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How will the democratic form of government evolve?

How will the democratic form of government evolve?


Democratic structures cling to forms - such as the political party - which may prove increasingly inappropriate. This text examines three sets of questions. First, what happens during effective government, and how is this served by the part of that space which is occupied by the many styles which we called 'democratic'? Second, what pressures exist to change the structures that are currently in place in democratic societies? Third, what is the form of the likely adaptation that democracies make to these pressures?

Introduction: how do states evolve, and where does democracy "fit"?

Relatively simple societies have a limited number of capabilities. That is, they lack power; and any assertion of power is based on individuals or on small groups of affiliates. Only the habits of commerce and the customs of the osciety - and perhaps threats from outside - act to unify the group. The institutions which handle this power are informal, ad hoc and often arbitrary. As the complexity of these societies increases, however, so their capabilities grow and with this, so does their power to act. The issue of how this power is held and wielded becomes a central issue.

The early stages of social evolution make little distinction between those who have the ability to wield power and those who should direct it. It is seen as self-evident that power is to be exerted on behalf of those who are capable of doing so. However, the transition from the strong man, or from the raiding party, to the concept of the tribe seems to be a deep one, perhaps based upon our lengthy and helpless childhood, gender dimorphism and the like. Large amounts of formal, laboratory research now show that we are prepared to sacrifice immediate gains in order to further the interests of the group with which we are bonded, and to punish members of that group who default against its norms. At least some of these studies show that we address in-group members with different neurological signatures from people who are strange to us, and that such group affiliations occur rapidly, as with team-building. We bring extra baggage to the tribe, such that whilst its power is aimed primarily to advance the aims of the powerful within it, it also sweeps along the group. Our tendency to affiliate depends on whatever 'success narrative' is being circulated, plus - of course - the ability to deliver advantages such as security against threats such as conquest and enslavement, famine and drought, disease and perhaps ignorance.

Success narratives are the stories we tell ourselves as a group about what constitutes a desirable outcome: whether we should act towards our neighbours in the spirit of conquest or peaceful coexistence, for example, or whether we should seek new understanding of the world in which we live, as opposed to accepting current religious or traditional interpretations.

Social groups which share strong narratives tend to be cohesive, swift to respond to leadership and decisive in their exploitation of opportunity. Strong narratives have two features, their propagation and their reinforcement. Weakly propagated narratives are poorly told and usually contend with rival models within the same society. Weakly reinforced narratives, by contrast, may have no obvious rivals, may be propagated through every official channel, but may fail to deliver what they promise, or what people want. The society may be unable to manage the threats to it, control internal dissent, manage property or deliver predictable law.

Operating environments change, and new ideas develop which challenge strong narratives and destroy weak ones. There is a continuous narrative cycle at work in adaptable societies, therefore, which reacts to change by finding new ways to talk about "who were are and what we are about". The narrative cycle can, however, be mis-interpreted as being a tension between two historically-absolute poles which, in the Nineteenth Century European tradition, was encapsulated in the thoughts of people such as Marx. Max Weber, for example, saw all societies everywhere as defined by a process within which elites seek to isolate their sources of advantage from the rest of the population, which in their turn attempt to erode these boundaries.

Europe was, however, at the forefront of the processes which have now led to global change. It had to adapt itself to this, and did so by altering its narrative. Insofar as this pertained to power, the narrative cycle created four fundamental alterations to the concept of legitimate power:

First, power - that is, capability to act, ownership of resources, knowledge - was factually ever-more widely distributed. It was necessary to formalise this de facto truth with de jure instruments, such as parliaments. It was also important to recognise that there were appropriate domains within which a degree of subsidiary self-regulation was necessary, in commerce - through the new idea of a limited company, for example - in sub-national geography and in the professions. These expert domains were to be subject to external discipline when self-regulation failed.

Second, the hands that wielded power - such as armies, police forces - were to be separated from those who mandated its use, such as politicians. Kings were no longer to declare war and lead armies.

Third, those who mandated power did so on the basis of rationality, albeit a rationality predicated on self-interest. Interest groups sought coherent suites of measures which would advance their concerns, which most saw as identical with the needs of the polity as a whole, with the national narrative. An Eighteenth century Whig would regard trade and commerce as both personally advantageous but also essential to national well-being, for example.

