Someday we’ll look back on politics and shake our heads. It will have been a necessary phase—but not one we’ll want to relive. Necessary, because we have been undergoing a series of phases, none of which we could have bypassed.
We have already entered the next phase. Call it the Age of Connection. Once we realize all the benefits of this next phase, we’ll see how wasteful and acrimonious the prior phase had been.
Most days it doesn’t seem like we are entering a transpartisan, post-political era. Most people are so locked into the political paradigm that arguments about who is to fund whose birth control—or whether the schools should get another bond—seem bigger than life. Each side cedes mere inches back and forth between election cycles in a kind of trench warfare. Such is the nature of politics. And in politics the only thing we share in common is a desire to take power, as there is one ring to bind them.
The tribe who has the ring rules the land, at least for a while. The other side snatches it back sooner or later and the whole thing starts all over again. Yet each side labors under the idea that if they can just get and keep the ring, they will use it to good ends. We’ll give it to the right people, they imagine. The right people are incorruptible. We’re still waiting on the right people.
So we engage in a titanic tug of war. Time and energy we could use on creative activities we spend locked in counterproductive struggles. We polarize. We argue. Our tribal-coalitional natures—as well as the unwavering belief in our own laundry list of values and virtues—divide us in ways that go deeper than party affiliation. One side wants to take away the guns and the sodas, the other wants to pray away the gay, and the rest of us hang out at the margins. People can scarcely talk to each other without spitting venom. If there are any beneficiaries to this tit-for-tat, it’s rarely the ones we send our prayers up to in the voting booth. A parasite class of special interests reaps most of the rewards, because the real action is on K Street. For the rest of us, politics is at best a spectacle, a kind of team sport.
Was all this struggle necessary?
And yet there is virtue in such a zero-sum game. Politics is a way humanely to fight over the control of hierarchy. The U.S. republic was in certain respects designed to create checks between factions and parties by setting them against each other. Ballots over bullets and all that. It was thought of as a necessary evil—an alternative to the subjugation of people, which came from monarchy, feudalism, and aristocratic privilege. In Madison’s Federalist 10, he expressed concern about the “mischiefs of faction” found in democracies of various sizes. The republic had been a way to temper the consequences of faction, even as “causes of faction cannot be removed.” The democratic republic was thus a kind of rationally conceived operating system, forged in compromise after a unique opportunity to start fresh. In other respects, however, the development of this American-style republic was a phase transition.
In other words, the democratic republic was likely to have arisen at some point due to the world’s becoming more complex. Some revere the founding as the explication of timeless principles we only had to discover using reason. And yet we know the founders were crafting rules at a certain stage of technological development and historical context. They were moving headlong into a future informed by reasonable assumptions about human nature and the world in which they found themselves. To understand this stage and stages prior, it will benefit us first to take our time machine a little further into the past, then to zip back to the future.
The rise of hierarchy
For millennia, our ancestors roamed the African steppe. Early humans were hunter-gatherers, anthropologists say. And as those ancestors succeeded at hunting and gathering, their numbers grew. But the world was no Garden of Eden for long. Life could be nasty, brutish, and short. As their numbers grew, these tribal bands eventually confronted life-threatening scarcities. And old Malthus was more or less correct: Success in procreating meant the land would reach its carrying capacity. To avoid Malthus’s trap, early folk had to move about. Their migrations contributed to the world’s great peopling.
As the early humans moved around, they collided. There was fierce competition for available resources. Peoples faced off in bloody conflict. Inter-tribal warfare meant the hunter-gatherer tribes had to become warrior clans. They had not only to learn to fight and kill, but they also had to learn to organize themselves to fight together better. None of this is meant to suggest that early peoples did not trade peacefully across tribes. Many did. But those who did not become traders were raiders.
Such a harsh state of affairs meant that, to survive, your tribe had to develop better “social technology.” We’re not talking about Windows for Cavemen. Social technology is our shorthand for how people organize themselves. The victors transmitted their stories of glory and successful warfare strategies into the future. Likewise, while strength, courage, and superior weaponry go a very long way, social technology could also make or break a clan society.
Agriculture and statecraft helped settle some of these fighter nomads. With settling came civilization. Still, much of history since the world’s great peopling has nevertheless been a story of warfare. After all, civilization often comes with wealth and power.
In the simultaneous development of warfare and civilization, one social technology came to dominate: hierarchy. Atop this form of organization there was usually one person. He went by many names—chief, king, warlord—but to succeed he would have to be a leader capable of gaining the fear, respect, and loyalty of his people. In accepting this leader, the clan would have gained an advantage. By letting a skilled strategist command them as a force, they could operate as a single, fierce unit. Such would be a recipe for survival and glory in an age of conquest.
Of course, those capable of such fierceness and cunning were also capable of suppressing dissent. Those who wished to survive in the order were likely to accept the order, survival being preferable to slaughter.
