Up until about 10,000 years ago, humanity was largely nomadic, or at least unable to settle in single places for long times. This put limits on the size of groupings that could live together – mobilising large numbers of people to travel is a thankless task, as any who have done or witnessed it will tell you.
But the governance point is that stable groups were of numbers limited enough to be governed by direct coercion and/or by all-of-community decision making. They may have spanned wide ambits from brutal dictatorship to consensual democracy, but they were all direct. And those who could not cope had, to a greater or lesser extent, the option of leaving and moving into uninhabited territory.
The onset of the “Holocene” Age, a period of stable climatic conditions which began 12,000 years ago and enabled long-term settlement, led to agriculture, and hence to the wealth the human race is currently squandering.
Large scale settlement followed, and the growth of the first cities and “civilisations”. Sumeria is perhaps the earliest recognised civilisation, and it reached its peak about 5,000 years ago[i].
In the affluent world, democracy (ie the equal sharing of political power) is generally thought of as the “best” form of government. Perhaps that’s because we’ve got it, more or less. Or, to put it another way, as Winston Churchill said, quoting an unnamed source, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”.
Traces of democracy have existed in many settlements and cultures of various sizes throughout recorded history. But the first well-documented example of democracy as we know it today is generally recognised as being the city-state of Athens, about 2,700 years ago. Its “one citizen, one vote” system was confined to adult male citizens, and lasted about 300 years.
Since then democracy has flourished only sporadically and briefly until its nurturing and growth in Europe over the last 500 years. And from Europe it has spread wider – at least in form – in the last hundred years as the European nations have “decolonised”, and as the people of various nation-states have taken matters into their own hands against their autocratic and/or dictatorial rulers.
Sadly, while the idea of democracy has spread to more societies, it is weakening in the older democracies. In Europe, North America and Australasia, disenchantment is increasing, voting numbers are falling, and citizen engagement is decreasing.
This weakening is apparently also occurring at regional and local levels. However, the issues are probably different, related more to apathy about immediate and infrastructure issues than to alienation from a political process and policy making which are increasingly distant from the individual citizen.
The United States is showing a particularly vitriolic form of this decline. Apathy, plus active movements to disenfranchise voters, mean that 51 million, or one quarter of adult Americans, are not registered to vote. The use of sophisticated marketing influencing techniques combined with gerrymandered electorates has led to very small numbers of voters becoming increasingly influential – and influenced. And the granting to corporations of the power to provide campaign funds for candidates of their choice has, combined with the other factors, led to a situation where America’s democracy now looks more like “one dollar, one vote” than “one citizen, one vote”.
The younger democracies are also continuously under threat from both inside and outside through sectarianism, power struggles, and the law of the gun.
Democracy’s key weakness is short-sightedness, largely because of the political cycle. The only viable alternative seems to be “benevolent dictatorship” – the rule of an autocrat or an oligarchy which adds more net benefit to the population that it takes away. But benevolent dictatorships are demonstrably the exception rather than the rule in non-democratic societies, and also have a marked tendency to degenerate into less benevolent forms and behaviours.
China is an example of a non-democratic nation which is able to, and does try to, take a longer view. Unfortunately, its population pressures are such that its struggle to raise living standards in a recently industrialised society is having drastic effects on its land, water and air.
The affluent countries were able export their industrial production and their pollution because they industrialised and built affluence well before the recent explosion in population and consumption. China, which has become a primary provider of manufactured goods for the Western world, will not be able to export its pollution in the same way, because the Earth’s land, air and water are no longer able to sustain current, let alone future, levels of consumption.
And China is a one-party state – dictatorial and repressive in more overt ways than most of the countries of the affluent world. While the United States and others have had their own “Tiananmen Square” uprisings and responses, China seems more brutal and direct in its ongoing suppression of dissent.
Democracy is not an inevitable outcome. Despite recent American claims, democracy does not necessarily lead to more democracy. It was not the US which brought the nascent democratic movements to North Africa and the Middle East, but the people of the region themselves. And a key factor in a number of the uprisings of the Arab Spring was the sky-rocketing food prices which had been brought about by the operation of the US-dominated economic system – food shortages were an opportunity for profit, not for crises to be solved cooperatively. In fact, America’s influence on democracy, at least since the Marshall Plan, has probably been largely negative, as it has shored up dictatorial regimes and undermined democratic regimes as it felt necessary, to protect what it sees as its interests.
The international and local spheres
The interplay between international, national and local levels of governance is an area where there are positive signs. While the nation-state has clearly lost control of the economic sphere, there are encouraging trends at international and local levels.
Some international bodies, notably the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, have been conductors of the explosive growth in affluent consumption, and the increasing inequality, in the world today.
But the United Nations and its subsidiary organisations, for all their faults, do express a vision of a better world, and host an ongoing forum for both conflict resolution between nation-states and also the development of shared plans for true progress.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Millennium Development Goals (and their 2015 replacement, the Sustainable Development Goals) are examples of these “shared plans”. And they have had some influence on the behaviour of nation-states. But they have not achieved what they set out to do, by any stretch of the imagination. In the case of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there is widespread non-compliance with many aspects of the Declaration.
In the case of the Millennium Goals, some simply expressed expected levels of progress, and progress has anyway fallen short, often well short, of most of the Goals. Gains that have been made (for example, in reducing the number in extreme poverty, and in lowering the incidence of diseases such as measles and tuberculosis), but, to quote a headline in the 2015 Report, “despite many successes, the poorest and most vulnerable people are being left behind”[ii].
The United Nations does not have power, only influence at best, over its member nations. The grand visions of the world body are easily minimised or disregarded as a result of more “pragmatic” concerns at national level. And this occurs despite the fact that those very nations took part in the drafting of the “grand visions”.
However, the United Nations remains a positive force, with unique reach across the world. As our human situation becomes more difficult over the next decades, the United Nations will with any luck become a stronger forum for developing the world-wide agreements and planning which will be essential to humanity’s survival.
Local government is also well situated to make a positive contribution, and has shown clear signs that it can. In particular, large cities have become flashpoints for population-driven aspects of the current situation. Effectively housing, feeding, and moving vast numbers of people in relatively small spaces requires not only substantial material resources, but also sophisticated approaches to design and operation of urban space and assets.
The Pope recently hosted a gathering of Mayors and leaders of some of the world’s great cities, and there are very positive signs from this and similar gatherings that many of our large cities are themselves taking up the challenge of living more sustainably.
It is fitting in some ways that there are positive signs at global and local levels. The nation-state has been the dominant player in governance for at least the last 150 years, but it has shown itself incapable of dealing with the recent challenges of explosive growth in affluent consumption and rising inequality brought about by the rapid growth in relative power and influence of the economic sphere.
More power being exercised at the local level, where the “rubber hits the road”, and at the global level, where the overall impacts of affluent human consumption are being experienced, has to be a positive trend.
The slogan “Think global, act local” has been around for a long time. It has been used as a catch-cry for environmental movements, often to express, among other things, the folly of relying on governance at a national level to address the large issues which face us.
However, the time for only “thinking” globally has passed. We must now act globally as well, although much of the action required will express itself at local level. The nature of global actions required is not the application of gee-whiz technical solutions, but the formation of stronger agreements on how we will tackle the issues we face – most likely by a more empowered United Nations, which unfortunately remains handicapped by its membership consisting only of nation-states. It needs stronger connections to local government and communities.
[i] “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright, Avalon, 2004, Kindle edn loc.560ff
[ii] See UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2015. The quote is from page 8.