by Mike Meyer
The current concept of government is failing. This is a result of many changes on our planet and many changes to human society over the last fifty years.
Just as people or organizations grow old and increasingly dysfunctional without change, improvements and conscious revitalization, governments are the same. People are limited by biological design but this may be significantly extended with work. Governmental forms have an historical life expectancy based on continuous evolution of human society but may also be extended with work. But the end comes when those efforts fail.
We are seeing this finally in the ongoing collapse of the United States and, in very similar forms, Great Britain, Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey and other nations. The problems of polarization, corruption, distortions in asset distribution, and citizen apathy are symptoms of failure. These symptoms are certainly not new but in a healthy governmental system they would be addressed and improved, if not corrected, based on agreed principles and an adjusted image of the future.
As a whole these symptoms represent the disappearance of a common identity and shared ideals of a particular nation state.This is generally recognized in the US and other states but the inability to explain this or to separate it from past conflicts simply confuses the situation.
In this situation archaic nationalism, fascism, racism, and xenophobia are opportunistic infections of a failing system of government. This is also well recognized as nationalism, and its end product, fascism are 20th century versions of opportunistic pahtologies.
Most of the current paralysis is a direct result of both intentional and chronic recycling of past debates on symptoms and superficial infections afflicting an aging governmental system now in serious decline. As in clinical cases the symptoms are not causal conditions and provide no route to a cure. In the case of ‘modern’ government the underlying cause of dysfunction and decline is the loss of relevance.
This loss of relevance is an indicator of paradigmatic change. Many of the solutions provided by 18th century, semi-representative government refined by expansion around the planet in the 19th and early 20th century, are for problems that no longer exist. Solutions without a problem tend to become, themselves, problems. These often become self serving and corrupt.
Government as we know it can no longer provide the services required while meeting the social organizational needs of a growing and increasingly diverse urban populations. This inability is new. This is not an attack on the original principles of ‘modern’ representative government. It is a new condition driven by technology, population growth, and structural economic failure tremendously exacerbated by unique factors of the planetary climate crisis.
So what is it that is failing?
The United States revolution in the last quarter of the 18th century was built on the constellation of concepts and theories of the European Enlightenment. A critical focus of these ideas was to find a broad justification for political rule that would replace the historical justifications of military power with remnants of ancient mythological facade. Roughly five thousand years of human civilizations had evolved from tribal chiefdoms to kingdom to empires ranging from divine rulers to kingship based on military alliances and variations in between.
The pattern was the growth of empires under strong individuals to collapse under weak leaders with a decline into chaos and feudal wars until a strong leader rose to dominance. The mass population as it grew was either mostly ignored, exploited for goods and taxes, or pressed into service as soldiers to fight endless wars.
The increase in population, improvements in agriculture, growth of technology, predominantly, from China via Arab scholars in the 13th to 15th century, collapse of Catholicism as the European imperial religion, Age of Discovery bringing vast wealth and new knowledge created the first paradigmatic transformation. The Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment were the products of these changes.
The American Revolution represented the first attempt to redefine government and formal social organization under the new principles of science, objectivity, and, what would come to be called, secular society. This would be followed by the French revolution, and others sweeping around the planet through the 19th and early 20th century.
Most of these were not one time revolutions but a sequence of changes moving to government being based on the idea of popular sovereignty and human rights. The foretunner of this had been the English revolution of 1688 that increased the power of the yeoman as free farmers and enhanced the power of the consultative assembly in parliament.
The essence of the principles driving these changes was that rulers held power as a representative of the people they ruled or, at least, a definitive plurality of them. This presented a very large question that had been tackled in a variety of ways in previous centuries. How do you ask the people what they think and want? And which people do you ask? These became ‘citizens’ with expanded rights or with any rights at all.
In the world of the 18th and 19th centuries most people lived and died within a few kilometers of where they were born. While there was, by the beginning of the 19th century, a growing movement to urban centers these were still the exception. The rise of representative systems of government were increasingly common to European city states as these were small and people lived in close proximity and could spend time in consultative assemblies as merchants, guilds of craftsmen, etc. This was often loosely modeled on classical Greek city states.
This is the practical model that became modern parlement, the US Congress, People’s Congresses, etc. They all assume that groups are deemed important to society and must elect leaders who could afford to spend the time representing their group in meetings for an extended period of time and possibly in another city.
As a solution for how to ask the people for their opinion in matters of state rule, this was about the only way to accomplish that. The problem is that the ‘representatives’ become powerful in their own right and could increasingly ensure their position by proving that they had the ability to meet the needs of the most powerful among their representative base for mutual benefit.
