Introduction: New Democratic Theory?
Previous Arguments against Evolutionary Democracy
[This is chapter 4 of my first book, Evolutionary Basic Democracy, published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan. The name of the chapter, of course, comes from the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. A canine friend, who I have the pleasure of caring for, is also called Schrödinger (Odie for short). I have fond memories of writing this chapter within the School of Mathematics & Physics at the University of Queensland.]
Abstract:In this final chapter we zoom out from the material introduced in Chapters 1 to 3. The argument that basic democracy is not a human invention is first offered. We then move to answer a number of questions raised throughout the book: ‘where did democracy come from?’, ‘how did its complexity arise?’ and ‘what, in the end, is democratic?’ These are our main questions. It is a look to the future. It is a critical consideration of what the theory of evolutionary basic democracy and its model can bring to politics and society.
Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment in 1935. It was about a cat in a sealed room. Inside the room are a Geiger counter and a piece of radioactive element. The element is thought to decay a little every hour. If the Geiger counter registers this decay it releases a switch. That switch sprays poisonous gas into the room. This kills the cat. But because the room is sealed, and there are no cameras or windows, the scientist cannot tell whether the cat is alive or dead. The only way of finding this out is for the scientist to open the door. The act of opening the door interferes with the experiment: it entangles1 the scientist in the result. In other words, we affect the result of studies by participating in them and by interpreting their results. If the scientist does not open the door the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. It is a paradox. And studies, as far as we know, are useless to us unless we can explain their results. We have to become entangled.
I see a similar situation with democracy. As mentioned at the end of chapter 3, democracy needs scientists to engage it. We need to build a room planetary time and space model) that can have a cat in it (planetary democracy data). We can forego the poison and Geiger death trap. We need to run as many experiments on this data as possible. Every time an experiment is launched, a particular door is sealed, and we cannot see the cat for a time. But when the experiment is finished and we open to door to check our result, we become entangled with it. If we can measure how each user became entangled with the experiment and how the experiment was affected by each user we could come closer to the findings we need. Because each study is subjective, understanding the nature of entanglement would help to identify the tenuous foundations of the results coming from this mass of studies. It would help us create a first scientific post-foundation of democracy, one to be built upon again and again until something akin to a singularity of democracy is reached. This is an ultimate telos for this book.
Politics and society can change by reaching a widely agreed upon scientific foundation for democracy. This change would be the result of knowing, with the best confidence we humans can have, what is democracy and what is not. This, over time, with new and better scientific foundations would lead to a mastery of certain things. It would lead to an evolution of the human–animal. Non-violence, equality, effective topics for communication, easily selecting better leaders and creating impressively informed communal long-term goals could be the unshakeable foundations of a future human existence. Competition between individuals and associations over new ways to drive humanity forward would be fierce. But it would be a morally grounded competitive ferocity supported by cooperation, like an extremely competitive sporting match between the most ethical athletes imaginable. This kind of competition would foster the growth and strengthening of social fabrics. Not burning these fabrics to ash which we are currently, and unfortunately, in the habit of doing. But this is a discussion on futurism in democratic theory. It is but another best guess.
In this closing chapter I discuss certain unresolved arguments in the literature covered in preceding parts of the book. The aim is to identify and then discuss the problems that need resolving for the theory of evolutionary basic democracy (EBD) to proceed. Three main questions are asked: where does democracy come from, how did its complexity emerge, and, in the end, what is democracy and what is not. The answers to these questions in this book come from the old ontology. Any works of this sort cannot escape that fact. For the answers to those questions to be reproducible, non-parochial and positivist, they would have to use the complete data from the model presented in the Introduction. As that analytical tool is now only being built, I must try to offer answers through other means. But before proceeding in that direction, there are minor questions that need fuller engagements.
