I actually don’t see much insight in the construction of the United Federation of Planets in Star Trek, or the Imperial Senate in Star Wars. They are part of the furniture, as it were, much less interesting than the Vulcan mind-meld or droids. Almost everybody else uses some slight variant on the US, the UN, warring empires, or some other historical model. It’s not surprising that most SF writers treat governing structures as an afterthought. They are mostly about the technology or non-human cultures or human stories in an extra-terrestrial setting.
So I was intrigued to find a couple of stories in which the governing structure of the world actually plays a significant part. Dave Hutchinson’s Europe in Autumn (the first of four volumes in the “Fractured Europe” series) and Malka Older’s Infomacracy (the first of three volumes in the “Centenal Cycle”).
Hutchinson posits a world in which Europe is fractured into scores of small states, with varying sizes and relationships, which set the backdrop for a half spy thriller, half sci-fi, half fantasy (yes, that’s three halfs!). It’s a sort of anti-EU. He doesn’t really wrestle with the issues of coordination on commerce or climate, or constant border crossings (by physical or semi-magical means), but the dynamics of international relations are more fluid, which complicates things nicely.
In Infomacracy, (almost) the entire world is divided up into cells of 100,000 people. Each “centenal” has its own local government and representation in a global federation. However, there is a parallel structure: the “Information” which is responsible not for global day-to-day government, but is charged with ensuring the integrity of the system as well as providing objective information to all centenals and their citizens. There’s plenty of fun tech twists and spy/thriller aspects, as well.
In both cases, I enjoyed the usual literary aspects of the books, but what stuck with me was each author’s willingness to tackle the question of how will groups of people organize themselves in the future. I was interested in the multi-national systems each offered, and the often-elided issue of bureaucratic coordination, but principally in the idea of localizing government. I touched on this point in my recent posting on democratic federalism.
Both Hutchinson and Malka propose systems based not on the nation-state, but on smaller groupings. We see hints of this in the centrifugal force spinning up in the soon-to-be-disunited-Kingdom, as well as a wide range of separatists movements around the world. Scotland may not be viable as a fully independent country, but if some portion of governmental functions are delegated upwards to the EU, it could be feasible. Most separatist movements are doomed to failure. First, because they are nationalist in vision (on a smaller scale than their home countries) and merely replicating the problems of legitimacy which they attack in their current larger home state. Second, because there is no governmental structure to provide an umbrella for the non-local and scale-dependent functions which are necessary in the modern world.
If we don’t assume that the nation-state is the default mode of organization of human societies, then we can look back on the 300+ components that comprised the Holy Roman Empire where the Emperor had limited powers and the operative power in many statelets was localized. We can remember that China, France, India, and most other older (pre-1800) states were composites of different sized components, amalgamated at different times and means (conquest, dynastic marriage, etc.), who integrated into a more-or-less coherent whole over decades or centuries, melding customs, languages, money, and ideas. For hundreds of years, the Roman Catholic Church offered another model of social organization, with a separation of an over-arching ideological regime, combined with small temporal (&, by the way, feudal) organizations.
As we look forward, neither the US nor the EU are very useful models. The building blocks of the former were states that were pretty darn similar in outlook and culture; not a great starting point for the current global diversity. For the EU, the embedded diversity of its members cultures insisted on veto power and incrementalism, despite the shock of two world wars that might have sent Europe down a more integrated path.
The charm of the global structure in Infomacracy is that none of the 10,000+/- centenals has much clout on the global level. Their interests (historical, ethnic, commercial, ideological, geographical) are too diverse to allow for too much consolidation and bloc-voting. In both books, local political entities are sufficiently small to enable individuals to disconnect freely from their home base and land elsewhere.
Of course, for both these newer models, as with the bulk of historical examples, the idea of geography remains central. Rules are determined by a bunch of people on a particular piece of land. It’s easy to understand why this approach has been common, but less easy to see its relevance in an internet-dominated world which has “destroyed distance” and where many of the facets of human life are determined far away (whether by corporate organizations in work, or Amazon-delivered commerce). Why is geographical neighborhood the best rationale for political organization in the 21C?
These two books push at some new ideas, but we need some governmental thinking that “boldly goes where no one has gone before….”