Fourth, it was not enough to have conviction in a strong narrative. One needed to be able to demonstrate the 'clock work', the connection between the actions which were being urged and an interpretation of the collective good. Propositions which were based on authority - personal, traditional or religious - were not as well-regarded as those which came with a clear connection between the measures proposed and the desired outcome. If one knew how malaria was spread, then it was clear that it was better the drain the marsh than to pray for fever relief, however fine the ceremonies used.

These four processes have been running at full spate for at least two centuries in the Western tradition, and for limited (or no) time in the rest of the world. One model that has arisen from this is that of universal democratic suffrage, party-based politics and a quasi-monarchical premier who heads the executive. The near-universality of this solution disguises the somewhat arbitrary nature of the model, for the narrative cycle could have delivered other solutions. Specifically, untold blood and treasure were spilled in the Twentieth century over which of a number of models was to be adopted by the industrial powers. Once again, over-interpretation of history has packed these down into three archetypes - communism, fascism and democracy - but these are in fact subsets of a much larger space which the figure attempts to explore.

The space in which complex economies are managed

The dimensions of the figure capture the two important dichotomies that seem to emerge when we set about answering the question: What is the purpose of our society? First, on the horizontal axis, can we really have objective goals (left) or must we simply satisfy many independent streams of thought and activity, doing so with limited resources? Second, expressed on the vertical axis, can we look for no more than the sum of individual contentment, or are there forms of collective excellence that transcend this?

Three of the resulting quadrants are marked with letters. One is shaded out for, with due respect to Jeremy Bentham, it is unlikely that any idea so transcendental that should govern a society and its conduct will lead to the conclusion that the outcome is no more than the arithmetic sum of individual happiness and discontent.

The three letters are as follows:

These three models give very different answers to the basic questions about the role of the state, one of which we have already asked: 'What is my society for?'

The second questions is, of course: 'How should our society be run - how should ideas be turned into acts of power?'

The third asks: 'What should we do about people who do not conform?'

Three questions, three styles of governance

There are, of course, dozens of conceptual styles which fit under Style A The range from fascism and other totalitarians models, from absolute monarchy to oligarchy, from how many large corporations are run to the theocratic state. The result of this general style may be the pursuit of Modernism through great works (and through massacres), in the manner of Stalin; or range from an orthodoxy-policed stasis to overt leader-worship and the denial of the outside world. The point which should be taken from this is that there is no one innate -ism that emerges from this set of assumption, but rather a plethora of them.

Style C, by contrast, leads to the 'weary nursemaid' style of government, best exemplified today by many Latin American states, and historically by the English-speaking world in the run-up to World War I. There have been various recent attempts to reinvent it by the United States neo-conservative movement, but most of these are in fact covert attempts at simulating it through the use of Style B. The characteristic of this approach is a wide-eyed innocence in government that it is almost impossible to simulate.

Style B is, then, the default approach into which almost all of the industrial governments have stumbled. It has had a bumpy ride. The the reflation that ended the Great Depression, the lessons about state planning and vast projects that were learned during World War II and the early years of the Cold War suggested strongly that that great works in government are not only possible, but a necessary part of modernity. (It can be hard to recall that both Fascism and Soviet Communism seemed highly viable economic as well as military threats. The notion that free markets could confront these shiny new toys must have seemed decidedly odd. It has taken the industrial world a generation to unlearn these lessons.) The 'great works' approach to post war Europe led to hideous architecture, to social and economic dependency by whole swathes of our societies and by sectors of our industry, and to the intrusion of the state into areas where it destroyed value, took foolish decisions and misdirected effort. This said, Style B is with us, and here to stay. Its flavour is now social rather than economic, and entangled in the electoral process whereby parties have to find new things for the state to do in order to have a range of products to market to the electorate.