Why are nonhumans incapable of having democracy or being democratic? This question does not have a recognizable debate in the literature. It does, however, relate to Isakhan’s and Stockwell’s work that questions why ‘primitive’ is associated with democracy when we speak of it in archaic times. The same question can be asked about quasi, proto and semi prefixes to democracy. Why use these things? Isakhan’s question ‘what’s so primitive about democracy?’ is poignant. Individual human beings 10,000 years ago held assemblies. They used verbal communication. And they had deliberations that were needed to make collective decisions just as we do today. Ancient democracy in the Teutoberg forest, on the Nile Delta, in the Indo–Gangetic plain and on the Siberian tundra is probably not different to how smaller numbers of individuals do democracy today. Given the limited amount of knowledge that we have about archaic democracies it does not seem fair to use denigrating qualifiers when describing them. This point extends to the way hunter–gatherer societies today govern themselves. What, in the end, is so primitive about their egalitarian assemblies and deliberations?
But that point and the questions it raises remain anthropocentric. Although further research is required it seems that Homo sapiens were capable of inter-breeding with at least Neanderthals and Denisovans.2 We are probably composed of other hominoid genetics from breeding that occurred over millions of years. After all, we share genes with slimemoulds, primates and mole-rats. Those had to come from somewhere. This point is essential to link us as one type of animal out of numerous others that can behave democratically. Although it is difficult to prove that Neanderthals or Homo erectus held egalitarian assemblies, made collective decisions and had ways of rotating leadership, it is likely that some of them did. This is true for times of resource abundance where the stress of survival does not blow out the delicate flames of democratic behaviours. This reasoning comes from the argument that cooperation and friendly competition among relatively equal agents seems to make for the best survival chances. Democratic behaviours are phenomena observed in wild animals, certain of which significantly predate Homo sapiens as a species. The manifestation of altruism through democratic behaviours from the dawn of life is a controversial point, but one that I think deserves championing until proven otherwise.
The separation between human democracy and nonhuman democracy is made clearest by the arguments in Chapter 3. Democracy is a social and political phenomenon. It is moral: for democracy to exist it must meet certain basic moral and practical functions. For the moral side today, democracy means equality for everyone – the same chances, the same support and the same power so that individuals can compete on the same playing field. Gender disappears – we are all human individuals. In a democracy there cannot be corruption, a lack of accountability and poor transparency. The government and governance must manifest itself from the collective of individuals. L’etat c’est moi holds true for each person. You do not live in a country. The country lives because of you.
The statements in the paragraph above synthesize the arguments we looked at in Chapter 3. For democracy to exist, moral expectations have to be realized through institutions. Individuals have to see that impressive efforts are at work to increase and maintain the ‘good society’. The emphasis here is that a working democracy requires high cognition, complex institutions and moral post-foundations. Democracy is hard for humans to achieve. Because it is so difficult, how can nonhumans expect to be democratic or to have their own democracies?
One answer is in scale. Like humans, nonhumans are continuously evolving. Bees, ants, whales, metazoans and yeast evolved as they are today the same way humans did: through trial and error. What worked best propagated species. And for the bacteria to massive cetaceans that we looked at in this book it seems that basic democracy (cooperation and positive competition among relative equals) was a best method for survival. As individual nonhumans scale into larger numbers the type of basic democratic practice changes. Bats, fish, insects and microbes have a burden of communication the greater their numbers become. In these higher population settings hierarchical systems are sometimes more effective than egalitarian ones. But do human democracies not build delicate hierarchies that are meant to shift and change like the sands of a desert? The honeybee uses more experienced (older) bees and quorum formation to make surprisingly accurate decisions which the majority of other bees ‘trust’. This is why I term the honeybee system an elite, or expert, democracy. We as humans may not agree with the hierarchical honeybee system but it works for them.
Another answer is in chance. Why do bees do democratic things one way and ants another? Why do humans have so many competing variations of democracy across time and space? As time advanced and species experienced different challenges they made adjustments. Basic democracy grew into a specific manifestation. For microbes this explanation is especially apparent. A group of bacteria communicates with chemical signals. The group encounters an antibiotic. Bacteria detect the death of other bacteria. Few individuals survive the antibiotic. One undergoes mitosis or shares its genetics with other individuals. The group eventually becomes resistant to the antibiotic. Without communication and cooperation the microbe would not be able to face this adversity. This is one reason why antibiotic resistance in bacteria is a serious medical issue. In the end, basic democracy is present in animate matter. It manifests differently depending on what species we look at, when in time and where in space. This holds true for humans too.