Once-great empires soon grew up amid the detritus of war. The clan-king became a god-king. The administration of empire required more layers of hierarchy, which meant delegating power to satraps and governors. The emperor would issue commands to subordinates and those commands would be carried out by those on down the chains of command. Patronage relationships became the norm. The order of man lording power over man took on religious dimensions. Values such as loyalty, honor, obedience, and patriotism firmed up the hierarchy, and without such values, the structure could be weakened either from internal dissent or from better organized enemies.
Hierarchy became more elaborate over time as each layer was added, and hierarchy persisted, apparently, as humanity’s dominant social technology.
Despite a couple of eighteenth century revolutions in France and America, hierarchy was still, in many respects, the dominant form of social organization throughout the world. That is to say, more of the world is structured more like medieval Europe or feudal Japan than like Switzerland, and Japan and Switzerland have their command-and-control structures. Even the United States—that great beacon of freedom—now bears a striking resemblance to Rome. The American Founders had made improvements by creating institutional checks on power within its hierarchy. But its hierarchy persists. Is it long for this world?
Better all the time
Now to the present. There is no doubt too much war in the world today. The good news, however, is that the human race is entering an unprecedented age of peace, connection, and prosperity. The great fact is that since about 1800, we’ve been growing more and more prosperous. It’s all thanks to an ongoing process of decentralization in which humanity reaps the rewards of innovation, production, and trade. More and more of the world runs on adaptive, lateral relationships instead of command-and-control structures, on open systems rather than closed ones. Nested networks of human flourishing abound, and they are challenging the hierarchies around them. The question that should puzzle us is whether these nested networks exist despite or because of prevailing national hierarchies. Paradoxically, the answer could be “both,” depending on where and when in the world we look.
To read the news, though, you wouldn’t think anybody could claim things are getting better. The media sell more spectacle and turmoil than they offer happier trends over longer timescales. Their reports leave many of us with both a false impression and a general ignorance about just how good we’ve got it compared to people throughout most of history. As writer and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says in an interview with the New Scientist:
I was struck by a graph I saw of homicide rates in British towns and cities going back to the 14th century. The rates had plummeted by between 30 and 100-fold. That stuck with me, because you tend to have an image of medieval times with happy peasants coexisting in close-knit communities, whereas we think of the present as filled with school shootings and muggings and terrorist attacks.
Then in Lawrence Keeley's 1996 book War Before Civilization I read that modern states at their worst, such as Germany in the twentieth century or France in the nineteenth century, had rates of death in warfare that were dwarfed by those of hunter-gatherer and hunter-horticultural societies. That, too, is of profound significance in terms of our understanding of the costs and benefits of civilization.
From the perspective of the grand sweep of history, we are living in an age of peace and abundance.
Even the poorest places on earth are far better off than they were just a few decades ago. Indeed, in the last 30 years alone, the number of people living in abject poverty has been cut in half. Day by day, violent aggression over resources is rapidly being replaced by the structures of commercial competition and human cooperation.
Commercial competition creates for us a positive-sum world—that is, a world of ever-increasing wealth. Today, the titanic struggles are far more often among companies competing to offer, say, better gadgets. Small businesses are battling it out at the intersection of Third and Main to serve a better taco, brew a craftier beer, or open a hotter nightclub. The ones who benefit are those who are best served by this competition. And, of course, those who serve customers best—finding that sweet spot between production costs and price—get wealthy. All exist in an ecosystem of value.
In this more benevolent form of competition a fundamental truth remains: The fittest social technology will survive. Over time—as conquest culture has given way to commercial culture—we have come to see fewer warlords, clan kings, kings, and emperors, and more bosses, executives, and CEOs. To some, this may not sound like such a big improvement. The competition is still fierce. Companies are still frequently cast as villainous exploiters, occasionally for good reason. But this shift from conquest to commerce has resulted in more people enjoying more good things than at any time in human history. And it’s only getting better.
But in this transition we have to ask: Will CEOs and middle managers also go the way of kings and lords?
Both the modern nation-state and the modern corporation share social technologies that go back thousands of years. But in between hierarchical governments and hierarchical firms, there is a great teeming. It is not chaos. People truck, barter, exchange, collaborate, and cooperate. In some cases—such as Morning Star Packing Company and Zappos—phase transition has already been made.
Outside the firm, community groups meet over potluck dinners planned online. Friends find each other in dive bars. Husbands and wives find their way home to one another, the bills get paid, and the kids get to school. Lovers find each other online in a kind of dating anarchy. And all of it happens without a director or a designer, like starlings in murmuration—a beautiful, unconducted symphony. More and more of the world operates in a place between rigid order and errant chaos—unmanaged, and yet orderly. More and more of the world is self-organizing.