Here, of course, lies a problem. Style B is innately undemocratic. It advances complex analysis, often generated by small coteries, in order to solve issues which remain hidden from - or perceived without the light of analytical insight - by the bulk of the population. It is social engineering without the assent of the human cogwheels on which it is intended to act. It is, surely, unobjectionable to press compulsory health care on neonate children; and so why not life-long educational screening? Surveillance of 'problem' families until the children have left home? Interventions which are aimed to counsel malfunctioning parents? To force them into new ways? To alter the child's diet at school, then at home; and then to combine this with the health monitoring program? And so forth, step by step and backed by cost-benefit calculations, assessments by panels of ethicists and rooms-full of focus groups, such programs advance inexorably into all facets of life.

Elsewhere, one of the Challenge Network's 2006 scenarios - Carrying the Torch - considered the consequence of a world in which state policy and corporate strategy became entwined with evidence, expertise, individual steps towards excellence.

One of the arguments advanced by the advocates of creationism is that no natural mechanism could have generated the complexity that we find in nature, yet without all of it any one part, however sophisticated, would fail. Darwinians answer that that is not the means by which evolution happens: each organ is changed in tiny or great steps, whilst everything else stays the same. Beneficial changes are eventually combined through mating. Thinking in these terms, the failed experiments of the totalitarians - and of the post-war period - are failed attempts at Intelligent Design. What is now happening is much more akin to the evolutionary model, except that each and every one of the dispersed experiments are being conducted by designers. Only posterity will be able to judge their intelligence.

If the operational Style B is going to dominate the industrial nations in the future, does this means that its solutions will all be the same? Plainly, in the long run, the answer to this is that they will. The narratives which the individual states may tell themselves may differ - somewhat - but one of the features of this style is the portability of successful experiments. The US has borrowed its social security reforms from Australia, and the UK is busy copying from the US. Much as the telephone companies in developing countries do not need to recapitulate the copper-microwave-fibre evolution path for high bandwidth communications, but merely jumps to global best solutions, so the pace of change is accelerated by these experiments and by the adoption of those which work.

The adoption of successful models is and will remain rapid because states are under resource pressures - or more properly, under pressures from voters who want to consume more government products, but to pay proportionately less taxes to do so - and these pressures will continue to intensify. The governments of the industrial nations spend around 40-50% of all of the added value from their economies at present, and there is good reason to suppose that this is at or very close to the acceptable maximum. Many face a demographic shift which will worsen this situation. The only way out of this impasse is to combine the pursuit of efficiency with innovative approaches which lessen the problem (health management, rather than curative medicine) or which invent new, less resource-intensive solutions to it. Both of these approaches are best tackled through Style B.

The pressures on democracy

We have noted that this process is innately closed to the normal democratic process. It is technical, detailed, the domain of the expert and the policy think tank. It is, however, a success adaptation both to the economic pressures on the state and to the huge increase in the complexity of the world that states have to manage.

In addition, however, states are increasingly subject to weak narratives. There are a number of reasons for this. Readers may recall that narratives are strong when (a) they are universal to the society and (b) they are seen to deliver what people want.

First, consider the issue of the universalism of the narrative. About half the people living in New York or London are citizens of the US or the UK, respectively. Less than 30% of people living in the average US city were born there. Social mixing, combined with the active support by the state of pluralism, means that unified national narratives have to be more weakly heard. What messages the state wishes to put out are diluted and softened so as to 'exclude' no important group. People are generally bombarded with unsolicited messages, and the average Briton is now thought to be subjected to 17-20,000 advertising messages per week. This should be set in contrast with how most British people lived a century ago, presented with endlessly-repeated homilies about The Burden of Empire. At the same time, as the primary messages are weakened, however, the search for individual identity in a world grown impersonal and bland means that many people are drawn to 'alternative' narratives: for example, gangland culture amongst the US and South American poor, or the spread of various religious movements amongst the bewildered.

Second, one must consider the perceived efficacy of what national narratives that there are. As we have already noted, appetite is effectively infinite, but delivery and resources are not. Trends show confidence and satisfaction towards government services on a downward track, whatever the objective level of delivery that has been achieved. There are, however, perhaps more fundamental issues at stake in that the state was once absolute and sovereign over its territory - ignoring Acts of God and invasions - and this is now far from true. States are bound up in systems and in systematic threats, and are not in control of their own policy.

