Collective Intelligence: Governance Systems for the Modern World

Governance in a Disenchanted World: The End of Moral Society by Helmut Willke reasserts the spirit of liberalism invoked during the American and French Revolution when moral attitudes based on religion were trumped by secularization and the invention of modern politics and law. According to Willke, we are now facing second revolution, which will replace the dominant normative focus of the state with a global network of knowledge-based systems of governance.

In those first revolutions, we moved from a fundamentalist search for ultimate and final truths to a system that largely banished religious or moral definitions of ‘truth’ from public discourse. Whereas a continuing shared understanding under fundamentalism required the oppressive use of state power, the liberal state flourished based on developing democratic decision-making structures which allowed individuals to pursue individual freedom within the agreed upon rules.

Over the years, we developed mechanisms to lessen the likelihood of a tyranny of the majority, such as separation of powers, a hierarchy of laws and horizontal subsidiarity, allowing health, economic, university, family and countless other systems to be largely self-governing. As we transition to a knowledge-based economy, secular trends seep further into these self-governing systems. What were formerly moral questions are now discussed in the public square using scientific evidence, instead of moral exhortation, since religious morals can be less readily agreed upon than the rules for decision-making. While this frees public deliberation somewhat from moral passions, it also largely converts the power of those passions into the rational calculation of interests. Many find that wholly dissatisfying and continue to search for common touchstones and eternal truths.

Added to that, “social systems do not follow the motives and desires of people but instead follow their innate operation logics,” leading to ‘estrangement’ from our own social inventions… such as the modern corporation. A procedural approach provides guidelines for activities without assuming or mandating specific outcomes. While this liberates creativity and freedom it can also lead to a backlash by fundamentalists who witness the havoc of temporal complexities, absent any universal idea of social justice.

In the spirit of liberalism, Willke argues that rather than delimiting democracy to the level of nation-states and leaving global contexts to a laissez-faire regime, we would be better to support emerging global governance regimes like the ISO, WHO, Basel II framework and the WTO that strengthen self-organization and self-governance, even if as we lower our aspirations for more formal democracy at that level through world systems like the United Nations.

He sees globalizing knowledge societies as moving “from unitary order to complex order, from homogeneity to heterotopia, from linear order to a combination of order and disorder, and from hierarchy to heterarchy.” In fact, the new job of the political system is provide the preconditions for developing an array of distributed and decentralized collective intelligence, as well as coordinate and moderate the interplay of largely autonomous units.

As Charles Handy has pointed out, the transformation of wealth generation from tangible objects, to one largely based on knowledge, has huge implications for politics. “It is for instance, impossible to give people intelligence by decree or to redistribute it.” That leads Willke to the conclusion that “public policy and democratic decision-making are therefore inappropriate for dealing with questions of the creation and distribution of intelligence and expertise.”

Politics, it seems, retreats to the concern of deciding on the premises of decision-making. It is bound to leave the actual and factual decision-making to more knowledgeable and more competent actors, organizations and institutions, particularly in the fields of economic and financial policies.

Politics loses traditional command and control responsibilities of “telling people what to do,” while becoming more important in the role of capacity building and infrastructure. Institutions and professions become largely self-governing but political actors are still involved in requiring transparency, monitoring externalities, demanding accountability and arbitrating disputes. The idea of democracy itself must be transformed from one based on “moral demands for solidarity,” to one based on agreement upon methods for determining “moral hazard, misguided incentives, and counter-productive side effects of social security provisions or other well-intended legislation.”

In order to increase the collective intelligence of social systems it seems necessary to retire the time-honored ideal of ‘security’ as stability in favor of a more daring idea of security as resilience… ‘having the capacity to change before the case for change becomes desperately obvious.'”

The retreat to moral authority undermines the unconditional rule of democratically created law.  Dissenting opinion is branded as fundamentally wrong or even treasonous in everything from global finance, terrorism, global warming, etc. Willke argues these and many other complex problems “exceed the coping mechanisms and capacities for understanding of simply too many people. In constellations of excessive uncertainty recourse to morals turns out to be an efficient way to reduce complexity.” Unfortunately, that leads to insoluble fragmentation and dissipation.

While I may disagree with Willke concerning the “capacities for understanding” of the masses, I certainly do agree that systems head in the wrong direction when they emphasize skill sets needed for twentieth century industry, rather than analytic reasoning and critical thinking, which are increasingly required in a world of growing complexity and uncertainty.

I like Willke’s exposition of the danger of social systems becoming “iron cages.” Like the sorcerer’s apprentice, we seem to have waved our magic wand only to have generated systems that have evolved beyond our control. Our desperate search for a grounding often leads to a regression to moral arguments that places guardians above the law and independent of empirical facts. Yet, in a pluralistic world guardians are soon challenged by others also claiming legitimate authority based on moral grounds. Willke’s alternative visions is a world of largely cognitive-based rule systems, deriving their legitimacy from a continuous process of criticism and revision as to what passes for empirical fact and congruence.

I can’t envision a better grounded system myself but it would only seem to work if a majority of citizens are immersed in “scientific communities” and “communities of practice.” Even in the United States, McKinsey estimates that only about 40% of jobs are mostly based on knowledge work involving abstraction, system thinking, experimentation and collaboration… and how many of them work in an environment where empirical evidence usually prevails over systemic rules-based iron cages? We sure have a long way to go in any transition from individual morals to collective interests. Willke is dealing with the most crucial issues of our time. After reading it, I certainly have a better understanding of the challenges… unfortunately, most of the answers, like the challenges, aren’t simple.

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