “the sifaka, and probably the indris, with family groups like those of the gibbon or Callicebus, all defending pair territories … in which a territorial society is integrated by its outward antagonisms” (191). The result of the comparison is clear – ‘nation’ behavior is not merely a product of the last few centuries. Its antecedents predate civilization and are in some manner biological – there is an instinct underpinning the motive, some form of nonverbalized decision-making shared between a number of participants over generations. As a startup society scales into a ‘network union,’ a semi-formalized grouping of digital comrades, Srinivasan acknowledges and encourages the acquisition of real property and physical community, unobtrusive forms of territory, but what nation-states have that network states do not yet have, is territorialism (1.4). Part of the present hold of nation-states is their exclusive monopoly on this voluntary, communal, collective action, action which requires an outlet for antagonism.
Signs of the drive for outward antagonism manifest in all aspects of human culture, especially in religion. Following the blessing of Demeter, Isocrates recalls further points of religion to bolster the Athenian claim to supremacy. “For … there came into our country Thracians under Eumolpus, son of Poseidon, and Scythians under the Amazons, daughters of Ares,” calling to mind events so ancient and shrouded in mystery to his time that they could not bear practical relevance except for their pertinence to the religion (4.68). Isocrates continues, stating “they did not, however, succeed, but in conflict with our ancestors alone they were destroyed as utterly as if they had made war against all mankind,” leveraging a myth containing a level of objectivity to its audience as a proof of the potential for future triumph (4.69). Ardrey would not have had the slightest trouble diagnosing the impulse this story evoked in the Athenian, the “mysterious flow of energy and resolve which invests a proprietor on his home grounds” (3). Yet this confluence of energy derives not completely intuitively, for “territory is not the cause of war … what territory promises is that if intrusion takes place, war will follow,” thus eliciting the truth of territory and its capacity to evoke spontaneous collective action (244). The implication for Srinivasan is that it is not sufficient for a startup society to furnish a moral cause and then acquire territory later. The cause must necessitate the acquisition of territory in order to evoke collective action.
If territory is a prerequisite for collective action, further questioning asks what factors lead Srinivasan to conclude the need for collective action and thus new territory. Sketching a general theory of the present, Srinivasan divides the existing system of territory and the ‘networks’ comprising them into ‘moral,’ ‘martial,’ and ‘monetary’ powers, represented by the New York Times, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Bitcoin respectively (3.4). ‘Martial’ in this case does not mean ‘military’ but pertains to the manufacturing and technical growth which facilitates the Chinese state and enables their repressive policies. Bitcoin ideally represents a monetary vehicle resistant to ulterior agendas. Without investigating the division too deeply, the conclusion is that if the opinion-making classes are all collected under a small number of media institutions in the United States, and if all technical production answers to the CCP, then the only avenue left for innovation must begin in a nationless environment, something only narrowly approximated by Bitcoin. Amidst a sea of confusing motives and conflicting interests, combined with an untapped technological potential, Srinivasan argues there is time in the present for founders of startup societies to present a new direction for the future separate from the failing visions of the prevailing order.
The character of historical change is that its causes can take generations to accrete, but when it at last occurs, can appear as if to have taken place suddenly. In the Athenian example, the causes that led to the settling of the country took place in an epoch so ancient as to predate any hope of a written or an oral tradition. Philologist Fustel de Coulanges, in The Ancient City, nevertheless pieces together a prehistory of Western civilization’s landmark city-state, marked instead “by the succession of ideas and of institutions [rather] than by that of years” (Small 93). In the countryside of Attica, before any groundwork had been laid for communal life, there existed a span “of a succession of centuries during which the family was the sole form of society,” a period of utter stillness, when the degree of society was so meager that families had no concept of a universal law (93). Little by little, as the imprint of a family on its corner of Attica increased, so too must have their conception of human life have increased as well, until a remarkable innovation happened. “A certain number of families,” without any prompting from their environment, “formed a group called in the Greek language a phratria … [which] conceived the idea of a divinity superior to that of the household … one who was common to all, and watched over the entire group,” a complete and total revolution in spiritual thought, one which could never have been conceived of without centuries of slow, quiet expansion (94).
The consequences of unified life and religion continued developing as larger and larger unities took shape. In the period before the phratria, man had only known the most ancient of shades in his past representing of a single ancestor. Phratries together now found commonality of deity in nature, especially “the sun which gives fecundity, the earth which nourishes, the clouds – by turns beneficent and destructive” (98). A pantheon began to gather around these deities – Zeus, Hera, Athena, Apollo, Hercules – and as their numbers slowly grew individual families began to acknowledge their individual gods were in fact the same. Unity once inconceivable now began accelerating as “several families formed the phratry, several phratries the tribe, several tribes the city” (101). The great mistake in the analysis of this period, and perhaps any period of history, is to imagine that an economic incentive or external danger made this unity obviously desirable. In truth, even conceiving something greater required a widening of worldview. The chiefs of these small religious unities, emerging as propertied nobles, but spiritually filling the role of priests, began also collecting a class of hereditary servants who had no prior phratry to join, bound to tend the land and worship at the altar of their superiors, unable to conceive any other way of living. A city with separate classes and a patriarchal, intensely aristocratic government now took form, with the priests styling themselves Eupatrids, and the servants accepting the name of Thetes (185-7).
