Political systems are a settlement between the few who have power and the very large numbers who do not, on what that power can be used to do.
The existence of political structures is universal in nature - even a pack of wild dogs shows a political structure. But the nature of that structure - who gets chosen as the leader, the tools they use to get power, how they are kept accountable to the people, the mechanisms they use to govern - is very far from universal, we can be sure it that is based on a set of memes.
I want to start (after a short detour to ancient Sumer) by looking at autocracies, single-party states and the principal types of democracy to see whether we can attribute their origin and operation to our old friends, the memes.
Simple political structures
OK, let’s start by dividing modern political structures into three simple groups:
- autocracies, where the leader uses memes to retain power;
- single party states, where the entire structure is enslaved by a memeplex;
- democracies, which are led by the person with the most attractive set of memes.
The next simplest political structure is the single party system. This can be based around:
- a religion, as in Iran;
- a political party as in China and much of Africa;
- an economic structure as in the now-defunct Soviet Russia, or
- some concept of overarching national unity, the purest example of which was Nazi Germany.
These single-party structures are particularly prone to purges or to attempt forced conversion of other societies as a way of spreading the memeplex, although they usually use terms such as ‘crusade’, ‘jihad’, ‘freedom’ or ‘advancing the triumph of world communism’. These dominant-meme societies rarely survive, and those that do not tear themselves apart are stomped on by their disgusted and fearful neighbours in a very literal War of Ideas.
Mature societies have an immune system to prevent the memeplex from getting out of hand, but things like poverty, xenophobia, uncertainty and national humiliation act as immunosuppressants and allow a way in for memes which offer certainty and pride, no matter how poisonous they are. A set of cultural/political memes can also be too weak, and societies can be wiped out by mutations unless they steps to preserve the copy fidelity of their underlying memes. This happens all the time in biology: in addition to a wide range of fatal genetic diseases, seemingly minor mutations can severely damage a host’s chances of survival (for example, a black polar bear would find it hard to hunt). And certainly a popular interpretation of the fate of the Easter Islanders tells of a breakaway political/religious movement which led to the lush forests being cut down to make rollers by which they could move stone statues. Eventually they ran out of trees, and with it the means to make the canoes they needed to fish. The large population collapsed, eventually resorting to cannibalism. This meme was suicidal for the society, but of course, the meme doesn’t care about that, it just wants to get spread.
Democracies are much more interesting than simple political structures and deserve more coverage, especially as they are the political systems that most of my readers will know best. Unlike autocracies and single-party systems, the defining element of a democracy is that the members of the society choose who will wield power over them.
The most common type of democracy is the Presidential system. In this case, the populace elects representatives to a debating and legislative chamber, and separately (via a first-past-the-post or proportional representation system) elects the executive branch of government. The elected executive head (usually known as the president) is also the head of state. This presidential system is well tested and can work superbly well if the checks and balances between various parts of the government (including the judiciary) are well thought-through. The system has its flaws: deadlock between executive and legislative arms is always a risk, and the presidential system is not really suitable for countries where there are sharp ethnic differences, as the president will almost inevitably be from one of the factions.
The alternative parliamentary system (as used in Britain, Canada, much of Europe, India and Australia) is very different. Here the electorate chooses the legislative body, which in turn elects the leader of the executive branch, who in turn appoints a cabinet drawn from the legislature. The executive head of the government does not have to be the head of state, and parliamentary systems are common in constitutional monarchies. Because the executive branch is continually dependent on the parliament for his or her right to rule, the parliamentary system is less prone to corruption than the presidential system (see Lederman et al, 2005), but the person running the country can be changed without the electorate’s consent. While more suitable for ethnically diverse nations, poorly designed parliamentary systems can easily be dominated by a small ‘kingmaking’ minority (as is often the case in Italy, India and Israel) especially when combined with the proportional representation electoral system.
Wow! Just look at the memes running through those last two paragraphs. We have the idea of voting and representative democracy, different electoral systems, debating bodies, lawmaking, constitutional checks and balances, accountable leaders, heads of state, monarchies, and political parties. Each of these is a big bag of memes in their own right, and we haven’t even touched on concepts by which the branches of government operate: influencing/lobbying, parliamentary procedure, executive power, oversight, special interest committees, lawmaking, the civil service, the secret services, and so on.
Many people make a fuss about democracy being the ‘natural’ or ‘best’ method of government, but there is nothing in our primate background that points to democracy - these are systems that have been designed by man. Sir Winston Churchill said in 1947 that 'No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’, and I agree with him. For me, democracies provide a structure where memes can compete for dominance and where palpably stupid ideas can be selected out, although I accept this doesn’t always work - Hitler came to power with a democratic mandate.