Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, September 18, 2006

Thinking Out Loud About Democratic World Federalism

The popular culture and official rhetoric of democracy in contemporary North Atlantic industrial societies is too rarely matched by democratic realities on the ground. Nevertheless, that culture and rhetoric of popular democracy is a marvelously fertile ground, endlessly prone to provoke the efforts of education, agitation, and organization for actual deepening democratization in these societies. On the other hand, the now-customary but eerily delusive expectations of continued prosperity among the inhabitants of these societies -- arising in fact from an unsustainable bubble of cheap oil, from the destabilizing gunboat diplomacy of literally mad, profligate "defense" expenditures and an imperial archipelago of global military bases, and from the ongoing technodevelopmental exploitation of especially the postcolonial nations of the "Third World" -- all likewise poise us at the knife-edge of catastrophic social discontent the moment their pampered beneficiaries are forced by inevitably changing circumstances to pay the real price (nonsubsidized costs, nonduressed costs, environmental costs, etc.) of these unearned or ill-gotten goods and privileges.

Global information and communication networks foreground the inequities of the North Atlantic postcolonial inter-national system of global governance to everyone within their reach, while disseminating the expectations of the beneficiaries of that system across the globe, exacerbating the vulnerability of that system beyond its capacity to accommodate. Where this system has not already failed, it is presently failing.

Now, violence is inevitable (as has always been the case whenever and wherever human plurality emerges), but since the tools of violence at the disposal of discontent are now capable of unprecedented destructive power it is crucial that we constrain its expression within the legitimacy of democratic governance, general welfare, and the provision of a legible space for the noncoercive adjudication of social disputes.

I have come to believe that some form of democratic world federalism is now indispensable to global social intercourse, as democratic government is indispensable at whatever scale social intercourse has taken up, hitherto. Conventional Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) cannot provide governmental legitimacy precisely because they are not democratically representative bodies, and neither can conventional states because the terrain on which the key problems are playing out (climate change, human rights violations, unfair trade, uneven development, weapons proliferation) is planetary and because too many of the crucial actors on the contemporary terrain are not national but networked.

It is crucial that global governance fund its activities through progressive taxation and then that it legitimize its taxation through legible representation and the substantiation of informed, nonduressed consent and human rights culture. If this development does not occur, then corporate-militarism will continue to define the global political terrain instead and it is difficult to imagine that humanity will survive this state of affairs for long.

Corporate-militarism, that is to say, neoliberal-neoconservative globalization (or "Free Trade") lacks the institutional intelligence to respond adequately to information that is not susceptible to proximate profitability (hence a tendency to short-term over long-term thinking, and hence a disastrous tendency underestimate wider social costs and risks), nor to respond to the needs of technodevelopmental stakeholders who are not familiar or node-proximate (hence a tendency disastrously to exacerbate social discontent). In the emerging political terrain these inadequacies fatally encourage environmental collapse, incubate and facilitate genocidal violences, and produce the conditions in which WMD are ever more likely to be deployed.

What passes for global “Free Trade,” then, is not just facile and flawed ideology, but has come to represent an Existential Risk to human survival.

Through our technology we have seen the earth from orbit and we can never again mistake a neighborhood or even a nation for the World. We know the problems of unsustainable consumption and extractive industry are problems we are all of us equally heir to, as we know that militarism is also always farcically parochial. Through our technology we have seen the faces and heard the voices of people across the earth and we can never again reasonably deny that they are our peers and collaborators in the making of the World, whatever nation or culture they hail from. We know they deserve a say in the public decisions that affect them, we know that we stand to benefit from the testimony of their experience and desire, we know that unless they have the standing of bearers of rights that our own standing is imperiled by its denial to them.

We know the World is not flat.

Only by tearing our technology from our hands, only by crushing the knowledge out of our bodies and brains could we "go back," whatever that would mean.

There is no choice but to embrace the planet that has become the World we live in.

There is violence coming, borne up on a deep and bloody tide of historical and ongoing violation and indifference that will demand its payment all too soon.