That particular viewpoint is what drove the development of the model I presented in the Introduction. If basic democracy is theorized as a constant for humans and nonhumans then it probably is manifested in various ways outside of the ‘west’. It formed a long time ago as certain creatures figured out that an equal playing field, cooperation, communication, frequent changes in leadership and being able to differentiate one group from another held survival benefits. Basic democracy has led to various manifestations of democratic phenomena anywhere we look. Some will be extremely simple and will do only one democratic thing well. Others will do a number of things well but may not be considered democracies because certain core parameters, like collective decision-making, are suppressed. Some are in serious tension with anti-democratic elements. Others seem poised to continue with their systems, dabbling here and evolving there. But just as anyone else who has proposed a theory of democracy – I could be wrong. It is important to stress that the most important part of this book is the model that we have been reverse engineering over the past few chapters. That is where the right answers will come from and where current best guesses will be proven or disproven.
With that established it would be good to return to our main line of questioning. How is democracy solely bound to Homo sapiens? The arguments described in Chapter 3 share the premise that democracy is a human affair. I built the heuristic where a number of scholars argue that democratic humanity has still not reached this zenith. But how is this anthropocentricism possible given the arguments presented in Chapters 1 and 2? One answer is that humans do not have a foundation of democracy which can be used to compare existing systems. Is x democratic according to our post-foundationally established and globally agreed upon positivist y? The other is that nonhumans have not yet evolved the ability to fundamentally alter the rules of their system as quickly as humans do. This may be why the democratic behaviour of species seems to remain consistent unless disrupted by changes to their environment. Humans evolved through democratic practice in resistance to antidemocratic elements. We seem, however, to have lost track of what it was, what it now is and where it should be going. Democracy in its most basic form cannot be considered a solely human creation.
Where does democracy come from?
This question is useful to begin with as we have been addressing it for the majority of this book. Chapters 1 and 2 describe a body of literature that supports the argument of basic democracy emerging in the beginnings of time and space. This was tracked through an argument that began by looking at strange concepts: ‘prebiotic democracy’, ‘the democracy of sperm’, ‘microbial democracy’, and ‘animal democracy’. In the Introduction I also mentioned ‘dendrite democracy’ (democracy between synapses in the brain). Democracy in this context is a mixture of cooperation and friendly competition. This type of competition is one that sees the outcome of the contest as a boon for the greater good. The unfriendly type of competition, where the outcome is a boon for an individual at the expense of the rest, is often punished. In nature, if an individual forsakes the group this sometimes manifests in their death. Cooperation does not replace but rather joins the cut-throat type of competition which has been argued as the universal rule of evolution.
Democracy does not start in the fabric of matter itself. Yes, particles of dust, prebiotics, amino acids, sugar molecules, oxygen atoms and numerous other building blocks of life do things together. But this way of working together to build more complex chains is driven by amoral physical forces. There is no decision to make: it just happens that certain prebiotics bind with others to randomly produce things under the right conditions. As seen in Chapter 2, why anything from electrons to the tons of matter involved in the formation of stars come together and make different things is still a place of uncertainty. The mainstream position has it that natural laws dictate that should a, b and c be found together in the presence of x, y and z they are forced to obey. Natural laws dictate that continuously evolving inanimate and animate matter occurs through chance. Atoms sometimes share electrons; molecules somehow have receptors to bind with others; and new matter can emerge through the inclusion of certain gases, liquids, solids and energies in a vacuum. But these are our representations and only reveal the subjectivity of the user. It does not reveal the intentions of inanimate matter. That kind of matter does not have intentions.
In Chapter 3 we looked specifically at the moral arguments of democracy. This is the narrative that I present as being in disagreement with the evolutionary perspective. For some, democracy began in Greece. For others it began in the USA and for others still it has yet to come. These arguments differ because they say that a suite of different institutions, capacities and behaviours are required for a democracy to exist or to better exist. In this context democracy comes from many places. Even though democracy began somewhere it is not as good as it could be. This reinforces the perspective that better democracy, more democracy or democracy itself, will emerge in the future. Most argue that we are working on this stuff now. Some argue that democracy is a never ending process.
