pp 1–11 | Cite as

Now the Code Runs Itself: On-Chain and Off-Chain Governance of Blockchain Technologies

  • Wessel ReijersEmail author
  • Iris Wuisman
  • Morshed Mannan
  • Primavera De Filippi
  • Christopher Wray
  • Vienna Rae-Looi
  • Angela Cubillos Vélez
  • Liav Orgad


The invention of Bitcoin in 2008 as a new type of electronic cash has arguably been one of the most radical financial innovations in the last decade. Recently, developer communities of blockchain technologies have started to turn their attention towards the issue of governance. The features of blockchain governance raise questions as to tensions that might arise between a strictly “on-chain” governance system and possible applications of “off-chain” governance. In this paper, we approach these questions by reflecting on a long-running debate in legal philosophy regarding the construction of a positivist legal order. First, we argue that on-chain governance shows striking similarities with Kelsen’s notion of a positivist legal order, characterised by Schmitt as the machine that runs itself. Second, we illustrate some of the problems that emerged from the application of on-chain governance, with particular reference to a calamity in a blockchain-based system called the DAO. Third, we reflect on Schmitt’s argument that the coalescence of private interests is a vulnerability of positivist legal systems, and accordingly posit this as an inherent vulnerability of on-chain governance of existing blockchain-based systems.


Blockchain governance Kelsen Schmitt Sovereignty State of exception 



This research is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (Grant Agreement No 716350).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals

This paper does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.European University InstituteRobert Schuman CentreFirenzeItaly
  2. 2.Company Law DepartmentLeiden UniversityLeidenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.CERSA/CNRS & Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & SocietyUniversité Paris II & Harvard UniversityParisFrance
  4. 4.MattereumMilton KeynesUK
  5. 5.Kozmetsky Global Collaboratory & Economic Space AgencyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA
  6. 6.Pantheon-Sorbonne UniversityParisFrance

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