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The Path to Resonant Autonomy: Navigating Autonomy and Social Freedom in Web3by@bastin
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The Path to Resonant Autonomy: Navigating Autonomy and Social Freedom in Web3

by bastinApril 8th, 2024
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Autonomy must not be misunderstood as an end in itself. Instead, we must understand it as the foundation and enabling condition for resonant world relations.I would like to argue that the pure value of autonomy requires a supplement to unfold its utopian potential: social freedom.
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"To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.


To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored.

That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality."


- Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The General Idea of the Revolution


In vivid words, Proudhon describes the core of state authority as brutal subjugation: Surveillance, control, regulation, restriction, exploitation, and even blunt violence. Contemplating Guantanamo Bay, national debt, Snowden, inflation, and Julian Assange, even the most staunch believers of our liberal democracies have to either catch the scent of truth in it or engage in vertiginous feats of mental acrobatics.


The liberation? Autonomy. The purest and most radical following and implementation of this principle in the history of mankind is arguably the Web3 space. From the mining of the first 50 BTC, to the EVM, to Parachains and Danksharding, every step in this space of maximum decentralization is underlined by the moral imperative that increasing the autonomy of individuals is desirable.


However, as important as it is to achieve autonomy from all claims to power, the question remains about what we should do with this Autonomy. In our desire to create a better world, is autonomy the value we should try to maximize? If the only aim of spelling out freedom is to create as much space as possible for undisturbed self-expression, then this freedom is threatened to remain empty, dead, and meaningless. Although, as the absence of obstacles and undesired influences, a purely negative conception of freedom is not enough to give our lives meaning and orientation. Therefore, autonomy must not be misunderstood as an end in itself. Instead, we must understand it as the foundation and enabling condition for resonant world relations. I would like to argue that the pure value of autonomy requires a supplement to unfold its utopian potential: social freedom.


Autonomy Uncontested

The value of autonomy enjoys an almost unchallenged status in our society. In all political spectrums ("My body, my choice" / "Taxes are theft" / "Better dead than red"), in culture (glorification of world traveling influencers, the explosion of interest into self-improvement, the rise of non-traditional relationships, etc. ), art (tropes about oppression/emancipation), everywhere the unquestioned virtue of autonomy shines through. This development has reached its climax in the decentralized space. Here, autonomy is not just one value among many but the central ethical guiding principle from which everything else is derived. The vision of a world where individuals can interact directly with each other without intermediaries or higher authorities is the utopian core of the web3 landscape.


Indeed, the decentralized space has an emancipatory potential that can not be underestimated. Many of our institutions are, in the best case, unsuitable for the problems of the 21st century and, in the worst case, rotten to the core. By creating structures that enable individuals to govern their data, finances, identities, and contracts themselves, decentralized technologies have the potential to shift power away from gatekeepers to society. But what is autonomy?


Autonomy, negative and social freedom

The term autonomy is derived from the ancient Greek "autonomía," which means something like "self-legislation" or "self-determination." Autonomy is often understood as the ability to emancipate oneself from external influences and constraints. Proudhons quote and my examples reference that understanding of autonomy. This notion of autonomy thus shows a great affinity to the concept of negative liberty, as prominently defined by Isaiah Berlin and is famously represented by Thomas Hobbes's quote "A free man is he that in those things which by his strength and wit he is able to do is not hindered to do what he hath the will to do" Negative liberty denotes a state of absence of external obstacles and limitations. It realizes itself in a protected space of individual decision and action freedom to be exposed to as few interventions as possible. It is precisely this ideal that many advocates of decentralized systems also invoke: The substitution of hierarchical structures by autonomous actors is supposed to enable more negative freedom by removing boundaries and obstacles. The gold standard of a decentralized system is its robustness to censorship and, therefore its ability to maintain boundaries and degree of freedom against external forces.


However, is the protection and expansion of negative freedom sufficient to enable people to lead a truly self-determined and fulfilled life? The philosopher Axel Honneth has convincingly argued that this is not the case. For him, individual freedom only becomes possible where it can relate to an "objective reality", i.e. to given social conditions and institutions. True self-determination, therefore, always presupposes a social context in which the individual can realize his or her life plans. Honneth calls the form of freedom that arises from this "social freedom", which he derived from Hegel.


