I have been doing a variety of history reading of late, but have not had time to properly synthesize them. They keep coming up in conversation, though, so I wanted to write down some bullet points I could refer to. I hope they are interesting and/or provocative in a good way to someone.
Resemblance to the history of open source was rarely why I read these books. (In fact at least one was read deliberately to get away from open source thinking.) And yet the parallels — around power, mindshare, “territory”, autonomy, empowerment, innovation—keep coming back to me. I leave conclusions, for the most part, for now, to the reader.
Final disclaimer: in the interest of finally publishing a damn thing (I read Ober years ago!), this post will necessarily condense and butcher thousands of pages of scholarship. Please read with that in mind — errors and oversights are almost certainly mine and not the fault of the original authors.
The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, Hendrik Spruyt
This book attempts to understand how Europe got from feudalism to the modern nation-state. It’s explicitly an argument against a view of history where nation-states were inevitable, instead trying to show that there were other possible paths during the late Middle Ages. (The book is very Euro-centric without acknowledging that, which is a shame since I think the book would be well-complemented by an analysis of how European nation-states interacted in colonial settings with non-nation-states, about which more later.)
The core argument goes something like this:
- what is feudalism anyway? at some level, it means “no entity has a monopoly on power in a territory”, because feudal lords, the church, tribal-like kinship relationships, etc., all overlap and interact in complicated ways.
- you get out of feudalism, and into nation-states by:
- punctuated-equilibrium-style evolution: a major shock to existing system (in Spruyt’s analysis, massive economic growth starting in c. 1000) which creates new power centers (bourgeoisie and new cities), which destabilizes feudalism and …
- creates a diverse set of post-feudal options: wealthy, powerful city-states in Italy; leagues of cities in Germany; something like the modern nation-state in France. (It is this diversity which Spruyt says a lot of historians ignore, and certainly which American high-school history completely ignores.) But…
- that situation (with a lot of different, competing options) is unstable even if each individual solution makes sense for that place/time (i.e., “city-states were stable in/good for Italy” and “city-states were not stable in/fit for Europe” can both be very true), so then…
- competition and conscious self-selection leaves you with modern nation-states on top, for a variety of reasons, including simply that nation states prefer negotiating with other nation-states; i.e., hard for France to make treaties with a loose coalition (league) of cities, so it partners with (and therefore empowers) other units like it.
I would love to see a similar analysis for the history of various corporate forms or industries. I’ve seen it suggested, for example, that the combination of the telegraph and the railroad made multi-jurisdiction limited-liability corporations the dominant form in the US, but there was nearly simultaneously a huge explosion in experimentation around cooperatives—should we complicate the “telegraphs → big companies” narrative in the same way Spruyt is attempting to complicate it here for the transition from feudal society to nation-states?
The mapping to open source is probably pretty obvious: internet-enabled development (and then internet-enabled distribution) delivered a shock to the existing software business ecosystem; for a time we had a flourishing of institutional/organizational forms. There is certainly a narrative (perhaps correct? perhaps not?) that we are settling into a new equilibrium with a smaller number of forms. What might this history tell us about where we’re going (and what questions we should ask about the narrative of where we’re going?)
Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power, Pekka Hämäläinen
US history books rarely show Native American tribes as entities with agency—the world acts on them, but not vice-versa. This book aims to be an antidote to that, showing over a course of roughly 200 years how the Lakota acted, learned, and changed in response to the world around them (including, but definitely not limited to, the US).
I definitely did not read this with the intent of “oh, this will make me think about open source”; I figured it was about as far away as I could get, and yet as I read I couldn’t help but think about parallels.
I think it’s important to be clear: by drawing parallels here I definitely don’t want to suggest that changes in open source are in any way morally/ethically comparable to genocide; if (free?)/open source culture vanished altogether tomorrow that would be a genuine tragedy, but an extremely minor tragedy compared to the very deliberate genocide that occurred occurred in North America.
But it’s hard not to see parallels in the gradual encirclement and disruption of one culture by another very different culture. Some other thoughts:
- In one of the many ways in which the book thoughtfully gives the Lakota agency, the author writes of that “[t]hey had welcomed America’s merchandize but not its paternal embrace; they had accepted the Americans as traders and potential allies, but not as their sovereigns. They had, in other words, refused to be ‘discovered’ by [Lewis and Clark]”.
- Just like in Spruyt’s Sovereign State, much is made of the simply different notions of “territory” between the nation-state and its competitors; in this case, between the Lakota whose governing style the book describes as “ranging widely but ruling lightly… a malleable, forever transmuting regime”, with little attention to borders or even ultimately to control, and the Americans who “were content with a cartographic proof of.. sovereignty”, needing (and imputing power to) lines on a map.
- Technology is a small but significant undercurrent in the book: first guns, then horses, then ultimately the railroad. The first of these two were enthusiastically adopted by the Lakota, and indeed powered much of their imperial expansion in the 1800s. But they could not adopt the railroad in the same way. Nor was writing, though he does say that “[a] key element of Lakotas’ diplomatic prowess was the fact that they had so many literate allies who interpreted and explained [American] documents for them.”
- “Contemporary Americans saw the Powder River country as an Indigenous retreat, an insular world intentionally cut off from the rapidly expanding American empire of cities, railroads, settlers, farms, ranches, and capitalism—a perception that has dominated outsider views of the Lakotas ever since. In reality, the Powder River country under the Lakota rule was a safe and dynamic cosmopolitan world of its own where transnational commercial circuits converged, where Indians enjoyed many comforts and advantages of the industrial age, and where new ideas about being in the world were constantly debated. Lakotas knew full well that they lived in a transitional period of innovation, quickening change, and questioning of old conventions. But contrary to the tired old stereotype of obstinate, tradition-bound Indians, they embraced this radical regeneration of their world.”
Additional selected Kindle highlights from my read are here.
Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens, Josiah Ober
Ober is a data-driven classicist, focused on Athens and how it fit into the broader milieu of classical Greece. In my distant recollection, this book (or perhaps often just my takeaway from it) argues that:
- Since you have literally a thousand Greek city states, you’re running a real experiment you can draw real conclusions from. And Athens, in a real material sense (backed by a variety of interesting data sets) “won” this experiment. (This has some parallels to Spruyt, arguing that in essence there was a flourishing of alternatives and then a winnowing.)
- This greatness was in large part predicated on Athen’s ability as a democracy (relative to its neighbors, at any rate) to create and synthesize effective knowledge. In other words, it was better at being a government specifically because it was a democracy, using “local”/small-group/individual knowledge to make itself more effective.
- Athens then ultimately failed (after nearly 200 years) in part because neighboring oligarchic governments took its good ideas, and re-implemented them. (This issue is also explored in Ober’s Rise and Fall of Classical Greece.)
I do wish I still had my original notes from reading this a decade or so ago; both it and Rise and Fall are deep and rich books that stirred my political theory bones in a great way.