Part 1 of 2 – Progressive Unity and Global Hyper-Democracy. In this piece Austin presents the first half of his manifesto, laying out the case for a powerful UN with a military, whose decision-making apparatus is centered on a new kind of hyperdemocratic parliament.
I wish there was a treaty we could sign,
I do not care who takes this bloody hill,
I’m angry, and I’m tired, all the time,
I wish there was a treaty,
I wish there was a treaty,
Between your love and mine.
Treaty – by Leonard Cohen.
As the political center threatens to collapse completely, and the far right marshals its forces, the progressive movement remains immobile, split down the middle between liberal and left factions. This split has been worsening for decades. Combined with justified public frustration over the long crisis and invisible recovery, this paralyzing schism is what has created the political opening for the far right to push Brexit, Trump, and so on. The only conscionable course of action is to work to rebuild the alliance.
It is wrong to see the left-liberal division as merely a difference of enthusiasm, between moderates and hard-liners within the same political current. There is a lot of policy overlap, but the two traditions have different priorities, which can (if you’re into that kind of thing) be traced back to Kantian idealism on the liberal side, and on the socialist side to the Marxist study of material conditions, basically. These different but equally Utopian theories have gained the most real world traction when combined in the policy compromise of democratic socialism – the Fabian (gradualist) tradition of which is far and away the most successful political paradigm in history, if success is defined as raising the material living standards of the great mass of people, while also politically, intellectually, and culturally empowering them.
The best example of this, and the high point of this liberal-left alliance, was the post-war boom throughout the so-called “Global North”, more or less what are now the countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This alliance has been deteriorating, more or less, since then.
I have attempted and deleted several short histories of this conflict, and decided that it is probably best just to say that there is enough blame to go around. More than anything we have done, it is what we have not done that we should be ashamed of, especially since 2008, when the hegemony of neoliberal ideas, already having eroded substantially, went into terminal decline.
Recently Paul Keating, the former treasurer and then prime minister of Australia, who championed major neoliberal reforms during the 80s and 90s, added his voice to the chorus of those declaring the policy paradigm played out.
The political center, for decades so crowded, has by now been fully evacuated. Pundits left and right fire their barrages into an abandoned no man’s land marked on their maps as territory of a mysterious Establishment which even the billionaire president claims somehow to be excluded from. Things are so bad and desperate that some on the Left even got swept up in the false hope that this grotesque, cartoonishly vile billionaire somehow posed a threat to the oligarchic order.
By mid 2011, at the absolute latest, when people were in the streets around the world demanding change, there should have been several progressive programs for change competing to answer the compound challenges of our times.
But the progressive intelligentsia had by this stage narrowed its focus exclusively to “speaking truth to power“, leaving the hard questions that come with power, from a progressive point of view, unanswered. There is no better example of this than the reaction of First World progressives to the conflicts between the government of Rafael Correa in Ecuador and various indigenous groups. The Guardian, for example, have a habit of caricaturing the situation, casting the central government in the role of tin pot authoritarians, when they send police in to rescue other police who had been kidnapped.
This attitude is nearly as counter-productive as the “unconditional solidarity” some of the Left has offered to the Chavista block in Venezuelan politics. Of course for many of those engaged in so-called “solidarity” it was never really about supporting Venezuela, so much as about opposing US imperialism.
Many anglophone leftists travelling in South America when I lived there would express a preference for the Venezuelan style of government over the Ecuadorian, despite the fact the latter has been quite clearly more successful. I can attribute this to nothing more than a kind of Soviet kitsch, where socialism means the city has to be plastered with large banners of the national leader, preferably in military uniform. As my colleague here at IC, Christian Tym, once remarked, the different leadership styles can be traced back in the Venezuelan case to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and in the Ecuadorian case to Salvador Allende in Chile. A generation and a bit ago, it seemed Castro’s style was the more effective way to eradicate poverty and raise living standards. Today the inverse is true.
Liberals, awe-struck by the defeat of apartheid, ignore the worsening poverty and inequality in South Africa, even as these tensions spills over into violence and repression. The Left, enamored by the very real achievements of Cuba, forgives and excuses the imposition of dictatorship.
Both streams of progressives have shown themselves unready for the responsibilities of real influence. And so, when the moment came, left-wing and liberal intellectuals collectively reneged on their responsibility to offer a deployable vision for change. Some of them came and spoke at Occupy Wall Street, but it was the same speech you would get at a book signing, about the terrible (apparently insurmountable) paradoxes of the current world order. Their view of political reality seemed fundamentally unaltered by the protests. They did not see the Overton window widening.
I fear some secretly wish it shut. Hence the dismay expressed by many superficially passionate progressives about the rise of Bernie Sanders from both liberals and leftists, despite his immense popularity and demonstrated commitment to progressive values. Others, perhaps, seem to will it open at any cost and therefore go as far as openly welcoming the ascendance of this new, nihilistic, far right.
