Tuesday, December 31, 2013

States and Nations 3.0: Global Democracy

The establishment of a hemispheric or global empire, with all of the bloodshed or at least repression that have accompanied earlier conquest states is one possible scenario for the rise of a successor model to the modern nation-state. At the same time, many of the factors we've looked at previously in this series leave room for hope for us and our children. Somewhere between the possible return and up-scaling of empires and a devolution of nation-states into micro-polities there are other less dramatic but still transformative possibilities.

A globe-spanning democracy is one of them.

Top Down or Bottom Up?

While out of fashion and far-fetched in the current age of widespread ethnic and religious strife, the kind of centralized top-down, UN-like model of global governance dreamed of by statesmen, futurists, and commentators during the aftermath of two World Wars in the mid-twentieth century could enjoy a revival if another global conflict or a planet-wide disaster threatens our species. Crises demanding an unprecedented world-wide mobilization, ranging from a rumbling super volcano and looming volcanic winter, to massive solar flare activity, chronic terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction, or endemic recessions and depressions in a planetary economy that has become even more integrated, could all serve as catalysts for the kind of statecraft that would be needed to thread together a world of seven billion or more squabbling human beings.

Or, a kind of network of planet-scaled democracy could come from the bottom up. One possibility touched on earlier in this series are soft-power international organizations like those that run the Internet gradually taking on more and more governance functions in a near future where everything from file transfers to drug transactions have taken on a global character - or at least more than they already have over the past decade. Widespread destructive online terrorism and economy-destabilizing cybercrimes, or fiscal instability or planet-wide depressions triggered by offshore banks beyond the reach of conventional regulatory bodies could all serve as drivers for the aggregation of power in the hands of such organizations.

Eventually these institutions might surrender their leadership or at least oversight to varying degrees of democracy.


One of the more intriguing scenarios is as world in which 3D printing and other emerging fabrication technologies, along with automated resource gathering in the form of  harvesting carbon from the air, the cheap and easy biosynthesis of exotic materials using engineered bacteria, and advances in local food production, all obviate the regional infrastructure and regulatory necessities that created our present bureaucratized states. A world where the basics and even some of the luxuries of modern life can be produced with reasonable speed and effort at home might be an odd hybrid of local communities, city-states, and networked international soft-power organizations powered by Kickstarter style donations, user fees, or targeted taxes.

Not that I'm advocating for the demise of the nation-state. As mentioned in an earlier post, no other form of human polity has done so well in meeting the social challenges of industrial economies. Where states with low corruption hold sway, they've created an unprecedented level of broad prosperity, helped win and safeguard civil rights, and even more importantly, they've made possible a day-to-day freedom from the revenge killings, intimidation, and the kind of violent low-level resource struggles that have characterize much of our species' time on Earth.

Identifying Global

Democracy tends to function most smoothly in societies in which a majority of the population share a common culture or sense of identity. It can be rocky - famously and violently so - in places where such a unity is lacking. There are exceptions to this. The United States presently enjoys an almost non-existent level of political violence despite having a religiously and ethnically diverse population - in part because its settlement and founding period played out during a time of backlash against sectarian violence in what is now called the Western World. Even the past decade of polarization and political drift from the center has produced little in the way of violence.

Still, the current levels of religious and ethnic violence that plague some of the world's more diverse democracies would seem to argue against the global sense of identity necessary to a planet-scaled democracy taking root. Stable societal identities are either based on shared niche beliefs, blood, and traditions, or in some regions for the past century and a half, nationhood.

But nations, have not always been nations. Not in their modern sense as a unit of identity. It's only very recently in our time on this planet that humans have come to identify with nationality rather than a clan or village. Just as national identities gradually came into being over the past two centuries during the age of telegraphs, extensive road and canal building, and cheap printing presses, we may be witnessing the rise of nascent global identities with the generations growing up on the internet. These cohorts are coming of age in a world in which global brands and entertainment franchises are more pervasive than ever.

