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A matter of scale

By Peter McMahon and Gabriel Trew - posted Wednesday, 26 August 2020

The Covid 19 virus has completely derailed economic progress on the whole planet. It will likely diminish as a problem in time, but there are others that will not, indeed they can only get worse.

The worst of the problems that beset the world currently – environmental collapse, economic fragility, increasingly powerful AI and nuclear weapons proliferation - are essentially due to one cause: a shift in the basic ways of civilization from national to global scale. The main drivers of civilization, including socio-cultural change, economic growth and technological development, are now global in scale, but our key political processes remain mostly national and only partially international. As such they cannot deal with the problems that are arising with the advent of global scale civilization.

In a real sense the story of humanity is the sustained, although not even, growth in size and complexity of our key processes and institutions. The core driver has been population growth and the associated growth in necessary resources and waste. This process of expansion in turn generates complexity, especially in those things required to control growth. Greater complexity then enables another round of growth, which demands even greater control capability, and so on.


Also important, the growth of population and expansion of resources and systems to control growth in turn generated an increased propensity for developing related ideas and intellectual products. This kind of developmental growth only increased the demand on resources and waste, thus accentuating the efficacy of the overall effect. The changes were in human heads as well as the material world.

For instance, the expansion of railway systems in the nineteenth century was driven by economic development promoted by accelerated population growth. But this expansion in railways was only possible due to the development of telegraphy systems for control. This enhanced control capability decreased accidents and improved productivity through more efficient scheduling. The scientific and technological forces that generated telegraphy later spawned telephony and radio, and ultimately the whole digital revolution. Better control systems always generate greater complexity as they enable larger scale operations.

This increased control has two main aspects, intensiveness and extensiveness; that is, better overall capability increases in terms of time and space. Each new control technology tends to be either notably faster, cover more area, or both. Electricity, radio and electronics were breakthroughs in control capability bringing enhanced capability in all dimensions. Electrical and then electronic control systems have culminated in the Internet which is increasingly ubiquitous and ever more powerful thanks to Moore's Law (i.e. information processing power doubles every 12-18 months and costs diminish proportionately).

Let us go back to the beginning of this phenomenal process of expansion and ever-growing complexity. By about twenty thousand years ago human development had stopped being driven by physical evolution and was being driven increasingly by cultural evolution. By about ten thousand years ago it was increasingly being driven by organizational and technological change as first villages, then towns and then cities appeared. So over a period of millennia humans went from being organized into small hunter-gather bands of 20-50 people to villages of a hundred or more to towns of hundreds to cities of a thousand or more to kingdoms of hundreds of thousands to empires of millions. For millennia more empires rose and fell, then more concentrated nation-states arose in the Middle Ages in Europe, and then globe-spanning empires arose in the sixteenth century as representatives of the nation-states of Europe sailed the great world ocean.

And so about five hundred years ago the modern era that eventuated in the current phase of globalization began as Portuguese and Spanish sailing ships ventured out into the rest of the world, soon followed by British, Dutch and French vessels. Aboard were sailors, soldiers, traders and priests all with profit and/or aggrandizement (for themselves or their God) on their minds. The commercial revolution ensued as Europeans exploited the resources, and the non-Europeans, that they encountered, and a period of trenchant warfare followed that as the European countries fought it out for dominance in the fast expanding world economy. This shift in perceived importance from cultural elaboration and enhancement to economical advancement created a demand for increased volumes of land along with an increased sense of ownership, dispossessing native populations.

In the end Britain won out, basically claiming hegemony over the seas and ultimately creating the largest land empire ever known. After 1815, when Britain defeated the other main claim to hegemony, France, a period of relative peace and stability occurred over which time, commerce, and capitalism, became central.


After 1880 two rising industrial powers, Germany and the US, challenged Britain's global hegemony. With the advent of the 'long war' from 1914 to 1945 the United States inherited from Britain a, by then, incipient global empire but it was challenged by a Euro-Asian power, the USSR. The arrival of nuclear weapons made outright war between major industrial powers too dangerous and so the emphasis shifted to economic and propaganda activities. In the early 1990s the Soviet Union, losing in both arenas of rivalry, fell apart and the US seemed supreme as global hegemon.

The US global hegemony is now in dissolution, increasingly challenged by a group of nations which show a willingness to cooperate to replace American power, led by China and Russia. The international ruling class which grew up over the last century and a half and which bases its success in the structural power of high finance is now wealthier than ever, even surviving almost total financial meltdown in 2007-8. But the core structural arrangements - political, socio-cultural, environmental and administrative - that underpin that wealth creation are changing.

The most immediate threat takes the form of a new US president of outstanding incompetence. Although presenting policies and attitudes that ostensibly promote wealth creation, the Trump presidency threatens the underlying socio-political structure both within the US and globally. Trump's incompetence puts the basic socio-political consensus in the US at risk, undermines the international arrangements that have bolstered support by US allies, and encourages the aspirations of China, Russia and certain other nations to challenge US dominance.

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About the Authors

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

Gabriel Trew works in the movie and music industries and has a particular interest in the role of technology in socio-economic development. Most recently he has been developing digitally-based social and commercial networks.

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