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Political tone/ organising principles

Political tone/ organising principles

The question:

Recent research shows that economic and social success, as measured by content and other quality of life indicators, comes from small size, social cohesion, specialisation and an emphasis on human capital.

WHAT IF it becomes clear that this trend is a general one, with polities breaking down into manageable sized chunks? That is, within Europe, former aggregates breaking up into independent entities, or semi-dependent ones. In the US, power moves from the Federal level to the states, and from states down to county and city levels.

In parallel with this, WHAT IF trust networks become a real and acknowledged force? That is, in a world of teeming advocacy groups and loud voices, WHAT IF power openly listens only to those networks that have proven themselves reasonable, sensible and stable? Achieving membership of those groups requires invitation, extended on trust and provisional on compliance with these norms of behaviour and usefulness.


Comment 1

Subsidiarity? Can work, risk is that it becomes little kingdoms who fight against each other for resources and that the 'greater good' and value to the whole system is not taken into account.

The concept of trust networks initially sounds good BUT it will probably mean that many are marginalised. Major issue is how it is done. If "trust" means being able to use the toys, then that shuts out a lot of people. If "trust" means dealing with an elite, who selects the elite? Such a construction will get largely the 'usual suspects' which again, leaves a large group of people out of the equation.

Government(s) are pushing services online which discriminate against those who have no or limited access. It reduces costs (no more front line staff), but there are other consequences of this. How far can health go down this route? Already business link/help services are only on-line. What else will go that way? Also think of those in the developing world with no connection to communication/computers etc. We need their input as well.

Comment 2

I don't think the issue is size. The real concern is the effectiveness of politics, at whatever scale. Most analysis points to four things as being wrong with political governance in the advanced economies.

"Consent of the governed" does not necessarily imply open outcry democracy. We already have de facto trust networks. Frankly, anything that improves the quality of the debate will be an improvement. We need something that tables issues and gets expertise outside of the civil service and the usual faces to work on it. Yes - we already do that, with task groups and so on. Task groups are usually staffed by amateurs, with a participant group that is giving a few mornings of their time. They may ask some consultants for a bit of background, but it is never more than superficial Powerpoint, in my opinion. This needs to be deeper and more systematic, a permanent feature, a process for all parties to draw on.

Comment 3

You need a very long time to change how politics works. It's not a formal, analysis thing - it's what people feel comfortable with. The US took a hundred years and a big civil war to settle down. The countries made by the UK empire are still feeling around for what is right for them. Japan has tried four separate forms of state since the Meiji period and is still pretty unhappy with what it has got. China... well.

What you get is kind of the opposite when things are settled. If Europe worked, who needs a "united Kingdom" - of Britain, Spain or Belgium? The bits drift apart because the bigger structure is a solvent that kind of loosens the glue of necessity. Just the same, if the market is the country and you need scale, you get big, national companies. When the world is the market you get big trans-national companies. When you get supply chain integration, though, you don't need big companies any more. You need an organising system, and buy in capacity when you need it.

I can't see this being led by national politics. It is much more about commerce, competition and specialisation. If you are really good at something right here, well the bigger country is nice to have so long as it doesn't get in your way or cramp your arm. If it does, you will more and more be able to tell it to back off. You are getting that with capitals - well, with the big cities if you are the US or Australia - and the rest of the country right now. The capitals make the money and the country people want to spend it.

Comment 4

There are considerable pressures on society at the moment. Old issues, of what is personal and what is public, what role a company should be expected to play are all coming to the fore. This is less a lurch to the Left - although in many cases that is exactly what we see - but rather a matter of the balance between the community and the individual. This impacts in so many areas in any view of 2025 that I want to comment on it.

What is a community? It is, of course, possible to write whole books on tiny aspects fo the question. That said, a community can be seen as a group of people who agree about values and about the mechanisms of dispute resolution around those values. Individual identities an track record are widely shared, and a certain trust develops that is based on assessments of the individuals concerned. A shorthand for transactions emerges - reciprocal favours, barter, deals without lawyers, understandings and gentlemens' agreements. Disputes are settled by mediation, by community pressure and by subtle penalties, such as loss of standing and trust. Non-community members are usually treated with more reserve, with formality and suspicion; general levels of trust are low and formal contracts are required.

