Governance and the Rise of Networks

5

August 2017
Ivan Obolensky

What is the role of government, and who does it really represent? What is its purpose, and what are its functions? Where does the domain of government end, and that of the individual begin?

Much of the difficulty in answering these questions has to do with the changing landscapes with which governments and people have had to contend. Fundamentally, government is a human construct and just like humans, its form, extent, function, and purpose is shaped by historical and existing contexts. Demographic shifts, technology, economic resources, mores and behavioral standards, as well as the general education level and personal resources of the individual, and the nature of the territory they encompass determine the environments within which a government operates.

Because many of these contexts are constantly changing, governments of the future will likely be different in many ways from those of the past and the present. The whole concept of government and governance is as vast and extensive as the panorama of human history. This article will briefly focus on how government as a concept has changed over the centuries, and what it might evolve into in the future.

In earliest times, groups were small. With no more than fifty individuals, everyone knew everyone else and were well aware of what others were doing and thinking. Government, if there was such a thing, was usually led by an elder or leader but with limited ability in terms of enforcement. Issues as to war, where to move to, and how the spoils were to be divided were discussed and debated. Opinions varied and eventually a consensus was reached, the decision made, and action followed.

Whether due to climate changes, disease, or catastrophe, the nomadic existence that predominated for many thousands of years grew tenuous and difficult, leading to alternate methods of survival. Agriculture yielded more food per unit of area than hunting and gathering but required larger resources than a small nomadic band could provide. It also required that the cultivator remain in one place for an extended period. Wandering tribes eventually settled into fixed locations. With irrigation techniques, crop yields were greatly increased but required even more laborers. Cities grew up along major rivers such as the Nile, the Ganges, and the Tigris-Euphrates with settlements beginning perhaps some 9,000 years ago.

This technology required the labor of many and demanded extraordinary changes in behavior compared to a nomadic existence. Religions were no longer personal and animistic but broad-based and with good reason. The future of all who labored depended on the success or failure of crops that were sometimes plentiful and sometimes not. Religious beliefs and practices became a fundamental means for people to control a fate that often seemed in the hands of the gods. Being one among many also required a fundamental shift in thinking and in acceptance of one’s place in the world.

With populations in these locations numbering in the thousands and the population tied to the land, invasion became profitable because the more land acquired, the greater wealth and resources became available to the invader. Conquest became a growth industry, and leadership positions required military expertise.
Early civilizations separated into three basic classes: farm laborers, warriors, and priests. Rulers were usually from the warrior class. To this was added, merchants and government administrators.

Government for instance during the Achaemenid empire of Persia (550-300 BCE) was characterized by a single ruler supported by various councils and administrators who managed a large agricultural complex. Its functions were primarily to protect the land from invasion and to provide the administration necessary to tax, account for and allocate resources to warfare and temples, as well as to provide for irrigation maintenance, storehouses, and market places. Government was both an externally and internally facing entity. The personal lives of the inhabitants were not the focus of government other than in the broadest sense.1

The first major change in the whole concept of government was Athens’ experiment with democracy. Athens blossomed briefly and spectacularly only to fade away due to its prolonged conflict with Sparta. Partly this was due to the nature of the agriculture that was available to Athenians. Large irrigation projects were not possible so in their place sprang up numerous small farms. Greek armies were made up of self-sufficient citizen farmers as opposed to an exclusive warrior class. Whether this fact provided the basis for democracy on a larger scale is unknown. It was a grand experiment that failed only to be resurrected almost two thousand years later. The number of citizens who voted in comparison to the rest of the population was small.2

Alexander the Great changed much of our understanding of government not so much as to administration but as to legitimacy. Although the concept of divine sanction in the form of a Mandate of Heaven was widespread as a concept over much of Eastern Asia, it was relatively unknown in the West. Alexander forwarded the idea of empire in the sense that all men were brothers irrespective of ethnicity and language, and that his mandate for conquest was given to him by the gods. Alexander was revered by the Romans who took up where he left off.3

