The American People have spoken. Government, we HUMANS want agricultural producers and food companies to label food products grown from genetically modified seeds. [crickets chirping] Hello? Government!?
Truth is, some company paid our government loads of money to patent the seed that its scientists genetically engineered, just to secure its right to prohibit others from producing and selling the seed variety. It seems obvious that if this seed is so worthy of what Thomas Jefferson called “the public embarrassment of a patent,” then we HUMANS should at least have the right to know when we are eating it! Instead, these “biotech” companies spend more money to lobby the government to prevent the passing of our so-desired GMO labeling laws. Despite our screams, our government is still withholding our right to know what is in our food. Meanwhile, the high costs associated with patenting and lobbying are simply passed onto us Humans in the form of higher food prices. WTF???????
Before we can properly ask, “What should we do?” — let’s first consider how we should think about this thing, government. As is often the case, I am in an etymological kind of mood…
The Essence of Government
Government is a compound of the Latin word, mēns (“mind”), and the Ancient Greek word, kubernaō (“steer, drive, guide, pilot”). Interestingly, kubernaō also gave rise to the word “cybernetics” — used first by Plato to refer to government and later revived in 1948 by mathematician Norbert Wiener in relation to “control and communication in the animal and machine.” Wiener used the word to name an emerging discipline involving a complex interaction of goals, predictions, actions, feedback, and responses in systems of all kinds.
Our schools teach us Humans that the government is a complex network of institutions, public officials, and red-tape. Government is what creates and enforces laws that govern human beings’ behaviors and actions. Cyberspace is the mysterious virtual “world” or place beyond that is inherently geographical but beyond any physical border. It is precisely where you are reading my words right now.
What do laws and this virtual reality have to do with steering? Just a few moments of reflection reveals that in their broadest sense, govern-and cyber- both involve purpose-driven, goal-oriented, feedback-dependent systems. MIND blown.
Sophists, an influential group of Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, proposed the radical proposition that laws are mere customs so people are free agents prior to the law. Prior to this time, human beings generally believed human law mirrors some cosmic law. From this shift in social consciousness, Western thinkers initiated an ongoing critical reflection on the different forms of government that may exist, all depending on the “empowered body” in the system. The following chart borrowed from Josiah Ober helps illustrate the words used to refer to the differing forms of government that emerged during and after ancient Greece:
With the understanding that “government” means “steering mind,” let’s explore what we really mean to say by “democracy.”
The Essence of Democracy
The word “democracy” is derived from the Ancient Greek word demos − People, and the word kratos − force or power. Thus democracy means “the power of the People.”
Nowadays, we effectively associate democracy with the People’s “power” to vote. David Skidmore opted to use the word “polyarchy” in place of “democracy” to refer to the “top-down electoral systems advocated by U.S. policy makers.” (1997) Others use the word “technocracy” (coined in 1919) to describe Modern Democracy, as a system where the political-economic power is held by those who own and manage banks and corporations, and who otherwise shape public opinion, organize lobbying activities, and dictate how human societies experience and reveal the world around them. (Feenburg 2010)
Proper reflection on the meaning of “power” in relation to the word democracy reveals a flaw in this modern understanding of democracy. The ancient Greeks had an amorphous conception of “power” and used different words to describe different aspects of power. The ancient Greek meaning of “power” in the context of demokratia − democracy − is the “capacity to do things” − in the sense of enablement or strength. The word “democracy” properly signifies a system that empowers the People with the capacity to do things. The only grammatical alternatives to democracy in Ancient Greece were aristokratia, the “Elite’s capacity to do things,” and isokratia, the “equal capacity to do things.” (Ober 2007).
In its broadest sense, democracy really does not deal with the number of rulers in a governing regime or how those rulers are chosen. This meaning is found in another Greek root for power, arche − as in monarchia, oligarchia, and anarchia. The Ancient Greeks did not have a word that meant “rule of the People” or “rule of the many.” So if “democracy” essentially means “the People’s capacity to do things” — who or what body maintains the capacity to do things in our “democratic” system of government? What factors constrain or allow we the People to do things?
Empowering the Many to Do
With the adoption of digital technology, the system of mass consumer production supported by mass consumer culture gave birth to new social conditions out of which a new structure of class antagonism precipitates. . . Alternative traditional forms, made newly viable by the technology of interconnection, comprising voluntary associations of those who create and those who support, must be forced into unequal competition with ownership’s overwhelmingly powerful systems of mass communication. ~Eben Moglen (Columbia Law School 2003).
In the nineteenth century, Karl Marx argued that traditional democratic theory should be extended from the political domain into the economic realm − into business and industrial decision making. Marx’s solution of democratizing industry certainly did not materialize on any large scale during his lifetime. A revolution, however, is now occurring on a global scale by way of technological advances that the Communists somewhat predicted. With the rise of digital technologies, the Internet, and the World Wide Web, people now wield the power to instantaneously create, modify, and share information at little to no marginal cost. In a digitally networked world where information is the product, “copying is not only easy, it is a necessary part of transmission, storage, . . . even reading.” (Boyle 2008)
Individuals may now have the technological capacity to share and modify information on the Internet, but many forces regulate and shape the capacity of differing people from doing so. Among these forces include architecture, laws, norms, and the market. (Lessig 1999) Like traditional forms of tangible property laws, intellectual property (IP) laws give its “owners” the exclusive ability to exploit the products socially produced by its workers and other “links” in the distribution process.
“The Congress shall have Power To…promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” (1787, Art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 8)
Specifically, patent laws artificially restrain the power to practice certain “Discoveries” or “useful Arts” to “Inventors.” Open source systems, on the other hand, encourage and empower the many — the human users — to practice, inspect, and build upon the arts disclosed.
If we are to have a more democratic government, we must not only demand openness and transparency from our rulers — through both our voting and purchasing power, but we must be the openness and transparency we would like to see. This means not only working to make sure the creations we make — our discoveries and innovations — remain open and free for others to do. It also means getting off your okole (ass) and grow some organic chemical free food yourself!
Buy local. Choose organic. Grow something.
Even in an oligarchy, we the people wield more control than we realize to steer the direction of human technology through our purchasing power and lifestyle choices. Realize your inherent capacity, then empower others to do the same.
~~~Happy, Healthy, Safe Farming, Eating, Living~~~
James Boyle, The Public Domain 51 (2008).
Peter Drahos and John Braithwaite, Information Feudalism: Who Owns the Knowledge Economy? 2 (2002).
Andrew Feenberg, Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity 6 (2010).
Larry Lessig, The Laws of Cyberspace (1998).
Eben Moglen, The dotCommunist Manifesto (Jan. 2003).
Josiah Ober, The Original Meaning of “Democracy”: Capacity to Do Things, not Majority Rule (Sept. 2007).
David Skidmore, Contested Social Orders and International Politics 211 (1997).