Recently in my state under the auspices of a new law, a small, financially troubled city was the first to be completely taken over by a so-called emergency financial manager appointed by the governor. The extraordinary powers given to this manager under the law allowed him to strip all governing powers from elected officials and the boards appointed by them. This manager is now the de facto dictator of Benton Harbor, Michigan.
Benton Harbor has a long history of problems which are fairly easy to discover with a few Internet searches. Still, I am reminded of Winston Churchill’s saying that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” How many managers will the governor eventually appoint to run various school districts and cities? Some 300 trainees were admitted to a recent training session for such managers. One person I know who attended said the only qualification for receiving the training was providing a credit card number to which the seminar organizers could charge the $175 registration fee, a modest amount for a chance to become a well-paid dictator. (The legislature defeated an amendment that would have capped salaries paid to emergency financial managers at the level currently paid to the governor which is $159,300 annually. The emergency manager salaries are to be paid by the unit of government that is taken over, not by the state.)
This event is not, however, the beginning of a trend toward greater centralization of political, economic and social control. We are, in fact, well along that path which is a response to the inscrutable problems that our complex society faces–a society so complex that no one really knows how to govern it. As Joseph Tainter, author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, explains, complex societies at first find that complexity solves problems such as food storage, transport, border security, and the maintenance of social order. But as those societies become ever more complex, the returns on increased complexity diminish and then finally turn negative.
Many thinkers have noticed that our society may have already passed the point of diminishing returns and that we are now experiencing negative returns on complexity. Economist Herman Daly says we long ago reached the point of “uneconomic growth.” (PDF) The costs of growth now exceed the benefits. William Catton Jr. said much the same thing in his ecological classic entitled Overshoot. Human society now consumes resources at a rate far beyond the Earth’s long-term carrying capacity.
A recent dramatic example of the impenetrable complexity we live with was the financial crash of 2008, an event that policymakers seemed helpless to halt. Their response was to ask for extraordinary powers to inject money into the banking system, to take over large enterprises, and to run huge fiscal deficits to boost the world’s economy. Central banks engaged in what some people believe is illegal activity to shore up flagging financial firms. Give us dictatorial powers, government officials said, or everything will fall apart. When there wasn’t time to get authorization, those government officials simply did what they thought was necessary to stop the financial haemorrhaging.
I don’t want to rehash the wisdom of these acts of financial desperation. What I’m interested in is the notion the world has become too complex and fast-moving for democratic governance. Tainter explains that increased complexity calls for increasingly complex systems of people and machines to manage that complexity.
The United States and its allies have given a highly complex and powerful military the task of winning the so-called “War on Terror.” Setting aside the fact that terror is a tactic, not a defined enemy, consider whether that military has made progress in that multi-front conflict in the decade since it was announced by President George W. Bush. Today, Afghanistan remains a lawless and corrupt state. Pakistan has become a haven for those who oppose American power. Iraq–which was never a haven for terrorists–has now become one, full of rebels who are largely an indigenous religious minority dissatisfied with the outcome of the war. And, the persistent request from George Bush and now his successor, Barack Obama, more less amounts to this: “Give me extraordinary powers to detain people and fight wars. Too much interference from elected officials will hamper our efforts. Basic constitutional protections against search and seizure and against imprisonment without trial need to be overridden.”
But the so-called “War on Terror” is really many conflicts involving local grievances in countries which have strategic importance to the United States and its allies for resource or geopolitical reasons. Lax oversight by elected officials and concentration of power in the hands of generals and civilian managers has not resolved these conflicts.
When the usual processes of democracy fail often enough to resolve perceived difficulties, people sometimes choose to relinquish their voice in society’s decisions in exchange for order and stability. We may, however, be approaching an era where no such tradeoff exists. A dictator running an ungovernable system may be no better at achieving stability than a democratically elected body with all its messy procedures.
There is an alternative. Simplify the systems we live under. That, of course, means challenging the existing power structure. Energy constraints may soon do the challenging for us and force us to simplify systems that will have trouble surviving declines in energy inputs such as multi-national corporations and large centralized states.
I saw Tainter in person not too long ago at a conference. He was asked if any complex society has ever voluntarily reduced its complexity, meaning before events forced it to. He couldn’t think of any. That tells me we can look forward to more governments claiming the need for additional extraordinary powers to deal with seemingly intractable problems that, in all likelihood, cannot be solved by continuing with the hypercomplex arrangements that now govern our world.
As our difficulties increase, a new crop of dictators or quasi-dictators in various realms of our society will emerge, offering to solve our problems. Increasingly, I think we will let them try.
Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.