March 26th, 2008


Greater Council

I'm currently auditing a fun class on futurism, taught by jrising -- I'm not able to attend as often as I'd like, but I'm trying to keep up with at least some of the reading. And this week's assignment set me thinking.

The assignment is to read the first few chapters of this declassified report from the CIA about the likely paths from here (well, from 2004) to 2020. The report is long, but so far very intriguing. One of the points it makes is that governance is becoming more challenging, in large part due to the shift from nation-based identity to more transnational forms of identity. They focus on religion in particular, but I suspect the real trends will prove to be broader than that -- that the growth of international communication is going to lead to new, hard-to-predict cross-border movements that matter more to people than national identity does.

The question is, how do you manage that? I mean, the UN (the closest thing we have to a world forum) is based around a fundamental assumption that national borders are what *matter*, far more than anything else -- that all other considerations are very minor in comparison. Ditto for essentially all of the national governments: everyone has bought into the notion that national identity is the most important bit. The meme of the nation-state is so pervasive that we rarely question it, but it's not clear that that's realistic: the concept that nationalism is the be-all and end-all is a relatively modern one, and there have been many other forms of social organization in world history. Geographic-based organization is *straightforward*, and comparatively easy to enforce, which has always been a strength. But it's not clear to me that it's really any less artificial than any other form of organization: it's just the natural outgrowth of government by force.

What would a world look like where national identity is no longer the principal one? Governance is closely interrelated with identity: people form their identities based partly on their position in society, and society shapes itself around the aggregates of those identities. The report is only concerned with 2020, so it doesn't go too far into this question, but the class goes out to 2100 -- enough time for possible significant change, if "identity" continues to get more complicated.

The reason for the title of this post is that, of course, Carolingia wrestled with this question very early on, and came up with a fairly unusual solution. Identity politics is basically at the heart of Carolingia's political compact: each "identity group", both geographic and non, has a voting seat on Council, and each citizen's influence is related to how much they play in those various groups. It's a fairly rough system, that doesn't try to be "fair" in a fine-grained way -- we've never really needed anything fancier. But it's an example of the lateral thinking that's possible when you consider governance to be related to identity, and identity more complex than simply geographic.

So what might governance look like in 2100? If communications trends were to continue (by no means a sure thing), and people get more and more invested in trans-national entities, what does that do to government, both on the small scale and the large? (Yes, this is all wild speculation, and yes, the odds that nation-states will remain in charge are pretty good. But I don't consider it anything like a certainty, and I'm pondering the alternatives...)