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The lacuna in this analysis is the rural hinterland. Do they simply get annexed to the city states? Or do they exist as independent polities in their own right? I doubt the rural counties would be enthusiastic about being reduced to exurbs, given the difference in culture and values as compared to the urban cores.

Another question is that of the desirability of democracy in the first place. We tend to take that as axiomatic, but it is not obvious why. If democracy can't really work at scale (with which I tend to agree), breaking a polity into city states comes with its own problems. The historical example of ancient Greece is illustrative. The independent poleis survived for a while, even fighting off the Persians. Then they were rolled up by Philip of Macedon and folded into Alexander's abortive empire. Later Rome conquered them. The general rule is that a collection of fractious mini-states are relatively easy prey for large, aggressive, well-coordinated neighbors that are less attached to democracy.

Remote work poses an additional question, insofar as megacities are even necessary anymore. A town of 100k people provides most of the cultural benefits of a metropole, without the associated costs in crime, pollution, alienation, etc. Should each small town aspire to state status? Can those then be federated together for maintenance of defense, infrastructure, etc? Does that federation in any case not come to resemble what we already have?

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I struggled with this a lot, and finally pushed it aside for better treatment later. But you're absolutely correct, there's not room for the agrestic here. Greece had the rural outerlands around the major city-states, but that would only exacerbate the problem of rural alienation.

I'm inclined toward the desirability of democracy over previous systems, if only because it seems to have produced more equality on a larger scale in practice. The breaking apart into smaller democratic pieces absolutely relies on geopolitical stability and a lack of large-scale conflict though, and I'm not sure how to reconcile that. Like, democracy doesn't seem to be able to handle much more scale, but lots of smaller entities would invite conflict. In the age of MAD though, maybe the dynamics change in the short term? I don't know.

To your last point, I think the main piece missing is the engagement part. Very few people care about local politics. If we had our current system and everyone was engaged in local politics, I think that would improve the issues of scale significantly. The shared fictions all get smaller, and the community becomes higher quality, etc. But remote work doesn't help strengthen shared fictions IMO, and things are moving in the opposite direction in terms of engagement at the local vs national level.

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Glad John mentioned Turchin. If you haven't read him, I recommend checking out his books, Austin. I'm also in the process of "translating" an interesting little book for my stack: Logocracy. Might have some ideas you could use. The author, Lobaczewski, also makes the point in his other book (Ponerology) that giant states are a form of state "disease" - macropathy. The centers of power are too distant from large portions of the population, especially rural, and this leads to a sense of powerlessness, and lack of involvement, not to mention the rulers being out of touch with the ruled.

Lobaczewski has several criticisms of democracy in its current form. He even argues that by limiting the franchise in particular ways, we would probably get higher voter turnouts. Anyways, interesting piece!

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Thanks for the recommendation! Turchin looks interesting, and very much related to some ideas on Progress Studies and applied history that are very topical.

Interested to understand the argument for franchise limitation better, will definitely check that out. Obviously we have certain limitations both implicit and explicit already, but I imagine this is of a different bent.

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It'll be in an upcoming installment. Just published chapter 6, and it's in chapter 9, I believe. But here's his chapter on democracy. (https://ponerology.substack.com/p/logocracy-chapter-5-democracy) It's paywalled, but I summarized some of the main points above the break.

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Strict franchise limitation is probably more important than geographical scale tbh

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The problem with devolution is that it seems guaranteed to produce conflict on a small scale. See again, Greece. Also the former Yugoslavia. But then, per Turchin, conflict will tend to lead to aggregation into larger states.

In the end it could just be the Chinese cycle: what is together must fall apart, what is divided must join.

To be clear, my personal expectation is that this will happen, and really (as you also note) already is happening on a de facto basis. So it might more fruitfully be examined from a point of how to best navigate it as it unfolds.

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I can't say this is anything more than instinct or maybe just naive optimism, but I think we're in the very first days of an era of fundamental technology shift that changes historic dynamics (re Turchin, if those dynamics really are so measurably cyclical idk, but different discussion).