According to Honneth, it is not enough for a free individual to be devoid of obstacles. Instead, it necessitates a state in which individuals support each other in realizing their respective goals, enabling each other to lead a self-determined life. That is all quite abstract, so Let's visualize the difference between the two concepts of freedom in the following picture:


Imagine you are in front of a river that you want to cross. The river looks quite dangerous; you could be swept across or drown in a whirlpool. Hobbes is sitting next to you on a stone and tells you that you have every freedom to cross this river. After all, there are no dangerous animals in the water. (There are also no border guards with machine guns, and no wall has been erected). However, you are completely on your own. It's just your subjective experience, and you can't hope to make it, should you try.

However, it could also be that a tree has accidentally fallen, and you can get across quite easily. For Hobbes, though, it makes no difference to your freedom whether you live in a world in which this tree has fallen or not.


At that moment, Hegel arrives with a good wine in his hand and a wheelbarrow full of planks and nails. He offers to build a bridge together because he wants to cross it himself. For Hegel, only now have you gained your freedom, because in reality, the conditions have been created through which you can hope to actually cross the river. Before, it was pure chance whether this hope could be rationally justified. It was only through Hegel that you actively received the support from your environment that can give you rational hope of reaching your goal (the other shore).


This applies to societies. It is, as supporters of Hegel's idea would argue in societies without social freedom pure chance whether you grow up in circumstances that enable you to achieve your goals and in which everyone can hope to achieve their goals. In societies with social freedom, however, this hope is justified because the objectives of the other subjects are such that they enable and complement the achievement of one's own goals and complement them. Social freedom thus has a cooperative core: it is based on the insight that the freedom of the individual is dependent on the freedom of others. Only in a community in which people grant and support each other in the development of self-determination can the individual also experience himself as genuinely free.


The values of the decentralized space have to be ultimately also committed to such an understanding of social freedom, even if this is not always explicitly reflected. Behind the efforts to create decentralized, self-organized structures has to be the vision of a world in which individuals can freely associate to collectively shape their living conditions with each other for the better. Even the much-cited "trustless trust" and allegedly increase of freedom that blockchain technologies are supposed to enable is ultimately grounded in the individual’s faculty to understand the system. It makes a huge difference if 99,9999& of crypto projects are scams, or if it’s only 80, 70, or 60.


However, the fixation on code-based incentive and coordination mechanisms threatens to lose sight of this fact. You could easily imagine a future in which every aspect of societal organization is managed by smart contracts, but in which more people are scammed; more people lack connections and meaning and fewer people can make sense of this world.


Conclusion

The vision of autonomy that inspires so many in the blockchain space is a noble and important one. Establishing robust individual freedoms and consent is crucial to human flourishing. But to unlock the full transformative potential of decentralized technologies, we must pair the pursuit of autonomy with the cultivation of social freedom.


This means aspiring not just for freedom from interference but also to enable the creation of resonance - meaningful, mutually empowering relationships - at both the individual and the institutional level. It means recognizing that our identities are not atomic, but fundamentally intersubjective - our agency is enhanced, not undermined, by positive embeddedness in the social fabric. And it means harnessing the power of decentralized coordination not just to maximize individual gain, but to create emergent realities that are greater than the sum of their parts.


By synthesizing the principles of individual sovereignty and collective intelligence, the marriage of autonomy and resonance paves the way for a future that brings out the best in both individuals and the whole. A future where people are free to author their own lives, while also synergizing with others to make the pie massively bigger for everyone. Getting there won't be easy, requiring technical and cultural innovation. But if we can pull it off, the prize is immense - nothing short of the difference between a failed species and a thriving galactic civilization.


So let us not settle for autonomy alone but strive for resonant autonomy—the foundation for a world alive with connection, meaning, and potentially infinite upside. We have the rare privilege of living at a time when our actions can shape the entire trajectory of the future. The blockchain renaissance has already expanded our sense of what's possible. Now it's on us to channel that newfound freedom towards a more beautiful and true reality.