Democracy is the gold standard for good governance in modernity. Modern democracy is also fantastically expensive. After all, you only have to write a constitution, establish legislative, judicial and executive branches in permanent opposition to each other, ensure that they have enough assistance to understand the issues they’re dealing with, build a civil service so that actual work can get done, regulate that civil service so it can’t take over, establish a market sector to deal with everything the government shouldn’t do, regulate the market sector so it can’t take over, build a media infrastructure to ensure the people in whose stead you govern understand what you’re doing, hire more government aides to talk to the media, regulate the lobbyists who talk to the media, hire more aides to talk to the lobbyists…
There is a very real question as to how much longer we will be able to afford our beloved democratic structures. Affordance here is a question of the social outcomes as much as it is of pure money. Modern democracy goes hand in hand with modern consumerism, and it is very clear that we can ill-afford Western lifestyles on a whole-planet basis, or even in the West. The degree of media capture of theoretically democratic governments, especially in countries like America and the UK, represents another axis of unaffordability — the democratic project subverted into something that has the form of an egalitarian society, but not the effect, the social equality, or the functional independence of one.
The question of the cost of democracy is a question of the cost of organizing resource distribution and collective decision making, brought into high relief by the reality of life in a time of resource scarcity, environmental disaster, social unrest, and large-scale economic contraction. The next hundred years will not be pretty.
There are ways to answer this question that we are more and less comfortable with. As the wealth and corporations of the world dematerialize and those oligarchic actors seek to hang on to their position, they are already making long bets that put them more and more directly into a governance role in the world — for instance, in 2008, Daewoo bought half of the arable land in Madagascar (technically, a 99 year lease — the exact same kind of technicality which colonialism has been built on for centuries). As traditional social-democratic structures break down and the rule of law in a traditional democratic context becomes unaffordable, we could very easily see the rise of a kind of “venture warlordism”.
Warlords can be extremely efficient at the project of governance and the provision of social services for all, if the degree of graft within a command structure can be managed. Fortunately, the tools of modern management science, combined with dynamic startup-culture organizational hierarchies and selectively deployed transparency and surveillance, can be deployed to create a new, more efficient reign of terror. Instead of relying on untrustworthy hired muscle, the new world of drone warfare can do the dirty work. Combine this with cell-structured network leadership operating in a context where the network is warped to optimize for resource extraction and watch the profits vanishing into an opaque, transnational over-class. Who your government is working for may change day to day, minute to minute, as the market in governance futures shifts and flows.
Warlords, or any kind of low-graft fascist state, are efficient because they provide a governance structure divorced from public opinion, and thus from the need to create or tolerate a media sphere to manage that public opinion. They create an effectively progressive taxation structure for anyone not in the governing elite by seizing the wealth of anyone who becomes too well-off. They back this up by providing effective social services in a context where, without the warlords, there would be chaos. Under these conditions, Western notions of “freedom” become a luxury good.
If we want to compete with this, we need an alternative which is equally efficient, equally scalable, and which defends itself against oligarchic capture. The coercive efficiency of globalization, combined with economic contraction, forces us to find a more efficient kind of freedom.
The weak point of venture warlordism or any similar governance model lies exactly in the tolerance of large-scale wealth extraction — this is the inefficiency inherent in that model. Given the demonstrated tendency of hierarchies within modern socio-economic structures to slip into wealth extraction, we need an efficient organizational system which is actively anti-hierarchical. In small groups, consensus-style organizing has proven to be effectively exactly this. The problem, then, is one of scalability. The idea of delegating toward a larger collective — of individual consensus groups tasking individual members to speak for the group’s opinion for a single meeting addressing a single issue — provides a useful degree of scaling while preventing the evolution of hierarchies that can be easily exploited. While we haven’t seen this applied in groups larger than about 5,000, there is reasonable cause to believe that it falls prey to scalability issues in groups much larger than this, and it’s already time consuming even in smaller groups.
If only we had a tool that could accelerate discussion among dynamically constituted groups in a transparent manner.
I’ve had the privilege of working with some projects using the Internet to do exactly this — most specifically, during the Constitutional Analysis Support Team’s work on providing assistance to the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly. Our work was a small and informal part of the overall process, but we got to watch as the assembly used the Internet to source feedback and even new article suggestions for what is now a proposed new constitution for Iceland.
An expansion of this kind of approach could, instead of only providing temporary input on a small part of a process, instead provide an actual replacement for most of the work of governance. Instead of creating a massive civil service, we can organize the same activities via low-overhead network coordination — not the privatization of services, but the devolution of services to a networked population — devolution not just of responsibility, but also of both authority and resources.
Many things need to go right for us to have a chance at making this a reality. First, we need to stop the existing oligarchic organizations which are threatening to run the future of humanity. This is, to put it mildly, a complicated proposition. Second, and part and parcel of the first, we need to save the Internet. The past decade has seen an industrial revolution of the Internet, with the rise of large-scale web applications undermining and erasing the revolutionary, flat potential of a networked structure. As we see new trust hierarchies and increasing control over networks in the name of stopping crime, terrorism, or merely uncomfortable speech, we see our chances of using the Internet to create a new kind of freedom slipping away. Third, we need to prototype and test the structures which hold promise, both to understand them at a technical level and to rehearse and acclimatize ourselves to how they work and how they feel — to gain an intuition for a freedom built on networked governance.
I can’t say for sure how we get there, but I can say that there is a fork in our future, and the side that recreates the hierarchies of wealth and oppression which we see now will become an even worse place to be — and our place in the temporarily rich West won’t save us. The side that acts from an understanding that every voice must be heard in dialogue with equal weight — all seven billion of us — is the side which may give us hope.
…and that hope will not look like what we call democracy today.
15 September, 2011
This piece was written for the “Wege aus der Demokratie?” (“Ways out of Democracy?”) issue of the University of Leipzig magazine “Powision”.