by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ December 23, 2019
The entire concept of the nation states and the various systems of government predicated on citizens granting authority to govern evolved from the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. This complex, evolved, sociopolitical set of systems is broken and its failure is occurring in the primary founding cultures of the West.
The American Experiment was the first and most extensive of the early modern representational government attempts based on these principles and so it came to influence the next hundred and fifty years of government evolution. We are now experiencing the end of that era.
Because of this, its failure would affect far more than just one large nation’s government. While the American model considers itself preeminent, the range of modern governments is more likely to be based on the parliamentary systems of England and France. But all of these are strongly linked to the rise of modern nation states in Europe’s 17th and 18th centuries. They share the same base assumptions on sovereignty, popular authority, and the process of representation.
If the preeminent representational governments are now dysfunctional some basic structural changes are occurring as a result of changed planetary variables. That suggests that all modern, national governments are at risk.
We know that we are beginning to deal with a range of technology driven paradigmatic cultural changes now increasingly overshadowed by the climate crisis. The steady rise of information and communication technology, particularly over the last forty years, has seriously stressed the existing form of human social structures.
These structures were built on and assumed severe limitations of access to information and were designed to overcome the barriers of distance and personal conversation with more than a few people at any time. This produced an unspoken contradiction in the fundamental acceptance of government based on the people as authority for that government.
Because there was no way to address the people on any issue and to determine their position or agreement in responding to that issue directly, the traditional form of a representative council or parliament was used. The primary implementation concerns of the US founders were the source and means of determining representatives. No consideration was given to formalizing the requirements of resident and citizen communication to government beyond periodic voting for representatives. While the use of democracy for decisions was very limited, interactive or direct, democracy was neither possible nor considered.
Once elected the representatives and senators were free to determine their level of communication with their constituencies. This produced the contradiction in the operation of the republic based on government by the people requiring no formal level of interaction with the people. The need to obtain votes for election was assumed to be motivation enough for representatives to interact regularly with their constituencies. The usurpation of the representatives by great wealth and the easier use of media for advertising eliminated everything but the facade of ‘town hall democracy’.
For someone to challenge an incumbent requires a great deal of money and a broad basis of support in the community. As a result, if an incumbent maintains a low profile but services a few rich individuals and provides occasional benefits to ordinary people, the position is probably safe. The longer this holds and the more special interest support can be traded for contributions, the representative has no need to communicate to their constituency except in platitudes and slogans.
In short, this contraction encouraged minimal communication by representatives allowing the representative to see government and special interests as their primary responsibility. As most people are happy to be left alone, a primary definition of ‘liberty’ in American culture, and not have to be bothered with understanding larger issues, this worked adequately until the paradigmatic shift of constant information access.
The conversation that is the basis of the governmental process in a democratic republic has begin to spontaneously develop in human virtual space without any connection to the process of existing government. The public, virtual, administrative discussion is far deeper, broader, and more open than that of the limited 18th century representative bodies. Unfortunately they have no means of distinguishing valid information from invalid and are subject to all levels of propaganda and distorted information. The people also have no direct influence, means of acting, or formal channel to government other than two or four year voting, so the conversation is increasingly confused and futile.
This is the realm of conspiracy, memes, outrage, and manipulation. Meanwhile the formal governmental conversation is completely disconnected from the citizens and exists in a rarified vacuum controlled completely by governmental departments, special interests, and at the national level, interpreted for the public by paid pundits. As a result the system of government fails.
But the climate crisis is the existential threat that requires change in order to address the planetary dilemma. A working administrative and government process is essential for all regions of this planet’s biosphere to survive.
History and Structure
The paradigmatic shift that has changed our planetary social environment is the basis of the new structural problems. This can be explained fairly simply but that superficiality tends to obscure and fails to convey the true extent and impact of the change. That effects of that change are forcing a review of the entire history of human government.
Human governments, once agriculture and cities were in place, were based on a capable individual who, by strength, virtue, intelligent, or divine designation centered the tribe and then the kingdom. There were many ways to put this but the monarch embodied the people and the land they ruled. In that sense the monarch, by whatever title, was the people and also the land.
Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t but that was the normal approach for the first few millennia.
Whatever the theory there are powerful people in addition to the monarch in human societies. They needed to be considered and given a say while the monarch, as an individual, needs support. Often these powerful people agree not to fight to be monarch but could demand that position if they wanted.
In some cases, Imperial China as an example, the divine designation as emperor was the Mandate of Heaven. If enough things went bad it became an issue of that mandate being removed by natural forces.
In none of these historical cases that I know of were the mass population being ruled considered a direct voice in the reality of the kingdom. Obviously they were if they packed up and left or managed to storm the palace and kill the leaders. That extreme statement was their only real voice. They could, in China, decide to support someone who considered the Mandate of Heaven to be in question. The authority to rule was a product of the environment as a divine force. Thought it had problems it worked periodically.
By the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries things had begun to change in many places but particularly Europe, the Mediterranean, and China. This was mostly a significant growth in human population. Human civilization had been around long enough that more things were being figured out. In Europe this was the rise of absolute monarchy that was actually an improvement by centralizing power, where it happened, making things more efficient and change easier to implement. This was the foundation of the nation state a defined geographic place with a defined population.
At the same time there was a fast growing class that wanted to be heard. This was the middle class of merchants and skilled workers . Right behind this was the rising free farmers, yeomen in England, who were gaining more rights to land and resources protected from the monarch and the traditional nobility or aristocracy.
