Dec 15

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The governance of the future?


Fewer texts are more sacred for an average American citizen than the Constitution of the United States of America. You either have to be very brave, or very, very stupid to publicly undermine its sanctity and suggest radical changes. Without doubt I would classify Alvin Toffler as belonging to the first group. In his imaginative letter “To the Founding Parents” included in his book The Third Wave from 1980, he used the words of Thomas Jefferson to justify his – in some cases radical – suggestions:

I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions… But I also know that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.

For Toffler, not only the human mind has changed over the preceding two centuries. The whole civilization was gearing up to enter a completely new phase of development, a phase in which mass production, standardization, maximization and centralization was to be mostly replaced by individualized products produced locally by prosumers, increasing individualism and freedom from the established patterns of living and thinking. In the “third wave” civilization the power of machines was to be replaced by the power of the brain enhanced by the rapidly increasing performance of computers.

Not all of Toffler’s predictions came true almost 35 years after he published The Third Wave. But many did. When reading his over 440-page book one cannot stop wondering how much our world has changed over less than a half of a human life. Significant changes have taken place before as well, but especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall one had the impression that someone had pressed the “fast forward” button on a roller coaster without any of us knowing what the final destination will be: a tunnel, slower part of the track or… a wall.

In times of radical change there is one thing which does not change: the desire for a “strong leadership”. But here, Toffler rightly argues, the solution is not so easy. There is no doubt that Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev had a much bigger impact on the policies of the Soviet Union than Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter on the American policies, but has it made the lives of the citizens in the former any better than in the latter? Strength doesn’t always come together with wisdom and the ability to understand and reconcile the needs of different groups in the society. Such a combination is an exception rather than the rule as our, European, history clearly shows.

Toffler comes back with a much more comprehensive set of solutions resulting from the major problems of the governance system as it was in the 1970s. Many of these problems are even more visible almost four decades later.

Problem 1 – The challenge of getting a representative majority in an increasingly diversified society

Our current political system is based on majority rule. After the tragedies of the past we have also introduced a number of mechanisms that protects the rights of the minorities, but in the end the majority decides about the policies of a given country. Toffler argues, however, that with the society becoming more and more differentiated, it would be increasingly challenging to find the majority.

At first sight reality seemed to have proved Toffler wrong. Although in some cases it is difficult to get the majority that would form a government, there was not much deterioration in this regard in comparison to the 1970s. Especially in Germany, one party has dominated the policy-making process for almost a decade now. But how many of the CDU/CSU voters really associate themselves with all or at least the majority of these parties’ decisions? How many vote for them due to the lack of a “better deal”? How many don’t participate in the elections, because the “better deal” doesn’t seem any better? The election turnout in the parliamentary elections in Germany decreased from over 90% in 1976 to 71.5% last year. In the 2014 midterm elections in the United States the turnout was the lowest in 70 years.

Toffler’s solution to the challenge of representing an increasingly diverse society is the “democracy of minorities”. According to this proposal, new technologies should be used to allow a more differentiated analysis of social preferences. Voters should not only be asked about whether they support certain policies but also be required to rank the importance of a certain policy in comparison to others. This would allow for a much more differentiated policy-making process. Are the voters of the CDU/CSU really in favor of introducing the stay-at-home parenting credit (in German known as Betreuungsgeld), discouraging parents from sending their children to school and thus slowing down their integration in the society only to later force immigrants to speak German at home? Or do they care much more about the standard of health care, a clean environment and social diversity?

The major issue with the “traditional parties” is that they offer a certain “package”: Some items, which a voter likes, come with others which he or she would be happy to get rid of, but unfortunately cannot. Well, that’s the price of a compromise – the basis of every democratic society. The problem is, however, that sometimes the result of the compromise is a policy, which is neither good for the majority, nor really beneficial for the minority. The Betreuungsgeld is only one example. The Chancellor’s opposition to same-sex marriages is another. One of the consequences of governing of an increasingly differentiated society should be de-ideologization of the governance. Someone’s personal believes and preferences shouldn’t determine the fates of particular groups of the society as long as these groups don’t constitute threat to the rights of the other members of the society.