Never have those words been truer. Those who lead the progressive intellectual discussion are – with rare and precious exceptions – either academics and (would be) government advisers, specialized, professionalized, and institutionalized to within an inch of their political lives, or media stars specializing in “gotcha” take-down pieces and endless picking apart of a mainstream that is, apparently, eternally ascendant and infinitely nefarious.
Rather than a movement, they are organized in constellations around various publishing interests and broadcasters. Some of these institutions, especially the broadcasters, reflect the agendas of the adversarial and/or authoritarian governments who fund them, producing distortions at least as serious as those they expose in the establishment media.
This one-eyed morality, along with an apparently widespread drought of vision, means that the progressive intelligentsia has had little to offer the increasingly enraged population. But responsibility falls also on those outside careerist celebrity cliques. Anyone who suspects they might have something to offer is obligated to try. We must go beyond merely saying, “Another world is possible” and begin to describe its basic institutional architecture.
That is why, at the end of 2011, I penned an essay laying out the first public draft of what I called at the time “real time voting” or “real time democracy“ but which I think now is better described as “legislation by interface” or perhaps “hyperdemocracy”.
This idea, which will be discussed below at length, is one of two arguably original ideas contained in this two-part essay.
In the voting system I envision voters would be able to break their (digitally administered) votes into “proxy tokens” which they would move between an unlimited number of representatives in an online voting system. These representatives votes on bills would be weighted according to the number of tokens allocated to them. This measurement of popularity would also determine who can introduce bills and who would get to address the assembly from the virtual podium. The final key idea is that these delegates would be required to lock in their positions on an issue for some period of time, for example 24 hours, before a final vote. This would give voters a final chance to withdraw their proxy tokens from any delegates who were voting contrary to their wishes. This could all be done, for example, from a smartphone. The aim of the system is to combine, in a way that new digital technologies have just made possible, the most beneficial elements of both representative and direct democracy.
Even here the originality is marginal, as my idea shares much with what has been called “liquid democracy”, a system that has indeed even been internally implemented by the Pirate Parties of Europe. There are, however, specifics to my system which I shall argue are crucially important. Small differences in design can have profound consequences in large complex systems.
The second original idea in this essay is a workable system whereby the creation of intellectual goods can be financially rewarded without enclosing the intellectual commons of the online space in walled gardens and gated communities. Money would be collected as a tax on internet service providers, which would be distributed to creators using a system based on how songwriters receive “publishing” rights depending on the frequency at which their work is played on the radio or at bars and so on – without each of the people listening to that radio station, or in that bar, paying a per usage fee.
At the moment, the lack of such a system is only really a problem in terms of the media industry, but the lack of such a system is preventing the emergence of a new kind of industry based on the sharing of high value information. For example, a whole ecosystem of hyper-efficient production could emerge around flexible miniaturized manufacturing equipment (such as 3d printers) and the online availability of plans for complex consumer items, allowing global distribution of ideas and design to pair with localized use of resources.
These two ideas, I shall argue, make the most sense as part of a broader institutional rearrangement, including the creation of a world parliament, a multilayered universal basic income, and the regular creation of fiat money for public use (sometimes called “People’s Quantitative Easing”). These five elements are all independently viable and worthwhile, but if deployed in concert, could augment and interlock with each other to form a scaffold around which a new economy, and with it a new global society, can self-construct, one in which collaboration can become the default mode for human interaction pushing conflict to the margins and making competition, as I think David Schweickart once put it, of a sporting rather than Darwinian nature.
How realistic are these changes? That depends on the time frame. Let’s consider the 50 and a bit of years I, statistically speaking, have a good shot of being alive for. My contention is, that if starting right now we make all the right choices, and everything outside our control goes as well as possible, this is the world people my around age (I’m 33) could leave to our children.
I am the first to admit I could be wrong. I will insist, however, that I could be wrong in either direction. I may be underestimating the true scope what is possible.
We could of course, instead, destroy civilization and/or the ecosystem that supports it. This often seems the more likely outcome. But I have faith these enormous risks can be managed, as I am that the equally foreboding challenges we face in terms of entrenched interests and political inertia can be overcome. Those who labored before us have managed, despite worse odds, to get us this far.
This is not the end of history, but the beginning.
My conviction is, that this crucial first century of the digital age, in which humanity finally looks directly upon itself with disgust and wonder, shall be revisited again and again for millennia. It shall be studied by countless billions not yet born. This, they will say, was the period in which technological efficiencies began to finally unlock the raw power, until then almost entirely untapped, of human creativity and genius.
