This blog (when I can post) frequently focuses on social organization and the ways people are trying to adapt to changing times, especially as the nation-state and other traditional institutions lose their old sway.
So I'm overdue to delve into one that's stuck with me for some time: the phyles from Neil Stephenson's fascinating (though massively flawed on several levels) novel The Diamond Age. Phyles are cultural groupings powerful enough to largely replace nation-states. Despite being in an ostensibly post-national era, the Phyles largely break down on old lines (China, India, Japan), with some throwbacks like Maoists or Stephenson's BFFs, the Neo-Victorians.
Naturally enough, the actual workings of the phyles are largely in the background (this is a novel, after all, not a social treatise, and is usually awful when it stumbles in that direction), but as shorthand for "socioeconomic group that could supplant aspects of nations" it's useful for the following thought exercise.
How would a phyle actually work?
There are nascent predecessors, of course: churches, fraternal organizations, criminal syndicates, alt cultures, political splinter groups, even Anonymous. Though they're rarely powerful enough to reach lasting independence. So, drawing from those real-world examples, what would a phyle need?
1) Resources and revenue Not just donations for specific projects either, but those reliable income sources that allow the accumulation of serious funds. Crowdfunding ain't gonna cut it.
Governments manage this through taxes, taking a bit of various forms of economic activity or private holdings within their areas of control. While often griped about, all governments do this because it's really damn effective. Economies are huge, monstrous things, and if an institution can take a chunk of that in a way that's not onerous enough to spark a rebellion, it's got some serious cash to use.
Though taxes (or similar dues) aren't the only way to extract revenue. In The Diamond Age, the Neo-Victorians have a control on nanotech intellectual property and infrastructure, though I admit that such a monopoly lasting into the far future seems pretty dubious. A network of businesses, control of key resource sites or trade routes could be another way a phyle funds itself, though those are more likely to end up contested by others. Additionally, they require maintenance and expenditures.
So dues on members, likely on a sliding scale, seem the most likely method for a phyle to have stable revenue, especially in the early stages.
2) Protection and services A phyle would need to fix its members' problems. If another group causes them trouble, if their landlord's evicting them, if they're tight for cash, etc. This would likely entail a combination of social services, access to facilities the member can't afford on their own, and legal or physical protection. If a phyle didn't do that directly, it would need access to political clout or connections to others who reliably could.
This is incredibly understated part of why groups maintain power. Despite massive social pressures, churches are still a major safety net in many parts of the world. Political creeds have gotten in on the act too: the Black Panthers' breakfast program, the Syndicalists' Bourse de Travail, and even Islamist charity work all spring to mind.
3) Hierarchy and structure To widely varying degrees, but there nonetheless. Someone(s) will have to direct common efforts, negotiate with other groups, and act as a final arbiter in internal disputes. The whole concept as a phyle is that its members hang together enough to maintain their power, and that can't happen if they collapse in a heap of infighting or can't muster resources on a reliable basis.
Similarly, not just anyone would get to join. Phyles would likely have some period of dedication, trial membership, challenging task, etc. The fact that phyles, already narrowed by a specific belief set, would have to offer and allocate concrete services to remain viable would mean that couldn't simply throw the gates open.
4) Spread and diversity That said, while formed around some common core identity, a phyle would need to be in enough locations for its members to have some influence outside of a tiny area. It's hard to see the concept of a phyle working without international reach.
By the same token, any sizable phyle would need to appeal to people from a fairly wide range of backgrounds (one of the many reasons Neo-Victorians as a major power is absurd). This would be a tricky balance, to have a coherent enough structure and central ideology to bind people together, but flexible enough to allow for local variation and influence from its grassroots.
5) Recognition What separates a phyle from a simple gang is some level of recognition from a larger society, especially at the "we leave you alone" level. A phyle needs to be able to go about its day-to-day business without being under constant attack. That doesn't mean that phyles might not stay secret in some areas, but tacit acceptance would be the minimum goal.
The same "we all hang together" coherence that gives a phyle its power also means it's unlikely to outright rule over a larger society. While it needs to be a good deal larger than a splinter culture, it's not going to attract the sheer numbers necessary to dominate a diverse area. If it operates on this scale, it would have to be as part of a larger coalition.
This is one reason that if something like a phyle emerges, many of them will probably start as organizations with some level of existing legitimacy, whether non-profits, political groupings, or corporate spin-offs. The ones that don't will have to find some way to transition there fairly quickly, though that's far from impossible.
6) Allegiance Phyles have a belief set beyond their own preservation and profit. Interestingly, having this belief set is one thing that keeps them alive. A phyle needs its members willing to give efforts and take risks for something beyond their own immediate benefit. Whatever its particular ideology, a phyle would need a measure of platform, ceremony, and mythology.
This is one of the key insights of nation-states and religions: people don't fight, let alone die, simply for a paycheck. A willingness to sacrifice for a larger ideal produces more powerful organizations than those that won't.
For all the fantasias about borderless worlds and post-national societies, a lot of the nascent alternatives haven't proved up to snuff, mostly for lack of the above qualities. The above is, roughly, what's required to get a group from subculture to something more powerful, something that currently belongs in the realm of speculation.
But notice how many gangs call themselves "nations," notice when groups set up shadow social services to deal with the decay of official channels. The phyle may not remain fantasy for long.