There are a number of factors at work. Central to all of them is the sense that to be a 'global citizen' and to attract co-operation from peer nations, to win assets from global markets and to meet prospective challenges, the state has to attain best practice. As we have seen, best practice is mobile and generally globally uniform. Thus, states are pressed to the standards set by others, whether it be economic management, legal frameworks, environmental compliance of security collaboration. In some instances, attaining best practice can be extremely painful, as protests against IMF-inspired economic reforms demonstrate.

The mixture of connectivity, unified standards and economic coupling that we call 'globalisation' will also not abate, or not without there being a catastrophic force to drive this. As a consequence, economies - and through them, societies, are being thrust into a much faster pace of accommodation with change than has ever been the case in peace time.

Governments are plainly out of control of this process, and their explanation of how they intend to accommodate themselves to these changes are usually seen as supine and vague. This said, there are in fact no options through which a modern state can stand aside, at least whilst maintaining its relative economic position. Over and above this, potentially catastrophic features - such as the existence of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, potential pandemics - mean that states cannot protect their citizens, and that they are seen not to be able to do so. National narratives are therefore weak.

We have noted that national governments are in generally low esteem in the industrial economies. We have given two reasons for this, both of reduce to the truth that national executives are being forced to act in ways which are hard to explain, hard to differentiate and increasing non-elective: there is no real alternative to them.

There is, however, an additional problem that has nothing to do with democracy, but which is affected by the party-based system that all countries currently embrace. Parties are extremely effective ways of acquiring economies of scale within the political process, and they greatly simplify life for politicians. Parties worked when two conditions were satisfied. First, when the opinions of the electorate were polarised across a single syndrome or set of issues: Left and Right, Religious and Secular, Nationalist and Internationalist and so forth. Parties could then naturally occupy one or other of these spaces, having a clear brand and an easy message to convey. Their narrative was uni-dimensional.

There are now problems with this. First, we now understand a great deal more about how economies and societies work. As a consequence, the domain of sensible, viable policies across which parties can express their differences is sharply reduced. The issue is frequently one of balance amongst matters on which there is general agreement: on how to reconcile economic growth with environmental protection, for example, in which no viable party can argue against either of these goals.

Second, the issues are multi-dimensional. That is, whilst there may be issues which reduce to a simple, partisan difference, these are usually swamped by a host of other issues on which the battle lines are not clearly drawn. Creating a brand of package from this is extremely difficult, and requires the "capture" of the narrative. Individual leaders have managed to do this, as with Margaret Thatcher in the 1984-87 period, but such capture seldom lasts and the party is then labelled as the bearers of an obsolete narrative.

Multi-dimensionality has another consequence, which is that voter blocks will have different levels of interest in different dimensions. Any issue, therefore, has a small but intense and often vocal set of pressure groups associated with it, and a very much larger number of people who are disinterested and uninterested in it. Pressure groups are increasingly professional at seizing the media megaphone, and they often have the state out-gunned in both the media and, in technical issues, in their understanding of the topic. European farm policy, for example, is barely discussed by the public at large, despite its immense public cost and its radical consequences for land use and the environment. The officials in question are, however, locked in acrimonious discussions with interest groups in a way which effectively precludes such debate. Perceiving no great public interest and the danger of attracting noisy and negative publicity, politicians for the most part choose not to enter the arena.

Third, the electorate have become much more plural than hitherto. Their self-definition is far more complex - young British Muslim accountant who likes cave diving - but they are also "unboxed", meaning that they are able to switch between styles of self-definition with the situation in which they find themselves. That is, one can be outraged by a news story and become 'concerned environmentalist', switch to 'tough boss' when the telephone rings and return as 'caring parent' when the call is interrupted by a skinned knee. We do this effortlessly and with total conviction, but this is a set of skills that we have learned in order to navigate the complexities of modern life.

People from simple environments - remote villages, for example - are not unboxed. Early sociometric studies showed that the majority of European and US citizens were not unboxed as late as 1955. They had a single identity - for example, middle-aged working class man - which defined their responses to love and war, work and politics. Their narrative was uniform, communal and predictable: they were an idea target for communications.

