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Political Apoptosis: from the Historical State to the Hyperhistorical MASs

The long-term perspective, introduced in the previous section, should help to explain the process of political apoptosis[1] that we are undergoing, to borrow a concept from cell biology: the State developed by becoming more and more an Information Society, but in so doing it increasingly made itself less and less the main information agent, because what made the State possible and then predominant,

Fig. 2  From the State to the MASs

as a historical driving force in human politics, namely ICTs, is also what is now making it less central hyperhistorically, in the social, political and economic life of humanity across the world (Fig. 2). Three related reasons are worth highlighting by way of explanation.

1. Power: ICTs “democratise” data and the processing/controlling power over them, in the sense that both now tend to reside and multiply in a multitude of repositories and sources, thus creating and empowering a potentially boundless number of non-state agents, from the single individual to associations and groups, from macro-agents, like multinationals, to international, intergovernmental as well as nongovernmental, organisations. The State is no longer the only, and sometimes not even the main, agent in the political arena that can exercise informational power over other informational agents, in particular over (groups of) human informational organisms. The European Commission, for example, recognised the importance of such new agents in the Cotonou Agreement[2] between the European Union (EU) and the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries, by acknowledging the important role exercised by a wide range of nongovernmental development actors, and formally recognising their participation in ACP-EU development cooperation. According to Art. 6 of the Cotonou Agreement, such non-state actors comprise: “the private sector; economic and social partners, including trade union organisations; civil society in all its forms, according to national characteristics”[3]. The phenomenon is generating a new tension between power and force, where power is informational and exercised through the elaboration and dissemination of norms, whereas force is physical and exercised when power fails to orient the behaviour of the relevant agents and norms need to be enforced.

2. Space: ICTs de-territorialise human experience. They have made regional borders porous or in some cases entirely irrelevant. They have also created, and are exponentially expanding, regions of the infosphere where an increasing number of agents (not only people, see above) operate and spend more and more time. Such regions are intrinsically stateless. This is generating a new tension between geo-politics, which is global and non-territorial, and the Nation State, which still defines its identity and political legitimacy in terms of a sovereign territorial unit, as a Country.

3. Organisation: ICTs fluidify the topology of politics. ICTs do not merely enable but actually promote the agile, temporary and timely aggregation, disaggregation and re-aggregation of distributed (Floridi forthcoming) groups around shared interests across old, rigid boundaries, represented by social classes, political parties, ethnicity, language barriers, and so forth. This is generating a new tensions between the Nation State, still understood as a major organisational institution, yet no longer monolithic but increasingly morphing into a multiagent system itself (see below), and a variety of equally powerful, indeed sometimes even more politically influential (with respect to the old Nation State) and powerful (see above), non-State organisations. The debate on direct democracy is thus reshaped. We used to think that it was about how the Nation State could re-organise itself internally, by designing rules and having the means to promote forms of democracy in which citizens could vote on policy initiatives directly almost in real time. We thought of it as a complementary alternative to forms of representative democracy. The reality is that direct democracy has become a medialed democracy, in which multiagent systems (understood as distributed groups temporary and timely aggregated around shared interests) have multiplied and become sources of influence external to the Nation State. Citizens vote for their representatives and influence them via opinion polls.

Because of 1–3, the unique position of the historical State as the information agent is being undermined from below and overridden from above by the emergence of multiagent systems or MASs, which have the data, the power (and sometimes even the force, as in the case of cyber threats), the space, and the organisational flexibility to erode its political clout, steal its authority and, in the long run, make it redundant in contexts where it was once the only or the predominant informational agent. The recent Greek crisis and the actual agents involved in its management offer a good template: the Greek Government and the Greek State had to interact “above” with the EU, the European Central Bank, the IMF, the rating agencies, and so forth, and “below” with the Greek mass media and the people in Syntagma square, the financial markets and international investors, German public opinion, and so forth.

A much more networked idea of political interactions makes possible a degree of tolerance towards, and indeed feasibility of, localisms, separatisms, as well as movements and parties favouring autonomy or independence that would have been inconceivable in Modern times. From Padania (Italy) to Catalonia (Spain), from Scotland (Great Britain) to Bavaria (Germany), one is reminded that almost

in any European country, for example, hyperhistorical trends may resemble preWestphalian equilibria[4].

Of course, the historical State is not giving up its role without a fight. In many contexts, it is trying to reclaim its primacy as the information super-agent governing the political life of the society that it organises. In some cases, the attempt is blatant: Labour Government's failed plan to introduce compulsory ID in the UK[5] should be read from this perspective. In many cases, it is “historical resistance” by stealth, as when an information society—defined by the essential role played by intellectual, intangible assets (knowledge-based economy), information-intensive services (business and property services, finance and insurance), and public sectors (especially education, public administration and health care)—is largely run by the State, which simply maintains its role of major informational agent no longer just legally, on the basis of its power over legislation and its implementation, but now also economically, on the basis of its power over the majority of information-based jobs. The intrusive presence of so-called State Capitalism with its SOE (State Owned Enterprises) all over the world and especially in China is an obvious symptom.

Similar forms of resistance seem only able to delay the inevitable rise of political MASs. Unfortunately, they may involve huge risks, not only locally, but also globally. Paradoxically, while humanity is moving into a hyperhistorical age, the world is witnessing the rise of China, currently a most “historical” Sovereign State, and the decline of the US, a Sovereign State that more than any other superpower in the past already had a hyperhistorical vocation in its federal organisation. This is risky, because the anachronistic historicism of some of China's policies and humanity's growing hyperhistoricism are heading towards a confrontation. It may not be a conflict, but hyperhistory is a force whose time has come, and while it seems very likely that it will be the Chinese State that will emerge deeply transformed, one can only hope that the inevitable friction will be as painless and peaceful as possible. The previous conclusion holds true for the historical State in general: in the future, we shall see the political MASs acquire increasing prominence, with the State itself progressively abandoning its resistance to hyperhistorical changes and evolving into a MAS itself. Good examples are provided by devolution or the growing trend in making central banks, like the Bank of England or the European Central Bank, independent, public organisations.

  • [1] Apoptosis (also known as programmed cell death) is a natural and normal form of self-destruction in which a programmed sequence of events leads to the elimination of cells. Apoptosis plays a crucial role in developing and maintaining the health of the body by eliminating cells once they become old, unnecessary, or unhealthy. I am indebted to Judith Simon for having warned me against the dangerous overtones in the concept, with its potential connection to Nazi views about biological purity and purification. Of course this is not the way the concept should be understood here, I have just been unable to find a better way of expressing the idea so far.
  • [2] See Second Revision of the Cotonou Agreement, Agreed Consolidated Text, 11 March 2010. pdf.
  • [3] I am grateful to Mireille Hildebrandt for calling my attention to this document.
  • [4] The entry on “List of active separatist movements in Europe” in Wikipedia is both informative and eye opening.
  • [5] The Labour Government introduced the first Identity Cards Bill in November 2004, after several intermediary stages, the Identity Cards Act was finally repealed by the Identity Documents Act 2010 on 21 January 2011.
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