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Western Democracies Feel the Strain

The revolutions in the Middle East are politically Darwinian. The authoritarian post-colonial state, so well suited to life in the twentieth century, finds itself maladapted to life in the twenty-first, when satellite television has pierced the information vacuum, removing the tyrant’s ability to define political realty, and the Internet has allowed for effective mobilization of shared grievances that are often only noticed when people are already in the streets and the perception of political stability and government legitimacy has been shattered.

Yet the downfall of the authoritarian post-colonial state is less surprising than existential threat now felt by Western democracies. Pushed from above by corporations and from below by an ever-expanding pluralism, Western democracies – those pinnacles of human progress – are under tremendous stress.

It’s the Economics, Stupid

The first source of existential stress is obvious: economics. The modern state cannot pay for itself. On Friday, European leaders announced a permanent $700-billion safety net for the EU in order to sure up investor confidence. Yet the announcement was overshadowed by the resignation of the Prime Minister of Portugal after a budget of austerity measures was rejected by parliament, signaling the potential for a third EU bailout request, following those of Ireland and Greece.

There are many causes for this economic strain. They are partly due to loss of competitiveness and economic growth as services and financial institutions stay in the West while manufacturing moves East and South. Yet much of the problem is that, in response to their citizens, Western democracies have committed themselves to paying for things they can’t afford. In Europe these are public sector pensions. In the US these are the mandatory spending programs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

In the US, while corporations like General Electric and Google are finding ever more creative ways not to pay taxes, the bill for programs that benefit the elderly rise as the Baby Boomers become seniors. This means less money in and more money out. And the borrowing binge that has kept America and others afloat cannot last forever.

The reason this is an existential problem for Western democracies is that public pensions and Social Security aren’t pork or the result of special-interest lobbying, they truly benefit citizens. If these programs are ended (unlikely) or curtailed to meaninglessness (likely), then an important support of the middle class standard of living will disappear for those no longer of working age. But isn’t the growth of the middle class – with all its benefits to culture, public health, political stability, and human happiness – been one of the greatest achievements of the Western democracy? If Western democracies can no longer afford to subsidize a middle class the China model of economic development through autocracy will seem ever more appealing.

And the Network Won’t Help

As the two hierarchical structures of government and corporations battle for dominance, the network adds more trouble. While people power can mean the end of autocracy in dictatorships, in democracies “the people” because free to associate at will, leading to a pluralism of interest-groups. While we do want the freedom to have 37 groups to protect the Gulf Coast and 520 groups focused on childhood literacy, in reality this pluralism means fragmentation as money and attention are divided into infinitely smaller and ultimately less powerful units.

In a state with a few hierarchical lobbying organizations like the AARP and Sierra Club, members of government have some hope of being able to meaningful engage these groups. But the network, with its easy tools for publication, donation, and mobilization only accelerates fragmentation. Vanishingly simple group formation means more citizen groups, more campaigns, more demands, more e-petitions, more email. Even a conscientious politician will have their attention and time tremendously strained. Given the clamor of citizen demands, they may choose to just focus on the voices that can give them the money they need to get elected, unintentionally strengthening the hand of moneyed interests.

And of course, pluralism also comes with a price tag, each group demanding their “pound of flesh” for this subsidy, that government program. And this pound-of-flesh pluralism puts a further economic strain on the state.

What Next?

The modern democratic state faces a dual threat: fiscal deficit and information surplus. It is under extreme economic pressure, both from traditional hierarchical interests and from new networked campaigns. While the short-term crisis is fiscal, the longterm crisis concerns the processing of more information, more citizen voices.

In a democracy where more citizens can make themselves heard, new institutions will be needed to respond to them, yet the financial capacity of the state to respond to citizens is decreasing as the ability of citizens to make their voices heard is increasing.

The theoretical biologist Stuart Kaufman speaks of an “adjacent possible,” states of being that are one incremental step away from the present. At this point, at least in the US, it seems that the hierarchical forces of corporations are stronger than both governments and fragmented citizen groups and that the resolution to the existential problems of Western democracies will be decline in the power and financial resources of the state, resulting in a reduced capacity for redistribution of wealth and thus an increase in the gap between a wealthy few and the poor masses, pointing this rich nation back in the direction of developing ones. An adjacent possible where the people of Western democracies are able to leverage the power of the network to speak with one un-fragmented voice – as the people of Egypt did a few weeks ago – seems much more unlikely.

Though an anemic state, strong corporate sector, and fragmented civil society seems to be the direction we are currently headed, this is not our certain future. Just as the Arab post-colonial state found itself maladapted to effectively compete with an informed and networked citizenry united with one voice, citizens of the West can also demand that their leaders make sound financial decisions and that those decisions are made in the common interest. Yet it also means changing the Western lifestyle to one we can afford. This means dramatic changes on the personal level. As citizens, we can now raise our voices more effectively than ever, but we still don’t always know what to say.

 

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3 replies to this post
  1. Good post. The continous fragmentation of voices, particularly online, is a massive challenge. The most inspired activists among us, continuely prefer to roll their own effort assisted by commodity technology.

    As people cut up the attention pie they are stuck protesting to elected officials who don’t have the capacity to “e-listen” or they scramble to break through with some mass media attention.

    We’ve found that local to local connections online that are designed to defragment the public can work: http://e-democracy.org/if

    For us the key is developing the direct capacity of people to listen to and help each other out. If the middle class neighbors I’ve organized can communicate – http://e-democracy.org/se – they can be a micro public as well as tap a neighborly capacity for mutual benefit and support.

    The challenge for us is how to scale this working idea to serve people everywhere without the barrier of requiring a leader up front. We are looking for input on our ideas here: http://beneighbors.org

    I guess you could calls this a middle class reaction to say no, we will survive but only if we organize ourselves and not wait for the state to protect us.

  2. Steve, I think you’re right. The first step in digital activism was giving citizens a voice. The second step in bringing those voices together to make an impact.

    If every citizen is a pamphleteer,as early cyber-optimists conceived, the resulting information deluge is actually not useful to democratic process.

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