What is Subversive Innovation?

Published in Underthrow Series .

The formula for beating back authoritarian control is an innovator’s dual mandate: Reduce transaction costs and increase predation costs.

The formula for beating back authoritarian control is an innovator's dual mandate: Reduce transaction costs and increase predation costs.

A Bear roaming the woods in search of berries happened on a fallen tree in which a swarm of Bees had stored their honey. The Bear began to nose around the log very carefully to find out if the Bees were at home. Just then one of the swarm came home from the clover field with a load of sweets. Guessing what the Bear was after, the Bee flew at him, stung him sharply and then disappeared into the hollow log.

The Bear lost his temper in an instant, and sprang upon the log tooth and claw, to destroy the nest. But this only brought out the whole swarm. The poor Bear had to take to his heels, and he was able to save himself only by diving into a pool of water.

It is wiser to bear a single injury in silence than to provoke a thousand by flying into a rage.

The Aesop for Children

When state and corporate power fuse into a nigh impenetrable control structure, we must embrace a countervailing force. Subversive innovation challenges not just the mechanisms of traditional hierarchy but has liberatory and lateralizing effects on those who adopt it.

But how?

Subversive innovators use a fairly simple formulation:

Innovate to lower transaction costs and increase predation costs.

The devil, of course, is in the details.

Subversive innovation changes the balance of power by favoring individual sovereignty and self-organization through enabling lateral relationships. It also reduces the ability of wrongdoers or unjust authorities to exercise control. This ain’t just technological advancement.

It’s a fundamental shift from fearing the bear to empowering the bees.


One well-established example is Bitcoin. Sure, it is a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value—and it’s not perfect. But it is a profound ideological statement wrapped in a practical solution.

Bitcoin is a moral teacher. And it has inspired thousands of other solutions competing in an unprecedented technological ecosystem, evolving in constant churn. By eliminating the need for parasitic financial institutions that have long acted as gatekeepers, Bitcoin started a process of democratizing the financial system. It harnesses cryptography to raise the costs of third-party predation or parasitism to prohibitive levels. Satoshi’s creation is not just a secure means to transact. It planted a flag against censorship and monetary manipulation on the ideological battlefield.

It is one vector that instantiates the underappreciated idea: “the consent of the governed.”

Subversive innovators have also been tinkering with self-sovereign identity solutions, mesh networks, and adjacent technologies that promise to disrupt prevailing power structures.

Decentralized identity solutions don’t simply reduce the costs of managing personal data; they wrestle it from the grasp of rentiers, which repositions the individual as the sovereign and steward of his or her data.

Mesh networks offer more than just connectivity; they offer to liberate information from the shackles of ISP conglomerates and authoritarian overseers by decentralizing the very architecture of the Internet.

I shared my personal censorship story elsewhere and suggested subversive-innovation replacements, such as Presearch. Indeed, there is a sense in which if underthrow is the end, then subversive innovation is the means.

The Dark Twin

But we can be neither naive nor complacent.

Technology that offers paths to self-sovereignty can be challenged by technology that consolidates authority around predation and parasitism. Call it “oppressive innovation.”

Oppressive innovations raise transaction costs and decrease predation costs.

Oppressive innovation is the dark twin of subversive innovation. Both are born from the same technological womb but nurtured by different ideologues. While discussing the means to wither central authority, we must not live in illusions. State and corporate actors are working on technologies designed to deepen, not alleviate, your subjugation.

Cautious Optimism, Zealous Enthusiasm

If you agree with Steven Pinker’s research from Better Angels of Our Nature, the use of violence and predation, particularly as an approach to resource acquisition, has trended downward over time. It’s no accident that improvements in political organization and more widely distributed prosperity make us less likely to engage in war and political shenanigans, the latter being “war by other means.”

So we mustn’t forget that subversive innovation includes institutional innovations, such as enshrining individual rights, protecting private property, or applying the common law to internalize externalities.

So while we may never be rid of our paleolithic instincts, say to control resources or people by any means necessary, we might continue to mute or tamp down those behaviors through repeated application of markets and moral practice. That includes raising the costs for those who might be wired for predation and parasitism.

Imagine a population curve that goes roughly from COLLABORATIVE to SOCIOPATHIC, where most people are clustered in a mundane center (the top of the bell curve) called PEACEABLE. If Pinker is right, the curve has moved slowly away from SOCIOPATHIC toward COLLABORATIVE over time.

Will it always? I cannot say.

Happily, though, there are widespread incentives and historical momentum for that move in the long term, despite lurches, fits, and starts. To embrace subversive innovation, then, is not to resolve theoretical debates between minarchists and anarchists. These are pretty useless in a world that changes too quickly for academic arguments that move too few, or constitutional moments that never come.

We must show zealous enthusiasm in moving this human curve toward COLLABORATIVE. In other words, those who cherish self-sovereignty and self-organization have a duty to architect systems that move the curve away from SOCIOPATHIC, walking away from the finite game. Such will help us find ways for the world to get richer sustainably, offering more people higher living standards.

Fundamentally, though, we must find a way to arm the bees. That means discovering more post-political solutions. That means thinking about the world you want your kids to inherit.

That means embracing subversive innovation.

Max Borders is a senior advisor to The Advocates. See more of his work at Underthrow.

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