Clearly one of the major questions facing the world as the 21st century progresses is the question of the global political architecture. The main unit of political action and thinking, however, is still the nation-state. Borders, where nation-state and international system come into daily direct contact, are, therefore, where the deeper issues of global inequality suddenly become politically visible. However, without a more comprehensive cosmopolitanism, progressive action on this front is doomed.
When Trump announced Executive Order 13769, known to progressives as the “Muslim Ban”, I was very pleased to see the robust and immediate reaction of so many Americans in the form of direct protest, going out to airports, stuff like that. First, it is in and of itself a glorious thing when people go into the streets to peacefully proclaim their principles and beliefs. That was obviously part of what pushed other branches of the US government to effectively neuter the order. However, at one moment, as I scrolled through twitter, I found myself rolling my eyes. I am not proud of rolling my eyes at someone sincere enough to take to the streets for what they believe. But I couldn’t help myself.
— Faiza N. Ali (@faiza_n_ali) January 28, 2017
To whom, I wonder, does that love and protection extend?
Just to those affected by Trump’s ban?
“We will love and protect each other so long as we all are already citizens, or also if one fits the specific criteria laid out by our government for desirable prospective migrants and are also cleared by the Department of Homeland Security and multiple additional government agencies as a non-threat”?
There is no norm of freedom of movement which Trump was acting against. Not for most people. The norm is a lopsided situation where those from wealthy nations may travel basically wherever they like at whim, but people from poor countries may not. The people from poor countries who do get to travel to the so called “First World” – effectively the first class section of the planet – are by and large the richest and most educated members of their societies, with some, but not nearly enough, humanitarian exceptions.
Is that where we close the circle, just behind these carefully curated, least threatening of brown people?
One woman had a more minimal sign that, with admirable clarity, seemed to imply about as much.
And here the problem comes into focus:
fixed it for you <3 pic.twitter.com/DOBUDIM205
— ☼ (@andykatros) April 30, 2017
Some percentage, probably small, of those who protested Trump’s move would, I assume, support the United States implementing an immediate policy of fully open borders. As would a much smaller percentage of the broader US left.
This must be the end goal of the progressive movement, if it really believes all people are equal and should be equally free.
What would be the consequences of this?
We have some data on this:
Gallup finds about 16 percent of the world’s adults would like to move to another country permanently if they had the chance. This translates to roughly 700 million worldwide — more than the entire adult population of North and South America combined…
Sticking with the American example:
Nearly one-quarter (24 percent) of these respondents, which translates to more than 165 million adults worldwide, name the United States as their desired future residence.
These are soft numbers, in Gallup’s words reflecting “aspirations rather than intent”. But whatever the gap is between aspiration and intent, it would surely begin to narrow if the requirements and application process (currently an expensive five-year ordeal of byzantine complexities) became less burdensome.
According to Wikipedia, the US accepts just over 1 million immigrants a year. According to the the International Centre for Migration Policy and Development’s numbers, the country has a total foreign born population of 43 million, or about 13.5 percent of the population. This is slightly lower than during the highest period on record, 1860 to 1920, but only slightly.
If the US increased its intake sixteen fold, to 16 million a year, it would still be open to only 1 in 10 of the people who want to move there. And that’s not to mention the remaining 535 million would be migrants. Many people who don’t consider the US their first option would likely still chose to move there if that became the easiest option.
No one knows. My read is that for any wealthy country to not just raise its intake by x percent or change its selection procedures, but to completely and unilaterally, throw its borders open to any and all arrivals, would be for that country to risk a potentially disruptive crisis.
But what if all the rich countries all threw their doors open at once?
Let’s say that of the 700 million adults, only half did migrate? That’s a total of 350 million. But it could be off by hundreds of millions in either direction, really.
Let’s say that the transfer takes place evenly over 10 years. If there was no preference shift that would mean, in the US case, an increase to 8.25 million per year. We are now very much entering the world of the doable.
With exactly the right governments in power, all making exactly the right choices and having the very best of luck, it could just about be pulled off, and could be done so in a way that made it a net economic positive for those currently residing in the First World. The countries the migrants came from, and the world at large, would probably benefit over all.
If we were to focus on necessary economic management (not migration management) and getting the government to invest enough to keep up with the nation’s growing need for infrastructure, public services, housing and so on, then yeah. That in turn would only be possible if we were first able to debunk the idea that governments must aim for balanced budgets. They are actually bad in most circumstances, surpluses are often worse, and a deficit is mostly good. Consider the long post-war boom I mentioned earlier. As Robert Kuttner writes:
In World War Two the government borrowed massive sums to win the war. By the end of the war the debt ratio was about 120 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 72 percent today. But the war turned out to be the greatest unintended economic stimulus of all time: GDP increased by about 50 percent during the war.