The unboxed citizen is extremely difficult to represent as a politician, and virtually impossible to handle from the stance of a political party. The reason is clear: their values are volatile, and what they believe about balances and policy depends on which 'hat' they happen to be wearing. Catch then in 'green' mode - or tip them into green mode with a badly-designed questionnaire and they will agree to almost any proposition to save the environment. However, if you prime them to think about national competitiveness and energy security, for example, then they are likely to answer the opposite.

If this seems far fetched, consider the following research result. Offer a subject $100. Tell them that they stand to lose $60 (or keep $40), but that they can take a bet which will allow them either to keep the $100 or lose everything. The odds on the bet are clear: there is a 40% chance that they will win. Anyone playing a large series of these games will be indifferent between the bet and the "sure thing", because both yield $40 in the long run. However, in trials with real money, it turns out that what people actually do depends on how the question is framed. If the phrase "lose $60" is used, people shun risk and take the $40 cash. If the phrase "keep $40" is employed, many more elect to take the bet. The positive or negative narrative defines what they will do in real situations, using real gains and losses.

A final complication to all of this is the media firestorm in which political power is exercised. Not only are the issues finely-distinguished and complex, not only are the electorate volatile and pre-occupied, but the primary conduit of communication between the two of them has its own pathologies. In essence, voices engaged in political reporting in the media compete for our attention. They compete with each other, and with other uses of our time. They need to excite and to entertain, and they cannot afford to bore people or focus too deeply on a special interest. It is of greater entertainment value and lower risk to engage with a facile "community leader" or predictable pressure group than it is to develop debate; and the time span of attention of the average viewer is such that debate cannot be protracted.

The visual media demand images to go with commentary, and for this and other reasons, the politician-as-celebrity (in the meanest and most gaudy sense of that term) has been a feature of the age. The distant, occasional grand voice on the radio has been replaced with omnipresent grinning political hopefuls, their hair set just so, their teeth capped and their sweat glands blocked. The person of the leader has always been important, but never so much as now. We elect parties for their leader, not their ideas; and we judge them chiefly on how they present themselves through the mass media. This issue is unblushingly professionalised and the outcome is artificial, designed to influence and to camouflage as much as it reveals.

Armies of consultants and analysts are hired to maintain this persona before the public. Yet this is precisely the public which is able effortlessly to sieve weekly through thousands of attempts to achieve influence over the individual. Each has a powerful set of sensors which test for authenticity. This public will not elect a wrinkled, ugly man; but neither will they trust a manicured stage presence.

One or two leaders whom we know to be accomplished actors - Reagan being the prime example - are able to convey authenticity through this flurry of artificiality and the personal firewalls that filter it out. This capacity is, however, an skill which convinces us where we should not be convinced. Despite this, the person of the leader is central to the success of parties and of the media in reporting politics, and so we continue to be driven down this fool's alley.

The three-way relationship between political organisation, the media and the public is beginning to undergo a profound change. We do not know where it will take us.

The competitive dynamics of the media derive from how news and entertainment were and are distributed. That is, one bought this or that newspaper, selected a TV channel or radio station and accepted what came from this. If one did not like it, one could select another 'channel', and the competitive dynamics came from keeping the channel sufficiently attractive to a large number of people.

The channel concept is almost certainly doomed, however. We are much more able to seek actively after what we want, drawing from oceans of information on the Internet and related sources. For those seeking effortless entertainment and information, 'smart agents' can already put together packages of news and entertainment to meet our particular needs. A number of technological strands need to come together for this to happen in a way which will break the strength of the traditional channels - such as 'smart paper', individualised subscription-advertising content balances, the widespread use of 'always on' portable telephone systems - but none of this can be far away. The 'golden river' of advertising will dry up, and states will see limited point in massive subsidies to state broadcasting corporations.

The consequences of this can be seen in the popularity of blogging, whereby a person or group attract a reputation as a commentator, and - a crucial difference from the conventional media - their develop a narrative which is taken up and expanded by those whom they interest. This is also very evident in corporate networks, where communities of practice, expertise groups and the like are encouraged to develop themes and ideas over time.

