About much more than Independence Day Fireworks
With an action agenda that goes far beyond the effective time available these days to write essays of disputable importance, I realized over the weekend that I had promised one of the commenters on a previous story (achoubeach), to give my opinion on the essence of city Government. Of course the question in particular demands giving a position with regard to our own Fernandina Beach city commissioners and their effectiveness versus the cost of their “services”. But that isolated approach would not be fair as they operate their commission on a template that was developed in and for an era that no longer exists, and beyond that fact, they also propagate certain political beliefs in line with their respective party alliances.
Case in point is the recent decision to abandon the budget appropriation for 4th of July Fireworks in favor of private enterprise picking up the tab. I think that was a wise but somewhat shortsighted or at least too premature decision, since the private initiators now have to pay city workers to oversee the execution of the fireworks. Maybe next year that can be delegated to private initiative as well.
In any case this following essay is largely based on the memories of a very old person who knew a very old person when she was young, which person grew up in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Remember: The Industrial Revolution started roughly 8 to 9 generations ago, the same time frame it took for political societies to develop from Kingdoms to Nation States.
In order to understand why we are where we are today, I have to take you back into the history of political organization but with sincere apologies for the fact that I can only address this in the most rudimentary manner, in this essay. Yet, even if history is not your favorite subject matter, understanding the past is important for learning how we got where we are today; even more so if we enroll in an effort to sketch a framework for where the future will take us.
The History of Government Organization
Largely the human race has so far experienced 3 main stages of governance organization to wit Tribes, Kingdoms and Nation States. Yes old Greece had city states and there were several other minor aberrations but history has projected a clear observation that the means of production in a society determine to a very large degree how a society is structured and organized. Based solely on that observation, only two really important things have happened in 200,000 years: the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. Everything else is truly just a footnote. (Oh please save me your emails!)
And how is it all related?
Before anything else, man is a social animal and his loyalty to the tribe or clan came natural and logical; for social, political, security and economical reasons. After all, everyone in the tribe was genetically related, and the group was essential for mutual survival in the wilderness. In some areas of the world, structures like these still linger on or are culturally, religiously and socially promoted to varying degrees; mountain tribes in Afghanistan come to mind as an example of forceful adherence. Yet even here on a small barrier island, part of the old tribal network still operates to the detriment of everything else. But with the new times, the tribe is being infiltrated with “infidels” who sometimes have a different view based on different experiences and educations, but are also driven by a need that comes from having objectively and willfully made a residential selection, based on lifestyle recognition.
Back in prehistoric times, the largest political/economic group was the tribe and it was natural for an individual to be loyal to the tribe. It made good sense. It also made the tribe the total sum of people that counted in a person’s life – versus “others” from alien tribes, who were in competition for scarce resources, and usually did not hesitate to kill you for a bigger piece of the pie.
Tribes tended to be natural meritocracies, with the smartest and the strongest members naturally or by conquest assuming leadership. If you want to see how that works, watch an episode of the popular TV series “Survivor” or the funny “Love in the Wild” with Jenny McCarthy.
But meritocracies are also natural democracies, small enough that everyone can (or should) have a say on important issues. Tribes are small enough that everybody knows everyone else, and knows what their weak and strong points are. Everyone falls into a niche of marginal advantage, doing what they do best, simply because that’s necessary to survive. Bad “apples” are ostracized or fail to wake up some morning as a victim of economical necessity. Tribes are socially constraining but, considering the many faults of human nature, a natural and useful form of organization in a society with primitive technology. I put the emphasis here on primitive technology.
The End of the Ice Age Changed Things
As people built their pool of capital and technology over many generations, however, populations grew. At the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago, all over the world, there was a population explosion. People started living in settlement (towns) and relying on agriculture and cattle raising as opposed to hunting and gathering. And as larger groups of people living together formed hierarchies, sooner than later a king of some description became the one on top of the heap.
Those who adapted to the new agricultural technology and the new political structure accumulated the excess resources necessary for waging extended warfare against tribes still living at a subsistence level.
And over time the more evolved societies obtained the numbers and the weapons to completely triumph over the laggards. If you wanted to stay tribal, you’d better live in the middle of nowhere, someplace devoid of the resources others might want. Otherwise it was a sure thing that a nearby kingdom would try to enslave you and steal your property. This went on for the better part of 13,600 years until technology showed its possibilities.