This model has some interesting points for us. Nations may be made of lots of little communities that share similar values, but it cannot be a community of itself. A governing elite can be a community, but that does not mean that it shares the values of the mass. Communities do not have to be geographically co-located, although it helps if they are. Geographical locations do not have to be a community. What tends to make a place into a community is close and universal interaction, which more or less requires a network of small scale commerce - say, small-holder agriculture and the businesses which support it - plus figures who serve as the "local" infrastructure such as the village policeman, school teacher, priest, post man and so forth. Such communities can survive significant disparities in wealth and power, provided that the power structure is rooted in the place and helps to make it work. A large factory, for example, can create jobs and wealth and make life predictable, but it can also be the alien enemy if its behaviour goes against local collective interest. A significant commuter class can either weaken a community or strengthen it, depending on how it behaves: as a mine of value or as an alien force.

What cannot ever be a community is open outcry amongst highly dissimilar people, often passing through whatever boundaries this community has for only a fraction of their lives. Neither a web group nor a shopping mall can ever be a community, however much they are repeatedly visited. A group who happen to spend a lot of time in a mall, interacting and living a significant fraction of their lives there can, however, grow into a weak community: weak, because nobody is wholly committed to it, weak because they can walk away from it with minimal consequences, weak because the people involved are unified by a small fraction of their overall interests. By contrast, a strong community has the following characteristics:

Humans are built to live in communities of this sort. We try to recreate them in the family, the work place, in interest groups and through fake communities, such as soap operas or the intimate lives of celebrities. None of these fulfil the model described above. At the national level, modern media give us the impression that the political leadership are close to us and in some sense a part of our community, but in reality we know that they are not. Indeed, they are a part of their own community, with its rules, mores and patterns of (dis)trust. So, we lack a vital vitamin.

Living in the mass works well when the economic engines run as smoothly as a wild ecology, delivering harvests on schedule. The same is true of the political infrastructure. These matters become a "natural" backdrop to the modern villager, little regarded except when they go wrong. They are, in a sense, trusted. Politics is less about parties taking different views of divisive issues and more about policing the middle ground, questioning managerial competence and developing the "fake family" in the power elite.

When things go wrong, however, all of that collapses. The backdrop is no longer a competently-managed, dull business but a vastly complicated, threatening set of issues over which nobody has control. There are no common interests - other than getting it to work again - and new questions come to the fore. "Put back our sense of community" translates into demands that are based on a reading fo community as the web of interactions and constraints already discussed, and not on what is actually true of a functioning mass society.

That is a little obscure, so let me open it up somewhat. If someone sense a lack of community, to what model are they likely to turn? Plainly, the one described above: the community of common interest and trust, identity and the collective management of trust and trustworthiness. But, equally clearly, that cannot apply to the modern world, with its anonymity, multiple levels of personal engagement and state intervention in every aspect of life. It follows that prescriptions based on this diagnosis will ask for the impossible. This is not because the implicit morality of the small community cannot be extended to the huge, anonymous population that makes up a nation, or even to a city.

Small farmers in a rural community can reasonably be urged to "take on Ol' Joe", who is down on his luck. Good things happen to their reputation when they do so, and Joe may actually be of some use, both immediately and in future. This is utterly different from - say - requiring small companies in a city to take on extra workers, selected essentially at random, to reduce unemployment. There is no clearing market for Joe, there is for the city labour force. The impact on the community of having Joe and his family starving on their doorsteps is not the same as having a smaller or larger proportion of the population on part time work, or welfare. That is, the impersonal machinery fo the state has taken over from the community process, because such processes are impossible in large, plural and anonymous groups.

Take the famous 1% issue: that a tiny minority own a great deal of wealth. They should be expropriated, taxed for the benefit of the community. Many rural communities think this way: nobody should get too mighty, and if if the cake is sliced in one person's favour, the others will lose out. In a growing, vast modern economy, that one person is wealthy does not necessarily make another person poor. If the wealth has come from creating sources of value that did not exist previously, or making old systems more effective, it will certainly make the collective richer, and probably most individuals in it richer. It is only if the wealth comes from cake slicing and not cake baking - that is, redirecting existing flows of value - that one group's wealth lessens that of another. Development economists talk about "rent seeking" behaviour, whereby elites capture the value from natural resource production - in particular - and prevent its diffusion to the community at large. Such activities involve corruption and bribery on a wide scale and thereby undermine all institutions.

Take the current debt reduction process. Economists who should know better, supported by a claque of supporters, argue that more debt will stimulate consumption, thus generating more tax which will - er - reduce the debt. The premise is that the "investment" that the state makes will earn more in the long ran than the cost of the debt. This is not born out by studies on the return to investment to marginal state spending. The rationality of this is lost on the claque, who are crying for policy to simply "put it back they way it was", to make the backdrop of life trustworthy once again. The quite serious accusations thrown against German in the Euro crisis - that it is Imperial, that it is "buying up Europe" come from similar small-world ways fo thinking.

