Disclaimer: I don’t have answers to everything. In fact, I probably don’t have answers to anything at all, just some thoughts on what’s wrong with the structure of governance around the world (it’s too centralized and authoritarian) and some general ideas about what direction we should head in.
Given the increased likelihood that all sorts of things about the current paradigm will begin to fail in a more acute and undeniable manner in the years ahead, well intentioned people capable of critical thought should begin contemplating how things could be as opposed to how they are. Ideally, this will lead to increased action and experimentation, particularly at a local level. Never forget, if we don’t come up with our own ideas and perspectives for how things should be, others will be more than happy to decide for us.
More than anything else this piece should be seen as a thought exercise of how I would try to structure things if presented with a blank slate opportunity.
In Part 3 of this series, I outlined a framework of sovereignty beginning with the individual, progressing to family, municipality/county, state and finally country. Though the broadest scope of decision making should always reside with the individual, the reality of social relations means some individual autonomy is relinquished as sovereign units grow to include more and more people. It’s part of human nature to expand beyond ourselves and our families into larger and more complex social relationships, but far more thought should be directed at the dangers and uncertainties that arise as these units start to include increased degrees of geography and population.
As you move along the units of sovereignty scale you always add complexity and individuals, but at certain levels you start piling on additional meaningful variables, such as geography (coastal, mountain, plains, etc) and various population densities (urban, suburban, rural, etc). Both these distinctions lead to meaningful differences in the needs and desires of given populations, and must be considered carefully rather than flippantly waved away in the pursuit of larger political unity. This is one reason I’ve come to conclude political life should be centered at the municipal/county level as opposed to larger units such as the state or country. It’s at this smaller unit that actual self-government is possible. Once you start adding geography and disparate masses of people you can’t properly and practically address local concerns (for more see my post: The Next Revolution by Murray Bookchin).
While it’d be nice to stop there and proclaim we’ve solved politics by deciding local’s the way to go, it’ll never be that easy. Issues will arise and conflicts will emerge that result in larger political structures being formed. The key aspect to discuss and ponder is how should these structures look once they grow beyond the city or county level? In the modern world, many people seem to think it intuitive and appropriate that larger political units exercise greater power and authority than the smaller bodies that comprise the whole. I believe this is fundamentally wrong and must be addressed and corrected in future models of governance.
I think we should stop viewing political constructs beyond the local level as sovereign. The individual, the family and the municipality/county can be seen as sovereign units for a few reasons. First, they check several important boxes that should be required in order to exercise ethical governance. For one, they’re generally voluntary since they offer well-defined escape routes (divorce, move to a new city). Second, there’s usually a shared geography that’s limited in scope, whether we’re talking about a concentrated metropolis or the boundaries of the more than three thousand counties that comprise the U.S. These attributes start to disappear once you leave the local level.
Although moving from one state to another is fairly easy in the U.S. (it checks the voluntary box), it doesn’t check the other boxes. Virtually all 50 states have some mix of rural and urban; liberal and conservative; mountainous, plains, or coastal; and many states have populations that exceed certain countries. As such, we should ask whether it makes sense to place so much power in the hands of the 50 state governments, as opposed to the people at the municipal or county level. If you ask me, it makes no sense at all. Moreover, if we’re going to concentrate a great deal of power in the states, why is 50 the right number? It seems low.
Beyond the states, putting power into a national government is far more concerning and problematic since the voluntary aspect of the union pretty much disappears. The vast majority of people on this earth are born to a certain piece of land with a particular national government, and they will live under it their entire lives. In most cases, leaving to go to one’s desired external country simply isn’t feasible or desirable for a variety of reasons. As such, at the national level you not only add the complexity of large numbers of people, diverse geography, but also a lack of exits. For all practical purposes, it is no longer a voluntary relationship at this stage. So what should we do about it?
We can’t just pretend political unions won’t expand beyond the city or county level, in fact, I’m convinced this will always occur to some degree. As such, the real question becomes how best to structure such bonds, and the first thing to do is establish some ground rules. I’d start with the view that any issue (beyond core civil liberties) which does not require larger scale cooperation, be decided at the municipal/county level.