I think there are two ways to think about it. The first is to systems like the global geopolitical system as cyclical and stable, i.e. the system will cycle through the same states but in aggregate those states won't ever change. The remit of things like history or sociology or cliodynamics (cliology?) is either to understand those states, or try to maintain or attain certain ones for longer, or whatever.

The second way, and one that I find maybe more interesting (if not much more hubristic), is that systems like this are metastable but ultimately chaotic. We might have what look like return to previous states, but big enough changes could change our phase space dramatically and permanently, and we could find ourselves in an entirely new paradigm.

Maybe you're right, and devolution is guaranteed to produce conflict. Maybe we're simply in one phase of a complete, stable cycle, and what we need to do is try and understand it as best we can so we can navigate the next phase. Or maybe, communication technology and modern weaponry and modern political philosophy and a billion other progresses we've made in a million other fields have changed the expectations and assumptions we operate under, even if we don't see it yet. Maybe we live now at the precipice of being flung into completely uncharted space, where our decisions about things like how we structure society now will have huge repercussions for the people living in the future.

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Most of the equality of democracy seems to be spectacle and illusion. There are still nobles with vast fortunes who do whatever they want, there are countless people who are worse off than serfs--we even still have starvation with 1 in 6 _*American children*_ suffering food scarcity. And a lot of the things credited to democracy is just technological advancements... Rome and Athens had democratic institutions and so did Poland and Venice, but these were not thriving with equality. France had equality of terror during its first democratic period, and right now everything is on fire in Paris with how happy democracy is making the French.

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I've been thinking about the rural aspect too. On the one hand, my solution is to split everything into "metropolitan areas," and that would take care of 86% of America. Interestingly, that number went up during the pandemic not down (as in "nonmetro counties lost population during the 2010s, while the metro population increased nearly 9 percent")

The other 14% of nonmetro areas, 12% of those are impoverished and would likely prefer to move to metropolitan areas, and perhaps cities can provide support for relocation. The remaining rural counties could form their own "metropolitan areas" that are self-governing according to the lives they want to live. (For example, even a tiny mining town could be self-governing, it doesn't need to be the size of San Francisco for this to work.)

As for the ability of small city states to defend themselves against autocratic (or otherwise) states, I would still see all of our self-governing city states pay a small portion of their income to the United States, a greater entity who would provide military support and keep the peace between city states. Kind of like what the United Nations does for Europe.

https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/102576/eib-230.pdf

But this is just a working theory, I'd be curious to know your thoughts.

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I so agree with this, and it is actually a subject I am attempting to tackle in one of my next essays. Thankfully, now I'll just pick up where you left off since this is so perfectly said! 🤩

On the New York and London flirting with freedom thing—that is so fascinating. Could you share the link to those discussions? I'd love to learn more!

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Excited for it!

I think the new Wikipedia refresh is messing up the subheading linking, but if you scroll down in the city-state page there's a section called Proposed city states where the history of both cities is given: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City-state#Proposed_city-states

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Oh I see, thank you!

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I agree with the overall thrust of this piece. The sprawling managerial bureaucracies currently parasitizing Western countries under the rubric of "democracy" have no long-term prospects.

There are important historical questions about democracy that are not talked about enough in this context. It should be interesting, fascinating, how little the US founders spoke of *democracy* without spitting. The beginnings of the US system are properly *republican*, with the likes of Jefferson and Madison taking an intense interest in ancient Greek and Roman forms of representative government. (It's no small irony that the centralized federalist system we ended up with has much more to do with Hamilton's vision than Jeffersonian republicanism.)

There is more to these ideals of self-determination, but suffice to say, many of the founders were as wary of mob rule as they were of unaccountable monarchy. Montesquieu and, later, Tocqueville both warned of "democracy" in their own ways.

Rightly so, as it turns out. The masses really are easily manipulated, provided you control the entertainment and information flows, while washing away local forms of organic self-rule. Today's Euro-American nation-state uses the word "democracy" while operating in ways that have little connection to its real meaning. The machinery in DC, London, and Brussels trundles on with little real input from the people. Oh, all the surface trappings are there. We get to show up and vote every once in awhile for the approved selections. But the veneer of legitimacy obscures the real levers of power. Nice cargo cult we've built for ourselves.