These conversations amongst expert, interested people (who may otherwise lack much by way of commonality) is genuinely a new thing upon the Earth. Moments of historical ferment have created circles of agitators, revolutionaries, artists or scientists, but almost always through geographical proximity, amongst those with broadly shared values and for an extreme task. What we see developing is something which is distinct from this. It is geographically dispersed, and on a much larger scale. It is relaxed and gradualist, with ideas distilling, undergoing critique, growing and developing amongst the community. It is extremely expert, far more so than any one state function or company. Naturally, it has its problems: it is full of shrill voices, repetition and noise, but if one has followed a number of these threads of enquiry one notes how a group wisdom seems to emerge despite this.

This is, of course, how our civilisation is learning to talk to itself. The political nexus is all very well as a means of making law and taking clear choices, but it has far too low a band width to cope with the capacities of an educated, often expert and always opinionated society. The narrative issues were once confined to an elite, and the results were projected onto the rest of society. Not only were the vast majority 'boxed', but the nature of their box was defined by Church and State, custom and active policing by the community.

That is not true of the educated, complex societies; and it is hard to see any mechanism by which the trends of the past centuries will reverse. Indeed, we strive by every means to increase he level of expertise that we can deploy and to enrich the options which are open to us. It follows that the narrative issues of the individual and of the group will develop in channels other than those of conventional politics. These are the issues of where - in which domains of what value space - do 'I' or 'we' belong, of how to talk about issues which this decision raises, of what options present themselves when all of this becomes clear. It is only with this last step that the issues are passed to the politicians for action.

Plainly, this model presents formal political structures with an enormous task of integration and balancing. First, how do they hear through the loud voices to what is truly being said? Second, how do they balance scarce resources against many convincing claims upon them? This is, of course, the value of the governance Style B, which we have already discussed. However, the relationship does not leave much space for large political parties, and re-balances the component parts of the conventional democratic structure.

If this was the only adjustment to be made, then it would be far-reaching in its affects. However, we must also ask ourselves whether the increasing 'de-localisation' of issues and opinions also has an impact. Plainly they do. As we have already noted, the correct level at which to address many issues is either trans-national or sub-national.

The issue of how to handle the trans-national may well be one of the great debates of the new century. We struggle to handle this transition without ceding undue power from national government, and there are indeed issues of trust and security to be addressed. (There were, of course, just such concerns when national government was allowed to gather power to itself in the centuries past. The issue of the sub-national and its relationship with the whole is a partial unravelling of this.) Factually, however, these problems cannot be addressed without collaboration and we shall have to learn to live either with this or with the problems.

There is one further thought to be developed around this. We have discussed communities of interest and practice, noting their de-localisation. Scientists are perhaps the most international of all such groups, closely pursued by top level artists. However, from multi-user games enthusiasts to religious affiliations, more and more such communities are innately trans-national, rooted in their shared values and experiences rather than in locale. National politicians are essentially irrelevant to such groups, as are national narratives. The "chunk of geography" model of governance has another weakness that will grow over time.

Where may these pressures take the industrial democracies?

We are all familiar with the Eighteenth century model of democracy. Electors (who might or might not be all of the people living in a 'chunk of geography') select someone to represent them. This person travels to a remote location and acts on behalf of the electors in decision-taking. However, the object of the exercise is to decide amongst rival ways of acting. The electors have to be presented with a clear choice, both as to the issues which need resolution and the options that exist for achieving this. This is a complex message, and so a structure has arisen to discipline and manage individual potential representatives, the political party. These define the issues as they see them and set out a program. The representative is bound to these programs, and the party system presents him or her with a career structure in which they can advance by supporting the party. Their affiliation is to their party and then to those whom the represent. Their pursuit of the collective - as opposed to partisan - good is usually finessed: for if they have a set of beliefs, then one of these is usually that advancing the Church, the landowners or commerce and trade will automatically benefit the polity.

The party or collection of parties which can outvote the others form an executive. These are the officers of state, who take day-to-day control of running the nation. They act under established law, and ask for new laws when they perceive the need. They are arranged in a hierarchical structure, with Chief Executive, divisional managers and line managers. The top tier exercises considerable freedom within and sometimes beyond the law, and they feel themselves empowered to exercise a conceptual - rather than formal - mandate to alter matters to suit their interest group. The legislature acts much as does a non-executive board, and the electorate somewhat in the manner of shareholders.

