previous : index : next Space Gazette - Index HobbySpace Home
The Spacefaring Web 2.14: Little Green Voters?
John Carter McKnight
August 27, 2002
Reprinted by permission of the author.

"Would ET Vote? The Likelihood of Extraterrestrial Democracy," a recent article by Doug Vakoch, sets out the proposition that "if we detect a signal from advanced extraterrestrials, there's a good chance that the basic principles of democracy play a role in their society."

While the article specifically addresses alien civilizations, its larger question is the one discussed regularly in this column: how might an enduring, technologically advanced spacefaring (or at least space-communicating) society be structured? Vakoch's article has some strong and provocative answers, particularly in discussing psychologist Albert A. Harrison's excellent book After Contact: The Human Response to Extraterrestrial Life. The two authors' valuable observations, though, are obscured by vagueness in several critical definitions, leading the article to an unsubstantiated conclusion. Don't expect little green men to be punching hanging chads.

"Democracy" is a slippery concept, one whose denotations (specific meaning) and connotations (positive or negative value) have changed greatly since the term's early use in Greece 2500 years ago. Aristotle defined the term as "mob rule," one of the perversions of government, and scholarly usage followed him through the 18th Century. The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics wrestles with the concept for about three pages (pp. 129-132) before bottom-lining the term as "majority rule," the same denotation as Aristotle, but with complex connotations varying with one's philosophical views It notes a tendency to use "democracy" to mean "what I approve of," - uncomfortably close to its usage by Vakoch and Harrison. Specific elements of the bundle of concepts associated with democracy - like toleration and rights - it holds to be "preconditions for democracy but not constitutive of democracy itself."

Vakoch uses "democracy" to refer exclusively to the 19th and 20th Century technologies of representation. Summarizing Harrison, he writes that "ETs might feel very much at home with the notion of going to the ballot box. Or at least they would be familiar with the process of having input into the control of their lives, even if it doesn't take the form of presidential elections." But representation, rather than being the synononomous with democracy, arose as a solution to a specific problem in political technology.

In ancient Athens, democracy was direct: all citizens were expected to participate in communal decisionmaking in person, in assemblies of up to 6,000 people. That was a workable system for a polity about the size of an average state university campus. Advocates of democracy in the 18th Century had to address the question: can a system of personal politics be adapted to a vast nation whose citizens might be separated by days or even weeks of travel? By way of answer, they developed a hybrid: campaigning for the office of political decisionmaker would take place locally, face to face in the Athenian style, but that decisionmaking itself would be limited to the legislature meeting in the capital.

Representative democracy, then, was a solution to a problem of communications, rather than ethics or morality. Contemporary political theorists have called for using modern communications technologies to enable a new direct democracy on a national or planetary scale, claiming that telephony and the internet have rendered the mechanisms of representation outmoded and unduly limiting. The ballot initiative and plebiscite - direct-democracy overrides within the representative system - grow in use every year. Instant polling is a critical tool for legislators; the same technology could readily eliminate the middleman. Representative democracy is widely criticized for systemic flaws - corruption, control by special interests, and so on. After the last American presidential election, supporters of both candidates widely discussed the technological flaws of the current system. Assuming that our ETs pursue efficiency, rather than holding on to outmoded systems for sentimental reasons, we can pretty much discount the prospect of their simultaneously trying to communicate across interstellar distances by ultramodern means while structuring their internal affairs around horse-and-buggy technology.

In naming other supposed attributes of democracy, Vakoch's article lists an "emphasis on bargaining, negotiation, and peaceful solutions to internal problems." I could only think of two political systems or situations where these factors did not hold: the moment of revolutionary turmoil and Thomas Hobbes's conception of life before the rise of the State - a "state of nature" characterized by "the war of all against all." Every political system not actually in the midst of self-destruction is marked by those characteristics. Political scientists since the 1970s looked behind the "totalitarian" rhetoric of Communist states and their adversaries to the real, pluralistic, if constrained, processes of decisionmaking. Even the most primitive analyses of, say, contemporary Iraq, must take into account the counterbalancing forces of clan, region, Republican Guards, army and so on. Saddam Hussein is not literally an autocrat, nor has any monarch, General Secretary or warlord ever had his people quietly united behind him, eschewing their own interests and turf wars for the greater good.

In my reading, the article conflates "democracy" and "politics." The Oxford definition of the latter term (pp.388-389) begins:

As a general concept, the practice of the art or science of directing and administrating states or other political units. However, the definition of politics is highly, perhaps essentially, contested..

