There is a tension between the feudal system and modernity, which is most usefully illustrated by the differences in how feudalism and democracy treat knowledge. In the feudal system, where powerful landlords control access to resources and consume the political space, general scientific, historical, and technical knowledge is jealously guarded and is shared with working people only in order to achieve a specific objective of the ruling class. Knowledge is used to guarantee lifelong indenture and the perpetuation of rigidly determined power structures.
Democracy, by contrast, requires that all people have routine access to high-precision, traceable, tested knowledge of all kinds. Modern societies, those born amid the collapse of feudal regimes of various epochs, enter into modernity by committing in one way or another to the idea that knowledge is a universal right and that people should be able to access it, rework it according to tested truth and lived experience, and assist in the ongoing work of expanding the wider pool of human intelligence.
Democratic societies recognize this, and commit resources, including laws about basic rights, to the improvement of knowledge-access conditions, to ensure more citizens can do more good with useful and accurate information. This is why a free and independent press is so important to securing free societies; without the ability to dig into the stories told by officialdom, a democratic society would quickly revert to a feudal model of information control.
Modern times, spanning from the pre-Enlightenment to our present-day post-modern global civilization, have seen many attempts to re-establish the feudal order, with central powers seeking to claw back and reconfigure generalized knowledge, in order to pre-determine the place and propriety of each person, profession and technology. The extreme bloodlust associated with these regimes is a measure of how contrary their aims are to the already deep-rooted universal principle that human dignity, value and thriving are linked to a person’s ability to access and exercise knowledge at her own discretion.
The underlying commitment of a free society to learning is not about honoring the right of the vulnerable to be empowered by education; it is about the shared empowerment (and liberation) that comes from living in a society where knowledge is pervasive and diverse, improving constantly and readily available to anyone who would do some good with it. Though we are accustomed to this analysis falling under the category of unquantifiable values, we can say with mathematical certainty that hereditary knowledge confinement, with an implicit prohibition on advanced and disruptive innovations, cannot be smarter or of better service, even to the most affluent, than a paradigm by which truth, knowledge, and capability continually expand due to openness and the sharing of sovereignty among all human beings.
What tends to drive rashes of populist demagoguery is the idea that any sovereignty for the other strips me of mine. That is an instinctual reaction, rooted in the law of the wild—a tactical advantage for a predator is very bad news for the prey—but human dignity, intellectual sovereignty, and open information, are not rivalry in the wild; they are a highest value global commons, where expansion for one is expansion for all, so long as dignity, sovereignty, and openness are respected and upheld.
We continue to see spasms of violence and bigotry, rooted in these primitive instincts about otherness and sharing of sovereignty. And yet, we now see the greatest opportunity humanity has had to complete the transition from feudalism to democracy, where great powers (nations, corporations, ideas, networks) are rewarded not for their dominance, but for their ability to empower others and to expand human know-how without constraining the spread of dignity among people.
[ The Note for August 2016 ]