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#5 Recovering our distance vision in Saint Petersburg

The plan called for it to be built on the shores of the Neva. It would consist of four large geometric structures made of glass and held together by a helicoidal metal structure, and it would serve as both a monument to the Bolshevik revolution and the headquarters of the Comintern. At a height of 400 meters, it would reign over the skyline of Saint Petersburg.

The huge tower proposed by Vladimir Tatlin in 1919 was never constructed. However, through his design, a crucial idea about politics—one that is all-too-easily forgotten in our day and age—lives on.

Tatlin envisioned that the four different structures in the tower would rotate at different speeds. The large cylinder at the bottom would take one full year to complete a rotation. The pyramid immediately above it would move more quickly: after one month, it would again be in its original position. The second cylinder on top of the pyramid: just one day per revolution. And, finally, at the very top of the structure: a half-sphere that completes a full rotation in just one hour.

Tatlin's tower (sketch)

Since the tower was proposed not just as a monument, but also as the headquarters of the Third International, one might wonder which uses Tatlin had envisioned for each of the different parts of this imposing structure. According to his proposal, the large cylinder at the bottom rotating very slowly would house the legislature. The pyramid above it, moving faster: the executive branch. The second cylinder, which would turn even faster: a press bureau. And, finally, the half-sphere at the very top, moving faster than all the others: a radio station broadcasting news and propaganda.

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Tatlin's tower points the way towards the fifth measure advocated in this book. To successfully advance the public interest, a political system will need to recognize—and incorporate into its structure—the fundamental realization embodied in Tatlin's design: the need for different temporalities to coexist in the world of politics. Without this recognition, we are condemned to forever confuse our short- and long-term interests.

This issue deserves special attention because we are, both at the individual level and as a society, terrible at checking our short-term urges and acting in our own long-term interest. We know from research in psychology and behavioral economics how aggressively we tend to “discount” outcomes far in the future. This means that we give much less importance to events that will happen in the distant (or not-so-distant) future than to events that will happen soon. For example, the threat of catching a cold today might be enough to prevent us from greeting a sneezing friend with a peck on the cheek, while, at the same time, the threat of a slow death many years into the future deters comparably few smokers.

In the realm of politics, the situation is even worse. Electoral considerations and the 24-hour news cycle cultivate an even more extreme short-term orientation in our politicians. Combined with our natural tendency to be myopic decision-makers, we shouldn't be surprised when politicians appear constitutionally unable to consider the long-term implications of their decisions. As a society, we seem condemned to live in the dizzyingly fast-paced half-sphere at the top of Tatlin's tower.

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Some argue that we live in a “global,” “interconnected,” and “fast-paced” world in which “speed” and “adaptability” are the name of the game. We need even faster decision-making and a shorter reaction time on the part of the government and other public institutions—or so they tell us. This chapter makes the opposite argument—namely, that what we cannot afford are the risks of continuing with our present system. This becomes evident to anyone who pauses to really think about the issue of long-term viability in almost any domain of human endeavor. For example, only through a form of mass delusion could we believe that our political system is adequately handling concrete, large-scale systemic threats such as climate change and the fragility of the financial system.

Tatlin's tower (maquette), 1919

The situation seems even more daunting when we consider looming structural challenges. We have organized society in such a way that steadily-increasing consumption is necessary to maintain a general sense of prosperity. Whenever consumption falters, our leaders are quick to shore it up by creating debt, so that demand is revived and the show can go on. That debt, however, will eventually need to be repaid. When that happens, less income will be available for consumption, and we'll find ourselves back at square one. If we step off the treadmill for a moment, we see that this cycle of increasing consumption and accumulating debt is impossible to sustain.

It takes little more than “hard, simple thinking” (as Nobel-prize-winning economist Gunnar Myrdal put it) to conclude that, on a planet with finite resources, ever-increasing consumption threatens us with environmental collapse. Not much more effort is involved in understanding the issues caused by a gigantic mountain of debt. In May 2013, the Wall Street Journal reported that the total world debt load stood at 313% of the global GDP. In other words, we collectively owe each other more than three times the yearly economic output of the whole planet. This makes our global economy uniquely fragile: all it takes is for an important institution to become insolvent, and we risk that the entire house of cards will come tumbling down.

