lee_smolin's picture
Physicist, Perimeter Institute; Author, Einstein's Unfinished Revolution
What is the next step in the evolution of democracy?

A question no longer being asked is how to make the next step in the evolution of a democratic society. Until very recently it was widely understood that democracy was a project with many steps, whose goal was the eventual construction of a perfectly just and egalitarian society. But recently, with the well deserved collapse of Marxism, it has begun to seem that the highest stage of civilization we humans can aspire to is global capitalism leavened by some version of a bureaucratic welfare state, all governed badly by an unwieldy and corrupt representative democracy. This is better than many of the alternatives, but it is hardly egalitarian and often unjust; those of us who care about these values must hope that human ingenuity is up to the task of inventing something still better. 

It is proper that the nineteenth century idea of utopia has finally been put to rest, for that was based on a paradox, which is that any predetermined blueprint for an ideal society could only be imposed by force. It is now almost universally acknowledged that there is no workable alternative to the democratic ideal that governments get their authority by winning the consent of the governed. This means that if we are to change society, it must be by a process of evolution rather than revolution. But why should this mean that big changes are impossible? What is missing are new ideas, and a context to debate them. 

There are at least four issues facing the future of the democratic project. First, while democracy in the worlds most powerful country is perceived by many of its citizens as corrupted, there is little prospect for serious reform. The result is alienation so severe that around half of our citizens do not participate in politics. At what point, we may ask, will so few vote that the government of the United States may cease to have a valid claim to have won the consent of the governed. As the political and journalistic classes have largely lost the trust of the population, where will leadership to begin the reform that is so obviously needed come from?

A second point of crisis and opportunity is in the newly democratized states. In many of these countries intellectuals played a major role in the recent establishment of democracy. These people are not likely to go to sleep and let the World Bank tell them what democracy is.

The third opportunity is in Europe, where a rather successful integration of capitalism and democratic socialism has been achieved. These societies suffer much less from poverty and the other social and economic ills that appear so unsolvable in the US context. (And it is not coincidental that the major means of funding political campaigns in the US are illegal in most of Europe.) Walking the streets in Denmark or Holland it is possible to wonder what a democratic society that evolved beyond social democracy might look like. European integration may be only the first step towards a new kind of nation state which will give much of its sovereignty up to multinational entities, a kind of nation-as-local-government.

Another challenge for democracy is the spread of the bureaucratic mode of organization, which in most countries has taken over the administration of education, science, health and other vital areas of public interest. As any one who works for a modern university or hospital can attest to, bureaucratic organizations are inherently undemocratic. Debate amongst knowledgeable, responsible individuals is replaced by the management of perceptions and the manipulation of supposedly objective indices. As the politics of the academy begins to look more like nineteenth century Russia than 5th Century BC Athens we intellectuals need to do some serious work to invent more democratic modes of organization for ourselves and for others who work in the public interest. 

Is it not then time we "third culture intellectuals" begin to attack the problem of democracy, in both our workplaces and in our societies? Perhaps, with all of our independence, creativity, intelligence and edginess, we may find we really have something of value to contribute? 

LEE SMOLIN is a theoretical physicist; professor of physics and member of the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Pennsylvania State University; author of The Life of The Cosmos.