The broad thrust of "web democracy" is that political institutions are failing, or anyway failing to generate people's trust. What is to replace these is open outcry, "activism" and the replacement of tired old structures by events such as the Arab spring - of course, really a masked coup, a not so masked coup, two civil wars and a major act of repression, but never mind the facts. Studies on the efficiency of networks show us that those which are like Facebook - in which any and all comments receive equal ranking - are rapidly choked by loud voices and babble. Those which are highly selective as to who is heard are extremely effective: hardly news to military commanders and company chief executives.

Perhaps the world of 2025 moves to something closer to this model. It is not a single community, but a web of very many communities, most of them semi-virtual, meaning that they have no specific physical location as their heart. It may well be that physical locations also move in this direction, but their efforts will be halted by the issues of scale already discussed. Their behaviour may owe much more to the need to specialise in the face of competition, and to manage for local issues, doing so under a subsidiary networks that handle "the backdrop" for them.

These networks differ from current commerce in two ways. The key difference is that rather than hierarchy, they are organised around collective trust in and opinion of the individual. Second, a a large number of them are not commercial, but interested in things other than risk and return. These are expert, exceptionally well-informed through specialisation, intensely connected with tangential and related communities, and they are directly relevant to and critical of government activities.

The policy side of the state will, in this model, be taken from the hands of politicians and civil servants and grasped by expert - and yes, rival - communities. The battle of the facts and evidence will be played out in this space by numbers and expertise that dwarfs anything that any one state can deliver. Of course politicians can refuse this information, and many will do so. But thy will be held to account. Groups whose sole interest is communication - the descendants fo today's blogs and press - will make sure that non-specialists understand what is being done, and what sensible options exist.

Note how this answers to many of our longings for community, how it arises spontaneously from foreseeable technology, from competition for a voice and from the simple human dynamics of community. It is striking how it short-circuits many of the objections that people have to current political structures, but how it also leaves these effectively enriched but intact.

Comment 5

I wish to comment of the New Democracy with an example that we are recent of seeing. I should explain something first of the background.

Mexico had a terrible fifty years of fighting that ended under the presidency of Cardenas in 1929. It became a single nation. The price to pay was the rule by the PRI, Partida de la Revolución Institucionada, the which it lasted for seventy year. The PRI became the same as the informal system of government. Each person who wishes to become President climbs by gaining followers. This was most formal. It was arranged like an reporting chart in a company. At each level, it finds a boss (the "don") and below, the clientes. Each of these clientes he has his followers, each of who have the same. Each level is tightly connected by debts of money, of honour for favours received and so on.

Now, when a group gets their man in as President they have six years in office. They helped their friends. Those friends and the whole structure gets strong. But no one can be Presidente twice, so a new group they come in, and start to do well. Now, outside (but a lot inside) are big industry, labour organisers and state enterprises. All these people are close to or in the organization chart I talk about above. So, the PRI and the elite are the same. And they were for seventy years very hard on opposition people, with little things like no jobs, and the big beatings when things are hard.

Well, things changed and the PRI lost power, but things went on similar but less clear tot he sight. Now maybe PRI win again due to the anti-drugs war. Their guy went to speak to students, and he got it real bad, boasting how he was the hard man and would restore the social order. They chased him into the lavatories for an hour.

Now what happened next is important. A student started YoSoy#123 on Twitter. This got tens of thousands of followers, and the foreign press start to take sight. Then it goes on CBS and Mexico sees it. Suddenly, this guy is a joke and people talk hard about is the new PRI so new? So, an example.

(Ed. comment - since this was sent, the PRI candidate did narrowly win, for whatever lesson that sends us. The result has been very large demonstrations and a widespread belief that the mass media are biassed and that the vote was rigged.)

Comment 6

Affluence brings about more choices, which leads to a complexification of societies as each individual is an amalgamation of different identities and aspirations. This makes it much more difficult for governments to govern, at whichever level, but they ultimately still have to decide what roles they play in various policy domains, and what the decision-making processes are; as well as where they would allow ground-up solutions to emerge, and what the rules of engagement are.

Democratisation of technology has resulted in much more being possible ground-up, now that the barriers to organisation are lowered. For instance, there has been an emergence of communities online with new ways of organising support and/or care, e.g. websites or apps that seek to co-ordinate volunteerism efforts, or caring for the elderly / vulnerable. As a result, "community" and subsidiarity no longer need to be based on physical geography, either.

