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Constitutional democracy has a dark side: oppression of the few by the many, and corruption of the state through politicians or the populace voting funds into their own pockets, or those of their supporters.

I'd like to highlight a potential set of issues in EmergentDemocracy which might be worth examining with a view to designing countermeasures, in much the same way that a constitution and strict conflict-of-interests legislation help restrain unbridled graft and abuse of power.

Before we explore the potential downsides of the ED form I need to introduce a concept: "pre/trans confusion."

Pre/trans confusion the name that Ken Wilbur gives mistaking an evolutionary regression for progress. The example he uses most often is:

*Pre-rational (superstition, child-like understandings of the world)

*Rational (knowledge-based decision making, distinctions between facts and hypotheses)

*Trans-rational (enlightened states of awareness).

Wilbur suggests that a lot of the "new age" movement mistake a slide back into pre-rationality for the push forward into trans-rationality: that superstition is substituted for true understanding of the Nature Of Things, as it were. Both the Pre- and the Trans-rational offer an escape from the problems of the rational world, but one is simply moving in the wrong direction, back to an earlier stage of human development, rather than being a genuine integration of all of the wisdom of the rational level with that which lies beyond it.

Now, what does this have to do with emergent democracy? I'd like to suggest that, in some forms, emergent democracy can collapse into feudalism: that what appears to be a forward step can, sometimes, be retrograde motion.

I'd like to outline a scenario which makes this visible: suppose a personal grudge of epic proportions grows between the head of an open source project and one of the core developers, and the head simply begins to reject all patches which that the developer works on, essentially barring the developer from further participation in the project.

What recourse does the developer, or the community, have?

* The Developer can simply leave. This is effectively exile: being deprived of participation in something one has invested in is bad. No recourse or resolution has take place (bad)

* The Community can pressure the Head and/or the Developer into behaving reasonably, solving their differences, burying the hatchet, and getting back to work. (good - this is probably the sort of behavior we'd hope to see more often in an emergent-type society)

* The Developer can fork the project and attempt to pull enough support from the Community to make the fork viable, perhaps even displacing the original project.

Now, I'd like to suggest that these three options: exile, social resolution or "civil war" (a code fork being, in some circumstances, as close to a civil war as the open source development process allows) are the resolution possibilities which exist in a feudal society.

If the King is being a bastard, in the feudal past, they either put up with it, leave, attempt to rally the Barons into exerting social pressure, or declare a civil war.

I think that this parallelism indicates that, in many instances, governance of open source projects is essentially a highly functional, singularly effective form of feudalism. Feudal structures worked very well for making sure that the land was secure and productive, and the newness of the Internet might be one reason that a feudal structure is so effective at this stage of homesteading the noosphere.

People invented Parliments and institutions like the House of Lords to constrain the power of a King. Essentially, they set up systems which had multiple leaders at all times, so that checks and balances were always in force, rather than having rival leaders arise in times of crisis, potentially resulting in destructive wars. The notion that the Opposition must always exist and must always be given power to maintain balance strikes me as a crucial part of how democracy evolved: initially the Barons counterbalanced the King, and then the People counterbalanced both the King and the Lords. In a feudal culture, opposition comes from without. In a democracy, opposition comes from within: it has been coopted and integrated to create a more functional whole. [For good stuff on EmergentAristocracy, see KevinMarks at http://epeus.blogspot.com/2003_04_01_epeus_archive.html#200220219]

Indeed, I think we can see some evidence that this kind of feudal squabble occurs in the Blogosphere, and follows some of these paths to resolution. In placing RSS under the control of third parties, Dave Wiener essentially signed the Magna Carta, limiting his own power for the good of the land, in an attempt to head off a Civil War between the Kingdom of RSS and the Rebels of (n)Echo.


Actually this Magna Carta is nothing really extraordinary in this matter - you might look at the [WWW]Debian Constitution for a better example. This is a major project existing since 1993: [WWW]A Brief History of Debian. For me the whole argument here just shows that democracy is an emergent phenomenon - so the term emergent democracy is a pleonasm.


This, to me, appears to be an evolution from a feudal situation into a relatively standard democratic situation, with institutions, elections, checks, and balances. This looks like progress to me.