After the war, far from sandbagging the recovery, all that debt-financed prosperity propelled the postwar boom. The Fed kept interest rates low, so government could afford the interest payments. The economy grew so much faster than the debt that by 1978 the debt ratio was down to about 27 percent.
It’s like the AIDS test. Negative (deficit) is good. Positive (surplus) is bad.
In the not very long term, the increased tax base from economic growth which both migration and public spending consistently drive would put the government in a better financial situation, not a worse one. However, a great deal of that depends on the rate at which they come.
The pro-business case to fully open borders, of course, is that it would double Gross World Production without hurting the wages of First World workers. However, this conclusion, the second part of it especially, seems to depend on the assumption that the increase in flows will be gradual.
“if immigration restrictions are relaxed gradually, allowing time for investment in physical capital to keep pace, there is no implied reduction in real wages.”
One response to this paper estimates, conversely, “If all the migration occurred instantaneously, this would lead to a 20 percent drop in wages.”
This is before we discuss the question of infrastructure.
Even the most ambitious spending programs could fall short in the face of a sudden enough an influx. New arrivals would favor certain areas, rather than be spread around evenly, increasing strain in those places. Bottlenecks in rollouts could cause even more dramatic shortfalls in services and infrastructure than those which we currently see. The expansion of water, sanitation, education, and public transport and road systems, among other things, might be out paced.
Arguing from a purely cosmopolitan position, with total global justice as the only goal and no special preference for that privileged part of the world from whence I come, there is an argument that this is a risk the First World deserves to take. It’s not a particularly appealing argument though from the point of First World citizens, who, despite their obvious position of relative privilege compared to many in the Third World, are not the villains of this story, deserving retribution. A political vision which casts them as such will be rightly disregarded by an increasingly put upon and unsatisfied First World public.
It seems a reasonable order of operations to first get infrastructure and public services growing at a rate that outpaces current population growth, then increase intake. It’s more than likely those currently running things would constrict supply of public services to their current levels, with the long-term aim in mind of first making them woefully inadequate, then using the crisis to force further privatization.
Let’s note that this plan requires massive international progressive cooperation. This has been hard to achieve on issues like the environment. There is a similar kind of Nash Equilibrium/Prisoner’s Dilemma dynamic at work. Regarding climate change and mass migration, all countries would be much better off if they acted in a coordinated way to address the problem, but the competition and distrust between them trips the process up.
On that note, let’s leave freedom of movement aside for a moment and focus on the more basic rights of an individual to life, and beyond that to a materially decent standard of living, to clean water, decent food, education, and housing. These should not only be attainable in a select few countries, but available to everyone, where they are now. It clearly is the case now that the simplest way to lift someone out of poverty is to physically lift them out of the the Third World and deposit them in Europe or North America. But it shouldn’t be. People should not be so fatalistic about the fates of their own nations that they decide the only way for them to have a decent life is to leave.
Let’s think about what can be done to guarantee people freedom from the bodily violations of state violence, abduction, torture, and so forth. What love and protection, I wonder, do those anti-Trump protesters offer to the children cowering in basements beneath bombers in Yemen and Idlib?
Obviously, by addressing these human rights violations effectively, we would simultaneously address migration from the demand side, rather than only the supply side, eliminating some of the so called “push” factors and making the ideal of a borderless world more possible. But a better reason to act is that the horrors and deprivations visited on people of the Third World are bad enough to warrant our attention in and of themselves.
Or do these people only come into focus as real human beings when they come over the horizon and approach our borders?
What, then, do I suggest? How do we extend our solidarity, in a meaningful way, to those who starve, suffer without medicines, and cower beneath bombs in so many places around the world?
The only answer is the hard one. We must build a United Nations that actually works, with no Security Council, no vetos, and a radically reformed General Assembly.
The first step in doing this is to establish a world parliament, which would have the democratic legitimacy to lead such reforms, and act on behalf of humanity as a whole in other areas such as protecting the environment and human rights.
At this point I must acknowledge the importance to this essay of the book The Age Of Consent by George Monbiot, in which he calls for a “global democratic revolution”, the main goal of which is the creation of a democratic world parliament. Monbiot imagines this parliament would be much like national parliaments, but bigger, with various districts that cross national borders, each sending a representative to the global body.
Essentially Monbiot calls for the governmental systems we suffer under at the national level to be recreated at the global level. In doing so, he sought to turn the august vision of world federalism into a vehicle for the aims of the global justice movement. The argument goes that the lack of democracy at this global level undermines democracy at the national level because the capacity of national governments to effectively regulate is undercut by the familiar race to the bottom, the power of international finance capital, and the IMF, World Bank, and other international institutions.