The Eighteenth century model is a command-and-control system which evolved in a world in which few people had the education through which to participate, when communications were slow and the issues plain and straightforward. It is incapable of handling the "band width" of the world in which we now operate, let alone the one that we face twenty or so years from now. Paradoxically, both commerce and the political system have reacted to increased complexity and faster change by centralising themselves, rendering the band width problem even more acute. Why has this happened?

The middle decades of the Twentieth century were marked by a wave of bureaucratisation. That is, tasks which were handled by craftsmen and small companies became susceptible to organisation on a massive scale. (Germany was, arguably, the world leader in mass industrialisation in 1900. Over half of its firms and two thirds of its manufacturing employment was then to be found in companies of less than ten people.) It is easy to forget that clerical work once executed the routine functions that are now handled by computers, and that rooms-full of clerks executed formal algorithms: if Box B187 is ticked and the applicant is over 21 years old, put the form in outbox A, otherwise use Outbox B. The calculations which allowed the design of the atomic bomb were handled in just such a way, using desks and mechanical calculators which are said to have covered nearly an acre of ground.

The US-led post war expansion added a militaristic structure (of functional divisions and Sloane-inspired hierarchies and ranks) to the already extant bureaucracy. In Europe, states managed large sections of the economy in this way, whilst Japan made no great distinction between the private economy and the state. These structures proved extremely difficult to renew. Productivity growth was resisted by unions. Innovation was opposed by internal vested interests. Personal success tended to come less from advancing the organisation that managing the internal system so as to grow one's influence. The onset of the IT revolution and increased international competition meant that large parts of these structures became simultaneously redundant and extremely hard to redeploy. After a false dawn in the "asset stripping" era of the late Sixties, the Eighties saw the start of a shareholder revolt, intended to force new practices on top management. A decade of struggle to reform obsolete structures led to the down-sizing wave of the Nineties, in which huge chunks of old enterprises were dumped, scale was sought through mergers and the out-sourcing revolution began to be practical. Managers learned that one should simplify, outsource any complications that were not crucial to the business and focus attention on short-term performance. The middle layers of the organisation were to be reduced to the minimum and those which remained were to follow rigid guidelines.

This (ultimately insufficient) model was eagerly adopted by politicians. Policy issues could be 'outsourced' to markets for solutions, and one did not need an analytical civil service. Independent regulators would be set boundary conditions for performance, and industries would deploy their ingenuity to arrive at changing, dynamic solutions to these. Top management - the Chief Executive and his or her immediate circle in the executive - would monitor performance, and set targets. The legislature would do as it was instructed when it was needed.

This is, perhaps, a parody; but it has much truth to it. Unhappily, although this is a fine model for some aspects of government, it requires discipline on the part of - in particular - the Chief Executive, who cannot meddle in operations or create more initiatives than the system can handle. It does not address many other aspects of government, including the sense that the electorate has that its views are being listened to, or that its opinions are being solicited when new policies are under consideration. One of the dangers of Style B is that its users can define too narrow a definition of "expert", and listen only to the people with whom they agree. Worse - and even more frequently - they set out the result that they want to hear, and then task a group of people who are dependent on their favour to 'examine' the issue. This is worse than the traditional stitch-up because it persuades itself and others that it truly is the best and only answer, and reinforces the isolation of those in office.

Democracy, now and in prospect.

The figure sketches in the archetype of the contemporary model on the left, of course hugely simplified. The much more simplified image on the right suggests the changes which will be forced upon us. There are two thrusts to this. On the one hand, the internationalisation of the world will be formalised with arrays of bodies which have legally binding powers upon their signatories. The European Union is a model of this, or the US when seen as a voluntary association of states.

Both of these associations have adopted a constitutional model which has a strong element of the traditional pyramid, with the top level of abstraction being in charge of the rest, and the occupant of the top seat also being top dog. This is not as likely model for what is to come, which is a voluntary association of peers. Much of the constitutional difficulties of the EU have been connected with this issue: managing distributed power, or having a Federal and broadly traditional approach. The rejected constitution took the second route.

The second and perhaps surprising conclusion is the erasure of the media as the intermediaries, and its replacement with a more distributed information structure of the sort that was described earlier. The consequences of this are, of course, profound. First, the electoral contract changes from one in which representatives are sent off with a mandate to one where representatives engage with multilateral discussions in the pursuit of what is "best". Best, that is, in terms of objective deliverables and abstract analysis of the task in hand, not best as seen by an electoral constituency.