Roman Government was intensely practical. One of the significant ideas that it forwarded was that of the Dictator. The Romans knew full well that representative, or at the least conciliar governance, failed to respond quickly enough and decisively enough during times of crisis. A single leader, whose word was law and must be obeyed, was the only practical solution. Even the practicality of Rome was put to the test as the economic prosperity gave more and more citizens the need for influence in affairs of state. The Republic fell partly due to the clannish structure and patronage that supported powerful individuals who were pushed to the fore, where they vied for control. The result was conflict at the top and eventually all breathed a sigh with the coming of Augustus and his assuming the mantle of Emperor. Discord, polarization, and an inability to form a consensus hastened the fall of the Republic.

Roman government and the ordinary citizen most certainly interacted, but government did not interfere directly other than on criminal and civil matters by way of the courts as well as taxation. Partly this was due to the fact that power rested in the hands of a few as opposed to the many. The Emperors, starting with Augustus, periodically attempted to create moral standards in terms of marriage as well as demands that only certain religions be practiced within the walls of Rome. Direct involvement of government in the personal lives was limited probably due to the extensive body of civil law and the means to exercise it through litigation. Slaves, of whom there were many, had no such options.4

With Feudalism during the Middle Ages came the rise of the Monarch whose authority rested on Alexander’s idea of the Divine Right of Kings. This warrant was ratified by the Catholic Church, whose interpretation of who might, or might not, receive that divine sanction became both a blessing and a curse. Those that counted were able to supply arms and troops to the king. Serfs were tied the land and were fixed in place. Rulers vied with other rulers for territory by either warfare or marriage diplomacy.

Three significant events changed the whole meaning of government and influenced the form which it takes today. The first was the Great Plague, which made labor that had been plentiful a scarce resource. The second was the printing press that allowed knowledge to be broad-based. The third was the rise of Protestantism that broke the power of the Catholic Church and ultimately led to the resurrection of the individual as a concept of importance.5

How the concept of an individual arose as a central idea is a subject unto itself, but with industrialization and the extraordinary efficiency that agriculture acquired, for the first time the common man gained financial and thus economic power. This change proved to be one of the more decisive turning points in recent history.

Much of the revolutionary zeal that started in the late 18th century and carried through the early 20th had everything to do with the fact that individuals mattered. Without them there was no industry. There was no economy. There were no means to achieve national greatness. How the people could manifest that power was interpreted in several ways but ultimately led to the rise of communism in the East and the representational governments of the West.

Another factor was the idea of a social safety net. If people mattered, then what happened to them when economic disturbances altered their ability to make a living? What happened to people when they grew old with no means of support? Periods of booms and depressions followed one after the other and people suffered.

So fundamental were these issues that governments changed not only in their structures but in their size and methodology. How could a government that was small and weak be able to economically help those who were in need?

The Depression Era legislation passed in the US in the form of the Social Security Act was an answer to these quandaries. In the US, governmental size and influence greatly increased. Government now had the ability and the mandate to interfere directly in the manner in which the individual lived and worked. What contributed to this shift were seismic changes in the thinking of the US Supreme Court. Rather than supporting strict adherence to contract and property rights, the court decided to defer economic policy to the judgement of legislators in what has been called the Constitutional Revolution of 1937.6 Between that year and 1940, five Justices either died or retired. The replacements were those who supported broad state and federal powers to regulate the economy, which was the administration’s focus.6

The history of governance is primarily about power and its manifestations. If we take the long view, we see that power passed from tribal authority to that of the single ruler backed by military might to that of the individual with his ability to vote. Today, there are of course governments where this is not the case. At the very least there is some form of legislative council with representational elements that influence to some extent the power of a single head of state.