Monbiot therefore argues for a fair and functional global economic system overseen by a world parliament. For the content of this global system, he basically suggests the package of economic institutions crafted by Lord John Maynard Keynes, and taken by him to the Bretton Woods conference as the British position for the post-war international framework.
This is actually far more ambitious than it sounds. I will rely on one of Monbiot’s summaries:
He [Keynes] proposed a global bank, which he called the International Clearing Union. The bank would issue its own currency – the bancor – which was exchangeable with national currencies at fixed rates of exchange. The bancor would become the unit of account between nations, which means it would be used to measure a country’s trade deficit or trade surplus.
Every country would have an overdraft facility in its bancor account at the International Clearing Union, equivalent to half the average value of its trade over a five-year period. To make the system work, the members of the union would need a powerful incentive to clear their bancor accounts by the end of the year: to end up with neither a trade deficit nor a trade surplus. But what would the incentive be?
Keynes proposed that any country racking up a large trade deficit (equating to more than half of its bancor overdraft allowance) would be charged interest on its account. It would also be obliged to reduce the value of its currency and to prevent the export of capital. But – and this was the key to his system – he insisted that the nations with a trade surplus would be subject to similar pressures. Any country with a bancor credit balance that was more than half the size of its overdraft facility would be charged interest, at a rate of 10 percent. It would also be obliged to increase the value of its currency and to permit the export of capital. If, by the end of the year, its credit balance exceeded the total value of its permitted overdraft, the surplus would be confiscated. The nations with a surplus would have a powerful incentive to get rid of it. In doing so, they would automatically clear other nations’ deficits.
This is a good idea. The problem is it was already a good idea in 1944, just as the global Westminster Monbiot proposes was a good idea when, as he notes, it was proposed by Alfred Tennyson in 1842. I agree with it all, but I don’t think it goes nearly far enough.
Even where he is ambitious – advocating the creation of a world parliament for example – Monbiot plays down the scope of these ambitions.
Those of us who want a world parliament are often accused of trying to invent a system of global governance. But there is already a system of global governance. The UN Security Council, the World Bank, the IMF, and the World Trade Organisation make decisions that affect us all. They do so without our consent.
He’s not pushing more global government, he almost says, just a better more democratic one.
This should, in theory, be the easier argument to win. Since we do have some global institutions right now, why not make them more democratically accountable by way of a parliament on the template of national parliaments. But people hate their national parliaments. Trump’s numbers might be bad, but Congress’s are appalling and have been for years.
Monbiot’s pitch to the average citizen of existing parliamentary democracies then, is “You know that thing you hate? Let’s make a bigger one.”
In critiquing the current set of world institutions he writes:
The best that can be said for any of them is that they operate by means of photocopy democracy. We vote for an MP, and this vote is then deemed to communicate our support for his party. That is then presumed to legitimise the government, which in turn assumes the right to appoint a prime minister. He then delegates ambassadors and bureaucrats to represent us globally, and their decisions are deemed to express our wishes. With every presumed transfer of democratic consent, the imprint of our cross on the ballot paper becomes fainter.
The greatest loss of resolution, however, is surely the reduction of that voter’s political convictions and aspirations to a simple cross on a ballot paper. Monbiot isn’t to blame for this most fundamental of democratic deficits. He just hasn’t come up with even a partial solution to it.
The simplest way to understand my overall political proposal is that I have taken Monbiot’s idea of a world parliament, and said, while we are having a revolution anyhow, let’s also update the mechanisms of our democracy. I will explain the new mechanisms I propose in some detail below, but first there is another difference between my perspective and Monbiot’s that I would like to highlight.
In keeping with his focus on democratizing rather than expanding global government, Monbiot says far less about the UN’s role in protecting people from violence than he does about the IMF’s (failure in its) role to support sensible economic development. If he focused on the more fundamental role of the UN in guaranteeing human rights, he would have to discuss the prickly issue of military intervention to protect those rights. That does sound a lot more like the big bad global government he’s got no interest in selling.
But by what possible moral system can we elevate the economic rights these alternate international banking systems would protect over the fundamental right to life which the UN is so clearly obliged to defend?
In this regard, it has obviously failed, as the mounting horrors of Syria demonstrate perhaps most dramatically. But to give up on the UN is to give up on the only real effort so far to guarantee the rights of all people. Giving up on the UN is giving up on the project of our common humanity.
There’s no real answer except the hard one: a standing military force, including an advanced air force. Like the world parliament, this is an old idea. I do however, offer some innovations.
This enlarged, unified and, consolidated peacekeeping force could, it seems to me, never be either too big or too small if it was funded by a simple 100 percent tax paid by nation-states on military spending. This could simply be applied across the board, but an exemption for all but, for example, the top ten military budgets, would create a ferocious race to the bottom among countries either just above or just below the threshold. This would also make the deal very attractive to all but the biggest military spenders.