Democracy is a theory, policy, procedure, and art, emphasizing human welfare, individual freedom, popular participation and general tolerance. It can adapt itself to many conditions, but it thrives in an atmosphere of education, toleration, peace and prosperity. Ignorance, dogma, war and poverty are its enemies. They breed absolute and arbitrary government, uncritical and lethargic to people, which are the reverse of democracy. (Quincy Wright in Paris, 10 March 1949)
The contestations and continuations of democracy argued on moral grounds are important. But so too is building different foundational stages of democracy itself. This will increase the quality of the different moralistic interpretations of basic democracy and lead not to a utopia or dystopia, but a better way of governing and structuring government until an even better way eventually emerges. Different types of polity should practice democracy in a way that best suits their structures and agents. A small town for example would benefit from a different interpretation of basic democracy than the type followed by a federated state. The landscape remains the same but the practices of the peoples on that land and their buildings should be different.
Democracy in the context of Chapter 3 is not a natural property. It is the conscious decision of educated individuals who decide to create it in order to protect a teleology of what the good society is. That being said, democracy in the context of Chapters 1 and 2 is a natural property. Particles, microbes and animals do democracy to different extents. Some nonhumans certainly have perfected particular democratic traits. For prebiotics it seems that cooperation is compulsory. But for honeybees, as far as we know, individuals seem to make carefully decided and conscious choices. Democracy is more complicated than we have long presumed.
How did more than 50 types of democracy emerge?
The position on origins in Chapter 3 helps to describe why numerous democracy theories, concepts, practices and their nuances emerged. In one sense it is due to a lack of a foundation capable of describing democracy for all of planetary time and space, not just Homo sapiens’ time and space. This missing foundation leads individuals to argue for different foundations and to try to justify those points with impressive evidence and logic. In another sense, even if a planetary foundation were achieved in a manner agreeable to the majority of experts, this would still spawn a complexity as the foundation itself would be interpreted differently. Indeed, the foundation would be used to engineer democratic systems that would best fit the polity in question. From that perspective it is possible to understand that different foundations each establish their own different interpretations which lead to more variety and contestation. A scientific foundation for democracy will improve the quality of these manifestations. It will sort what is democratic from what is not.
That is my explanation for why democracy is enormously complex today. As time went by and individuals came into contact with the political, social and economic arguments of democracy, the literature grew, and its diversity became greater. This, and a lack of a morally viable alternative, helped to drive interest in the subject. Below I present as an example a list of democracies. Even though it is a large list, and I have provided arbitrary sub-lists for certain cases (most cases would have one or more sub-lists), it is still the surface of a more complicated body. For reasons of space, the focus in the list provided is anthropocentric. I have not included nonhuman democracies.
A number of the categories in the listed in Table 4.1 can mean the same thing. ‘American’ democracy today can mean a ‘presidential’, ‘constitutional’, ‘liberal’, ‘deliberative’, ‘associational’ and ‘hollow’ democracy depending on how a person understands it. ‘American’ democracy would also mean different things if we looked at different time periods. The main function that the list in Table 4.1 has is to demonstrate the type of complexity we currently face with regard to democracy. How do we make sense of these things if we do not know what democracy is?
As I argued in the Introduction, I think we need to work collaboratively to populate the model of evolutionary basic democracy (EBD). With the complexity of democracy increasingly defined we can then deploy reproducible studies. With these we can unleash the power of computational analyses. Over time we can conduct meta-analyses of the results of studies that each asks ‘what are your shared characteristics?’ We can then use Schrödinger’s focus on entanglement to determine the subjectivity of all these different experiments. The median of the studies’ results and the median of the users’ subjectivity would give us a good starting foundation to work from.
To date the standard practice of making sense of different types of democracy, termed modelism, is to choose certain parameters that we think are central to democracy and then to measure the world for them. That approach to categorizing democracy’s complexity is being resisted by post-foundationalists.
All of the items from the list above have ‘democracy’, ‘democratic’, or ‘democratization’ literature associated with them. A number of them like ‘deliberative’, ‘representative’, ‘liberal’ and ‘social’ have vast literatures. A standard library catalogue search excluding newspaper articles, book reviews and trade publications reveals 7,902 hits for ‘deliberative democracy’, 17, 553 hits for ‘representative democracy’ and 36, 841 hits for ‘liberal democracy’. It would be difficult to sort one of these bodies out let alone have total command of it. As mentioned in the Introduction, their size makes it improbable for one individual to understand or even know of them all. That was a primary reason for the development of EBD as a theory and the creation of its working model. We have a pressing need to both describe and make sense of these grand complexities. The model is an analytic tool for organizational and descriptive programs. But it is not in its current state highly effective at presenting different types of democracy. We need a different tool to achieve that.
