Sumptuary cultures as economic regulation protocols

I’ll define a sumptuary culture as one based on sumptuary laws or hard-edged social codes. Marked by a lot of regulation of external behaviors through visible markers such as dress codes, diet codes (kosher/halal etc) and such. These social laws can acquire legal backing (common in medieval Europe, or things like restrictions for/against hijab wearing, or nudity/indecent exposure laws in modernity), or be enforced via strong social sanctions (against blackface for example). An important modern category of sumptuary codification is speech, which was less important in the largely illiterate pre-printing speech era. Today, cancelation, virtue signaling, book-banning, pronoun wars, what rob henderson called “luxury beliefs” etc are all part of sumptuary speechways in a mass broadcast media era where speech is free in the sense of both money and legality, and requires sumptuary codes to regulate.

My big thesis is that sumptuary cultures offer a model of economic regulation distinct from the primarily financial and health/safety/environment/social justice type legislative regulations in place today.

My secondary thesis is that the crypto world is a sumptuary commons culture. To the extent it practices any self-regulation at all, it is based on cryptographically enforced sumptuary codes, such as token-gating, badge-based permissions etc. These codes are driven/enforced by extra-economic logics. These are obviously much “harder” in Josh Stark’s sense than mere social sanction, however extreme. If you’re canceled by one tribe, you can still make friends with people on the margins on the DL. But if a thing is gated by an NFT, the boundary is hard. By analogy to “not your keys, not your coins” we can say, “not your nfts, not your access.” So crypto technologies allow us to construct sumptuary cultures that are as hard or harder than top-down legal ones enforced by violence, but created bottom-up.

Whether the sumptuary culture is top-down (historically common) or bottom-up (modern), and whether it regulates traditional or cryptoeconomic activity, it has the structure of an evolving protocol with potential for ossification, capture, hardness, and non-rational governing logics shaped by teleologies of meaning-making infinite games.

This is a fork of my running thread on metaphors for blockchains. In the latest version of that, I identify “sumptuary culture” as one key metaphor. Images of Blockchains

1 Like

This is a significant doctrine shift for me. Crypto is not a true commons culture, it is a sumptuary culture. Mistaking it for a commons culture simply because it tries to create public goods bottom-up is a category error. The mechanisms are not commons mechanisms, unlike open-source culture. Crypto makes use of open-source mechanisms, but has a sumptuary rather than commons ethos.

This is true of all protocol culture. Mastodon is also a sumptuary culture, except its middle-down feudal (instance level codes of conduct enforced by instance admins). This is why they instinctively distrust Bluesky, which is more bottom-up (feed democracy) and detest crypto (individual-centric mutualism sumptuary culture).

I think true open-source cultures are commons-based, and economic regulation is done in a tight core through more substantive means, such as Linus Torvalds tightly controlling the Linux kernel commits to an inner circle (of like 20 people? I forget). Crypto has some of that but because the ecosystem of clients is decentralized, it has less authoritarian BDFL leverage.

1 Like

I think a reframe from commons to sumptuary terms of reference would strengthen the argument in @trent [enclosure essay](ROTW: Capital and enclosure in software commons: Linux & Ethereum. It’s not kings vs commoners or feudal nobility. It’s kings vs guilds. Sumptuary cultures and guilds are 2 sides of same coin.

For more modern terms of reference, the trade-union movement before the AFL-CIO merger, esp on the AFL side was obviously a sumptuary culture. That’s one of the dangers of sumptuary regulation. It can easily slide into things like racism and xenophobia. Sumptuary cultures lend themselves very well to capture by prejudice-based mimesis dynamics. What we call “structural racism” today is largely sumptuary racism since formal legal backing has largely been dismantled.

In modern examples, things like swag and stickers on laptops are markers of sumptuary culture, not tribal culture as commonly assumed. Tribal markers represent allegiances to loosely defined kinship groups and clans. Sumptuary markers represent allegiances to norms and practices. Especially in crypto. In regular startup land, corporate stickers are more like traditional tribal markers.

Coats of arms and heraldry are a transitional regime of symbolism, in between kinship-based tribes and sumptuary-norm-based guilds.

This also makes me think crypto is free citizen ”towns” while Silicon Valley is feudal “country” with serfdom.

1 Like