. . . . [The traditional definition]offers no constraint on its definition since there has never been a consensus on which activities count as government. [The modern mainstream view is that politics] occurs where people disagree about the distribution of reasons (sic, I believe that should be "resources") and have at least some procedures for the resolution of such disagreements.

Politics, then, as opposed to simple command, or warfare, is an agreed-upon method for the non-violent settlement of disputes about resources. This seems to be the gist of what Vakoch is discussing.

Are politics necessary in an advanced society? Politics arises from the scarcity of resources. It's easy enough to envision a society without material scarcity: just couple access to the raw materials in space with cheap construction methods and accurate duplication of goods such as paintings and handicrafts. Nanotech or Star Trek-style replicators get you there.

So what might remain scarce in such a culture? Political power. Fame. Dominance. Harrison's discussion of these factors is smart and nuanced: he regards dominance as a "cultural universal," observing (pp. 151-152) that

"[a]lthough one might expect that societies with large power differentials and sharp status distinctions would be more riddled with disputes where the pecking order is unclear, the reverse is the case. There may be initial fussing and fighting as a hierarchy is established, but once it is in place everyone understands who can lick whom, and the dominant members of the group are only infrequently called upon to assert their authority. When they are challenged, they may resolve the difficulty with threatening gestures and displays; they have little need to rely on actual force. In less hierarchical species, there are pressures to 'have a go at it' to resolve even small issues."

By this analysis, dominance is a constant and decisionmaking by majority rule (the core of our definition of "democracy," or in Harry Turtledove's memorable phrase, "snout-counting") is non-universal and inherently unstable. Yet Harrison goes on to cite the real evidence of the greater stability of democracies, including a favorable reference to Francis Fukuyama's thesis that modern liberal democracy is such an ideal system that its eternal triumph is inevitable.

I believe that the apparent conflict stems from that problem that the Oxford dictionary cited in the definition of "politics:" it's never clear from person to person or usage to usage just what is or is not included. Harrison's discussion of democracy follows his excellent analysis of the superiority of networks over hierarchies for decisionmaking. In arguing that alien civilizations will draw the same conclusions, Harrison parallels the central thesis of this column, that network values and technologies are essential to the development of a spacefaring civilization.

It's the next step where the lines blur: implicitly equating "decisionmaking" with "politics." Harrison notes that liberal democracies are the most network-like of modern political systems, hence the most enduring and successful. Liberal democracy, like its component, representative democracy, is a jury-rigged bundle of values and methods, some directly contradictory, developed to address specific political issues and technological constraints. This is one of the flaws in Fukuyama's argument: change the resource base or the technological boundaries and you necessarily change the political solutions (another flaw, underestimating the role of passion in politics, will be the subject of a later column, as will be a more thorough discussion of the conflicts and synergies of liberal democracy, or democratic capitalism). In my ET hypothetical, the only scarcity is dominance, and majority rule is obviously not an answer.

Yet network logic and the universality of dominance can be reconciled. As the political sphere shrinks with reduced scarcities, it fragments into micropolitics. Industrial hierarchy - the Cold War model in East and West - was a logical response to the mass-mobilization needs of heavy industry and global warfare in an age where information was scarce, and thus heavily politicized. As enterprises (from Special Forces teams to biotech firms) come to require fewer resources, and the cost of information decreases, the network replaces the hierarchy. Within the network, however, the drive for dominance goes on. The playing field has just shrunk form the monolithic State to one's own set of nodes.

This may mark a return to a more traditional, even inborn, meaning of dominance - in a limited arena, for a limited time, rather than the totalizing sense that began as kingship evolved from the wartime-only chieftain into the full-time, divine-right monarch and reached its absurd peak with Hitler, Stalin and their ilk. Now, we all have roles where the opportunity for dominance is presented, and others in which it is beyond hope. In the world of political science, Fukuyama may be a top dog: puny assistant professors roll over and show him belly. In a biker bar the outcome might be different. By the same token, the editorial staff of Foreign Affairs magazine probably includes few Hell's Angels. The struggle for dominance continues, but it's no longer linked to national/political hierarchies of control.

"Would ET vote?" Almost certainly not, and I think our days of doing so are numbered. Will ET have decentralized, networked decisionmaking? Most likely yes - along with really cutthroat office politics. Some things, after all, are universal.

The Spacefaring Web is a bi-weekly column © 2002 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

To subscribe or unsubscribe, contact the author at

previous : index : next Space Gazette - Index HobbySpace Home