After democracy

Well, after the blowout celebrations of the Fourth Of July, and the extraordinary results from the Greek referendum (a resounding NO!), it might be time to think about what might happen in more detail (as someone in my world put it) “after democracy,” as mentioned in a previous post.   The key quote on this topic is this one:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.

The source is in question, but the sentiment beautifully captures one of the core problem of democracy.   We have given the general populace a great power, but with very little real education or duties.    Another friend of mine added to this worldview by putting it this way – “The Founding Fathers gave us the Bill of Rights, but didn’t give us a Bill Of Responsibilities.”

Part of the problem with democracy (and freedom in general, as it is practiced now in America, without restraint), is that you seem to need a large resource base in order to allow people the actual “freedom” to do what they want to do.   Isaac Asimov, in his Bathroom Metaphor, captured this well.   Overpopulation, or, the reduction of carrying capacity for a fixed population seemingly dooms democracy.  It simply can’t be afforded, and things change, usually through violent means.  This has even been quantified – when people get hungry, they tend to get a bit rebellious, and that hastens the end of the democracy and the transition to a dictatorship.

However, if a society has had ‘democracy’ (or the illusion of it) for a long time, how will it react and adapt when it is no longer possible to allow people the freedom to do what they want?  There are other ways to run a society, of course; dictatorships and rule-by-the-rich seem to have existed over the centuries, so we could always return to those ways, as noted in the quote.   Will we continue to go in the cycle of democracy-dictatorship-monarchy?   In George Orwell’s 1984, this cycle was seemingly broken, by having advancement and power divorced from the hereditary, but the society he posited was still powered by fossil fuels.  His surveillance state (and ours) won’t exist if it doesn’t have the power or resources to run (as noted by the folks in Utah). That path could exist for a short while, but not forever.

So, where does this leave us?  As we transition from our current system, and as the ratio of resources to population decreases (via population growth and/or resource depletion), what might we expect?   People won’t forget participatory democracy overnight, but they just might, if things get tough.  People will rally around a dictator when things go bad, so the traditional cycle may continue, again and again.  Is there any way out?

It is difficult to think about alternatives to this, for we haven’t had this level of democracy (or this access to resources) ever in our world.   One slim option is that we retain some elements of democracy, but we adapt structures (similar to the feudal system) where there are more well-defined rights and more importantly, responsibilities for every member of society, no matter where they are.   Leaders can govern, and those further ‘down the food chain’ will have to do hard work, but everyone in society will have a stake in the system.   When leaders do not lead well, those directly under them can remove them; when workers who are healthy and fit don’t work, they don’t get paid/don’t eat.

This all seems a bit fantastical; the part that stumps me is a) how we make such a transition and b) how these rules get enforced.  In theory, our modern society has enforcement mechanisms, but as anyone with a brain can see, the people at the top who screw up do not bear the consequences of their actions, and we also have citizens who quite happily take advantage of the system when opportunities present themselves (i.e., why work when you can get benefits from the state?).  It may be that the main reason these enforcement mechanisms don’t work is that society has gotten too large; in smaller communities (villages, tribes, small towns, small companies), the personal connections that exist ensure that the few rules that do exist are followed.  In fact, rules can be drastically reduced in number, as informal mechanisms take their place.

A transition to ‘feudal democracy’ will be a pretty tricky business.

Questions (as always):

  • Is the cycle of democracy-dictatorship-monarchy truly a product of our industrial civilization and our fossil fuel bonanza?
  • If we achieve a more steady-state society, with steady-state economics, will we have steady-state social structures?
  • Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships; it is around 150, and it might be double that.  With laws, and other tricks, we might be able to create groups that work with ten times that number.   What is a feasible upper limit to the number of people in a working, stable, and healthy society?

2 thoughts on “After democracy

  1. Pingback: Transitioning to Feudal Democracy | peakfuture

  2. Pingback: Long term planners, Part 3 | peakfuture

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