From the US point of view obviously this is a special question, since their budget is already so enormous. However, that budget includes operating forward “defensive” bases all around the world, from Afghanistan to my home country of Australia. These would either be returned to the control of the countries in which they are located, or, with the permission of these host countries, be taken over by the UN as operating bases. The US’s overall military spending then, including the tax, might be less than it is now. This might be coupled, counterintuitively, with an expansion of the US armaments industry, as it provides super elite weaponry to the UN, falling back into its one-time role of “arsenal of democracy” in playing a key role in arming a globally accountable military/police force. The aim would be, of course, for the national and global military budgets to, together, trend downward toward nothing.
This force would be commanded by a directly elected Secretary General – effectively the President of the World – and would be responsible for preventing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The focus would be air power – fighters, not bombers. Their missions would often be to ground planes bombing civilian areas, not to bomb them – or to strike armored vehicles or artillery that did the same.
Here, I have in mind the example of Libya, where, I argue, the NATO air campaign was, contrary to what Western pundits think, actually a fabulous success, saving many tens of thousands of lives at a minimum. For a shorter version of the argument simply look at Syria, a conflict which started at the same time and in the same manner as in Libya, but where air power was brought in on the side of the dictatorship. Libya is a violent mess as rival militias skirmish. Syria is hell on earth, with advanced aircraft pummeling the civilian population and life-sustaining infrastructure incessantly, in addition to a sprawling network of dungeons and mass graves.
This UN airforce would in effect become the airforce in waiting for democratic uprisings around the world, so long as those uprisings (as was the case in both Libya and Syria) began as peaceful demonstrations and only became violent in response to large scale violent state repression. Had such a force existed in 2011, by now they would have cratered every runway in Syria, grounding Assad’s planes, as well as stopping the artillery fire into civilian areas that both the regime and the rebels are guilty of.
Some infantry and armored divisions would also be needed, as there would be cases where ground troops would be needed to protect civilians from large scale violence using only light weapons. Africa is full of relevant examples, where peacekeepers are already deployed. These situations, however, where lightly armed militias are able wreak havoc without significant popular support in the areas they operate, are largely a product of under-development and generalized state failure, problems which could and should be addressed largely through non-military measures.
There will be times, however, where – as is already the case – UN boots need to be put on the ground.
The presence of such a force would give regimes which faced popular uprisings all the more reason to avoid resorting to the use of deadly force, as the advantages they have in the form of heavy weaponry would effectively be removed from the table. Trapped in a pincer movement, between the people of their nation below and the global democratic order above, authoritarian regimes around the world would fare poorly.
This global people’s air force would also give superpowers such as the US and Russia pause for concern before they bombed hospitals and schools in far away lands.
We, the people of the world, would not constantly be forced to chose between acquiescing to slaughter and oppression carried out by Third World dictatorships and empowering the US and its allies to play world cop, dispensing deadly force around the world on a presidential whim. We can continue arguing about which of these evils is the lesser, but let us strive at least for the creation of a third option.
Control of this force, as I mentioned above, would be under the immediate control of the Secretary General, but it would be subject to supervision by a world parliament, who would be able to withhold (but not set) its budget. The parliament would also have the capacity to impeach this secretary, with a large enough majority.
This dynamic ephemeral parliament would be paired with a “house of nations”: a reformed UN General Assembly. Here, Monbiot suggests a system where countries would have their votes weighted by both population and degree of democratization, which would be defined and measured in various ways.
I suggest a simpler and more easily understood system that achieves the same thing: the weight of a government’s vote is determined by the number of votes cast for that government at the most recent national-level general election at which UN observers were present.
These votes would have to be cast directly for that executive branch of the government, not for a parliament or legislature which then appoints an executive. This avoids one degree of the “photocopy democracy” Monbiot complains about. It is also particularly necessary as under my system parliaments would not be elected all at once or for set terms.
Parliamentary monarchies, like the UK and my home country of Australia, would therefore, along with the dictatorships of the world, be required to make major constitutional changes before they would have any voting weight. As I will argue elsewhere, these and other changes are long overdue in any case.
If for some reason these national level reforms prove harder to achieve than the global ones, and it was decided that prime-ministerial systems were to be included, the support of the members who had appointed the prime minister could be totalled easily enough. There should however be some discount placed on this diluted democratic legitimacy.
Despotic nations would have a presence in the parliament, as a place from which to negotiate, but would have no voting power, or perhaps a token voting weight equivalent to one person. They would be viewed as placeholders for the democratic governments to come.
Just as the decline of the Soviet Union should free us to argue for socialism without having to constantly disown the atrocities of Stalin, so the waning of US power, which is plain for all to see, should free us to argue for universal enjoyment of democracy without automatically associating ourselves with American imperial hypocrisy.
