Beyond Representative Government
By Mike Meyer
We definitely have a problem with democracy. It’s difficult to ignore although a large percentage of the American population is very hard at work doing just that. The majority thinks the problem is Trump and the disastrous collapse of the Republican Party into a racist and fascist front. That is a problem and an ugly one but, as I and many others have been saying, these are symptoms that are part of a much larger problem.
In fact I’ve come slowly to realize that I’ve been stumbling around the problem for the last six months and refusing to see it. I’ve even said it several times in the way you do when you are trying to convince yourself while talking to someone else. It’s hard to overcome a lifetime of indoctrination and belief. I’ve spent a lifetime paying taxes, working for political outcomes, defending the country, working, educating students, raising children and then grandchildren. All of this was done, reluctantly sometimes, but in the end as American.
I’ve given up on this emotionally several times over the last forty years but not really. It’s not the kind of thing that you can easily give up because we have so much of ourselves invested. And for everyday living it has been good until you realize that the technologically driven growth of information has made it impossible to ignore several contingent realities.
American society has been long dedicated to hiding the reality of racism.
The first reality is that America is a product of racist privilege. You just don’t see the privilege that you were born with. If you don’t see it you can’t judge it. American society has been long dedicated to hiding the reality of racism.
The second reality is even more complex. We have gained tremendous innovation and wealth from the evolution of market based capitalism. But as with all systems considered in the dynamics of historical change, variables change, and what once was good can become bad. In fact it can become very bad unless significant changes are made to adapt to new realties. From the analysis of capitalism by Marx in the mid 19th century, to the detailed analysis of capitalism in the 21st century by Thomas Piketty the structural problems and the evolution of those problems are well known. Markets are critical but they must be managed as the planet becomes smaller and sustainability must replace growth as the goal.
The third reality has seemingly exploded on the world in the last two years marketed by the rise of populist neofascism and the rise of dictatorial opportunists in the US, Turkey, Poland, France and other states. The leading political system since the collapse of the USSR has been the evolved variations of representative democracy. This was assumed to be tied to market economics and to individual right and freedom. This is now seen as being under attack even though it is by far the dominant political system in the wealthiest states on the planet in the 21st century. But for how long?
But we thought we were doing so well!
Most of the people (but not all) have been doing better and better over the last hundred years. Over the last thirty years the explosion of technology and the trade efficiencies of globalization combined with the reduction in major conflicts have enriched most of the planet. The vast majority of the wealth gained, however, has gone to a tiny percent of oligarchic owners of enterprises. This has begun to lead to the attacks on all current planetary systems. None of this was a surprise as it represents structural problems with capitalist development as the system matures and eliminates competition.
This problem has grown to the size that it can no longer be ignored in the states that were weakest in managing their markets and maintaining a more balanced distribution of wealth and/or services. These states are obvious as they are the ones facing the most damaging attacks based on opportunist authoritarians.
The opening for predatory, scavenger authoritarians is the flow of refugees into nation states with increasingly angry populations. . .
Global climate change due to the explosion of industrialization and population over the last one hundred fifty years has made change of the existing systems essential. Unless carbon in the atmosphere is limited, if not reduced, in the next twenty years the resulting climate changes will turn hundreds of millions into refugees. This is already happening in the Middle East due to African drought putting pressure on weak governments kept under the control of radical capitalist states and the capitalist oligarchs ruling the planetary economy.
The opening for predatory, scavenger authoritarians is the flow of refugees into nation states with increasingly angry populations who have realized that they have been denied a fair share of the great wealth that they helped create over the last forty years. The irony is the political return of long failed fascist dictatorial rule brought on by the greed of the capitalist oligarchy that is now threatening that very oligarchy’s political rule. Tragically this reaction inevitably makes a bad situation worse as the neofascist manipulators are only interested in shifting the vast wealth to their families and stooges. The US has a clear example of that in Trump who has no policy other than graft.
The interplay of two of three realities has exacerbated the second. Refugees are, by definition, minorities and their status is worsened by their being identified by skin color or ethnicity as different from the dominant population of the nation in which they end up. In nations with a lingering and chronic history of racism and/or xenophobia the potential for internal explosion heightens the danger.
The once and future American revolution
Revolutions are not fought by people who are beaten and starving. Revolutions are fought by people doing well enough to really see the opportunities they are being denied. That is the racist saying, “look, you’re doing so much better, don’t ask for more! I made this happen and you don’t appreciate it.”