The Industrial Revolution and the End of Kingdoms
From around 12,000 B.C. to roughly the mid-1600s, the world’s cultures were organized under strong men, ranging from petty lords to kings, pharaohs, or emperors. Examples: Attila, Alexander the “Great”, Nero, Julius Cesar, Nebukadnesar, Charlemagne and many others that came and went.
Even though I grew up in one of the last remaining Kingdoms in the world, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, I still find it odd how much the human animal seems to like the idea of a monarchy. It’s mythologized, especially in a medieval context, as a system with noble kings, fair princesses, and brave knights riding out of castles through hills and valleys to right injustices and spread cheer to the less fortunate. If you read Will Cuppy’s “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody” and especially the part that tells the story of how Katherina the Great came to her end, you will learn that reality differs quite a bit from the myth that we have been fed as history.
The king or monarch was rarely more than a successful thug, an Al Capone or Carlos Esteban in a small pond, or perhaps a little Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Papa Doc Duvalier, Shah, Mao , Kim and so on…. And the princess was a smelly hag in a chastity belt, the knight a hired killer, and the shining castle on the hill the headquarters of a concentration camp, with plenty of dungeons for the politically incorrect and a large cemetery in the back.
With kingdoms however, loyalties weren’t so much to the “country” – a nebulous and arbitrary concept at best - but to the ruler. You were the subject of a king, first and foremost. Your linguistic, ethnic, religious, and other affiliations were secondary. It’s strange how, when people think of the kingdom period of history, they project only in terms of what the ruling classes did and had. Even though, if you were born then, the chances were 98% you’d be a simple peasant who owned nothing, knew nothing beyond what his betters told him, and sent most of his surplus production to his rulers.
But, over time, a gradual accumulation of capital and knowledge made the step to the Industrial Revolution possible.
When machines took over from muscle, the amount of wealth took a huge leap forward. The average man still might not have had much, but the possibility to do something other than beat the earth with a stick for his whole life opened up, largely as a result of the Renaissance. There was a dream to pursue for those who wanted.
And the game changed radically with the American and French Revolutions.
A growing number of people no longer felt they were owned by some ruler; instead they now gave their loyalty to a new institution, the nation-state. Some innate atavism, probably dating back to before humans branched from the chimpanzees about 3 million years ago, seems to dictate us human’s to give our loyalty to something bigger than ourself. And that has delivered us to today’s prevailing norm, the nation-state, a group of people who tend to share language, religion, and ethnicity.
The idea of the nation-state is especially effective when it’s organized as a “democracy,” where the average person is given the illusion he has some measure of control over where the monster is headed.
But in comparison with times before, by the end of the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution had provided the common man with a level of personal freedom, a measure of capital and progressing technology, and quality of life that started to improve at a rapidly accelerating pace.
It took Two Life Altering Inventions to make this happen
On the intellectual level it was the invention of the printing press; and on the physical level, the widespread use of gunpowder. The printing press destroyed the monopoly the elites had on knowledge; the average man could now see that they were no smarter or “better” than he was. If he was going to fight them (conflict is, after all, what politics is all about), it didn’t have to be just because he was told to, but because he was motivated by an idea. And now, with gunpowder, he was on an equal footing with the ruler’s knights and professional soldiers.
And today we are courting another change, at least as important as the ones that took place around 12,000 years ago and several hundred years ago. But before that change is “allowed” to make an entrance, there will be chaos, as the old power refuses to relinquish its stranglehold, even though they had time since the 1960s to adjust and get with the program of “The Times They Are a-Changing”.
And even though things are starting to look truly grim for the individual, with collapsing economic structures and increasingly virulent governments, I suspect help is on the way from historical evolution. Just as the agricultural revolution put an end to tribalism and the industrial revolution killed the kingdom, I think we’re heading for another multipronged revolution that’s going to make the nation-state an anachronism. No it won’t happen next month, or next year.
But I’m truly convinced that the pattern will start becoming clear within the lifetime of many of us.
By the end of this century, I suspect the U.S. and mostly all other nation-states will have, for all practical purposes, ceased to exist as one of the worst human mistakes in history.
The Problem with the State – and Your Nation-State
Regardless whether you are sympathetic to that sentiment or not, you probably think the concept is too far out. People believe the state is necessary and – generally – good, because people have a need to be loyal. More importantly even, they never even question whether the institution is permanent or just has an intermediary purpose.
My view is that the institution of the state itself is a bad thing. It’s not even a question of getting the right people into the government; the institution itself is hopelessly flawed and necessarily corrupts the people that compose it, as well as the people it rules.
This statement invariably shocks those people who believe that government is both a necessary and permanent part of the cosmic.
