Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Advanced Civilized Paradigm III: Government

This is the third entry in the Advanced Civilized Paradigm series, concerning government. As with the economy and religion, we can recognize two stable, long-lasting forms of government in our history and prehistory, before entering upon modern times and the whirlwind of change we’ve become accustomed to. When I say “long-lasting,” I mean over time measured in the thousands of years.

When the species Homo sapiens first appeared on the planet, the government structure of the Precivilized Paradigm already existed, as did its economic forms and, very likely, its basic religious ideas. The hominid species that preceded us, H. erectus, had already invented the fundamental technologies with which our ancestors faced the world: simple stone tools, the controlled use of fire, clothing, basket-weaving, primitive medicine. True humans quickly refined and improved all these technologies, but even so it was a long time before our ancestors resorted to the key technology which changed the paradigm of social life: agriculture. As long as humans lived by foraging and hunting instead of by planting and husbandry, certain forms of government, economy, and religion prevailed. It was a simpler, more egalitarian, less formalized way of life.

As with the economy and religion, we should ask ourselves a key question: what is government for? What purposes are served by having an empowered authority over society, whatever form it takes? As with economy and religion, the answer is a simple one, despite the amazing complexity and variety of tasks before modern governments. A government has two functions. First, it resolves disputes among citizens. Second, it decides, coordinates and implements collective action. Every operation of government – armies and navies, police and courts, bureaucracies and legislatures, aid to the poor and corporate subsidies, men on the moon and men in black – serves one or the other of these purposes. Humans are a social species not a solitary one, so both these function of government are always necessary regardless of the particulars of society. Wherever people interact, disputes arise, and if we are not to resolve all of them by individual violence, we must have some method in place for resolving them by recourse to decisive authority. Also, all societies of necessity do some things collectively rather than individually, and so a means of making collective decisions and effectively giving orders to participants is required. These needs are constants, but the way in which they are met has varied – yet not endlessly.

In precivilized times, people lived in small bands. Everyone in a band knew everyone else, and most of them were related to each other. Leaders of the band were chosen by informal consensus, and collective decision-making was by informal discussion. In short, there was no formal government, really, nor any need of one. Like the economics and religion of the Precivilized Paradigm, its governing structures were maintained universally wherever human beings lived for somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years. It’s difficult to imagine life going on without change in its patterns for such a long time as that.

In fact, though, it didn’t quite. Technological progress occurred in precivilized times at a glacial pace, but over 100,000 or 200,000 years, even glacial-pace technological progress adds up. Humans improved their techniques of toolmaking, going from the thrusting spear or swung axe to the thrown spear to the spear-thrower to the bow and arrow. They learned to use domesticated dogs as hunting companions. They developed new and better methods of food preservation, and applied borderline methods that skirted between gathering and agriculture. As food supplies increased, so did populations, until the pressure of numbers forced human societies to make use of agriculture proper. As soon as that step was taken, the nature of human society, including its governing institutions, began to change.

The change occurred over at least a thousand years, going through several transitional forms, including the chiefdom and the council of elders and the primitive republic, until tribal life evolved into the city-state. From that point on, government assumed the form of the Classical Civilized Paradigm, and retained that form, with occasional temporary exceptions, for about seven to eight thousand years. The elements of government under the Classical Paradigm in nearly every society that lived in cities, from the earliest known city-states in the Near East until things began to change in the sixteenth century in Europe, remained constant, and revolved around hereditary monarchy, with the royal power compromised by the influence of the hereditary landed warrior elite, of the priestly class, and (where a significant commercial element existed in the economy) of the merchant class. In a few exceptional cases, the elite classes governed without a monarch, sometimes with a pretense of democracy; this was the case in classical Athens and in the Roman Republic. Such societies always had a very strong commercial economic base, and were the exceptions to an overwhelming rule. Not only was the governing structure of the Classical Paradigm the norm in agrarian, pre-industrial societies of the western Old World that had contact with each other and might conceivably have influenced one another through imitation, but also in societies that evolved with relative independence, such as the monarchies of ancient India, China, and Japan, or even with total independence, such as the civilized monarchies of Mesoamerica. This form of governance was not, I would argue, something primarily learned by one society through contact with another, but rather something dictated by material circumstance. A warlike society with a primarily agricultural economy, in which land was the primary source of wealth and labor to work the land the primary necessity for its exploitation, readily available in the form of captives taken in war, naturally developed an elite class of warriors who were rewarded with land ownership and slaves to work their land. The king was in origin merely the most powerful and influential noble, but through the support of the priestly class and the machinery of formal government became something more than that, his power a check on that of ambitious aristocrats – not always successfully. Where the material circumstances shifted away from the norm for agrarian societies, most often when a society could achieve greater wealth through trade than through large-scale agriculture, a divergence was sometimes seen from the Classical Paradigm pattern.