This is what led to the English revolution, the American revolution, the French revolution and all the other revolutions that went on through the 19th and early 20th century. In essence there were a lot more people and a lot larger percentage of the population with rights and the power to demand attention. This is where the nearly universal standard of parliaments and other representative bodies evolved whether actual or pro forma.
The divine designation of monarchs as the symbol or embodiment of the people was simple but didn’t work very well unless the monarch actually went out and talked to people to find out what was happening. The concept of that embodiment was too narrow.
John Locke and other philosophers spent a lot of time and ink figuring out a new set of theories about how things should work. This ended up being clearly demarcated nation states with borders who were fully sovereign within those borders.
The real change was making the people who were members of that nation state the source of that sovereignty and source of the power to govern that nation state. The power came from the people. Not all of the people but at least the bulk of the most important who looked like the people who had been designated by god to rule previously.
This put the legal power of the nation as coming from the citizens of that nation. So you had to have them concur on laws and things that were done by monarchs or officials. How do you do that?
This was an old problem. The aristocracy, with power and wealth by war and birth, had a voice with the monarch but they would complain if they had to travel to the capital and live there while doing government work. They weren’t paid but had power and income but still complained.
Back in Athens in the 5th century BCE when the Greeks invented democracy, citizens had government responsibility in the form of big meetings to make important decisions. It was a constant issue that doing public work cost citizens money.
The big problem was that those representatives became professional and voted for their own interests that were the interests of those doing the government thing and not the people that they, technically, represented.
The Unsolvable Problems
That places us where we are today with the original representative governed nation states in a shambles. This is broadly defined as ‘polarization’ of the citizen population creating political paralysis with significant minority of that population heavily influenced by lies and misinformation created by failed political parties and instances of foreign intelligence attacks.
This is exacerbated by widespread citizen anger at the elected representatives and official administrative personnel failing to act on or provide those services that have been sought for decades. Some of those services are standard in most states, forms of universal healthcare, or were once available but taken away in the last forty years of capitalist consolidation, such as free or low cost higher education.
These stresses have created openings for opportunists able to play on the anger and confusion resulting from entangled myth, lies, and partially valid information. The ultimate authority of the citizens to grant power to administer the state is blatantly ignored with all decisions being made to the benefit of the extremely wealthy beneficiaries of late stage capitalism.
An increasing irritant, played on aggressively by the opportunists, is growing migration caused by climate change and concomitant political failures in smaller, marginal nations. This is made an issue by the existence of artificial nation state borders with refugees being defined as threats to the assets of the nation’s citizens. This produces racist and ethnocentric narratives of hate that worsen conditions for millions now and, based on climate crisis projections, up to a billion later.
This is now threatening to break down the old nations and is increasingly unmanageable. The basic assumptions of sovereign nation states with rigid borders has been increasingly bypassed to grow the planetary economy but left in place to satisfy those with power who want no changes to their areas of control.
The neoliberal economics of the planetary ruling elite has created an efficient growth economy based on their national areas of dominance with the benefits of open, planetary trade. This has made 1% of the population vastly wealthy while blocking any asset growth, or even the concept of assets, to 99% of the population.
The result is a generally benign slave economy with two generations in new industrial states recognizably better off than their parents but those same generations in post industrial nations either angry or numb at very low income growth decade after decade based on capitalist structural failure. That failure, predatory capitalism, is the substitution of credit lines rather than income that would produce capital assets. As a result the US population has an average a negative asset value.
The numb are susceptible to the opportunists playing on fear of losing even more and the angry have no idea who to blame because their representatives have never represented them. Because of the constant cacophony of misinformation the whole thing is too confusing so most people just tune out.
Climate disasters will created a steady increase in stress on this planetary, nation state, construct. The original nation states are disintegrating now and all are struggling with the distortions of late stage capitalism and climate crisis. The key to understanding this is the primary political problems are the result of the nation state system at this late stage of their evolution with structural failure of the neoliberal, capitalist economies.
Deconstruct the 18th century nation states. Redefine market economics to biosphere survival and sentient well being.
The political deconstruction can replace the old national culture with a virtual community linking to direct local government, i.e. metropolitan regions and semi rural cities, towns, and counties. This requires a new division of administrative levels between planetary and regional.
The planetary is already defined by the United Nations and should be limited to actual planetary standards for sentient rights, climate, resource management, population movement. and cultural preservation. Universal rights and standard can be decided by representatives of all local/regional governments, while all management and enforcement at the local government level to help prevent authoritarian demagoguery.
A critical change to local government is the use of soft administrative borders. We are already moving to complete, digital linkage of all populations. Protecting peoples rights is more easily managed if use of that data is limited to local governments with no hard borders. Everyone will be digitally identified and trackable (whether we like it or not) but abuses by a local government can result more easily in population moving somewhere else.
Large metropoles are inherently cosmopolitan and open. Abuses in smaller communities simply requires complete freedom of movement. This will allow self segregation of unique populations and identity groups while no one is unwillingly constrained by abusive social rules.
The planetary alliance will be committed to climate restoration and natural resource allocation with growing refugee management conflict resolution.
I expect that much of the administration at both levels of responsibility will become increasingly handled by AI in support of professional administrators with little need for old style politicians.
This appears to be where things are going rather than some ideal envisioned independently of social reality. The move to direct democracy and local government are critical, however, or the continued reappearance of demagogues and crude power opportunists will cause the collapse of our civilization.