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World: Analysis From Washington -- Aristotle And The Internet

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 8 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Just as the rise of the mass media led scholars half a century ago to propose totalitarianism as an addition to Aristotle's categorization of governments, the rise of the Internet now is prompting some analysts to ask whether this new communications channel will so transform political life that still more categories will be needed.

For more than two millennia, analysts in the West generally followed the classification of governments first proposed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. He argued that there are three kinds of states, each of which has both a good and a degenerate form.

According to his system, rule by a single individual could be either kingship, if the ruler behaved in an enlightened manner, or despotism, if he did not. Rule by a small group could be described as aristocratic if the members of that class ruled according to good principles, and oligarchy if they behaved in an entirely selfish manner. And rule by the population at large, in turn, could be called democracy if the people followed certain principles, and mobocracy if they did not.

The rise of mass communications, particularly radio and television, in the 20th century and the ability of despotic regimes to maintain themselves in power through the control of these media, led Harvard University's Carl J. Friedrich in the 1950s to propose the term totalitarianism as a necessary addition to Aristotle's six categories.

Because of its analytic power in explicating the nature of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union, totalitarianism rapidly entered the political lexicon. But until very recently, few analysts had turned their attention to the possibility that further developments in information technology might require further modifications of Aristotle's system.

Now, with the rise of the Internet and particularly its interactive possibilities, that has begun to change. In the last year, several writers have argued that the new information environment -- including mass media, the Internet and polling technology -- has undermined some of the basic premises of democracy and led to what some have called hyper-democracy.

Such a system, these analysts suggest, is neither democracy nor mobocracy in the sense that Aristotle meant. Instead, they say, it is a system in which individuals are so overwhelmed with information that they ignore most of it. That in turn tends to reduce politics to sloganeering and governance to poll-taking.

So far, "hyper-democracy" has not become widely accepted, at least in part because many observers see it less as a description of a new state of affairs than as a critique of aspects of democratic government taken to extremes.

But now the Internet has prompted other analysts and practitioners to consider the possibility that the future will have another form of governance, one combining features of all three kinds of statehood as described by Aristotle, but different from any of them in remarkable and politically important ways. And both the concept and the term they suggest for it - a new medievalism - seems likely to enter the vocabulary of politics.

Writing in the current issue of the journal "Prospect," one of the leading advocates of this point of view argues that the future of European statehood is likely to look more like it did in medieval times than it has in more recent times, to reflect cross-cutting loyalties rather than support unitary ones.

Charles Grant, who heads Britain's Centre for European Reform, suggests that this system will be one in which people will be less willing to subordinate themselves to a particular state, choosing instead to participate in "a patchwork of overlapping feudal loyalties" nurtured and empowered by the new communications technology.

The Internet makes this possible by undermining the power of governments to limit the development of ever stronger ties among members of groups whose membership is not confined to a single state. And these linkages, which many involved in the communications revolution now call virtual communities, are quickly proving more powerful or at least relevant to their members than are the individual states in which they find themselves.

In making this argument, Grant invokes Karl Marx's observation that economic and technological change are the forces "driving history." And he also cites with approval U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott's argument at a recent Chatham House conference that "the treaties of Westphalia and Versailles seem to be giving way to those of Maastrich and Amsterdam."

But the British author only intimates just how radical an impact the latest wave of technological change may have, implying but not quite saying that the Internet and related technologies may have the effect of delinking politics and geography altogether, a process that could undermine not only Aristotle's classical terminology but also the modern understanding and even nature of statehood itself.

If that happens, the questions the Internet appears likely to generate in the future will make those most people are asking about this medium today seem very small indeed.