Comment 7

Democracy is not about open outcry. It is about process. The days when free Greeks stood in the agora and cast their votes with pebbles is not going to be revived by the Internet.

Democracies have three things going on in them.

First and foremost, they are representative, using people of judgement who operate to an ethos of public service and under the constraint of checks and balances. They do not or should not be managed by the emotions of the moment, for we know that this leads to bad decisions and demagogues. The Greeks had Cleon - advocate of massacres and general jingo merchant - and we have the Murdoch press.

Second, democracies have an understanding about the general balance of values that are in play. "Ultras" are deprecated, and everyone seeks an acceptable balance that nevertheless somewhat tips matters in favour of what they advocate.

Third, democracies operate through formal process. Personal and collective power is constrained to seek objectively good solutions, to be challenged at several steps in a legislative process. Scrutiny is general and unrelenting.

Modern communications - and of course general education - offers people vastly more insight that even the elite could have enjoyed throughout most of history. The Internet offers a platform through which to find fellow spirits, to debate and suggest ideas. However, it also gives the illusion that the future of democracy lies in open outcry of this sort, That is incorrect.

My view on the development of democracy is that it will indeed change. However, it will do this by being more "professional". The political classes are extremely aware of the strength of the media - and open outcry, demonstrations and the like - in expressing negative emotions. The demos has much more power to stop things that they do not like, and have the ultimate veto of the ballot. By contrast, positive contributions - new ideas, new policy mechanisms - are not in the hands of the general public. But neither are they in the minds of the political elite.

Here we find where democracy is likely to change. There is so much knowledge around today that it is inconceivable that a small cabal of frank amateurs can continue to cook up policy. A US Secretary of State can easily be appointed with no knowledge whatsoever of the issue that they have been given, and a posse of advisors who are more finely tuned to electoral shifts than policy. At the same time, we see increasingly competent virtual communities beginning to arise, not primarily as lobby groups so much as people who want to understand their field better and talk with like spirits. Such networks tend quickly to develop hierarchies of trust and inclusion, such that sound voices find their way into the middle of the debate. Such structures are usually non-virtual, with the inner circle - in science, in farming, in share trading - meeting physically. This, I suggest, is the new establishment. It si new because it is extremely dynamic, open to new information and not at all homogeneous in respect of motives or values. Lobby groups know what thy want, these groups simply know.

Comment 8

Any form of governance can be autocratic or consultative. A monarchy can invite debate or can be an oppressive tyranny; democracies can be captured by a political elite or can be open. The key issue is not how government is done, but whether the implicit values and ways of thinking about the world that are manifested in government match those of enough of the people being governed. A happy theocracy, for example, has the priest-kings and the people all believing and behaving in the same way. An oppressive one has the people showing reflexes and values that their leaders do not share.

Comment 8 spoke about how "democracies have an understanding about the general balance of values that are in play". That is true not just for democracies. All societies have this unspoken set of ideas about who they are and how a person ought to go about life. These have varied enormously over history: slaves a necessary part of a working society, slavery is an evil concept. Revolution tends to occur when the power elite have a different model from that of a significant fraction of the rest of the society. That may derive from specific differences in policy or interpretations - to make peace with the barbarians versus annihilating them, perhaps - but it is much more common for a gradual reinterpretation to take place. The "necessary social pyramid, an aristocracy keeping order over the hapless masses who can do little for themselves" is re-read as "an exploitative class which grinds the bones of the oppressed poor for their daily bread". The structure remains the same, but what changes is how it is seen by one section of it.

Ours a period of fragmentation, where the nation is no longer the key element, where the elements that set the agenda are as various as technology, consumerism, resource economics and demographics. In this, the custodians of the consensus have less and less force, legitimacy, voice. Our moral code boils down to the avoidance of conflict, to "first, do no harm" and to the pursuit of pragmatic goals. There is no consensus about values - how we should regard sources of authority and of apparent fact, how strong group affiliation should be, the balance of public risk and return, of public goods and private wealth. At best, we seek a plateau on which we can balance conflicting values, and to avoid open debate of issues best left unclear.

This workable muddle forces leaders to diffuse themselves, to be offensive to no group and bland to the rest. It hides the concrete issues of policy under a blanket of mush, allowing the political elite to operate under its own rules, drifting away from whatever is left of the collective narrative. A good example is immigration, where the US population feel strong one way and the politicians have remained collectively deaf to this. In Europe, successive governments have behaved towards integration in ways that are diametrically opposed to popular sentiment. Hence, perhaps, the disenchantment that almost all of the industrial states express towards government.

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