The second chamber, the people’s chamber, is where my design diverges most dramatically from that of Monbiot’s. I suggest a floating, de-centered, virtual parliament, in which voters would be able to divide their vote into a number of tokens and be able to use a digital interface to move them between representatives. Anyone would be able to stand as a rep, and, with the proxies of friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family, start voting. These digital tribunes would be required to lock in their voting positions in advance of final counting, giving people a chance to withdraw support from a politician whose intentions displease them. This would matter a great deal as representatives’ voting weights would be variable, rising and falling according to the number of proxy-granting tokens issued to them by voters. This would also create a sorting mechanism, whereby politicians who most consistently represented the views of their constituents would be filtered to the top.
At some stage on their ascent, at perhaps, 10,000 tokens, the equivalent of 1,000 full votes, these reps would face a choice: they could forgo further advance, and cap the number of tokens allocated to them at that point; or they would be required to publicly disclose their financial interests (I am assuming extensive campaign finance reform has occurred well before this system is implemented). At this stage they may also begin to earn some kind of income which could be tied to the number of tokens they receive, but capped at something befitting a public servant, perhaps fixed against the median income of the population they collectively represent.
Once they have reached another threshold, perhaps a degree of magnitude higher, they would be obliged to either stream or record and make public all politically relevant conversations, meetings, events, or discussions they engage in. Their supporters and opponents would be able to peruse these feeds, moving their vote around as they did so. Similar transparency requirements would have to be applied to the traditionally elected executive branch mentioned earlier.
The system is more like proportional representation than a territory-based system, but because of its fluidity it would be a perfectly viable strategy to enter the parliament on a platform based on advancing the interests of a certain place, in hope of gaining supporters from that area. Still, reps would not be limited to defining their missions in relation to geographic locations
I have previously written about this system and called it democracy without elections. That was five and a half years ago. That I have not written about this system since 2011 reflects the difficulty I have in articulating the idea. It’s not that it’s too complex; it’s that it’s too simple:
We (using a smartphone or a computer, or whatever) move our vote, which is divided into proxy tokens, around, between different representatives. Let’s call them Tribunes, for reasons I’ll explain in part two of this essay.
Anyone could declare themselves a tribune, contingent on being endorsed by at least one other person. They would for the most part remain physically distributed throughout the community (there need not be a physical chamber at all) speaking and voting from within the communities they represent. They would be ranked in importance by the number of tokens allocated to them. Their level of popularity would also be important in allocating who would get to speak (via their smartphone, or whatever) on the virtual podium, and most importantly who will get to introduce a bill.
The mechanism for this is also fairly simple. For every hour that a proxy token is allocated to a rep they receive something called a conch credit, which they can save, or bid in online auctions to secure opportunities to speak.
There would be a limited number of opportunities to introduce a bill, perhaps two per week. These would be auctioned the week before. There would then be a set number of opportunities to speak in response to each bill – say, 15-minute blocks – which would be auctioned directly after the bill was introduced by its sponsor. There would be a mechanism by which reps could pool their credits to collectively secure a bill opening or a chance to respond, and nominate one from among their number to speak on their behalf. Participating would be made as simple and convenient as possible.
There would have to be some mechanism to extend debating time and introduce amendments, but they should be minimal. There would be no standing committees or other procedural chicanery into which the senatorial class could divert public will, so the refining of a bill would have to happen in advance, in public, as support was built for it across a broad swathe of the population.
The system is different from “Liquid Democracy” in three ways.
- There is a divide between reps and voters in my system (allowing for private citizens to have a secret ballot, among other things);
- The vote is finite and can be broken into pieces called proxy-tokens. I imagine ten, but these could be further divisible. This is unlike Liquid Democracy, where the voter can allocate an infinite number of proxies, each worth a whole vote, to various delegates, each of which is supposed to vote in a special category such as “the environment” or “the economy”. This will force voters and reps to prioritise specific issues and actions.
- These categories would have no functional role in the voting system, since economic decisions have environmental effects, for example, it is best to leave it to people to decide for themselves which issues are at stake in each vote.
I also advocate this system, tweaked in various ways, at all other levels of government, and as the core decision-making mechanism for progressive organizations, and indeed the global progressive movement.
One advance I have made in my thinking on this issue since 2011, when the piece was written, is explicitly recognizing the need for this ephemeral and dynamic parliament to be paired with a strong executive branch of government, elected the usual way, in four-year terms, or something very similar.
The design of the new parliament means that there will be a great deal of churn in terms of who leads the debate. Those who draft legislation might not be around long enough to see it enforced. This is workable, as the role of the parliament is to make laws, not execute or enforce them. Those tasks fall to the executive branch and the courts respectively. Here continuity and consistency have an important role.