Yet, as a species, we continue merrily walking down this path seeking forever-increasing economic growth—effectively betting the house on the hope that major, currently unforeseeable technological advances will end up making it all ok. We might feel sorry for (yet another generation of) young smokers who confidently tell us: “By the time I get sick from smoking, medicine will have found a cure for whatever ails me.” And yet, as a society, we continue behaving in a similar, scarily myopic way. As Brian Eno put it in an essay about our dangerous focus on what he calls the “short now”:

It's ironic that, at a time when humankind is at a peak of its technical powers, able to create huge global changes that will echo down the centuries, most of our social systems seem geared to increasingly short nows. Huge industries feel pressure to plan for the bottom line and the next shareholders meeting. Politicians feel forced to perform for the next election or opinion poll. The media attract bigger audiences by spurring instant and heated reactions to human interest stories while overlooking longer-term issues—[which are] the real human interest.

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Deviating from this path requires a more-structured, more-disciplined approach than electoral politics seems able to deliver.

With this in mind, this chapter proposes that we explicitly incorporate into our political systems mechanisms that enable long-term thinking on key topics. That would help mitigate our innate tendency to be shortsighted and reduce the risk that the latter will drive us to extinction through environmental, economic and/or social folly. One way to accomplish this is to try to decouple the everyday management of the polity from the expression of our collective long-term vision for its future.

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Most of us would agree that having a plan is useful in life. Though, over time, this plan might change a lot, it nonetheless provides some general orientation of where we want to head in the long term. Amazingly, when it comes to politics, we seem to have forgotten this basic point. Most of our politicians focus more on reacting to events in a way that preserves their chances of reelection than on trying to bring about a particular vision of how our future should look.

In those rare instances in which a government actually changes things for the better, adversarial electoral politics makes it likely that the next executive will undo at least part of those reforms. Nothing in our institutions allows for a sense of continuity that reaches beyond the current electoral cycle. Whatever is accomplished now will be up for renegotiation once the next election arrives—even if the intrinsic desirability of those measures remains unchanged. If an individual were to behave in a similarly erratic way, most of us would (rightly) fear for him.

In the wake of his country's financial collapse and at a time of national self-questioning, the Icelandic entrepreneur Guðjón Már Guðjónsson remarked that it struck him as odd that the multinational General Electric had a “vision statement” while his native country did not. [27] I would argue that we need to similarly define a long-term vision for our nations.

Armed with such a vision, we will be able to evaluate the political “managers” we elect based on the extent to which they bring our nation closer to achieving its vision. At the same time, having such a vision clearly laid out would help prevent elected officials—once in office and nearly untouchable by the populace—from fraudulently claiming that they have a mandate to commit the entire nation to major projects that are inherently difficult to reverse (public infrastructure, energy policy and efforts to dismantle parts of the state come to mind as examples).

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How could such a vision be collectively generated? Here, too, citizen deliberation might prove useful. The available evidence suggests that panels of citizen deliberators are better at thinking about the long-term consequences of policy choices than are professional politicians constrained by short-term electoral goals and liable to be influenced by (among others) corporate interests. [28]

After a study of citizen panels tasked with reflecting on GMO policy, John Dryzek concluded that “the common story” that emerges is that of “reflective publics [being] much more precautionary than policy-making elites.” James Fishkin observed similar results; for example, studying multiple citizen panels that gathered to discuss energy policy, Fishkin found that participants became consistently more willing to pay higher utility bills today to support the use of renewable energy sources (whose environmental payoff will be felt only in the medium or long term). And, in what is arguably yet another manifestation of a similar change in attitudes, political scientist Adolf Gundersen found that, through a process he termed “deliberative interviews,” citizens became consistently more committed to environmental values. Thus, it seems that ordinary citizens, reasoning together, have the ability to overcome the short-term orientation that plagues so much of our political reality: they become more cautious when it comes to incurring risks and more willing to trade off comfort today for long(er)-term goals.

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A “Long Now Citizens' Assembly” would be a large citizen panel that would convene every ten years. [29] These citizens would be tasked with defining a national vision for the polity. They would be free from electoral pressures, and the decade between meetings would make it unambiguously clear that the panel exists in a different temporal plane from that of electoral politics.

