Still studying. And on that note…

Its time for a bit of bloggy procrastination.

With elections in the air world-wide at the moment (and with South Africa’s coming in January next year) I find myself thinking about the role of government in general. This is, I feel, an issue that goes deeper than party ideology or political systems, although it impacts on both. It can be summed up by a simple question: what is government for?

The obvious answer, of course, is that government is there to provide for its citizens. This is usually construed to be in the form of vital services that fulfil roles that private citizens or institutions cannot provide by themselves, like security or defence. One of the central arguments for democracy, for instance, is that it allows citizens to control the sharing of power within a government, forcing it to provide for the maximum amount of its citizen’s demands or risk having its members expelled and replaced with others who will.

This answer, in fact, provides a number of assumptions which frame the debate around other political issues. Without the assumption of government’s role as a provider of services, the entire debate about liberalism, socialism, capitalism and all the rest would have to be radically re-framed. This would, in turn, result in different outcomes of these debates. Which is interesting because I have never heard of an argument which coherently justifies this obvious answer.

Historically, organised governments formed as a direct consequence of the adoption of agriculture. Agricultural practice, by tending to concentrate and immobilise populations, tended to allow the accumulation of power by a subset of the population. In nearly every case, this took the form of an expansion of the existing role of chiefs into a hereditary ruling class with a monopoly on force. This was used both to control the rest of the population and protect this new accumulation of resources from outside interference. Essentially, the first states were the result of parasitism by leaders and consequent specialisation of their followers into functions that supported this new system. The interests of individual citizens, for the most part, did not enter into the equation.

So far this is entirely ordinary and orthodox, a well-accepted way of viewing the progress of what is usually called civilization. However, at some point it is assumed that governments ceased to be parasites and became instead beholden to the wills of the people they once viewed as simply tools of power. Paradoxically, this process is supposed to have reached its height at a point where the use of force was more specialised and concentrated than ever before. No private citizen’s army could ever hope to directly challenge a modern state’s arsenal, yet we are encouraged to believe that the use of force as the primary currency of government has somehow been made moot because indirect involvement of citizens in the superficial structure of government is tolerated.

This is not to say that democracy does not work (although I’m suspicious that it works mainly because all of the players within it believe it does, something I’ll return to). What I am saying is that the standard historical view is incomplete.

People are super-social creatures. Biologically, this means that the actions of a group of people as a  whole are formed by the interactions of the group’s members. We can realistically talk about the actions of groups of people as separate entities with identities formed from their members. This concept, of an entity formed from a group, is known as a superorganism. It is my belief that, rather like competition amongst individuals, successful superorganisms are those most able to survive and propagate themselves. Under this assumption, the reading of history takes on an altogether different tone. In it, the government itself can be viewed as having a simple purpose: to survive and export its own likeness as widely as possible. That governments today allow greater freedom to their citizens is not due to altruism. Rather, it is because governments that do so tend to thrive in comparison with their less egalitarian neighbors. On a more superficial level, this means that a form of democracy has always been in action. The original citizens of the first governments were not simply victims of a parasitic despot or pawns of a superior leadership caste. But neither were they truly independent agents. All of the members of these first societies were, on some level, part of the formation of a larger system based in the social and environmental situation of the time. The farmers, soldiers, taxmen, scribes, nobility, rulers and ruled were all engaged in a conversation whose outcome was the barest outline of the governmental systems of today. None were truly helpless and none were truly in charge.

Admittedly, this is simply a pretty theory. But, in my view, one that has as much and as little justification as our other answers to the simple question. Which is why I feel at least slightly justified in giving uncalled-for advice:

Democracy is as much an idea as it is a system. So, in a time of election fever, remember that it’s not just about the elections. It’s about everything. Live life like you’re in a democracy, and convince most of the population to do the same, and you’ll be closer to it than your vote alone will ever take you.


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