For the last decade, I’ve taught graduate courses, written articles, and lectured extensively on the future of our government. As the shocking assault on the Capitol unfolded on TV recently, one of my students from this past semester texted me, “I hope you know that we are all awaiting your I-told-you-so.”
The factors that have brought us to our current moment are numerous and complex. As many have observed in the past two weeks, the most immediate is the economic and demographic changes that have unleashed long-festering white working-class anger and right-wing populism. These grievances enabled the rise of Trump (and others like him) through appeals to latent violence and the near-explicit promise to weaponize it.
But, as I’ve been teaching my students, these are all, in fact, features of a larger, deeper, and ongoing breakdown and realignment in how societies – both in the United States and worldwide – organize and govern themselves.
In other words, we are experiencing a fundamental change in the nature of government itself.
Does that sound extreme? The advent of settled agriculturalism led to the creation of the first states; the invention of technologies like metallurgy and the stirrup enabled the rise of empires; the scientific revolution and Enlightenment gave us the nation-state, and the Industrial Revolution produced the modern welfare state. The digital technologies of today are driving an equally fundamental change in the nature of all institutions, including government.
Although the current technological revolution is proceeding more swiftly than any of its predecessors – perhaps a generation or two as compared to centuries or millennia in the past – we are still only in its early stages. But its basic contours are already clear. Like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave, the images of the Capitol riot that we all watched live are projections of this deeper reality.
A half-century ago – when the U.S. (and the world generally) last experienced this level of domestic unrest – the activist-musician Gil Scott-Heron sang, “The revolution will not be televised.” It turns out he was right: It will be live-streamed. The assault on the Capitol was perhaps the first major historical event to be broadcast live by thousands of individual participants, unlike the good old days, when all of America tuned in to three oligopolistic TV networks. Broadcast television is like most dominant mid-20th Century technologies – from computing to nuclear weapons – in that it is a one-to-many medium. Digital technologies, on the other hand, are many-to-many. This is both a harbinger and an analogy: We should start thinking of government in the same terms.
The assault itself was organized using the same dispersed, networked technologies, planned and organized virtually and across vast distances, coordinated but not centralized. Today’s technologies – from social media to the blockchain algorithms that enable cryptocurrencies – are restructuring all processes, including how societies govern themselves, along similar lines. They also make possible mass-individuation: the large-scale ability to give people precisely what they want, whether bespoke running shoes or individual playlists. They render geography largely irrelevant. You can purchase from – or compete with – any provider, anywhere, anytime. These developments have affected and undermined virtually every industry and institution, from music to publishing to video to higher education.
Even capital-intensive activities like transportation (Uber) and lodging (Airbnb) have been affected. The only reason these developments haven’t similarly undermined the governance “industry” yet is that in government, as Bismarck once remarked as to why he wanted to be in Mecklenburg when the world ends, everything happens there decades later. But it’s happening now.
What does that mean? For one thing, people increasingly will be able to choose their own government-services provider: As I’ve written often, the country of Estonia has already virtualized much of its government apparatus and made it selectively available for purchase from anywhere in the world. Others will follow. In a decade or so, you will be able to get most incidents of modern government – health coverage and social services, retirement security or physical security – from whomever and wherever you want, including opting-out completely if you choose not to join any community.
This is putting pressure on the institution of national governments everywhere; separatist movements afflict all the major powers and numerous others. The various “exit” movements from multinational entities have generally been misinterpreted as a conservative backlash against globalization in favor of the nation-state. They are actually a more general backlash in favor of smaller units of government and merely a prelude to the breaking up of nation-states themselves. In the wake of Brexit, other countries are beginning to agitate for withdrawal, and the breakup of the United Kingdom itself into its constituent parts is likely. The net effect of all this is the increasing ability of individuals to choose the government of which they are members, regardless of that entity’s location or form.
The first virtual governments and societies forming are those of the insurrectionists. There’s a certain irony in this: For several years now, opponents of globalization have been coalescing into a global movement, thanks, in part, to Trump strategist Steve Bannon. They have been strong advocates of traditional nation-states, but these are the folks now storming the seat of government of the world’s greatest nation-state. However, as Phillip Bobbitt has pointed out, the “terrorism” of any age comes to mirror the technologies and structures of the state apparatus which it opposes. It is not surprising, then, that the opponents of the currently ascendant governance structures are the ones, being the least attached to them, who are splitting off, staging the first virtual secessions, and forming the first virtual governments and societies-within-societies. But the rest of us will soon follow.
What does this mean for democracy? Well, it’s actually highly democratic – just not in the way we normally think of democracy. We conceive of democracy as a political system, in which the majority rules. But all areas of life – not just politics and government – can be highly democratic or not, and technology is generally democratizing everything. At the same time, we have been circumventing majority-rule democracy for some time (and not just in our explicit constitutional mechanisms). Most states are now solidly “red” or “blue,” and regions within them are just as polarized, depending upon whether they are metropolitan or rural. Polities are increasingly homogenous.
You no longer choose your government by voting, but rather by moving. “Moving” is easier when you can do so virtually, rather than physically, as will increasingly be the case. The world’s (largely homogenous) geographic blocks are already realigning themselves. Like-minded c
ities are forming global networks independent of their nation-states. U.S. states and cities have bucked the federal government to join the international climate accords. If governments themselves are staging ‘soft-secessions’ from their nation-states, is it surprising that more and more individuals are seceding, as well?
The remaining question is whether this must give rise to greater violence. The answer is yes and no.
The goal – and achievement – of the nation-state was to reduce internal division, elevating conflict to the new international level. The erosion of nation-states and regrouping of individuals and societies along non-geographical lines will reduce “international” violence and warfare. Cities like San Francisco, Shanghai, Tallinn, Mumbai, and Tel Aviv will increasingly form one global society with similar interests.
But just as economic inequality has been declining for decades between countries but increasing within them, the internal tensions within geographies, and separation into different virtual “societies” will grow. The extreme social divisions within the U.S. – and the actual warfare we have now witnessed erupting from this – will continue and likely worsen before they get any better.
We can act to reduce these threats and build a larger order that mediates conflicts between these structures. We did so, after all, with an international order that largely avoided all-out warfare for the last three-quarters of a century. Building such a new system requires first recognizing that we’re moving to an era of new social structures and governance needing such mediation. We must not continue to think in terms of the geopolitics of the 20th Century. That starts by recognizing that if it feels like Americans are now living in two different countries, that’s because, increasingly, we are. The ‘Uncivil War’ between them was livestreamed on January 6th.