The individual as a source of power reached an apex in terms of influence somewhere in the 1970s. Since that time, it has steadily declined. One cause was the inflation created by the necessity of paying for social programs such as the Great Society Legislation of the 1960s. Such programs had the unintended consequence of marginalizing the middle class by greatly reducing its financial clout when cost increases outpaced wage increases during the 1980s. This trend took place in many European countries as well. Whatever the moral considerations for or against, Governments have grown larger than ever before in order to administer such programs.

Where power ebbs from one sector or portion of the economy, it increases in another. The power of the individual has waned while that of the Global Corporation has vastly increased. Through technological advances particularly in the establishment and maintenance of the Internet, corporations now span territorial borders and extend their influence around the world. Many are larger and more influential than a small country. Those individuals who control them have influence far greater than is generally acknowledged.

If we are to project governance trends into the future, we must examine where power is eroding and where it is accumulating. Governments, whatever our views on them, are a reflection of power and where it lies. Where they get into trouble in terms of their existence has usually been in the inability to reflect the changes that are happening within and around them in regards the power upon which they depend. The Monarch became an endangered species when power was no longer defined in terms of territorial control and extent. In its place arose the economically empowered individual. Where there was resistance to recognizing this power shift, revolution followed.

Today, the power of the individual and thus his vote has declined precipitously because of technology’s impact on the nature of work. Work is mostly service-related as opposed to manufacturing. Where goods or services are needed, global corporations can pick and choose the most cost-effective means with no particular regard to the country or people who supply it.

The Black Death of the 14th century inadvertently made the individual valuable as a source of work and thus economic power. Today that is not the case. There are workers everywhere just as in pre-medieval times. In addition, technology has been able to and will continue to replace much of the work that is now being done, further accelerating the individual’s decline as power holder.

Government is an expression of the power of those who actually hold it. Today it is the Global Corporation.

Although parsed in terms of individual security, governments in general are responsible for greatly increased surveillance and the elimination of privacy. This alone is an indication that the individual no longer holds the power of the past and that whatever power the individual had has shifted almost entirely away. Although governments can act paranoid, the more likely reason is the need for Big Data resources and information that corporations desperately need to navigate the global economy successfully with the help of existing regimes. Government has shifted to a corporate orientation rather than an individual orientation.

To understand why this is likely the case, it is necessary to have some knowledge of Network Theory, because what we are seeing in the world today is a new paradigm: the power of the network. A node is a point of intersection. Your computer connected to the Internet is a node. In 1993 George Gilder formulated a law attributed to Robert Metcalfe and called it Metcalfe’s law. It posits that the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.

A single telephone is useless, but the value of a phone increases with its ability to call others. The more people you can call the more valuable your phone becomes, and the value of the network of which it is a part increases.

The world today is networked. Global corporations reflect this change and have gathered power to themselves through their ability not only to cross borders, but to acquire vast numbers of nodal connections. If we think of Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, we think of a single entity, but if we consider the number of nodal connections contained within them both internally and externally, we can begin to understand the power they hold, and the value that is assigned to them in terms of current market valuations and attention.9

The global economy is a network as well and governments’ interest and focus on it are the result of the power of this network as reflected in Metcalfe’s law.

That being said, Metcalfe’s law is a theoretical construct in the sense that it reflects the potential power of a network. Real power depends on the number of nodes in contact. Some points I think are worth noting.

  1. If the power structure of the world is reflected in the number of actively connected users, then the node with the greatest number of active contacts reflects that power.
  2. If government and its actions are expressions of the current power base, then those with the largest nodal connections are the powers that the government aligns with and supports.
  3. Politicians, social media effects, propaganda, polarizations, and the scramble to acquire nodal contacts and active connections begin to make sense when viewed from this perspective.
  4. Surveillance becomes necessary in order to influence those with nodal contacts both for defense and offense.
  5. If a network is destroyed, then the power of the network is also destroyed along with the power of the individuals who control it.
  6. The individual who can acquire the larger number of nodal connections and actively connect with them is the more powerful.
  7. As the degree of separation between nodes increases, i.e. a friend of a friend of a friend, the more power is diluted and the less it can be exerted.
  8. Governments of today reflect this new paradigm in terms of structure, function, access and purpose. Over time government will be networked electronically with citizens and cater to those with the greatest nodal connections, particularly global corporations, who have been acquiring networks since the 1990s. Corporate tax decreases are one of several tax changes being planned for the future.