Complexity science predicts the global trend to which I alluded above. At the risk of oversimplifying, the theory says “complexity transitions” will happen according to the amount and type of information flowing through a system. Remember, whether we’re talking about a collection of PCs or a collection of people, if information gets transmitted among them, you’ve got a system. How elements of that system deal with information and resources—or, in the case of firms, knowledge and decisions—will determine the nature of that system to a great degree.
Because information helps coordinate behaviors within a system, the way a system is organized will determine whether the system lives or dies. Because systems always exist in some environment, often competing with other systems, evolutionary pressures are going to determine whether a system such as your club, company, county, or country can compete. And to compete, a system has to deal effectively with information.
Complexity science shows that in order to deal with more information, systems have to change. The process starts with a group getting big enough to form a hierarchy. This usually happens when the group has outgrown the organizational limits of the clan structure. As more power gets delegated, growing the chains of hierarchy, the system becomes more complicated. But the hierarchy can only handle so much complication. Eventually the system breaks down or changes into something that looks more like a network, with an increasing number of “nodes” operating in peer-to-peer fashion. Lateral relationships form. Decision-making power spreads down and out. This is the complexity transition.
Yaneer Bar-Yam (quite literally) wrote the textbook on complex systems. He describes the process that unfolded historically:
Ancient empires replaced various smaller kingdoms that had developed during a process of consolidation of yet smaller associations of human beings. The degree of control in these systems varied, but the progression toward larger more centrally controlled entities is apparent. … this led to a decrease of complexity of behaviors of many individuals, but a more complex behavior on the larger scale.
But this could only be sustained for so long.
As time progressed, the behavior of individuals diversified as did the collective tasks performed by them. Diversity of individuals implies that the behavior of the entire system on the scale of the individual became more complex. This required … adding layers of management that served to exercise local control. As viewed by the higher levels of management, each layer simplified the behavior to the point where an individual could control it. The hierarchy acts as a mechanism for communication of information to and from management.
But how far can introducing layers of management be sustained? At “the point at which the collective complexity is the maximum individual complicity, the process breaks down. Hierarchical structures are not able to provide a higher complexity.”
Complexity science tells us the battle lines will be drawn mainly in terms of how each organization processes information and applies knowledge to make decisions. And if there is a way for an organization to deal with complexity beyond hierarchy, that form of organization is poised to challenge the reigning paradigm.
So, if we put our ears to the ground, we can hear the rumbling of two great organizational types: one that looks more like a hierarchy and one that looks more like a network. Hierarchy still dominates. It is powerful—especially as it appeals to the human desire to be in control. Consciously or unconsciously, people in hierarchical organizations will also fight for the status quo as long as they benefit from it. It’s human nature. Yet, decentralized systems can be more flexible, and as Taleb says, “anti-fragile.” So the question remains: Which form will win?
Before we try to answer that question, I want to leave you with more than just the image of clashing social technologies. Because what we’re really interested in here is human flourishing—or, more specifically, how people can organize themselves to improve their well-being. The extent to which we can organize ourselves to be happier, healthier people is the extent to which we can organize ourselves to create more peace and prosperity. Hard to believe? Despite some of the wrenching changes that will be hastened by this coming clash of systems, a more abundant and humane world awaits.
In thinking about phase transition, though, the Founding still looms large. The American Republic and many democratic republics since were brilliantly crafted systems designed to maximize freedom and limit the excesses of hierarchy. Or, put another way, documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution put forth answers to the question, “What sort of political order can be created to unleash as much human autonomy possible?”
But our operating system, as operating systems will, has become buggy, strained, and outdated. Not only are people becoming weary of a system designed to pit people against each other with a crude majoritarian calculus, but new systems are being developed to accommodate phase transition. Indeed, some of these systems don’t require the permission of authorities. They arise from technologically connected people along the lines of what James C. Scott describes in Two Cheers for Anarchism:
More regimes have been brought, piecemeal, to their knees by what was once called “Irish Democracy,” the silent, dogged resistance, withdrawal, and truculence of millions of ordinary people, than by revolutionary vanguards or rioting mobs.
Some will try to argue that our social operating system as originally conceived by the Founders would be a lot better than the corrupted version we have now. I am sympathetic to that position, but Public Choice considerations like those found in the works of James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, and Mancur Olson caution otherwise. With the rise of special interests, they remind us, something is bound to go wrong. Now there is a sense in which we cannot turn back the clock and debug the program. Instead, for the first time in history, technology and culture are allowing us more and more opportunities to create new systems and migrate between them. Indeed, it used to be that to change systems, one had quite literally to migrate, as in pick up within one territorial jurisdiction and move to another. And that, too, is an increasingly viable option. But migrating between systems is also something that, these days, you can do from your sofa.
This is the first in a two-part series. Read part two here.