Not that this isn't the first decade in which such a vision has been brought up. During the dawn of the Jet Age there was similar talk as brand names in fast food, airlines, and automotive manufacturing became global icons. Fifty years on, we still don't have a global identity, but at the same time entertainment from anime to an international array of computer and console games, films, food, and coffee chains have achieved a significantly deeper penetration into everyday life. Daily communications between people living around the world have also become common. When I was a teen, talking with a  friend in Sweden was a dollar-per-minute phone call that I looked forward to all month. As an adult, I comment without second thought on Facebook walls of friends in Europe almost daily from here on the West Coast, and can participate in a mailing lists and discussion groups whose members live scattered across the planet.

Many of the present day commonalities of identity - shared entertainment, frequent recreational communications, and common-interest friendships - may become even more international in nature when a new generation of accurate, real time text and audio translation software breaks the language group barrier. Presently the bulk of online communications and cultural interchanges all take place within spaces that mirror the physical world's distribution of languages.  

With these changes and impending changes, we could soon see the emergence of age cohorts identify more with a world civilization and economy than the nation-states they reside in. Here in the present day US, we still have attachments to the states we live in, but our identities for the past century or so have grown more bound up in the nation than the region. Eventually the nation-state's hold could recede, much as the local states' did starting in the late 1800s in favor of a larger level of culture and social organization as a natural response to scaling up changes in economic and social institutions.

Or not 

This scenario is based on a continuity of current globalization and technology trends without significant interruption or catastrophic disruption. The Western World on the eve of World War I was similarly bound together by the threads of international finance, an international scientific community, telegraphic communications, and steamships. The level of economic and even cultural integration was seen as being so high that several pundits declared that a conflict between the great powers had become impossible.  In the aftermath of the war and its follow up conflict, it wasn't until the early 1970s that global trade reached its Pre-World War I tonnage. An online war fought with malware that exploits the interconnected nature of the Internet could have a similar, debilitating effect on communications and cultural interchanges for years into the future.

A global identity could also be complicated by ethical shades of gray. Most of the participants in these trends of daily international communications, mutually beneficial economic transactions, and common entertainments are members of the middle and upper classes. It's possible that tomorrow's suburban and urbanite children in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Eastern and Western Europe, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and the US could end up having more shared interested in common with one another in a post-language divide world than they do with the working classes whom they live alongside in geographic space.

All kinds of potential tensions and conflicts could open up along those fault lines.

Idealists and the Weight of History 

If a successful global democracy sounds a little too rosy as an outcome for current trends, consider the following. If you're reading this blog (according to the Google Analytics at any rate), chances are you live society given form and shape by well-meaning statesmen and dedicated activists during the past two centuries. The sacrifices of soldiers may have won or preserved your liberties depending on where you live, but it was the idealists who invented and gave your society almost all the positive attributes you enjoy, if not appreciate, today.

If you're a citizen of a democracy, the governance structure that rarely intrudes on your daily life was dreamed up by amateur intellectuals, professional clergy, and natural philosophers from the late 1500s into the 1800s. It's one that leaves you free from the whims of kings, secret police, the medieval or Roman-like public execution and torture of political dissidents, and involuntary terms of military service spent in pursuit of conquest. Governance by rule of law rather than cliques of nobles grew from collection of visions dismissed by realists and cynics alike, but which slowly became our reality through long struggle and cultural evolution. The realization of this family of dreams may not be perfect - we have a ways to go as far as protecting minority rights or maintaining the degree of widespread economic property enjoyed by two Post-World War II generations - but it's a system of political liberties and freedom from scarcity that most of humanity over the past 100,000  years could barely have believed possible.

Such organized hopes and visions from the  past make up much of our lives today, even if we normally lack the historical perspective to appreciate that fact. Likewise, what we strive for in our societies today and envision for the coming generations can help shape events and outcomes for the better long after we've departed this Earth. Whether that means supporting visions of the next form of society as a global governance network, or a mega state of egalitarian flavor, or local, self-sustaining communities successfully riding out the next wave of technological challenges, idealism is a powerful current in history that cannot be dismissed when looking forward.

Next up, the final article of this series: States and Nations - Transcending Cultural Evolution

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