They would focus strictly on the big debates in which long-term choices need to (or can reasonably) be made. As of 2014, in several nations, these choices would likely include: the role of the state in the provision of healthcare, education and other social services; guidelines for energy and environmental policy; how to deal with immigration; terms of membership in different international organizations (as discussed in the preceding chapter); and broad principles of economic regulation. However, the citizen assembly would define its own agenda and would be unconstrained (within its broad constitutional mandate) to choose the topics it would address. [30]

It is likely that such an assembly would subdivide into different workgroups (or committees) that would then analyze these issues in greater depth. Reflecting the breadth and complexity of the questions at hand, the citizens who were randomly selected to be part of this assembly would also be appointed for longer periods—perhaps in the range of a few months.

As the end of its deliberation period approached, the assembly would focus on generating a vision statement that could garner the support of a supermajority of its members. The resulting document would then be submitted for public approval through a referendum. Their task completed, the assembly would disband, and the citizens would be discharged from their duties.

Subsequent Long Now Citizens' Assemblies would be tasked with updating or refining the vision produced by their earlier incarnations. They might find that, after ten years, some lessons have been learned, and, thus, corrections are necessary. Or new major issues that require long-term choices might have come into the spotlight. For example, in the wake of the ongoing financial crisis, a Long Now Citizens' Assembly held in 2015 might focus on the role of the financial sector in our societies—a topic that would most likely not have been central at the 2005 assembly.

If approved by the citizens in a referendum, the Long Now Citizens' Assembly's vision statement would become something akin to a “contract” between the citizenry and its political officials. It would offer binding, if general, guidance on how politicians should conduct public affairs. Deliberative referendums (discussed in the third chapter) would provide citizens with a powerful corrective mechanism should political officials start to deviate from this long-term vision. In the face of a government seemingly intent on contradicting this long-term vision, gathering a sufficient number of signatures would trigger a deliberative referendum on the issue. A citizen panel would be convened and, after an adequate period of study, would issue a statement on whether or not it deemed the government's actions to be in line with the long-term vision for the country. Informed by the citizen panel's statement, the public would then have the final say at the voting booth.

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Used in this way, citizen deliberation offers us a promising alternative vision of what a “post-ideological” political reality might be like. It allows us to progress beyond the stale, self-serving notions that term has traditionally stood for. For example, when Daniel Bell or Francis Fukuyama speak of a post-ideological world, they mean a world in which one ideology (which they happen to agree with) reigns unchallenged. We can do better than that.

Contemplating citizen deliberation as a mechanism to address big, long-term policy choices, we can see through the concept of ideology. We realize that an ideology is little more than a ready-made “bundle” of political ideals, offering a convenient, heavily-simplified vision for our future. For example, a “liberal” is a person who wants to live in a society governed by principles A and B, just as a “conservative” is someone who longs for a future shaped by values C and D. Presently, when asked to choose in which kind of world we want to live, we merely get to pick one of these pre-defined ideological labels—and the “bundle” of values that go with it. All other combinations—just like any hope of a more nuanced view of what our future should look like—seem to be off-limits.

Like a children's menu at a restaurant, ideologies implicitly assume a passive, unthinking citizenry. They are necessary in a world in which citizens can handle only a reduced set of choices and cannot be trusted to actually think about which kind of society they want to live in.

Using citizen assemblies to agree on a “national vision,” on the other hand, presents us with a scenario in which the only overarching “ideal” is one of reasoned decision-making via careful, shared consideration of the most important issues facing us. Political labels fade away, ceding ground to well-reasoned and truly democratic pragmatism. And that, I would argue, is what “post-ideological” should actually mean.


27. ^ GE has roughly the same number of employees as Iceland has inhabitants.

28. ^ The latter matters because, as briefly touched upon in our earlier discussion of delegation, the corporate world itself needs to come to grips with “short-termism.” Shortsighted corporate managers will advocate any measure that might increase their short-term profits, even if doing so substantially increases the odds of bringing about the demise of their entire industry.

29. ^ The inspiration for this name is drawn from the Long Now Foundation, whose goal is to foster long-term thinking.

30. ^ A somewhat related idea can be found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, who argued for periodic constitutional conventions so that citizens would be able to collectively question—and, if deemed necessary, revise—the fundamental principles governing their society.

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