A great number of revolutions were required before the Thetes ever found a path towards equality. Like the development of the phratry, these accrued gradually and only occasionally resulted in reform. A parallel phase of coalescing trends could be occurring in the wake of recent “power outages, supply-chain shortages … riots, arsons, shootings, stabbings, robberies, and murders,” combined with “a complete loss of trust in institutions from the state to the media,” described by Srinivasan as an “unbundling” of the basic services the establishment is supposed to deliver (4.5.1). Anytime a power fails to guarantee services that its clients rely upon is a ripe moment for other actors to offer those services in its place. Combined with the present rise in inflation, these trends are shaping up to get worse before they can hope to get better. In the background of collapsing quality of life, people are beginning to conceptualize an alternative to the dollar with the rise of cryptocurrencies as potential vehicles for social trust that the present regime is losing the ability to guarantee. Without getting into a comparison between the establishment and decentralization, the very fact that increasing numbers of people openly, vocally, and unabashedly are searching for alternatives to relying on the state is a sign that change could be lying on the horizon, though without any leaders, will remain only a sign.
The potential for great change at Athens began in signs as well. For the unrecorded centuries after the Eupatrids created the patriarchal government, their authority over their growing numbers of clients was absolute and unchecked, “alone act[ing] as judges, and knew the laws, which were not written, and whose sacred formulas were passed from father to son” (203). Thetes understood absolute servility to the Eupatrids, who could never become “even the owner of personal property, of his money, of his peculium [“private property”]” (210). Not a single written word of rebellion exists, yet it is bound to have occurred, “a domestic war in each hamlet, in each house, from father to son,” until the entire body of Thetes became at once desirous of change (215). Finally, at the height of their rage, the great lawgiver Solon liberated the Thetes from longstanding debts, “or, more probably, reduced the amount of it, so that the repayment became easy … add[ing] the provision that in future the failure to repay should not reduce the laborer to servitude” (216). The consequences were unavoidable. The patriarchal regime was shattered forever, and one generation later, another reformer named Cleisthenes drew up the democratic constitution.
The magnitude of the forces operating above a potential startup society founder are no different than the remaking of the Athenian social order. He cannot hope to capitalize upon an emerging idea on the magnitude of a new religion, attempt to acquire territory to host an emerging people, and then crystallize a community around a political structure simply because he is an impassioned evangelist. The environment itself must be pregnant with the change, leaving him to make the adjustment that accelerates the present trajectory. Knowing this, Srinivasan does not recommend prospective founders begin with evangelism, but rather that he “needs to think about “nation building” from day one. That’s not just community building on steroids – ideally, nation building is really nation discovery” (5.3.4). It is not because he is unable does Srinivasan choose not to tether The Network State into advocacy for any one specific idea, or even use the opportunity to create one for his own purposes. He chooses not to do so because the idea that will carry humanity forward to the next stage of history is currently unknown and may remain unknown for a very long time. In fact, if history is any worthwhile guide, it will remain unknown right up until it is irreversible.
The tragedy of Isocrates’ “Panegyricus” is that its delivery came precisely when the democracy had all but guaranteed Athens would never return to their position as a maritime and cultural power. The psychological burden of dispossession burdened Athens much greater than the inequality of the Eupatrids ever did, since unlike the religious innovation of the phratry, the suffering of the Peloponnesian war did not contain the potential for revolution. The tragedy of the Athenian example, however, serves as a prodigy for the potential of regime innovators envisioned by The Network State, since by its very lack of ideological commitment they are enabled to pursue the path forward history provides. Srinivasan’s lack of editorial position is thus his greatest strength as a writer – by not wedding The Network State to a failed vision of the past, it is at once best positioned to play a part in creating the future. True to its clear, concise, cataloguing style, the purpose of The Network State is not to contribute to a present sea of polemical exchange, but to act as a handbook for future action.
Isocrates, “Panegyricus,” The Orations of Isocrates, trans. by J.H. Freese, Vol. I, George Bell & Sons, 1894, St. Covent Garden and New York.
Coulanges, Fustel de, The Ancient City, trans. by Willard Small, Lee and Shepard, 1877, Boston.
Ardrey, Robert, The Territorial Imperative, Atheneum, 1966, New York.
Srinivasan, Balaji, The Network State, https://thenetworkstate.com/, 2022.