Future articles will detail more specifics as to what the implications of the above points are. Network theory is becoming a dominant force behind world affairs and allows those that understand it the ability to make sense of what might be considered a confusing, hostile world that is unresponsive and neglectful of the individual.

Governments as well as other organizations are unresponsive because the individual is no longer the key to power at this time. Of course, that is subject to change.


 

  1. Kealey, T. (2008). Sex, Science and Profits, How People Evolved To Make Money. London, UK: Vintage Books.
  2. Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1939). Part II, The Life of Greece. In The Story of Civilization. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  3. Fuller, J. F. C. (1954). A Military History of the Western World, Vol. I. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.
  4. Gibbon, E. (1845). History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Kindle Edition: B&R Samizdat Express.
  5. Durant, W., & Durant, A. (1939). Part IV, The Age of Faith. In The Story of Civilization. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  6. Ely, J. W. (N.D.). The Protection of Contractual Rights: A Tale of Two Constitutional Provisions. NYU Journal of Law and Liberty. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/514e1ca0e4b04c6ad1834313/t/55a2a7fae4b0b8ef82d7611b/1436723194950/protection_ely.pdf.
  7. Irons, P. (2003). The History of the Supreme Court. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.
  8. Penn, P. (2010). Metcalfe’s Law and Social Media: Size does matter. Retrieved July 31, 2017 from http://www.christopherspenn.com/2010/12/metcalfes-law-and-social-media-size-does-matter/.

 


 
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  1. Silvia
    Silvia08-12-2017

    Fascinating concepts Ivan. And true, populations have grown so much that, how do you manage them? China has billions of habitants and is a country that is growing and the people, somehow, lives well.

    And I admire them as, governing billions of people takes a lot of good work

    The article made me think of el Chapo, the famous cartel leader from Mexico, that for years and years expanded his empire. He never went to school, born in a very poor location in Mexico and was really poor. He ended governing or managing networks that expanded all throughout USA, Europe and even Asia. He had an income of billions of dollars and he governed, I guess, ruthlessly and very likely though fear at times.

    And also depends on culture. You ask a Mexican about the way the country is governed and people will look at you like, “what Government?” We survive because of the big emporiums and good business men that move the economy somehow.

    Great article indeed and thank you

    • Ivan
      Ivan08-15-2017

      Interesting. In Venezuela we always hear about the anti Maduro sentiment, but to remain in power for so long and in spite of the difficulties of ordinary people, says that there is a power base behind the man that is active, supportive, and powerful. It is never mentioned or elaborated on. That same demographic is likely operating there but not out in the open.

  2. Suzanne
    Suzanne08-14-2017

    Wonderful article, Ivan. Of course, as AI begins to take over our jobs, the government will have a whole new issue on their hands. I wonder if Universal Basic Income will actually become a reality???

    • Ivan
      Ivan08-15-2017

      I think that is a plan in somebody’s mind. The unintended consequence is that the individual then is not just neutral (has no particular standing in the scheme of things) which is the case now, but will actually become a power drain and a negative. What that will mean I don’t know, but I don’t think it will be good. Secondly, with the global corporations being the power behind governments, their culture and thinking will permeate through it and downward. If you have ever worked in the corporate world you know that there is no privacy, few rights, and if you are a whistle blower… best of luck with that. Again, this is all subject to change simply because of exogenous events which have proved to be remarkably decisive in the broad current of history.

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