The same array of technological changes that resulted in other divergence from the Classical Paradigm – the printing press, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, electronics, computers, the Internet and, in future, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence – have also resulted in a change of government form. I do not believe, however, that our society has finished changing in terms of government any more than in terms of economy or religion.

The changes to government in the centuries since the divergence began have all been in two directions. One direction has been that of equalizing influence on the state and elevating formerly powerless classes of people to greater power and greater protection against government abuses. Hereditary government positions have been replaced with elected ones, and the franchise extended to broader and broader percentages of the electorate, until today the vote is held by all people living in modern states except non-citizens, the very young, the severely mentally ill, and in some cases convicted felons; i.e., voting has become a right with relatively rare exceptions instead of a privilege held by few. Voting has probably been extended as far as it can be, but there remain two sources of privileged influence, one being wealth, and the other political office itself.

The other direction of change has been the expansion of the size and scope of government. As society has grown more complex, government has taken on more functions over time that were previously handled by private agencies, if at all. In addition, the size of territory administered by the “top layer” of government has grown, and the number and scope of intergovernmental bodies – government at a wider level than that of the nation-state – has increased.

So, where does each of these processes meet its natural end point, beyond which further technological advance will take it no further? We must, as always, speculate about the Advanced Civilized Paradigm, and none of this is certain. I play here with ideas. That said, here is what I think will ultimately happen.

The representative democracies we have today will in the end be replaced by direct democracy, facilitated by communications technology – the Internet or perhaps something more impressive, a linking of person to person that is always on. We will still elect representatives, but they will no longer make collective decisions for us. Instead, they will act as legal experts and consultants, presenting suggestions for the people’s consideration. The people themselves will be smarter on the average than they are now, thanks to genetic engineering and/or artificial enhancements, and biological humans will be joined by robotic intelligences in a dual citizenship.

One very desirable effect of this arrangement will be to undercut and neutralize the current contemptible influence of lobbyists and campaign contributions. Wealth will have much less effect on lawmaking because the people, not the people’s representatives, will be making the laws. The representatives may still be lobbied, but it will be increasingly impossible to keep any such efforts secret, and they will be easily countered by the instantaneous registering of public opinion.

The scope of government will be both broader and deeper, encompassing everything except personal and private life. Remember that under the Advanced Civilized Paradigm, there will be no such thing as a job. Everyone will be an owner and receive an income from that rather than from work, and so all business will become a public enterprise. This will vastly expand the role of government to encompass the entire economic private sector as it stands today – but since nobody will be employed any more, this will not amount to a significant degree of government leverage over people’s lives.

While deepening, government will also broaden, and many functions that are now handled at the nation-state level will move up to the level of global governance. Other national functions will devolve to a regional or local level of government, and national governments will wither away (at least in part), becoming much weaker than they are today. A single global government will handle all matters of trade regulation, peacekeeping, and resource husbandry, while local and regional governments handle criminal law, most civil law and the management of local business enterprise. There will be very little for national governments to do, especially since military forces as they currently exist will be abolished by the global government, and war as we have known it for thousands of years will disappear. There will probably still be a need for armed forces to contend with terrorist movements and civil disturbances, but these could be maintained at a tiny fraction of the resource and manpower cost of today’s armed forces, freeing up immense resources for the public good.

A remaining question is how government functions will be handled once mankind expands off planet Earth. Will the communication technology exist to make the global government a solar system or even interstellar government? Impossible to say – and this suggests there may, eventually, be a state of society beyond the Advanced Paradigm. But the visions presented here should be enough to occupy our progressive dreams for a good long while.


  1. Another fine installment in this broad-scoped series, Brian! And here is another comment from moi.

    You continue to use the word technology as the term to describe what drives change in humans, from stone tools and basket-weaving to agriculture to the printing press and the Internet. For good or ill, when I hear the word technology I think machines. And that, sadly, limits my imagining. It's helping me to think of technology as "functional art." Then I can feel the creativity required, the out-of-the-box "making" that we humans need to survive and thrive. Then I can fit medicine and agriculture into the definition.

    Our culture diminishes art and its power. It didn't used to! The Catholic Church as well as governments knew its power and used art functionally to intimidate the lower classes, like cash is used now, with their gothic cathedrals, synchronized armies, and elaborate ritual. It was very effective for a very long time.

    We're all begging to see new "technologies" in energy, but what we're getting so far are refinements to the old technologies. We need a big leap, and it seems to me that the word technology might just be full of enough baggage to hold us down.

  2. Sorry about that, Christi. I guess I'm using the word "technology" to mean more than just machines. It's all human practical knowledge. Sure, machines are technology, but so are farming, weaving, the alphabet, bows and arrows, metalworking, the wheel -- any knowledge of how to do something is a technology.

    As for energy, I sincerely believe we have all the main technological advances we need. A few refinements wouldn't hurt, but what is mainly lacking is political will. We know how to do the job and get free of oil. We just have to make up our collective minds to do it.