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Panarchy (from pan- and -archy), coined by Paul Émile de Puydt in 1860, is a form of governance that would encompass all others. The Oxford English Dictionary lists the noun as "chiefly poetic" with the meaning "a universal realm," citing an 1848 attestation by Philip James Bailey, "the starry panarchy of space". The adjective panarchic "all-ruling" has earlier attestations. In the twentieth century the term was re-coined separately by scholars in international relations to describe the notion of global governance and then by systems theorists to describe non-hierarchical organizing theories.
In his 1860 article "Panarchy" de Puydt, who also expressed support for laissez-faire economics, applied the concept to the individual's right to choose any form of government without being forced to move from their current locale. This is sometimes described as "extra-territorial" (or "exterritorial") since governments often would serve non-contiguous parcels of land. De Puydt wrote:
The truth is that there is not enough of the right kind of freedom, the fundamental freedom to choose to be free or not to be free, according to one's preference....Thus I demand, for each and every member of human society, freedom of association according to inclination and of activity according to aptitude. In other words, the absolute right to choose the political surroundings in which to live, and to ask for nothing else.
De Puydt described how such a system would be administered:
In each community a new office is opened, a "Bureau of Political Membership". This office would send every responsible citizen a declaration form to fill in, just as for the income tax or dog registration: Question: What form of government would you desire? Quite freely you would answer, monarchy, or democracy, or any other... and once registered, unless you withdrew your declaration, respecting the legal forms and delays, you would thereby become either a royal subject or citizen of the republic. Thereafter you are in no way involved with anyone else's government—no more than a Prussian subject is with Belgian authorities.
De Puydt's definition of panarchy was expanded into a political philosophy of panarchism. It has been espoused by anarchist or libertarian-leaning individuals, including especially Max Nettlau in 1909 and John Zube.
Le Grand E. Day and others have used the phrase "multigovernment" to describe a similar system. Another similar idea is Functional Overlapping Competing Jurisdictions (FOCJ) promoted by Swiss economists Bruno Frey and Reiner Eichenberger.
In a 1982 research, scholar David Hart argued that it is very possible that De Puydt was a reader of the work of the Belgian economist Gustave de Molinari who had already raised in 1849 the idea of "government competence" in police and judges services through private defense agencies.
James P. Sewell and Mark B. Salter in their 1995 article "Panarchy and Other Norms for Global Governance” define panarchy as “an inclusive, universal system of governance in which all may participate meaningfully." They romanticize the term by mentioning the “playful Greek god Pan of sylvan and pastoral tranquillity, overseer of forests, shepherd of shepherds and their flocks. It thus connotes an archetypal steward of biospheric well-being."
David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, in their work on Netwar, which they describe as an emergent form of low intensity conflict, crime, and activism, that: "The design is a heterarchy, but also what might be termed a 'panarchy.'"
Paul B. Hartzog writes in "Panarchy: Governance in the Network Age": “Panarchy is a transdisciplinary investigation into the political and cultural philosophy of ‘network culture.’ The primary fields of relevance for panarchy are world politics (international relations), political philosophy/theory, and information technology. Panarchy also draws on insights from information/communications theory, economics, sociology, networks, and complex systems."
In Paul B. Hartzog's work, the term "panarchy" emerges at the intersection of three core concepts: 1) ecology and complex systems, 2) technology, and 3) politics. The "pan" of ecological thinking draws on the Greek-god Pan as a symbol for wild and unpredictable nature. The "pan" of technology refers to the Personal Area Network (a personal area network is the interconnection of information technology devices within the range of an individual person) that merges human beings into an interconnected global social web. The "pan" of politics refers to the "inside/outside" distinction, and how, in an era of global challenges and global governance, the frame-of-reference for a global social has no outside.
Systems theory is an interdisciplinary field of science which studies the nature and processes of complex systems of the physical and social sciences, as well as in information technology. Lance Gunderson and C. S. Holling, in their book Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature coopted the term, saying:
The term [panarchy] was coined as an antithesis to the word hierarchy (literally, sacred rules). Our view is that panarchy is a framework of nature's rules, hinted at by the name of the Greek god of nature, Pan.
The publisher describes the book's theory thus:
Panarchy, a term devised to describe evolving hierarchical systems with multiple interrelated elements, offers an important new framework for understanding and resolving this dilemma. Panarchy is the structure in which systems, including those of nature (e.g., forests) and of humans (e.g., capitalism), as well as combined human-natural systems (e.g., institutions that govern natural resource use such as the Forest Service), are interlinked in continual adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal.
In Panarchy, Gunderson and Holling write:
The cross-scale, interdisciplinary, and dynamic nature of the theory has led us to coin the term panarchy for it. Its essential focus is to rationalize the interplay between change and persistence, between the predictable and unpredictable.
The notion of panarchy and adaptive cycles has become an important theoretical lens to describe the resilience of ecological systems and, more recently, social-ecological systems. Although panarchy theory originated in ecology, it has found widespread applications in other disciplines. For example in management, Wieland (2021) describes a panarchy that represents the planetary, political-economic, and supply chain levels.