The Emergence of Centralised Power and the State
The evolution of complex societies has two major schools of thought: the Marxists and the Integrationists/Functionalists. The Marxist view runs something like this: as agricultural communities became the norm and population density started to rise, we saw the emergence of private property and a surplus. This surplus allowed people to hire other people to work for them, creating the seeds of the class system. Over time this developed into the state, which gave structure to the system and enabled the dominant classes to exploit the lower classes. The Integrationists and Functionalists, on the other hand, think that complexity, stratification, and the state grew not out of the motivation of individuals and classes, but out of a need to solve crucial problems that arise in more densely populated societies.
It is impossible to know the true causal development of the state. Either could be correct, and quite likely it may have developed through a combination of the two. However, I think it is safe to say that the State did develop into an institution that managed society in an extremely centralised, undemocratic, and brutal way. The functioning of the state was heavily criticised as acting against the interest of its citizens by enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith and Von Humboldt, and later by socialist and anarchist thinkers such as Marx and Proudhun.
Research by american anthropologist Robert Carneiro estimates that for 99.8% of human history the common political unit were small, autonomous, and self-sufficient communities. Today these societies can been observed in some remaining basic tribal societies. The decision making is very horizontal, and communities leaders play a largely cultural or ceremonial role. Any leader who trys to throw his weight around to much is easily ignored, deposed, or even killed. In the modern state, however, unethical or tyrannical leaders have the state apparatus of the police, army, and judicial system to protect them.
Leaders, Centralised Decision Making, and Hierarchical Structure
The modern state has a largely hierarchical form, where decisions are made at the top in a command and control fashion. This centralises decision making and power in a society. Centralised and hierarchical forms have many pros and cons. For a small group of people with similar experiences and information, it can be efficient for the group to choose a leader to make the decisions. If the group chooses a leader with the best ethics and decision making abilities it can be an excellent way to organise. However, when you scale up this type of command structure into the hundreds of thousands and millions, you run into a plethora of difficulties.
First of all, the leader will not have access to all the information that the group will have. Imagine what perspective a leader would have if they were a member of an disadvantaged ethnic minority living in a ghetto, or if their children were off fighting a war in a foreign country. In a large hierarchical structure much of the information which has to pass through many levels of bureaucracy can also get lost or be withheld. The leader can be corrupted and knowingly act against the interest of the community at large, or they can simply be not up to the task. Power also has the tendency to attract people who want power for powers sake. These people are often prepared to do many unethical things to get their hands on the levers. And for those few ethical people who get to the top, power has the tendency to corrupt them.
Representative Democracy & How It Is Supposed To Work:
Modern representative democracy is typically a hybrid mix of hierarchical and decentralised components. Once every few years there is an election where people choose the local representatives from a bunch of people who put their names forward. Typically the representatives are members of political parties who run on the basis of their policy manifestos. This is the decentralised and horizontal component, where everybody has a say. If the politicians get elected and their party wins enough seats they get to go into government and enact their policies. If people don’t like what they have done while in power they can kick them out of power at the next election. Below is a simplified model of how it should work.
Political Actors Structure Voter Signal
The joy of this system is that it leaves governing to an able few, chosen by the public for their ability to act in their interest. The politicians in this model vie for the ears of the voters and those that enact good policy get rewarded with being voted back. Those who mess up get kicked out. Each voter is equal, the poor man having the same rights as the rich man. The voters are sovereign, and it is they who decide who rules. In this society, the citizenry make informed decisions about which parties best represent their interests. If you imagine each voters brain as a computational unit, society can be imagined as a big networked computer that is chomping through all the info and coming up with a decision on who should be the next government. And the more brains the better. If the system is working correctly, the ‘voter signal’ will accurately reflect the best outcomes for the voting public. This is a powerful practical reason why democracy should perform better than a more dictatorial system. Unfortunately what we teach our children in school and what we get drummed into our skulls come election-time is nowhere near how the political system really functions.
A More Realistic Model of How Representative Democracy Actually Works:
In reality there are many important influences on society which play subtle and strong roles in choosing who gets elected and what policy gets made. Below is a basic model of how democracy functions in the real world. The two new additions are the informational systems and the power institutions. Here we will see how these act to disrupt the normal voter signal from its proper function.