It’s the irony of doing well enough to be able to understand how unbalanced the whole thing has become. If the racist wasn’t so busy fighting for scraps, he would realize that we are all being exploited by a tiny elite. The rise of fascists such as Trump and the people believing his bullshit are a shock and make you realize how fast this can go down. Suddenly you realize how fast the disease spreads and the rot has destroyed the national foundation. The whole structure is unsound and can no longer be relied on to support everyone.
While the divide is between those who insist that it is all good and the hatred and discrimination and denial of real equality is not, somehow, real. They say, “It’s not! It’s all fake news brought on by foreigners and POC and angry women”. While the rest of us know this can’t go on any longer. It is impossible to build the societies that we see as possible now, the whole new paradigm of equity driven by technology, without cleaning out the hatred and ignorance. This is taking all of our energy. In the US we have the horror of growing fascism with open racism and the clown Trump grabbing every minute and everyday for himself.
Democracy doesn’t work in the kind of nation state that America has become.
So we fail to see the bigger problem except as glimpses through the smoke and noise of anger and threats. Democracy doesn’t work in the kind of nation state that America has become. The government we no longer have is proof of that. It managed to work for decades but the truth is that is was a quirk that it lasted as long as it did. And it never really worked except at a local government level. This is not “small government” because that is impossible in the world we have and with what we need to survive. Too much needs to be managed and maintained for the people as inhabitants of this planet.
The uglier truth is that it worked only as conquest controlled by a racial and gender elite that was big enough to get away with brutalizing every minority. America became white, descended from Europeans, male, and primarily Christian Protestant. The extent of the ‘other’ that could be supported was Catholic and Jewish because you couldn’t really tell unless they told you. People of Color could only be tolerated as long as they were meek and subservient or kept to “their place”. The denial of the indigenous population could not be undone and could not be ignored. It has to always be repeated in the name of white supremacy.
All of us who were born and raised in the US know this. World War II until about 1972 was our peak. We tried to hold on to it. We try to go back to it repeatedly. But it worked and gave us enough of the power of market economics built on a strong government structure that made America and then a big part of the world able to reach the economic take off point of market economics. The first time that had happened on this planet. But now it must be controlled.
But the magic spell could not survive. By the late fifties times were good, there was work for everyone but the discrimination was too obvious to too many people who wanted a full share. And most of us realized they hadn’t had a full share and they should have. That was wrong. We tried to make it right. Tried to break the patterns and create a new way that was more open with the help of education and love and honesty. But we saw only part of the problem and thought that democracy was the solution. We just needed more democracy.
If the people demand too much then make them so frightened and angry that they are willing to lose what little they have.
We were wrong. The democratic government that we had was a trick played on a nation of immigrants and conquerors controlled by an oligarchy. Eisenhower as president at the peak warned everyone about the oligarchy that had control, the military-industrial-complex. The trick was that they had learned that democracy in a larger rich state was easy to control. Let the people vote and then buy their representatives. If the people demand too much then make them so frightened and angry that they are willing to lose what little they have. They can always be turned against themselves. They will elect the foolish to do just that.
The people had gotten too demanding in the sixties and seventies so the system needed to change. Reagan turned everyone against themselves. Men against women again, old against young again, races against each other with white privilege always protected. Government as the people’s power had to be destroyed to retain the oligarchs control.
It worked. But the world has changed. We are now faced with a brutal choice and a life time of work to build something new.
The oligarchs will destroy it all before they will let anyone go. In very large states democracy does not work. In ultra capitalist states, as Marx realized, the oligarchy must become more and more authoritarian. Small wealthy, well educated states with diverse populations or homogeneity become socialist democracies with a range of success. Either the state must be homogeneous or there can be no majority. In very large states only an elite can rule. Who controls the selection of the elite?
Russia has the same problem so it seeks control by recreating it’s own type of government wherever it can.
Fascism is rule by the stupid and hateful. There is nothing else there except massive corruption and exploitation leading to violence and destruction. That is a pattern well known. Russia has the same problem so it seeks control by recreating it’s own type of government wherever it can. America is the current target and Putin has been surprisingly successful.
India is a question but it has just begun to achieve the wealth and education that will destroy the façade of democracy. The capitalist elite will move to authoritarian control rather than allow something to work against their domination.