For the relatively small number of issues that must be kicked up to the state or national level, the sovereign units that make up the larger body must be consulted. Directly. Via referendum. No more of this “elected representatives” deciding things for the people. They do not know best and they tend to be corrupt, unscrupulous types. We may still want to elect representatives to larger political unions for administrative tasks and crafting legislation, but the final vote on any such agreements should always be finalized and approved directly by the public.
This is a start, but it skirts an even larger issue that must be addressed. How do we ensure larger political bonds are more voluntary and fluid? The issue of secession is a challenging one to discuss in the U.S. due to its historical association with the civil war and slavery, but it’s something that must be addressed more thoroughly. I’ve personally come to believe questions of secession should be seen as a regular and normal part of human political life. Our larger political associations, particularly at the national level, are far too rigid. While stability is important, so is flexibility.
This really hit home for me during the Catalonia revolt of 2017. In the post, It’s Time to Question the Modern Nation-State Model of Governance, I noted:
As things stand today, humans essentially have two choices when it comes to political life. We either accept the nation-state we’re born into and play the game to the best of our advantage, or we try to become citizens of another country with values that more align with our own. The only way to really shatter existing political power structures and form new ones is through violent revolution or war, which is an insane way of reorganizing matters of human governance. One of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s key arguments in casting the Catalan referendum as illegal is that Spain is an indivisible nation under the 1978 constitution. Let’s think about what this means in practice.
Anyone who’s spent any time in Spain understands how culturally and linguistically distinct many of the regions are when compared to Madrid. These are differences that go back centuries and can’t be brushed off by a constitution created a few decades ago. The idea that these various regions must be part of a centralized Spain even if the people within the regions want political autonomy is ethically preposterous, as well as authoritarian and evil in every sense of the word. If done properly, human governance should always be a voluntary arrangement. If an overwhelming majority of culturally distinct people within any nation-state decide the super state is no longer working for them, they should have every right to leave. Anything else is bondage.
If the smaller units that make up a nation decide they’ve had enough, they have no real options in the modern world. The presumption that the nation-state is eternal and unchanging is as unrealistic as it is authoritarian. As such, it’s my belief that any political union that reaches beyond the local (city or county) level be subject to regularly scheduled referendums on the union. The cities and counties that make up a state should periodically vote on whether or not they wish to continue in that relationship, and the states should do the same with regard to the federal government. It shouldn’t be some extraordinary act, but a regular affirmation or rejection of the larger union.
When entering into a larger political union, all parties should start with the assumption nothing in this world’s permanent and this new bond will last only so long as it’s working for the smaller units involved. Any initial agreement should include an explicit understanding that regular referendums on the bond will be held in order to ensure the union remains voluntary. The length of time between referendums should be long enough to provide for a period of stability, yet short enough to allow a person who lives a full life to vote on the union several times. I think a 20 or 25 year period between such votes might make sense.
The goal here isn’t to have nations constantly breaking apart, but rather a system that more properly distributes power and final say to the smaller units that comprise the whole. If such a system existed in these United States I doubt Washington D.C. would be as big, bloated and powerful as it is today. The simple understanding that states could easily leave in a few years if the feds pushed too hard could provide a meaningful deterrent to massive expansions of centralized control in the first place.
The key thing is we need to shift our entire perspective. We need to view the local units as sovereign, and emphasize that the larger unions exist only at the pleasure of the smaller bodies. Secession, as well as reconstitution into new more favorable/appropriate bonds, should not be seen as unthinkable and extreme, but rather as completely normal. This shouldn’t just apply at the national level, but every step of the way. Municipalities and counties should hold regularly scheduled votes on whether to remain in their current state, join another state, or perhaps even band together to form an entirely new state. Larger political bonds should be structured in a far more fluid and voluntary manner in order for them to serve their real purpose, which is the sovereign interests of the smaller units.
As I noted in the beginning, I don’t want anyone to think I’m presenting these thoughts as a silver bullet. Even if we implemented everything I outlined above from scratch, if humanity fails to become more conscious and ethical, it probably won’t make much of a difference.
I also understand it’s unlikely we move to such a governance model anytime soon — or even within my lifetime — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be discussing these things. I think it’s helpful to highlight where sovereignty should reside (locally) and how larger political bonds should be structured in a more voluntary and fluid manner. This isn’t supposed to be the final word on anything, but a thought experiment in political philosophy. I hope it sparks inspiration in the minds of those who read it, so we can carry this important conversation forward.
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