But the essential problem is that government is based on coercion, and it is, at least in my opinion, less than recommended to base a social structure on institutionalized coercion, performed by individuals whose intentions are focused on short term gain.
I’m not going to go into the details here of long term thinking versus crisis management, since I’m getting tired of linking to the same clock and compass story again and again, yet I would like to urge you to read the Morris and Linda Tannehills’ superb The Market for Liberty, published in 1970!!! You actually may learn what freedom really means.
One of the huge changes brought by the printing press and now advanced exponentially by the Internet is that people are able to readily pursue different interests and adopt diverse points of view. As a result, people living in even the same communities have less and less in common. In the years ahead we will witness that living within the same political borders is no longer enough to make people countrymen.
If you’re honest, you may find you have very little in common with most of your countrymen besides superficialities and trivialities, heavily promoted by politicians, media and clergy men. Before I challenge you to explore this statement a bit further I would like to quote a line from the Market of Liberty that reads: ” Improvements in man’s condition has never come as the result of blind hope, pious prayers or random chance, they are the product of knowledge and thought.”
That’s a big change from pre-agricultural times when members of the same tribe had quite a bit – almost everything – in common. But this has been increasingly diluted in the times of the kingdom and the nation-state.
Let’s dive into this a bit more.
What do you honestly have in common with your fellow countrymen? A form of lifestyle, maybe a common language, possibly some shared experiences, sports highlights and religious myths, and….. a common ruler. In reality, very little of any real meaning or importance. More and more actually, your countrymen are more likely to be an active danger to you than the citizens of a presumed “enemy” country, often promoted by press and politicians. Ask any criminologist and he/she’ll tell you that a vast majority of crimes in this country are committed by people you know.
If you earn a good living, certainly if you own a business and have assets, your fellow Americans are the ones who usually present the clear and present danger. The average American (about 50% of them now) pays no income tax. Even if they’re not actually a direct or indirect employee of the government, they are net recipients of its largesse, taken from your wealth, through a large variety welfare programs.
Maybe I was lucky to have been born into a family that cherished the experience of outside influences. As a consequence, I’ve found over the years that I have much more in common with people of my own social or economic station or occupation, whether they live in Europe, America, Australia, Africa or Asia, than with a union worker in Detroit or a non descriptor resident of the LA barrios. And that’s nothing more than just an honest observation. Several months ago I had a couple of guests from New Orleans stay at the Inn and felt an instant connection. In as little as 3 days we became friends, a word I don’t easily abuse. When TS Beryl hit a couple of weeks ago, Brian who had witnessed Katrina in its full ornate, was ready to jump on a plane and come help cleaning up, until I clarified that we had minimal damage. That’s friendship born out of common experiences, respect and comfort with eachother. And that’s what’s actually important in relationships: shared values, principles, interests, and philosophy.
Geographical proximity, and a common nationality, is meaningless – no more than an accident of birth. I have much more loyalty to a friend in St.Maarten – although we’re different colors, have different cultures, different native languages, and different life experiences – than I do to people I went to school with in Holland or Americans who live down the highway in the trailer park or suburgatory. I see the world the same way my New Orleans friend does; he’s an asset to my life, while I’m potentially at odds with many of my “fellow Americans” because many seem an active and growing liability.
Some might read this and find a disturbing lack of loyalty to the state. It sounds seditious or maybe some will consider these words an act of treason. But the fact is that loyalty to a state, just because you happen to have been born in is simply stupid.
As a 32 year import to this Nation I have extensively studied the US Constitution to find only two federal crimes specified in it: counterfeiting and treason. The Constitution was written to guide a tender Nation onto the first wobbly steps of nativity. Two crimes! That’s a far cry from today’s world, where almost every real and imagined crime has been federalized, in itself underscoring that the whole document has become a meaningless dead letter, little more than a historical artifact. Even so, that also confirms that the Constitution was quite imperfect, even in its original form. Counterfeiting is simple fraud. Why should it be singled out especially as a crime? (Okay, that opens up a whole new can of worms… but not one I’ll go into here.) Treason is usually defined as an attempt to overthrow a government or withdraw loyalty from a sovereign. A rather odd proviso to have when the framers of the Constitution had done just that only a few years before, one would think.
Thomas Paine had it right when he said: “My country is wherever liberty lives.”
But where does liberty live today? To be honest, it no longer has a home. It’s become a true refugee since America, which was an excellent idea that grew roots in a country of that name, degenerated into the United States. Which is just another unfortunate nation-state.