These administrations would ultimately be subject to impeachment by the parliament, if a strong enough majority were to demand it. A lower bar perhaps could still be set whereby this parliament could force fresh elections without proving actual malfeasance. The margin for this could be, for example, a two-thirds majority. Note that this would have to be a two-thirds majority of tokens, not of reps. (Just to go over it again, the reps would lock in their positions, and then people would have time to move their votes over to reps who they agreed with on this issue, then the final count would occur).
If such a system or one similar to it were the basis of governing in the US, right now, Bernie Sanders would be the most powerful figure in the senate. He would be able to outvote on his own a large number of his spineless colleagues. And he would not be alone, as he would be joined by thousands of delegates – physically spread all across America, voting from within their communities backed by their family friends and neighbors – who agree with his progressive agenda. They would present an impassable barrier to the new healthcare bill which threatens to throw 24 million people off healthcare. They would be within striking distance of unseating Trump and forcing early elections.
But of course under my system the senate’s entire composition would be unrecognizably transformed. Such an unpopular (indeed anti-populist) bill would not stand a chance. Much of what we are told today is politically impossible would sail through.
In the UK the debilitating war between the Labour Party’s grass roots members and MPs would be impossible. Popular Labour policies like renationalizing the postal service and the railways, would pass regardless of such struggles.
In Australia, for a final example, the 70 percent of people who support raising the minimum wage would get their way.
While obviously the immediate adoption of such a system at the global level, or even national level, is not a real prospect, it might be possible to introduce it at the municipal level, somewhere, pretty soon. Perhaps Palo Alto would be the first city to try legislation by app. More likely Barcelona or Porto Alegre.
At the global level, the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly offers a first step toward serious UN reform.
But the first place I think this system should be set up is within the progressive movement. The app we use to change the world will be a prototype for the app we use to run the world.
If everything goes lottery-winning well, the process of change could start with this essay going massively viral. Within months interest in the idea would be so great that the programming would be done by volunteers and virtual chambers would be set up, each corresponding (except in very special circumstances) to an existing municipal, state, national, or regional government. The first of these must be at the global level: the root folder in which the subfolders of regional, national, state, and local chambers are nested.
Obviously, I know this is unlikely, and take full responsibility for my failure to inspire. But for the sake of a tidy hypothetical, let me continue with my fantasy-case scenario a little longer:
These online chambers should seek sometimes to work with the avowedly progressive parties at their level of government, and even in cases where these established parties are prepared to internally adopt our hyper-democratic methods, to potentially fold our organizations into them. In some cases it may make more sense to work with national and local parties who are themselves focused on digital democratic innovations, like the Flux Party in Australia. Here, the most obvious approach is of friendly, honest, and collaborative entryism. This terrain is so case specific, though, that no blanket recommendations can be made.
The Global Chamber will similarly have to find a posture in relation to, both the UNPA campaign mentioned above, and, for example, the Socialist International.
Interestingly enough, this is one global organization that has itself called for the creation of a global parliament.
Better structured democratic control and accountability are needed if the world’s democratic deficit is to be seriously addressed. At some point, contemplation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly will be needed. Such a development should be supported by the gradual emergence of truly global citizenship, underpinned by rights drawn from the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights and the 1966 Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic and Social Rights.
It went on:
Such an assembly should be more than just another UN institution. It would need to become a building block of a new, democratically legitimate world order. … Every effort needs to be made by the large party communities to attain the goal of a UN Parliamentary Assembly…
At the time that statement was made the organization was headed by António Guterres, who is now Secretary-General of the UN.
Among diplomats, parliamentarians, human rights lawyers, and various intellectuals, the idea of a world parliament is already quite popular. The UNPA has a an impressive list of such names. So far it has not drawn much support outside these circles.
My hope is that by pairing it with this form of radical democracy, and with a package of complementary and interlocking economic reforms (a UBI framed as a “voting wage”, for example) which I will detail in the second part of this essay, I will help sketch a vision that will give ordinary people around the world a reason to support the creation of this new body.
These ideas may seem unreasonably ambitious and naive, but worthwhile progressive projects always do. In the second part of this essay (to be published in the coming months), I will both describe the economic component of this global vision in more detail, and lay out some meta-strategic guidelines for how those who find this vision animating might proceed.
Until then I leave you with the insistence that not only is another world possible, it is hurtling toward us, like the ground at a skydiver. The metaphorical parachute I offer to help sew is a long overdue, but finally possible, re-ordering of the global system. To continue with the current system, unchanged, is to guarantee a hard landing.
We cannot continue to pretend that we are powerless, that things are locked in place. Things are shaking loose all around us. We have choices, and our actions matter. Lift your eyes to the horizon of the possible, which expands around us in every direction.