Thursday, February 27, 2003

From Government to Governance

Adam Greenfield's The minimal compact: An open-source constitution for post-national states, "a minifesto for the constitution of virtual, post-national states."

Adam proposes types of governance based on efforts to:

1) Ensure the greatest freedom for the greatest number, without simultaneously abridging the freedoms of others. 2) Permit individuals with common goals and beliefs to act in their own interest at the global level and with all the privileges afforded nation states, even when those individuals are separated by distance. 3) Provide robust resistance to attempts to concentrate power, and other abuses of same.

The question then becomes, what kinds of constitutional structures are appropriate to furthering the stated aims in an internetworked, interdependent age? What sorts of arrangements of power between humans can account for the deep variation in beliefs and assumptions among the six billion of us who share this planet, while still providing for a common jurisprudence? What measures can be taken that enhance the common security without unduly infringing on the sovereignty of the individual?

I believe that a useful model for the desired structure can be found in the open-source or "free" software movement... This mode (and ethos) of development provides several fertile metaphors, not least the basic, deeply appealing idea of a voluntary global community empowered and explicitly authorized to reverse-engineer, learn from, improve and use-validate its own tools and products... Of particular interest in the present context is the concept of a "codebase," a core of universally-recognized and accepted instructions maintained on a public registry, and a "distribution," which offers a praxis for supporting locally differing, self-contained (but essentially interoperable) variations on the single codebase... Taking these concepts as model, the agreement under contemplation in this paper, the minimal compact, proposes a post-national, virtual state: a hyperlocal polity whose constitution is conceived as codebase. Such a constitution would specify a minimum number of articles to which all signatories subscribe, allowing an instantiation of the state to form anywhere and anywhen one or more signatories is present. Instantiations are free to supplement the core agreement with an arbitrary number of articles appropriate to local contexts, and are further invited to submit such innovations to a central (but distributed) registry for prospective enactment by other signatory communities, or potentially adoption into the core framework.

Without getting into debates about the future role of the nation-state, I appreciate Adam's desire to bring together both global (generic) and local (specific) politics. Much talk of globalisation ignores local social and material practices, and he may well have provided a means to resist the Empire of Disorder without retreating to the extreme position of the TAZ.

But geek that I am, I went for his discussion of immanent polity, portable citizenship and connections of interest and affinity. I read this as a gentle, but clever hack of Bourdieu's Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. People will distinguish themselves by multiple means and travel in their own directions. Adam calls upon the rhizome and opens new lines of flight, but could have gone further to explain the relevance of the following criteria for governance: flexible, adaptive, extensible, infinitely reproducible, nonlocal, interoperable and mutual. How, exactly, are these able to answer his initial, more general, criteria? Or, how well does this scale in both directions?

It's also unclear to me how people who afford less inherent(?) value to the individual would be able to adopt/adapt this. Maybe I'm concerned that Adam's approach is a bit ethnocentric - he claims his proposal enshrines no particular perspective, but that is not true. In declaring any of his global "goods," he has precisely set out values to be universally protected. And I fear his desire for consensus would be difficult to achieve, if not undesirable. Having said that, he seems to have proposed something flexible enough to adapt to multiple voices, and that seems the most important thing.

Most of all, Adam offers an intelligent contribution to recent discussions of emergent democracy - challenging us to imagine a world of flow and ethics.

(From now on, I may just have to refer to my friend as Mr. Smarty Pants! ;)


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