OPINION: Democracy without a state

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Dec 02 2019 03:23 PM

How do we handle readily available information in today’s connected world? Everyone is a writer, promoter or a reporter now. Organizations are easily put up, almost literally overnight and present itself as a media or news organization. Anywhere and everywhere in the world, as long as telecommunications infrastructure is available, this is the reality. What used to be just a theme of science fiction, borderless world and real time exchange of information, including seamless financial transactions, all are here and now.

This has led to what political scientists call “non-hierarchical modes of coordination” which includes the involvement of non-state actors in the formulation and implementation of public policies (Borzel and Risse 2010). Experts now acknowledge this as “governance without government.” Goes without saying that globalization and advance of information technology have expanded political participation. Direct Democracy, which used to be just an ideal or possible only with a “slave economy” like with the Athenians centuries back, is now a reality.

Instead of just relying on people’s representatives in government, people are now able to literally make policies themselves. Before, even just proposing policies to the legislature is already difficult even impossible. So much is therefore now expected and demanded of government as a result. Perhaps there was the same expectation before but the common assumption was that government officials would most likely do what is good. Perhaps the people thought that the officials in government would know better than them and so they just let them decide for everyone. There was some mystification as Walter Bagehot explains of the nature of politics and government then.

People looked up to their government and their officials. There was not much need to demand, or if there was, it was done through institutional processes. Popular protests happen every now and then but these were organized and not as spontaneous as it has become recently. Take the case of Occupy Wall Street for example. In fact, popular sentiment need not amount to taking to the streets anymore. Social media has become the barometer of popular sentiment and therefore, rightly or wrongly, monitored closely by everyone and so does the traditional media and more so by political leaders. There is now barely any mystification left in politics and governance. It is no longer as exclusive to political leaders as before.

This is all enticing. Information is readily available that people are beginning to think they are informed enough to make decisions themselves. Especially in situations where representatives are hardly reliable and trustworthy to make critical decisions for the good of the public, there’s no convincing needed for people to want and prefer to do it on their own. People have become more connected and therefore able to exchange information, even engage in public discussion mimicking not only the traditional town hall meetings but also even popular assemblies in city-states or principalities before.

In fact it has become difficult for representatives to do as they please unlike before. Success in politics now requires circumspection, especially when in public. It is perilous to be drunk or lose ones patience and temper and not able to control oneself in public. Only well-meaning leaders used to be conscious of their conduct in public, now every politician has to be really careful, having in mind that one’s career can end with just one mistake that is caught by a witness on camera and posted on social media.

This is of course just a part of a rather convoluted political, social and economic equation. Information is power for everyone and by everyone means including those who can and will use it willingly for whatever purpose. This is where the dilemma is as far as having a non-hierarchical mode of coordination in governance is concerned. For established democracies, a non-hierarchical mode of coordination means bypassing formal institutions of governance and demanding accountability or far-reaching reforms. For developing countries or dysfunctional democracies on the other hand it is different.

Norms and standards in governance are well established in advanced democracies. There is a “shadow of hierarchy” that “provides a crucial incentive for both government and non-state actors to engage in non-hierarchical rulemaking and service provision”. The non-hierarchical mode of coordination is a development because the people can now take part more directly in governance. Formal institutions are still there as representatives are still there, but “there are now alternatives to the traditional top-down, command-and-control approach of hierarchical steering by government”. In a sense it suggests that governance without government simply means government in the sidelines, expected to act only when needed.

In dysfunctional democracies on the other hand, norms and standards are hardly established. So much depend fundamentally on individual political leaders that public institutions are not self-contained entities, free from self-interests. Resorting to non-hierarchical modes of coordination is not an alternative; it is the only way to make the government work for the good of the many instead of just the few.

“A shadow of hierarchy is important for ‘governance without government’ because it generates important incentives for ‘cooperation’ for non-state actors”. So without this shadow of hierarchy there is no cooperation and therefore there are no norms or standards. All are participants and there is no entity that function as the enforcer of rules or that there are no rules that the participants agree to adhere to. Everything is dependent only the individual’s judgment.

This is a paradox that we have to contend with in today’s age of information and borderless world. Information is readily available but there is just so much of it that it is difficult to distinguish what is authentic and what is not. You assume you know something but you are not sure if what you know is right or the complete information. Then hardly does one make an effort to determine whether the information at hand is reliable or not. Even if there is a need to check the feeling of delight in knowing something that you didn't know before is simply overwhelming as it gives you the sense of empowerment. This same information is used and conflict ensues.

This is the dilemma raised at the outset. The other side of information being available for everyone is that it is a power that can be used for whatever purpose deemed necessary. Especially in a fast-paced society where time is virtually not enough, information from whatever source is taken as it is and not checked for veracity. In the first place, people have always assumed the media as a reliable source of information.

So as Aldous Huxley popularized, welcome to the Brave New World. There are two important factors in today’s era of governance, the wide availability of information and the virtual absence of borders; both factors reinforcing each other. Because of the virtual absence of borders, information from everywhere is available; and because information is available everywhere from everywhere, the virtual absence of borders make us think that there no distinctions, that what is true in other countries is also true for ours.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.