Even if democracy is a goal (I'm not convinced that it is), the real issues don't surround the word, but rather what we desire for a good government. We can have representation, local and organic social forms, decentralization, (etc) without the D-word. The term itself is more thought-terminating cliche today than it is an instructive guide to good government and its virtues.

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Thanks for posting, Austin, loved the piece.

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All the truly awful countries are small too.

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Agreed. I think there's a trifecta needed here: small population, secure from outside threats, able to produce lots of value per capita. With Singapore, the third seems to have been achieved with emphasis on skilled labor education and open borders for those laborers.

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But that trifecta is very difficult to pull off. Small population + small land area = hard to defend. High productivity requires access to resources, which is difficult with a small area. Countries like Switzerland and Singapore exist because of a unique combination of geographical, historical, and cultural features. They can't be easily replicated by anyone, and they certainly can't be replicated by everyone. They are crossroad places and they can only exist in contrast with and in service to a wider world that essentially tolerates them because it is useful to have such places. You can't replicate the model without replicating the circumstance, and you can't replicate the circumstances.

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Jan 24, 2023·edited Jan 24, 2023Liked by Austin Tindle

“But the spectacle of national politics takes attention and energy away from local politics…”

Oof! I unfortunately fall prey to this. I’ve lived in 4 different states in the last 3 years, and I know nothing about their local politics.

As always, great article. Oh! And thanks for the necessary callout :)

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I've lived in the same state for five years and couldn't pick my local pols out of a lineup :) Telecommunication tech definitely plays a huge role: the web is our big global 'community', we don't have time for the boring happenings of small-city goings on. There's an interesting article from Misha's Kvetch recently that sorta relates. It profiles Coke Stevenson, the last of an archetype of politician that doesn't (or can't) exist anymore: https://kvetch.substack.com/p/coke-stevenson

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Typo: at the end of the nineteenth century-->eighteenth

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I’m not exactly sure what you’re advocating for here. Federal governments have the ability to maintain stability despite their scale due to the scope of what they regulate and administer, which is precisely the sublimation of city-scale governance.

Even according to system theory, national and international governance has to be predicated on the maintenance of stable cities to make any sense. It would make more sense to suggest that our infrastructure, labor conditions, and to some extent our digital technologies alienate us from our immediate social conditions.

Nationalism works because of ideology and socioeconomic systems like capitalism, not in spite of them (even if nationalism is parasocial to a degree). People don’t need to scale their immediate community circles beyond standard personal capacity, it happens in a passive context through engaging with people temporarily, or by proxy via remote connections. City states would not resolve or replace any of these things, besides possibly exacerbating them. An emphasis on city-level democracy wouldn’t replace the sublimation of federal government either, there’s simply no historical precedent for that being a necessary consequence.

The problem is that large scale apparatus can begin to operate of their own accord like a homunculus. International government relations operate like corporations, as a means to serve ideological apparatus, and many of those ideological actors are Federal government that assume a capitalistic stance. An expansion of city states would leave them tragically at the whim of the current capitalistic world system, where the WTO is more interested in maintaining international capital trade than it is fostering economic development in nations vulnerable to exploitation or imperialism by strong nation states. They would equally be left prey to NGOs keen on corporate outsourcing and commodity market politics.

I’m also not sure how you can conclude that governments are immortal either. On a base level of individuality, government is arguably not necessary until perhaps a certain threshold of tribe or city is met, at least if we’re being consistent with systems theory. So, I’m not sure what your implications about city states really mean for democracy. It seems like your criticisms of scale are being displaced onto a Trojan Horse.

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The scale of government is amazing. People complain about billionaires, but the money in the hands of politicians is way beyond that. I wrote a book on this problem, called "Unchecked and Unbalanced." I talked about the logistical challenges of unbundling government services so that people could have more choices. The book was widely unread.

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