Network states and eudaimonia

Only states whose citizens are flourishing deserve to survive

What is a good life? Philosophers have been asking this question for millenia. For Aristotle, the answer was eudaimonia, a concept of living well and doing well. Eudaimonia isn’t entirely about being successful, or about being happy, or about being ethical, but incorporates all of these things in relationship to each other. It’s a hard term to translate to English, but “flourishing” is perhaps my favourite.

Of course, “flourishing” is still a hard term to pin down. It’s hard because flourishing looks different for each person. Not only are our circumstances different, our dreams and desires are different too. Each person must decide what flourishing means for themselves.

If flourishing can be hard to define, the opposite of flourishing is easier: oppression, subjugation, marginalisation, poverty (material, cultural, or spiritual), suffering, neurosis, misery, confusion, regret. A person might be materially successful, but ethically compromised. They might be intellectually rigorous, but unhappy and afraid. They might be honest and smart, but excluded from opportunity in their society. They might be kind and loving, but subject to lies and propaganda. For flourishing to occur, each of these pitfalls must be avoided.

Flourishing also requires community. Many important things cannot be done alone, and even those who don’t share your perspectives on everything can be valuable friends, collaborators, and constructive critics. What’s important is that your community should support—or at least not actively obstruct—your flourishing as a person.

Network states are a proposed new model for how societies can come together and re-organise themselves into new forms, ultimately taking on full responsibility for self-government and regulation. Ultimately, they become states in their own right. If this sounds bold or even foolish to you, it’s worth noting that this kind of thing has been normal throughout human history. Many of today’s cities and states were founded by communities who had a pre-existing desire to live together, and to live in certain ways. They attracted others by their example, and grew by continuing to provide better lives than were available elsewhere. Through their myths and monuments, they passed down what they could about the dreams and aspirations of those founding citizens.

Other, more narrowly-constructed alternatives existed too. At the fringes of larger societies, international networks of monasteries, trading posts, academies, embassies and enclaves provided stability for communities to live in ways that diverged from the norms of the local majority. Sometimes, they expanded to become cities or micro-states in their own right, retaining legal privileges that allow for unique governance (other times… not so).

In fact, it’s our current age that is the abberation. We live in an age of average, where radically different experiments in life and governance are rare, and the world’s cities seem to be converging in norms and aesthetics. We can blame many things—the internet, financialisation, lack of housing construction—but these are large-scale social forces that cannot be easily reversed. Network states start with the assumption that the system that is producing these effects cannot easily be adjusted, and only by providing alternatives can we enable the missing experiments.

This is made all the more pressing because, well, mainstream modern life isn’t very eudaimonic. Life expectancy in the West has either stopped rising or begun to fall, not because we’ve forgotten how to do medicine, but because of deaths of despair. Anxiety and depression are rising—not rapidly, but any increase is a bad sign. When economic and social circumstances worsen, fewer people feel as though they are flourishing, or even like they are progressing or developing in their lives at all. More and more adults are living lives of quiet frustration, not able to get the home they want, the community they want, the job they want, or the family they want.

The traditional response to such frustration is: move. There’s no guarantee that the next place will be better, but it will be different. Migrants throughout history have done this, striking out in search of a place where they can progress in their lives. Maybe it’s a place where they’ll find people like them; a place where they can build or make things with like-minded others; or a place where their children will get a good education and a safe and stimulating environment to grow up in. In each case, it’s a search for a kind of flourishing, starting from a better relationship between themselves and their surroundings.

The only problem is that now there’s nowhere to go. Mid-tier cities have a sameness to them that makes them almost interchangeable, and if a place retains some uniquely vibrant community that draws people to it, it quickly becomes horribly expensive to move there.

It doesn’t have to be like that. The world isn’t actually short on land, even urban land with good transport connections. It’s short on places that combine good infrastructure, vibrant community, stable and effective governance, and a welcoming approach to new entrants.