In his book Toffler makes it clear that a more differentiated society also brings some challenges. This warning couldn’t be more relevant almost 35 years later. With xenophobic parties gaining popularity in many European countries and thousands of Germans marching against the “islamization” of Europe, we observe a backlash against an open, multicultural European Union. In such times Toffler’s proposal to facilitate cooperation and discussions between different societal groups is extremely useful. As he points out, such an exchange of opinion could lead to possible alliances or at least a better understanding of each others’ position.

Such alliances could indeed be very surprising. Recently I’ve heard about a discussion between Polish coal miners and representatives of Greenpeace. It turned out that both sides had one thing in common – they wanted safe and well-paid jobs for the next generations. Coal miners didn’t want their children and grandchildren to risk their lives just to get more of the “black gold” to burn. Especially not if other options are available. This is the message that still hasn’t reached Polish government and the workers’ union.

Problem 2 – The increased complicacy of the issues governments have to deal with

If in 1980 Toffler was right saying that…

Our elected representatives know less and less about the myriad measures on which they must decide, and are compelled to rely more and more on the judgment of others. The representative no longer even represents him- or herself.

…now his words have a completely new meaning. The complicacy of the issues that politicians have to deal with has drastically increased over the last 35 years. The digital revolution, globalization of the financial markets, increasingly differentiated society, global environmental challenges and a number of other issues are or should be on the agenda of the politicians. Nobody expects them to be specialists in all these areas. But some basic knowledge is necessary to make the right choices from the range of suggestions presented by advisors, experts or lobbyists.

There are some blatant examples of national leaders creating their own virtual reality and making important decisions based on it. The approach of the Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the former Prime Minister of Poland Donald Tusk in respect of climate change is a clear example of this dangerous phenomenon. With the complicacy of the policies further increasing in the future will governments be able to make the right decisions?

The answer Toffler suggests is moving some of the power back to the society:

If our elected brokers can’t make deals for us, we shall have to do it ourselves. If the laws they make are increasingly remote from or unresponsive to our needs, we shall need new institutions and new technologies as well.

Further, he does not argue to fully replace a representative democracy by a direct one, but suggests adding some mechanisms that would make the voice of the average citizen better heard at the highest echelons of the government. Well, the Swiss have tried this out numerous times in the past, but in the EU asking the people for their acceptance for another change of the Treaty usually leads to rejection and has negative impact on the process of the European integration. In other words, will an average Kowalski, Schmidt or Jones, who spends most of his time making a living know better about the complicated issues than elected leaders? In the end the main reason why we choose our representatives and pay them handsomely from our taxes is to spend their time learning and making the right decisions.

But in many cases it seems like we went too far in depriving citizens of their voice. Except for allowing them to vote once every 4-5 years, their opinions are often ignored. The great thing about democracy has been that it facilitated learning on the past mistakes. This is why in most countries with long democratic traditions, populists offering seemingly simple and effective solutions to complicated problems have no chance of winning the elections – we’ve been there, we’ve seen that, it doesn’t work, thank you. But the results of the recent elections to the European Parliament show that the societal learning process has come to a halt and previous lessons are increasingly forgotten. The reasons behind a particular decision are not explained and often the opinions of large parts of the society and experts are ignored for the sake of party politics – see the case of the Betreuungsgeld in Germany. Such behavior may not only be damaging for a particular party, but even more for the democratic fundaments of the society: if the opinions of the society are repeatedly ignored why should anyone care about the next elections?

Increasing the role of direct participation in the decision making process suggested by Toffler would not be an easy solution. He warned especially of “emotional public reactions” in cases which may be especially disturbing for the society. His solutions was the introduction of a “cooling-off period” and organizing courses for those who would like to participate in making a decision. In the latter case he referred to the Swedish example: in the mid-1970s the government in Stockholm invited the public to contribute to the formulation of the national energy policy. For those interested a special 10-hours-long course about different energy options was organized. But this could work, provided the government would be fully objective in presenting the available options, which is rarely the case. Therefore it is much more the task of media and NGOs to instigate a discussion on a particular topic before a decision is made.

