The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age

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William Rees-Mogg may have been politician Jacob’s father, a lord of the realm, a natural small (and big) “c” conservative and scion of the British establishment, but he was no reactionary: in 1967, as editor of the The Times, he wrote a legendary editorial “who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?”[1] condemning Mick Jagger’s prosecution and conviction on drugs offences.

Much later, in 1997, he and James Dale Davidson wrote The Sovereign Individual, a manifesto of sorts for the coming internet revolution. It was prescient: 1997 was the internet’s infancy, before Web 2.0 (the user-contributing internet) — let alone Web 3.0 (the crypto-metaverse) — properly took hold of the public imagination. In that regard, and at a distance of 25 years, some of its predictions are striking, as is its unorthodox reading of history.

Still, it is to be taken with a grain or two of salt: the historical readings have a definite political/philosophical slant. Nineteen ninety-seven was the height of received acceptance for laissez faire as a panacea for any cultural ill — the greatest threat to the conservative right was Bill Clinton (!!) — and the world was five years away from the series of millennial systemic shocks that have fractured the global system’s long peace. In hindsight the arguments should be taken for what they always were: an argument, not an irrefutable deduction from principles of solid logic. There are those on the right who still take latter view.

On crypto

Undoubtedly the Sovereign Individual anticipated cryptocurrency, though was unduly optimistic for its future as a liberating tool for the masses:

“Inflation as revenue option will be largely foreclosed by the emergence of cybermoney [...] In the Information Age, individuals will be able to use cybercurrencies and thus declare their monetary independence. When individuals can conduct their own monetary policies over the World Wide Web it will matter less or not at all that the state continues to control the industrial-era printing presses. Their importance for controlling the world's wealth will be transcended by mathematical algorithms that have no physical existence. In the new millennium, cybermoney controlled by private markets will supersede fiat money issued by governments.”

On nationalism

This is an interesting contention on the origins of nationalism, which — if true, and instinctively, it seems plausible — are embedded in the political layer rather than the much deeper cultural layer.

“Much the same can be said of nationalism, which became a corollary to mass democracy. States that could employ nationalism found that they could mobilise larger armies at a smaller cost. Nationalism was an invention that enabled a state to increase the scale at which it was militarily effective. Like politics itself, nationalism is mostly a modern invention. As sociologist Joseph Llobera has shown in his richly documented book on the rise of nationalism, the nation is an imagined community that in large measure came into being as a way of mobilising state power during the French Revolution. As he puts it, “In the modern sense of the term, national consciousness has only existed since the French Revolution, since the time when in 1789 the Constituent Assembly equated the people of France with the French nation.” Nationalism made it easier to mobilise power and control large numbers of people. Nation-states formed by underlining and emphasising characteristics that people held in common, particularly spoken language. This facilitated rule without the intervention of intermediaries. It simplified the tasks of bureaucracy. Edicts that need only be promulgated in one language can be dispatched more quickly and with less confusion than those that must be translated into a Babel of tongues.

Nationalism, therefore, tended to lower the cost of controlling larger areas. Before nationalism, the early-modern state required the aid of lords, dukes, earls, bishops, free cities, and other corporate and ethnic intermediaries, from tax "farmers" to military contract merchants and mercenaries to collect revenues, raise troops and conduct other government functions.”

References

  1. Which you can read, with a Times subscription, here