At this point the only option, other than small states with direct democracy, is China. And China is beginning to really work, They will be the dominant economy in a few short years. They have the bureaucratic tradition of imperial China. Local rule is by the leaders selected from the local population. From this pool the leadership pool provides the administrators for the large nation. That is too complex and critical to be allowed to fools and stooges. It works in that tradition but may not work where pseudo representative government has been used to fool people that their choice matters. But I think that is changing. We need much better public management.
The trade offs are too great. To have a large state you will have authoritarian rule and probably rule by idiot and corrupt monsters. We see how fast that can happen.
We need to keep the administration close to the people being administered. Increasingly this will be removed from human action and handled by AI/ML systems. This is not only more efficient but begins to break the bonds of human emotion, jealousy hatred, and bigotry from the process of providing primary services to people.
This, close to the people administered, form is not a ‘small government’ thing that was simply a scam by the vastly wealthy to cheat the population of their share of goods and services, but a way to keep control of actual services where it should be no matter the size.
But what of politics?
In its broadest definition politics will always be part of our existence as social animals. This is the constant vying for power and influence in directing any groups goals and activities to achieve those goals.
The problem, as man people constantly reiterate, is not politics but politicians. The logic of the tech driven paradigm shifts that are disrupting all elements of human life now suggests that politicians are becoming archaic vestiges. How does that work?
Politicians as we know them were a product of the movement away from authoritarian rule in human societies. In the western European tradition the rule of states was monarchical and was traditionally justified by a religion acting as a symbol of natural order. This was supported by a court made up of relatives and associates of the royal or ruling family. In feudal style rule this is extended to an aristocracy who are land owners of consequence with populations that represent both a revenue source and a military resource. In these basic forms of rule people are owned by whomever owns the land on which they live and to whom they owe tax for the protection and services they receive. In the simplest form all relationships are personal and based on vows of loyalty and obligation. As populations increase this does not scale. The result is the organization of groups with representatives who speak for the group with the monarch.
The rise of republics, from ancient to modern, were based on ‘natural’ power as vested in the group of citizens. The final say in important issues required a more direct consultation with the citizens as a group. This is the rise of the parliament becoming a permanent organization with representatives of the citizens in each district or area. The distinction is between a central authority that manages day to day operations and a more direct link to the individuals of the citizenry for important issues often related to changes in taxes due to large projects, defense, or wars of conquest.
The contemporary ‘democratic’ or representative government systems, baring a few rogue dictatorial states with no structure beyond one family or military rule, are all based on the practical implementation of drawing administrative authority from the citizens who can act via representatives in balance with the central authority. This is the system that appears to be threatened with collapse and the reversion to more centralized systems of personal rule linked to a small minority of the population as a pretense for authority.
As we have seen the problems, showing up extensively in the oldest ‘republics’, are the result of corruption of the representative system. This is directly the result of allowing consolidation of assets in the hands of a small minority who can then afford to simply buy representatives to act on their behalf without regard for the people who chose them as their representatives. This distortion simply forces a reversion to an earlier stage of human group management by a small group with all the resource who are, in effect, the only ‘citizens’. The mass of the population then has no real status or resources to buy necessary protection and so loses more and more power and even rights in the system.
This can only be corrected by restructuring the economic system to return assets to all citizens.
The result is greater exploitation removing more and more assets from the population by insisting that they must pay for all rights and services while the function of government focuses on expanding the wealth of the small ruling elite and protecting their ability to buy whatever they want.
This can only be corrected by restructuring the economic system to return assets to all citizens. The mass population, with no power and no affordable tools to do this may either revolt and remove the leadership and the ruling elite, as was done in the French revolution and many others, or accepts a fully authoritarian ruler who promises to maintain certain rights and services, as typified in the fall of the Roman Republic and its replacement by the Roman Empire. However it is done these are the only two options that result from this situation without outside conquest or merger with another state or empire. That is until now.
From the rise of democratic rule in the state of Athens 2,400 years ago, the optimum form of democratic rule is direct democracy. All efforts over the 200 years has been in finding ways to come close to this with the practical limitations of organizational management and communication. The essence of the American Experiment has always been the New England Town Hall Meeting with citizens meeting to discuss and decide important issues for their political entity. We are rapidly becoming able to do this for the first time in history. If we can avoid collapsing into antiquated authoritarianism first.
What has changed?
In a classic paradigm shift basic assumptions about what is possible, given the metaphoric model of our world, makes the solution of certain problems impossible. The most obvious solutions are ignored as impossible and all efforts are made to find yet another work around to improve an unworkable situation. When the problems causing the collapse of the system are compromises made based on that metaphorical model modifying the compromises will do little or nothing. That is the reason for the current collapse of representative government or the failure of ‘democracy’.