Problem 3 – The inadequacy of the national level of governance

Although Toffler doesn’t use the notion of “multi-level governance” so popular these days, this is exactly what he is referring to in his book when he is calling for the transfer of powers from the state to the international and local levels. On one hand no individual state was able to solve the global challenges of the 1970s. On the other, the one-size-fits-all policy adopted at the national level could have been beneficial for some regions, while detrimental for other.

This is even more true in the world of 2014 than it was in 1980. Globalization, terrorism, climate change, poverty, famine, and many other issues cannot be solved by one country acting on its own. The United Nations is doing a great job in coordinating the actions of its member states, but it is far too little to deal with the increasing number of challenges we will be facing in the future.

In his book The Third Industrial Revolution from 2011, Jeremy Rifkin writes about the continentalization taking place all around the world. In this case the European Union went the furthest in facilitating integration between its member states. But in many other regions of the globe countries are strengthening their cooperation in the framework of regional organizations: ASEAN Union, African Union, UNASUR and NAFTA are the most well-known. However, to what degree these organizations will go beyond the main goal of facilitating economic growth and will also make it easier to deal with regional and global challenges remains to be seen.

Equally important is the transfer of competences to the local level. For Toffler this is the natural consequence of the move from the second, predominantly industrial, centralized age, to the third stage of our civilization’s development, based on the increased cooperation at the local level. Transferring more powers to the level of communes would increase the impression among the local communities that they can decide about their fate. Joint projects, i.e. in the area of renewable energy or energy efficiency, could strengthen the willingness to cooperate also in other areas and thus increase the social capital of the local community.

What does the future hold?       

It is not easy to be optimistic these days. With ISIS throwing large parts of the Middle East back into the Middle Ages, with tensions increasing at the doorsteps of the European Union and Russia turning (again) into a dictatorship, with climate change progressing uninhibited and the global community seemingly unable to reach a meaningful compromise to at least slow down the progress of the greatest environmental catastrophe, with a number of other challenges facing our civilization one could get the impression, our roller coaster ride is due to end in an abyss.

But a closer analysis of the long-term development of our civilization allows for some hope concerning the future of the mankind. In 1980 Toffler wrote:

(…) never in history have there been so many reasonably educated people, collectively armed with so incredible a range of knowledge. Never have so many enjoyed so high a level of affluence, precarious perhaps, yet ample enough to allow them time and energy for civic concern and action. Never have so many been able to travel, to communicate, and to learn so much from other cultures. Above all, never have so many had so much to gain by guaranteeing that the necessary changes, though profound, be made peacefully.

But Toffler wrote these words long before Wikipedia became accessible to everyone enjoying access to the internet – thus becoming our “global brain” shared by over 3 billion people on the planet – and counting. It was also long before nearly 1 billion people were taken out of poverty in only two decades. When Toffler wrote these sentences, the Berlin Wall still stood unshaken as the symbol of the divided world. Instead in 2014 one can travel 4268 km from Tallinn to Lisbon without having to stop even once for passport inspection. Now one can communicate instantly with people on the other side of the globe in a matter of seconds. And finally, despite the cold war mentality of such people as Vladimir Putin, for whom the world stopped in 1989, never have so many had so much to gain from a peaceful world. Our dismay at Putin’s actions, which wouldn’t have surprised anyone just a few decades ago, shows how much we have changed.

But this does not mean that there are no challenges we should urgently solve. Every 3.6 seconds one person dies of starvation.  Our planet is getting warmer, the sea level is increasing and so do the CO2 emissions. The gap between the rich and the poor has never been so large. And yet, when we look at how our world has changed over less than four decades since Alvin Toffler wrote his book, we should realize our civilization will also deal with these challenges. Well, we don’t really have a choice.

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