Last month, Scottish voters participated in a momentous referendum in which a majority of the country (97% voting) decided to remain part of the United Kingdom. This reverses an almost unbroken string of devolutionary precedents which began with the North American Revolution in 1776. Does this signal the onset of a counter-trend in world historical terms?
Broadly speaking, in the first instance by 'devolution' I mean the shift of governing power from a central authority to local controlling bodies. The U.S. revolution, a century ahead of its time, was so unprecedented it nearly overshot its devolutionary mark: the Articles of Confederacy would have created 13 independent nations. It took a civil war in the 1860s to rectify this miscalculation and solidify governance in a central authority, albeit one with limited powers—a tension which still haunts our politics to this day.
Recently I republished a map from The Guardian showing the various countries who have, in one way or another, gained their independence from the British monarchic control over time. Here it is again.
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It bears noting that current Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems to have some desire to reclaim the lost glories of empire and thus of centralized authority, but his venture into the Ukraine—despite his practically unopposed reclaimation of the Crimean peninsula—is meeting serious resistance both at home and abroad and seems to be showing the folly of resisting the historical devolutionary trend.
Back to Scotland: There are local reasons for the failure of the devolutionary trend in the Scottish referendum, not the least of which involve physical proximity, historical affinity (how random, after all, is the placement of Hadrian's wall?), racial and ethnic and linguistic identity, economic commonality, etc. So it may be fair to say that the recent failure of the plebiscite does not represent a significant halt to the historical sweep of devolution. The British Empire, after all, is pretty much broken up and shows no signs of reversing the larger trend. By all indications, our British cousins no longer have expansionary dreams. They are simply trying to hold onto their nearest and dearest, and their Scots neighbors seem to have bargained for some local political and economic independence as a result of their choice.
There are, however, some current counter-trends, and they can be found in the Middle East and Far East Asia. Significantly, ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State has noisily announced its goal as the reconstitution of the Caliphate, a multi-ethnic regional theocratic empire. The Chinese, having recaptured Hong Kong from the grasp of the British Empire, are still attempting to consolidate their hold on Tibet and are looking fondly toward bringing Taiwan back into the fold. An Occupy-like movement in Hong Kong is vocally resisting this effort, and the Dalai Lama has withdrawn from political leadership in order to draw attention to Beijing's attempts to manipulate the process of selecting his successor and reify its claim to legitimacy in Tibet.
A brief U.S. political note: Historically, the term 'liberal' has always meant favoring democratic policies intended to further devolve power from a central authority held by such entities as royals and plutocrats and dictators, whereas 'conservative' has always meant clinging to the centrality of authority. In the U.S. today, however, conservatives seem to favor policies that devolve power to state and local authorities and away from a strong centralized government in Washington, D.C. (except, of course, in matters of national security). Why is this the case?
To understand this, we need to look at a second, parallel devolutionary trend. Besides the movement of political power, there has grown up a related though hardly identical form of devolution: economic. When the great empires were dismantled, the economic structures that held them in place fell as well. Historically, tribute, in the form of taxes and native resources, found its way back to the centers of power in exchange for continued protection and control—which necessarily did have some benefits in terms of, e.g., physical infrastructure, bureaucracy, institutions. Thus, local populations retained or recaptured ostensible control of their resources and production.
These economic organizations grew up hand-in-hand with empire. The Dutch East Indies company being the prime example. Their allegiance was always to the crown—the central authority from whom they received their charters. When the crowns toppled, these organizations were left in place. They became 'Ronin', that is to say samurais without warlords, mercenary to whatever authority provided them with the most benefits. Many grew extremely powerful in the vacuum left by the devolution of political power, some arguably more powerful than many national governments.
Today, in the U.S., this trend of economic devolution is, if anything, even more powerful than its political cousin. Large corporations operate in- and out-side of national borders. National and local governments compete for their business by lessening the tax burdens and regulatory strictures on these entities—revenue and regulations intended largely to protect local populations. And, left to their own devices, these corporate entities grow even more centralized and powerful—more ungovernable.
The central tension in U.S. politics today, I believe, has to do less with how much political power to devolve to the States and more with how much economic power will devolve to these rogue corporations. U.S. liberals, thus, paradoxically find themselves having to favor policies that promote a strong central economic authority which will reign in unbridled corporate activities. U.S. conservatives and libertarians likewise find themselves in the paradoxical situation of fighting for the further devolution of political power because it favors the concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer corporate hands.
The great national powers now are not so much tools of political as of corporate power. Corporate imperialism is the new tyranny; economic inequality and class warfare are merely indications of this movement. Economic devolution is the central political issue confronting world politics today.
Multinational corporate empires are less easily reigned in by local bureaucrats squabbling over schools and potholes and kickbacks than by sophisticated, centralized taxing and regulatory agencies. And national governments, as we've witnessed since at least the Vietnam conflict and, intensively and explicitly, over the past nearly quarter century in Iraq, best play their role by using their economic clout and war-making powers to open otherwise closed markets to corporate interests.
There is a balance to be struck somewhere between a world order of authoritarian central command-economy governments and the creeping anarchy of rogue corporate fiefdoms wielding absolute control within their spheres of economic influence. I do not pretend to know where that perfect balance lies, but it is, to my mind, the central dynamic at work in both U.S. and world affairs. Scotland, the Ukraine, Hong Kong, Tibet, Syria/Turkey/Iraq/Kurdistan, the fight for control of the U.S. Senate, the struggle against inequality and concentration of wealth, the Occupy movement and, yes, the Tea Party movement, and even Bitcoin: these are some of the contemporary flashpoints in this ongoing historical trend. Watch this space.