Constrain that violence in legitimate democratic governance, ameliorate it through the global administration of general welfare, compensate it with the magnificent bribe of secularization, a basic income guarantee, universal basic healthcare, lifetime education, therapy, and retraining, renewable energy, free software and subsidized peer-to-peer content and oversight provision, and maybe, maybe we'll make it through to the blessings of technoscientific emancipation technoprogressives more uniquely hope for, environmental remediation, superorganic foodstuffs, a longevity dividend, relative abundance from the nanoscale, and a nice space elevator and solar diaspora to give the restless a new frontier to pine for.


Pace Arko said...

"I have come to believe that some form of democratic world federalism is now indispensable to global social intercourse, as democratic government is indispensable at whatever scale social intercourse has taken up, hitherto."

I believe this too but we've got a lot of work ahead of us to get to that point. There is just too much disparity in economic and political power in the world.

The sad and scary thing is that it's just too damn easy for poor countries to leapfrog into military power without any concurrent gains to economic progress. North Korea and Pakistan are just two examples of this. It's a lot easier to stockpile a bunch of kalishnikovs that it is to bring clean water, decent roads or electricity to a poor country's towns and cities. Military technology seems a lot more portable and easy to implement than energy and transport infrastructure.

Powerful countries are very unwilling to give their sovereignity to a federal, democratic global government. Maybe in a more even world, with many largely equal players, countries might be more willing to give up or share power with a higher authority.

It's very tough to see how we can get from todays world to this ideal. I agree that in the long run, for the best survival of the global civilization, we need such a solution but it's hard to see how we can get there.

Dale Carrico said...

There are a number of concrete campaigns and broader efforts already underway to democratize global governance, whether through the democratic reform and strengthening of existing institutions like the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the International Labor Organization, through direct action by way of global people's movements for peace, human rights, fair trade, sustainability, transparency, or through a combination of these and similar campaigns.

I think that to an important extent the work to implement these different pathways toward global democracy are complementary, and what matters most is to grasp that some form of democratic world federalism is indispensable to global social intercourse, not in some far flung future but in the world today, just as democratic government is indispensable at whatever scale social intercourse has taken up.

I think global democracy will seem impossible and naive -- right up to the moment when it happens.

This is equally true of the other two campaigns I describe as indispensable to technoprogressive politics: (1) a global basic income guarantee and (2) global universal basic healthcare, a stakeholder grant in modification medicine, all in the context of a commitment to informed nonduressed consensual prosthetic self-determination.

All three campaigns are inter-dependent and equally indispensable. All three will be implemented in an uneven technodevelopmental field that requires education, agitiation, and organization from both local and global perspectives.

But whatever the many problems and hurdles, it is important to insist that the sign of "seriousness" must not be the paralyzing registration of the difficulties of implementing these outcomes, but the mobilizing registration of the necessity to implement them.

As a side note I will say that we should be careful what gets stealthed under the sign of generality in our discussions of technodevelopmental social struggle. This is something I have grown very sensitive to in my own writing, especially lately, especially now that my politically sensitive students are finding my work online and critiquing it! When you make the point that poor countries can leapfrog into military tech without the economic and democratic institutions to facilitate emancipation, I know what you mean and this is an important point. It is a crucial realty-check for the facile rhetoric of "gunboat democratization" that seems to have captured the imagination of so many neoliberals and neoconservatives, for example. But it is also important to realize the extent to which the actual historical details that substantiate the apparently structural claim here, really end up amazingly often amounting to stories of reckless foreign policy and corporate malfeasance every one of which could easily have been otherwise. The example of Pakistan is especially instructive here.

I do not agree that military tech is more portable or easily implementable than resource infrastructure. Cheap green laptops, solar roofs, lifestraws and so on are equally workable leapfrogging techs. It's just that corporations don't want to relinquish the control of broadcast models of infrastructure for p2p models, just as gangs and military hierarchies don't want to relinquish the control of force to the legitimacy of democracy and rights culture.

This is an old story, but the story of workable revolution is also old by now. We know what to do. Educate, agitate, organize. The campaigns are afoot. The enabling techs are available. Fuck the long term, fuck the toughness, fuck the ideal -- what is wanted is the outrage at avoidable suffering and greed, the will to do what we can, and the cleareyed sense that the moment is upon us.