Education was also a problem as the ruling families by heredity were also the beneficiaries of wealth and leisure to allow formal education and the ownership of books. Means of excluding the ignorant and inarticulate meant that the representatives in government were required to become like the ruling elite among whom they would live and work.
While almost all current governments based their validity on the authority of the people they govern, this can be done by turning representatives into the ruling elite or leaving them as only infrequently gathered for ritual confirmation. In either case a traditional elite rules.
The problem of how to ask the people was solved by making representatives of the people part of the ruling elite or asking them infrequent and ritualized questions. The solution was based on the practical inability to ask people without going to talk to them. Communication and distance were impossible to overcome except by reducing the number of representatives to as small a number as possible. That is no longer a the case.
In fact the tendency of the representatives to become the ruling elite and disconnected from their constituency is a traditional problem. The inherent irrelevance of political representatives that don’t represent their population creates corrupt representatives working for pay from rich donors or organizations. This increases the irrelevancy of these people and further exacerbates their tendency to corruption.
This is seen in the ease of the ‘representatives’ ability to instantly transform into whatever form is currently considered valid by their rulers. The disappearance of any attempt to logically justify massive changes in policy positions by these representatives is an indication of their total loss of relevance.
Information is the other axis in this evolution. The assumption of the Enlightenment thinkers was that citizens are at least free farmers with property. The US assumed that there would be very limited democracy and the ‘better’ people with some education would be the center of the process. Much of this was the fear of uneducated and immoral people being swayed by criminals and opportunists. We now have a lot of history showing the damage that can be done with poorly informed electors.
By limiting the US to a traditional European racial and class structure the next assumption that these would be the people who would communicate with their associates and fellow citizens. No other means was considered to ensure formal communication other than candidates returning to their constituencies for speeches and public debates.
While the broadsheets and related forerunners of the newspaper developed through the 18th century, and the US revolutionaries used these extensively, the means of distributing information was left to the emerging popular media. The media was the source of national information and that was based on selling papers and, later, radio and TV ads.
This worked in distributing the official information to the population and in efforts to attack and slander competitors for positions, but provided only a limited view of the information from the people to the government. Often the orchestrated campaigns between powerful political figures or groups were presented as being information ‘from the people’ necessitating layers of misinformation and pretense made it almost impossible to know what people actually thought and no one cared.
An initial technical inability to communicate with the mass population became the failure of this limited representative form of government. This was technically impossible through most of human history so the greatest part of the focus was on how to create some artificial form of communication from the people to the government.
The only way that could be done was though representatives who would be conscientious enough to gather detailed views of issues and events from the people they represented. The very nature of official representatives of the a group causes those representatives to replace the people with their own interests and values.
Human nature being what it is, those people most often questioned on opinions and issues will be the people most in agreement with assumptions of the representative. The closest that could be achieved prior to the late 20th century was speeches and debates. Obviously both of those did not actually provide a channel of communication outside of the elite, political population.
This is the structural failure of the modern system of government. In response to this we now have internet driven demonstrations civil disobedience actions. From Mahatma Ganhdi in the 1930s to Beijing rebellion in 1989, to the Arab Spring and Palestinian Resistance the channel providing the critically needed citizen voice has become not only possible but insistent.
But the steady growth of this channel, directly to the centers of government, was shocking and disruptive because it broke through the filters designed to limit and control the population’s voice. That shock has triggered the instinctive return to antique fascism using, what is now called ‘nationalism’, to limit the popular voice to emotional, fear driven rants and hatred.
This is the reassertion of power elite control by reducing the mass communication channel to ignorance and hatred that can be used to undercut direct democracy. There are a number of forms of this but all rely on gaining both control of the new technology that enables mass conversation combined with layers of censorship to prevent new ideas form originating outside the existing power elite.
That censorship can be direct, as in China and Russia, or indirect and inserting massive amounts of misinformation to damage the validity of all public communication. Because the power elite have been handed vast wealth by unreformed capitalism they have the means to buy a large enough public voice to claim legitimacy among a minority of the population.
That minority is designed as a discriminated against group to justify their programmed parroting of the pseudo message of mass suppression and elimination of communication. This is obviously a self destructive message in a modern, post industrial society. The result is greater confusion as the gold ring was in sight, actual mass government and direct democracy are now possible. But the now irrelevant power brokers and rules must stop this before all of their power is gone.
This is the collapse of the 18th century model of government that must now be replaced. The great challenge is to prevent that old system from destroying the naturally emerging new form of, fully democratic, local and planetary management.