For many of us, the internet is really strong on vibrant community, at least if you go looking for it. It’s not that hard to find your tribe on the internet. That’s one piece of the puzzle. Which just leaves: the place, the governance, and the ability for anyone who wants to to move there. This is, fundamentally, what network states are trying to address.

The questions of place, governance, and openness to migration are interlinked, and can’t be easily separated. Most places already have some form of governance, and that governance system already defines some rules about migration. A sufficiently large and well-resourced community can, in theory, acquire land. Not everywhere has a stable enough legal system for this to work, but plenty of places do. Self-governance is more complex, but many jurisdictions provide for some kinds of self-governance. Opting out of some aspects of nation state policy is hard, but examples like Próspera show that it can be done. Migration policy is hardest of all, and right now there’s no good example of a network state that is able to govern access to a territory.

Provided these problems can be solved—no mean feat!—then network states would be competing with each other on a eudaimonic basis. Which network state affords me and my family’s flourishing as people? And if there isn’t one, can I start one? Again, if these questions seem strange it’s only because our current age is highly unusual.

A world of competing network states is a world where the flourishing of each individual is of central importance. The very survival of the network state will depend on it; network states are unlikely to acquire territory containing oil deposits, diamond mines, or the best agricultural land, so their only route to economic success and social stability is to pursue the development of their primary resource, the people themselves. And, of course, those citizens are free to decide what that looks like. They can take inspiration from Oxford, Monaco, Bhutan, or Bali—what matters is that the citizens continue to buy in to the vision, and stick around to make it work. Network states which fail to provide their citizens with opportunities for flourishing will find it hard to keep them.

Taking eudaimonia seriously will require deep thought, engagement, and reflection. Flourishing human lives in real 3D meatspace have aspects that aren’t present in online communities. Our online presence is a reflection of our full self, but it’s the full self—messy and complicated—that has to exist in community with others, whose full selves will be present too. Those extra dimensions have to be integrated in a lengthy process of community-building.

While we can align around aesthetics online, ethical and epistemic alignment is harder, and relies much more on institutions than similarity of preferences. Much of community life revolves around these ethical and epistemic questions: what is right, what is good, what is true? It’s not like these questions often have definitive answers, so what we need is processes that we can trust and consent to, that find good enough answers most of the time. Such processes are hard to build and maintain. Perhaps you’ve noticed that these institutions are malfunctioning in your own society right now, but noticing the problem and designing a solution are not the same thing. It won’t be easy.

Still, there is much to learn from the new or reformed cities of the past. Looking back, we often notice how they relied as much on appeals to the human spirit as they did to the intellect. Solon didn’t just write a new constitution for Athens, but poetry to persuade people to adopt it. People don’t build cities simply because logic dictates it, but because the idea calls out to them as a noble vision of their own future. And cities don’t succeed just because we can prove that their governance structures have abstract theoretical qualities, but because people persist and endure in making them work. Designers of new cities must be architects of human experience, on all of its levels, as much as they must be architects of buildings or systems.

City-builders of the past drew on ritual and religion as much as on reason and rationality. This is not to say that success is a matter of fate, or of mystical or magical thinking. Quite the opposite: ritual and religion are psycho-technologies, tools for alignment and consensus-building and for reaching out into the unknown or across divides of language, identity, and origin. These are precisely what we must do when building and sustaining new communities. And, as technologies, they can be understood, practiced, and operated just like any other. With more skill comes greater success.

Institution-building requires not just rational belief, but a felt sense of hard-to-define things like justice, fairness, competence, and trust. Community-building requires friendliness, compassion, tolerance, and love. The feeling of connection is the heart of community, and it can’t be brought about through persuasion, but only through participation in something meaningful. To hold a network state together, psychotechnology is as important as governance, law, or infrastructure.

What seems clear to me, though, is that this dimension of the human spirit is what will decide the fate of network states. Eudaimonia must be the aim.

The Moonlit Garden is the personal website of Rob Knight.