My suspicion is that emergent democracy is actually a "trans" step forward rather than a "pre" step back. I believe that something in the emergent direction actually represents a significant advance on conventional democracies. My gut tells me that the key is in the notion of self-defining constituencies - the notion that a person can choose where to stand when their vote is counted, allowing for a fluid redrawing of electoral maps defined not in terms of physical location, but in terms of interest, concern and social importance. -- VinayGupta


Wait a second. You lost me with that last sentence. I'm not sure it's desirable for people to be able to redraw electoral maps. I may be very concerned about the state of women in Saudi Arabia, but that doesn't mean that I as an American have any right to vote for the Saudi government. Or vice versa. -- KatherineDerbyshire


I'm not suggesting that we literally have people vote across state boundries. Yet.

But a lot of our most important issues at this point, like international terrorism, global warming and world trade cut straight across state lines. The millions and millions of peace protesters, for example, were a multinational lot protesting multinational issues. The protesters themselves had declared an interest in the issues and chose to find a way to participate. They supported eachother across national boundries to protest international action by their governments.

I think that current political boundries are often part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Almost every reforming political movement has a faction which wants to redraw the national boundries: libertarians, bioregional greens, communists and fascists all want to redraw the map, because with the current map the current political structure is likely to remain. If you assume "all power resides in the nation state, and the states shall be roughly the size and location they are now for ever and ever" many of our current problems will endure forever.

Nation states have proven very effective in dealing with their own problems in many parts of the world. But increasingly the political landscape is becoming dominated with international problems of relationship. Plus the international power structures which are being built are incredibly undemocratic: the United Nations has no regard for the population of a nation voting, or it's economic power, or anything other than some supposed mandate which goes with nationhood. The European Union is run by unelected, unaccountable Eurocrats and is a filthy rats nest of special interestes and beurocrats who verge on the fascist. Nobody is even talking about giving the population of the world a say in how agreements like the WTO, GATT etc. function.

Well, yes and no. Since the major economic powers are also democracies, any agreement which is not seen as being in the best interests of their citizens is unlikely to get through. The problem is that the countries which are economically weakest, and thus have the most to lose from these agreements, are also among the least responsive to their citizens. It falls to NGOs with people and funding from the economic powers to represent these constituencies, which they may or may not be able to do effectively. -- KD

So when I talk about fluid redrawing of electoral maps, this is what i mean: everybody who wanted peace and was willing to march for it formed a political constituency. They protested, and really showed the world that peace was a really big, powerful political cause.

Similarly, everybody who wants muslim theocracy and the fall of the west, and is willing to kill and die for it, have formed a political cause: fundamentalist terrorism or theocratic revolution.

Emergent forms of democracy are very unlikely to stay within polite state lines. The Greens have more in common in, say, Germany and Britain than the Democrats and Republicans do here, so why shouldn't they work together on their larger political goals across state lines, rather than remaining split apart.

Of course, the sheer blind terror of this is the communists. The Internationales (international communist parties) sowed the seeds for revolution in Russia, eventually bringing Stalin to power. They paved the way for National Socialism, eventually bringing Hitler to power, and they inspired Mao. All told, of the 160 million people who were killed by their own governments in the 20th century, the vast, vast proportion were killed by communist or socialist governments. You can get the full story here [WWW]http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/welcome.html

The members of the early internationales thought they were making the world a better place by fighting for the right of the common people to live their lives in social and economic security and instead they paved the roads for the worst regimes the world has ever seen. There's a warning there: anybody who dabbles in politics is either going to fail and be a fringe player, or succeed, and be invested with the power to decide who lives and who dies either through distribution of funds in the society or by outright command of lethal force. Emergent democracy will not remove the responsibilities which go with real political power.

In the long run, emergent democracy has to face this: either it will be sidelined, or operate only in an advisory capacity, or it will accumulate enough power to make life and death decisions, perhaps starting with issues like "which line of medical research to fund" (many large charities face these issues today) but at least in theory moving all the way into policing issues and military force. We better have our checks and balances all lines up so that we don't nurture and give rise to our own Hitler, Stalin or Mao. -- VinayGupta

Absolutely. Many of the people (our host excepted) who are the most vocal about emerging democracy seem to actually want an autocracy with themselves at the top. "All those ignorant masses who aren't on the Internet don't know what they're doing, so we should run things instead. That way it will be done right." -- KatherineDerbyshire