Info. Systems Political Actors Structure Power Institutions Voter Signal
a TV/Radio << Leader | ←— Corporations ↑
a Internet << Ministers / \ ←— Army/Police ?
Think Tanks << MPs /\ /\ ←— Banks ?
PR/Advertising << Voters /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\ ←— Capital ?
aUniversities << Citizens /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\ ←— Unions ↓
Party Funding, Corporations, and The Rich
Party fundraising plays an important function in the way political parties get elected and form policy. In the US, this is particularly important, as presidential elections cost each candidate over $1bn. The recent Citizens United ruling making unlimited corporate political donations legal is only going to make things much worse. Professor Thomas Ferguson’s Investment Theory of Politics gives a detailed explanation of how this works. In essence, if political donations from the corporations and the wealthy are required to run for high office, only pro-business politicians end up getting elected. The election campaign becomes a way political parties auction themselves to the highest bidders, a way to sell themselves to different classes of investor. The latest research from the US shows that whoever raises the most cash, wins the election a stunning 93% of the time! Cash is king. In the past unions used to play an important role in funding parties, such as the British Labour Party. Since the coordinated attack on unions beginning in the 70′s, however, their influence has waned considerably.
Advertising and Media Ownership
Informed voting choices by citizens are critically dependant on good quality information and journalism. In countries where corporate and private donations are restricted, capital can still work its political magic. This is mainly done through the control and ownership of media, which is largely controlled by powerful businessmen, corporations, and the government. When you own a newspaper title, you can choose the editorial line, hire the columnists you like, and fire those you don’t. Wealthy media-moguls are unlikely to back radical policies to redistribute wealth or change the political system counter to their interests. Their ownership acts as a constricting force on the type of analysis and information that gets to the public, narrowing the debate and ensuring a generally pro-business editorial line. Politicians who go against the interests of the media owners will experience considerable flak, and rarely be politically electable to any high office. Observe the treatment of Ron Paul & Dennis Kucinich, both committed, intelligent and principled US politicians of different stripes who struggle to gain any positive media attention.
In their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman proposed the Propaganda Model which details precisely these functions of the media. It was not always this way. In the past labour organisations had their own newspapers reaching large sections of the public, and before that radical leaflets and pamphlets were a common and powerful political influence. However, advertising changed all this. Businesses prefer to give their advertising money to publications with a pro-business slant. This meant pro-business papers were able to sell their newspapers cheaper and gain market share at the expense of the pro-labour/radical newspapers. This eventually put them out of business, or if not, was sufficient to change their editorial line. For decades now the media systems have been firmly in pro-business control. The rise of the internet with its lively indy media and blogosphere scene, is changing this iron grip, and starting to have a real, tangible political effect.
Banking Power and Economic Thought
Banking has always played a critical infrastructural role in the Capitalist economy. This power from two of bankings major functions – the control of the money supply (keeping the ATM’s running) and the control of money creation through the fractional reserve system. This system allows banks to create money out of thin air, every time they give somebody a loan. They then have the temerity to demand interest on this money. As Abraham Lincoln put it: ‘If the American people knew tonight, exactly how the monetary and banking system worked, there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning’. This ability to decide what newly created money is spent on is possibly the single most important economic power in the capitalist economy. If we look at the last 40 years banks have been busy lending people money to invest in asset speculation. As people take out more and more debt, the banks earn more and more interest and use this money to further finance the political control by funding politicians who act in their interest.
The banks have also helped the neo-classical school of economics to inhabit a position of complete academic dominance in universities across the world. Colleges are stocked with neo-classical professors whose theories, coincidentally, ignore the role of debt and credit creation in the economy. Unsurprisingly, none of these professors foresaw the greatest financial crash since the great depression. The history of economic thought is rarely taught these days, and students learn little or nothing of the Marxian, Post-Keynesian, Austrian, of Evolutionary schools of thought. Economics used to be called political economy, when it was obvious the role that politics played in economies. Nowadays economics is thought as if it is politically agnostic, a sterile scientific study. Nothing could be further from the truth, as empirical study after empirical study have disproved many of the neo-classical schools most cherished beliefs.