One useful method would be to borrow the periodic table framework from the sciences. The periodic table presents known chemical elements. It organizes 118 elements in several ways: by atomic number, blocks, periods and groups. Solids, liquids, gases and elements with no definitive state are separated in ways that describe trends in their behaviour. The table is useful for scientists in numerous fields. It helps to drive their research.
In the study of democracy we do not have a similar framework. There certainly are efforts by scholars to collect, identify and describe, for example, various participatory institutions (e.g. Participedia); institutions for accountability, transparency and anti-corruption (e.g. the United Nations Convention against Corruption); and institutions for the improvement of parliamentary practices (e.g. the Inter-Parliamentary Union). But these are not looking to present the theories, concepts and practices of democracy as a whole. We lack the big picture.
We can, for example, organize the different types of democracy we have on two simple axes: time and number of individuals. This would see the numerically few, small, groups of individuals from 500,000 years ago contrast with the tens of thousands of citizens in ancient Athens 2,500 years ago. We could group democracies by type of assembly, type of representation, type of monitorism, type of participation and type of citizenry. Small local assemblies would contrast with large federal parliaments. Presidential systems would contrast with Ministerial systems. Such a table of contents for the entire planet would be large and would require consolidation. Historical assemblies such as Swiss Cantons, German folkmoots, New England town hall meetings and Iroquoian village meetings could be grouped into the ‘small assembly’ category. Contemporary France, Germany, Canada, Australia and South Africa could, for example, be grouped under ‘representative systems’. The key would be for us to know when to group the same governing methods and to separate those with differences.
A ‘democracy table’ of this sort is essential for us to organize theories, concepts and practices of democracy. The model given in the Introduction is a vacuum cleaner. Its purpose is to suck up all of the democracy data available to us across all languages. It then organizes these data across time and space. This allows us to quickly identify knowledge gaps and to deploy reproducible studies on this unprecedented democracy dataset. But it does not categorize in the way a periodic table can. A ‘democracy table’ then would be valuable to have.
What is democratic and what is not?
This, at the end, is the question that begs to be answered. Under the current conditions where parts of the complexity of democracy are ill-defined and its full complexity unknown, it is not possible to say in a scientific and positivist way what democracy is or is not. It is the subjective, moral decisions that individuals make today which argue matters to be democratic or not. Some are more democratic than others. Some democracies are not welcomed by other democracies. Some governments claim to have democracy and others are accused of not being democratic. Somewhere in that mixture we have the ability to try to achieve what we think of as democracy. Until we reach a positivist conception of basic democracy we will continue to be bound by the current politics of the discourse. North Korea will, for example, continue to claim it is democratic because there is no way to prove its rulers wrong. We can certainly argue that the regime is wrong and use hard or soft power mechanisms to force or encourage its rulers into obeisance of the international community. But we will not at the end be certain of what we are advocating by the emphasis of ‘democratization’ and the demonstration of ‘real existing democracies’.
Humans have difficulties determining the democracy of their own species. I maintain that the arguments stating democracy to be a solely human invention are invalid. Indeed, foundational claims on any theory of democracy as being ‘the’ democracy for the planet are also invalid. We would do well to recall that these claims can only logically argue the foundations of specific types of democracy: not democracy itself. This is because we do not yet have the methods for so doing. I hope that this book can help in that regard. It is important to note that EBD does not make the claim to founding a conception of planetary democracy. It is designed, rather, to argue that we lack this foundation. It then proposes a way for reaching it. We are left then with the task of working collaboratively toward the fulfilment of a positivist foundation. It appears to be the best way forward.
1 I use the English meaning of ‘entanglement’ here and not the technical term used by physicists. I owe a specific debt to Dr Alex Stilgoe and Dr Timo Nieminen for helping me to understand the technical meaning.
2 Denisova hominin were, in March 2010, announced as a human species that existed approximately 40,000 years ago.