Attempts at optimisation have always elicited cynical comments in the English-speaking world. The more rational of these refer back to failed grand experiments in social engineering, town planning and Fascist fantasies. They also tend to contrast these with accretional improvements, which they note that have been driven by small scale accommodations and safe experiments. No commentators argue that progress is impossible, that things cannot be made better, however, and their cynicism is directed at the means, not the ends. However, we are discussing a process which is identical to that which they espouse: evidence-driven small and accretional steps towards global improvement.

To give an example, of this, health management is commonly discussed in terms of things which the public are supposed to understand - such as insurance costs or waiting lists - and the technical issues (of, for example, how to train doctors, how to manage and incentivise them, what degree of discretion to offer) are discussed behind closed doors. Occasional pained squeals make it to the media, where the public finds it all very disturbing. However, we have also seen that organised attempts to make medicine systematic have yielded measurable benefits. These can be expressed in terms of benefits the patient, for example in the maintenance of the healthy state, through greater survival or cure rates, or by way of shorter periods of illness or lessened disability. They are also beneficial to the health provider, being measured in terms of productivity, cost and managerial overheads.

Domain-driven expert-guided improvements are possible, and we would be foolish not to strive for them. Taken as a whole, however, they remove discretion from the hands of the politicians, however, just as studies of clinical best practice (should) reduce the discretion of the physician who wishes to prescribe the equivalent of powdered bats' wing.

Multilateral discussion of the sort which was discussed above has the many focused agencies of government engaged in continual debate with their peers, with those who have expertise to contribute and those of the public and pressure groups who may have with formalised views. Where the outcome of debate appears contentious in a non-technical sense - where, for example, a large redeployment of staff may be called for - then this may need arbitration. Traditionally, politicians have been used for this purpose but there is no obvious reason why they should be thought to be good at doing it. Disputes that fall under extant legislation should be arbitrated in courts, which is what they are for. Politicians are required only when the matter lies beyond the reach of current law, and therefore requires legislation.

In this structure, therefore, the "core business", the irreducible element of what politicians do is enact laws. Hitherto, they have both proposed laws and passed them. It may well be that the future strips some or all of the first from them. There are, of course, areas where this is not likely to be the case. There are fundamentally two of these. One is the "quick word" model of high level diplomacy where, for example, state agencies have lost themselves in a maze of detail, horns have become locked and senior figures have to restart the process. The second is the fulfilment of the role of leadership in times of emergency.

In an ideal world, of course, emergencies should be met by operational agencies which get on with famine relief or war fighting. Contingencies should have been considered and plans laid. In practice, communities look to someone to articulate the situation for them - which networks are very bad at doing in a hurry - and expect a single figure to be in charge of the response. (Whether this is bred from a cynicism about team capabilities, or a purely atavistic response from our time on the African plains, has yet to be established!) Thus, the role of ceremonial head and general pusher of the red button will undoubtedly be retained.

What emerges from this and related analysis is that we shall see a rapid evolution in the way in which the industrial nations govern themselves. The surface forms will change much less than the underlying realities of power. Indeed, the constraints on contemporary premiers are immense - except when they make expansive military gestures - and those gestures seldom yield the desired results. Indeed, the style that allowed grand gestures to succeed - an airy assumption of absolute power and the imposition over several generations of an alternative narrative - are simply untenable in today's world. These gestures are, therefore, no more than that.

A world which embraces the Style B approach - of expert, multi-layered accretional change - will result in this new form of governance becoming generally evident. However, a world which rejects it - which plunges into opposition a camps, oriented around territorial sovereignty - will see some progress in this direction, offset by the politics of fear and distrust. This is, however, unlikely to continue to support a bipartisan electoral system, or a political class which operates in a vacuum. The IT advances will happen in either world, education will deliver societies in which the majority feel empowered to engage in debate within the areas in which they feel competent: in a speciality, around an interest or concern, perhaps about local issues that matter to them. The world of divided nations is innately ideological, divisive and eager to talk.

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