Sunday, July 24, 2011

I am obsessed by the idea of government of, by and for the people. Authentic self government. Democracy. It is the only idea I have discovered thus far that satisfies my own definition or description of a just society.

This system of government that we call "representative democracy" no longer works. At least in theory, we have been implementing it all around the world over the past 230 years or so.

And, ultimately, what we have achieved is to create a huge mess in the human condition and affairs.

Karl Marx predicted that capitalism would lead to the concentration and accumulation of wealth: money goes to money. Turns out he was right.

And Justice Louis Brandeis very succinctly explained the consequences: "We may have a democracy or we may have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both."

To underscore the obvious: today, not a single human being on the face of this planet lives in a just society.

As it turns out, representative democracy is not government of the people. It is government of the politicians. Managed by the bureaucrats. For the benefit of the capitalists and the military industrial complex.

And I am tired of the banality that this is the best we can do... because it is not!

Doubtless, it was a bold, new idea about government invented by the Continental Congress of the United States of America. In retrospect, given the state of communications technology at the time, it is probably the best that any group of informed, altruistic human beings could have done at that time.

It was a form of government designed before the invention of the steam engine for about 2.5 million colonists who had settled and spread out mainly along a thousand miles of the Eastern seaboard while people still traveled by horse... with or without a buggy.

And it was a time when we communicated with each other – that is, exchanged information – by messages handwritten with quill pens on sheets of parchment delivered at the speed of horses and sails.

Technology has changed all that. And that means we can do much better.

As Marshall McLuhan observed, technology is an extension of ourselves: tools that we invent to increase our ability to control our affairs and thereby change our environment. Inevitably, it changes us, too.

Which means that technology, the environment and we, ourselves, have each changed radically since 1776.

And it also means that we have chosen, nevertheless, to ignore the immense significance of these changes and what they might proffer to facilitate genuine democracy, genuine government of, by and for the people.

Thus far, we have failed to grasp the implications of Thomas Jefferson's dictum that "Information is the currency of democracy."

Again to emphasize the obvious: computers, communication networks and satellites, smart phones, the Internet, etc., drastically have changed us by changing our ability and capacity to connect and communicate with each other.

Email, bulletin boards, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, Skype and a myriad of other applications have placed in the hands of each of us, directly, the power to exchange information, organize and participate in the coordination of human affairs in ways we could not even have fantasized merely 30 or 40 years ago.

We are now well advanced in the process of connecting each of us by text, audio and video with each and every other human being alive.

The ability to communicate and exchange information is the heart of any form of organization, any system of government, any mode of society... indeed, of civilization itself.

Almost invisibly, a monumental shift has taken place in relation to who can directly participate in government – of the people – what we can do together – by the people – and how we can share the fruit of our collaboration – for the people.

Today we have the power and ability to eliminate the divide that the Continental Congress deliberately imposed between government and governed.

I am amazed by the changes that have taken place since “the man in the gray flannel suit” expressed our aspirations barely 60 years ago. And by how much more complex and accelerated our lives and affairs have become. 

What has not changed is our ways of thinking about these things. As Marshall McLuhan also observed, we continue trying to thrust ourselves into the future with our minds intensely focused on our rear-view mirrors.

We have cornered ourselves into Albert Einstein's description of insanity: doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. 

We, humanity, now face an exciting challenge. 

We need to develop new ideas:
  • fresh modes of thinking about the law, economics, political sciences and education
  • novel ways of utilizing our new information and communications technologies
  • imaginative designs and architecture for open, transparent, accountable, collaborative, egalitarian and participatory organizations and institutions
  • governments that equitably distribute the fruits of labor among those who contribute to its creation.

First, we must change the way we think… not only about government, but especially about government.

For the first time ever, the ideal democracy conceived by Pericles 2500 years ago has become attainable… an idea whose time at long last has come!

In fact, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Madison, Adams and the Continental Congress were much more perceptive about these things than we ourselves have been. Unfortunately, we have not paid too much attention to something they considered to be fundamental to the processes of democracy:

... That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [equality… life, liberty, pursuit of happiness… government of, by and for the people... a more perfect union] it is the Right of the People to alter it or to abolish it, and to institute a new Government, laying its foundations on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness..."

So, now we have new technological capacities, some wisdom distilled from about 230 years of experience and the same dream, the same ethical and philosophical foundation as those that inspired the Founding Fathers to help us design a just society.

Now is a time whose idea has come!

Do we dare? Shall we begin?