Governing on the Local Scene
Irrespective of good intentions from anyone seeking public office, the available political structure invites and seduces democratic thinking to be abused. Joseph Schumpeter, who was both a sociologist and an economist, had a clear measure of human nature. In every democracy, votes are exchanged for favors, he claimed. As the democracy matures, and as the prize of political office becomes ever more seductive, the promises become ever more extravagant. By this process the democratic bribe must, according to Schumpeter, result in government that becomes increasingly socialist. If practical proof of Schumpeter’s thesis is required, it is to be found in the inexorable rise of socialism and communism in especially Europe, Canada, Australia and for now to a lesser degree in the United States.
Some see the Nation State give way for a tested political structure called Phyles http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyle with the explanation that the state is doomed because its ability to extort support from its subjects is rapidly disappearing in the face of new technologies. I do not subscribe wholeheartedly to this utopian version of political reconstruction. But I do subscribe to the notion that over time race, religion, culture, and mother language will be seen as unimportant to most of the human race, definitely when compared to values and character. A Phyles organization of governing allows for different values to live next door to each other without being torpedoed by an almighty Nation State dictating federal law.
The City of San Franciso in many aspects has challenged Federal Law in the past and other communities will follow. Analytically it sheds a different light on Mitt Romney’s run for the Presidency if you realize that he comes from a Phyle like organization – the Mormon Church – which just as the Catholic Church exercises considerable governance over their members –including the regulation of very private behaviors –and they run social services such as schools and welfare systems. It’d be a relatively small step for them to start exercising sovereignty in a world that permitted it. So will it be for example for the Mennonites, the Amish, all the way to Service Clubs. The important thing about Phyles is that they don’t have to control any particular territory the way states do.
Take for example abortion, which has been a 45 year hot issue in US politics. A Phyle system could allow both pros and cons to co-exist in different phyles. The human race will always have contention in diverse beliefs, yet the essence for its survival demands the will to find common ground. It’s like being a member of the Lions Club, Optimists, Kiwanis, or the Rotary; if you don’t adhere to their values, they’ll kick you out. You don’t want that to happen, because there are many benefits to being a member. In years past there were many more fraternal organizations than there are now, and they were much more important to their societies and quite more powerful. But many of their functions have been usurped by the state and they’ve lost ground – a trend that I think will soon be reversed to support different forms of local government.
So whatever interim system comes next, the Internet is still connecting people along lines of their choosing, rather than by accident of birth, and without regard for national boundaries – or even language barriers. Websites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn etc. are basically giant engines for creating phyles, and that is what I think our social organization is evolving toward.
Virtual communities are forming, solidifying, and becoming more important to many of their members than nationality, race, or even religion. The future is taking shape right on our screens.
In my opinion local governance is developing along the same lines as eCommerce.
The power of the Internet, especially in Western nations where access is provided on a pretty level playing field, is to give an equally loud bullhorn to every member of the community. If a site like the Drudge Report, Newsmax or even the Huffington Post can become highly regarded news sites, there is no other barrier to their traffic far outstripping the Washington Post or LA Times. If Netflix can provide better video streaming than its competitors, there are no regional oligopoly grants from the government to prevent it from having a national reach.
This transition of power to the endpoints of the network enables anyone to become both producer and consumer of digital goods. We were witness of that power in recent weeks when the Fernandina Beach City Government announced the end of the 4th of July City financed Fireworks. The citizens cried DISGRACE, formed a collective and got monies in excess donated by stake holders in the Phyle. Isn’t it ironic that by making that decision, the City Commission gave a substantial push towards the realization that they may be dispensable in the foreseeable future.
I know I will get a ton of reactions to my viewpoint so I want to state clearly that I’m not proposing anything at all – I’m just saying that today’s industrial-era governments on all levels are in the process of collapse because the new technologies are rapidly limiting its power to extort support from its subject citizens. And a structure like phyles in different forms are quite possibly going to replace them. People like order and some type of structure– it makes life easier. But the change from one type of structure to another is never easy. This one, I suspect, is going to be a very difficult transition, and probably quite violent.
Elections results in Egypt yesterday are a reminder that large-scale social change is never easy, and may turn very ugly one day soon. In addition I see the world’s ongoing economic crisis as a big push in this direction. And that is why I chose to live here on a beautiful unassuming island, that as far as I’m concerned has a Phyle like atmosphere that suits me well.
And maybe the good news is that as societies become voluntary associations, they will have to compete for members, rather than exert control over citizen-subject-serfs. A market for governance services will improve those services and make them much more user-friendly and price competitive.