The political models we use are all based on the assumption that communication between more than a few hundred people at one time is impossible.
Our current metaphorical model of governmental structure is the nation state with one of several modes to establish a professional representative body as a component of a political entity’s administration. The political and economic power of a large state with a massive population and great geographic (natural) resources are the ideal. The political models we use are all based on the assumption that communication between more than a few hundred people at one time is impossible. This necessitates the breakdown into regions and districts for administration and also for voting to elect representatives that replace the actual voices of the people.
This can work fairly effectively, although in a very indirect way, if the wealth of the nation is fairly equitably distributed. This means that the mass of the citizens have enough wealth to control their representatives. If, however, the costs of becoming an elected representative are so great that the people being represented can no longer cover those costs, the representatives will become increasingly dependent on extremely wealthy ‘true’ citizens for their chance to join the government. In America this has moved so far into distortion that business organizations have deemed the same as citizens and can contribute however much they wish to anyone potential representative’s election. Since the great majority of assets are in the hands of less than 5% of the population plus the above mentioned organizations acting as proxies for the same 5% the mass of the population has become so poor as to be irrelevant to the electoral process. The system will be manipulated by any means possible to represent only the 5%.
But the underlying problem is the weakness of the representative system in actually allowing the citizens to voice their concerns and to participate in the management of their society.
Needless to say this is not rocket science. The steady distortions that have made this possible were achieved by conscious effort on the part of the richest elite over the course of forty to fifty years. They are no irreversible and the system is broken. This is the American model of the current disaster. Other models have somewhat different components depending on the provisioning of assets to the citizens and the perceived threats, real or imagined, that are blocking the desires of the masses. Obviously less disastrous decisions and resulting conditions may be fixable.
But the underlying problem is the weakness of the representative system in actually allowing the citizens to voice their concerns and to participate in the management of their society. People may always be tricked into believing imaginary threats and problems or in believing in imaginary rewards. But the basis belief of a democratic system is that with equal value to all voices the sum is greater than individual failings. In effect the sum is greater than the parts. And the smaller the effective group is with ability to effect decisions the greater the risk of stupidity.
Elements of the Solution
In planetary model based on post industrial economies and the steady reduction in scarcity, natural resources are less critical as wealth. Value then shifts to intellectual assets in design, innovation, and arts. Roughly 50% of the American population is urban and this will move to over 70% within a generation. Many regions of the planet are that high now. As notes above, the Chinese investment in vast, new cities anticipates better positioning of the population to handle global warming and climate changes as well as to maintain sustainable use of the planet’s resources.
The logical primary administrative unit then is the urban region or metropol. This can provide services, manage resources unique to that region, and handle related environmental issue while handling communication and cultural preferences based on the history of the region. In the longer range this allows the evolution of cultural diversity in natural way. Diversity is and will be the power of humanity. The greatest imagined horror on a heavily populated planet is the blending of everything into an endless sameness. This is the dread of a bland, monotonous, future world with everyone living at subsistence level. We can have the exact opposite of that and it is becoming immediately possible to build. But it requires great changes in attitudes and human social structure.
We are well on our way to ubiquitous and constant communication with all possible entities on this planet (or near off planet). While a town hall of ten billion people is not workable, a properly structured direct democracy can be imagined that would work with ten or twenty thousand people as the local level. Using an AI augmented administration information and projections of all elements of life in that district could be recorded and presented for all to review. Obviously this would use high level summaries and data visualization to people to review. Decision points from the top metropol level would be articulated at each district level for continuous voting.
Basic concept changes would be legal requirements to understand and vote on specific issues and, perhaps, levels of active citizenship based on qualifying exams as well as age and mental condition. This also assumes complete online action for all elements of citizenship and that would require biometric identification and authorization. Particularly at this point in the collapse of the American political system this would be difficult for a portion of the current population. This will happen in any case. My preference is to have this happen, with the already well advanced, loss of privacy at the command of a true democratically administered very localized government entities. The potential for abuse of this under the current style of government is so frightening as to be unimaginable.
We now have choices we never had before. Our problems can be solved with the help of new metaphors for reality. These are happening anyway. We need to use them in order to structure our societies on this planet to allow us to succeed. What we have now is failing and will not allow that success.