Considering Governance for a Post-collapse Community

Stephen Yearwood
11 min readNov 3, 2023

Perhaps make a (free) hard copy — copied/pasted, printed — to take along? Food for thought will also be needed.

Photo by Lily Miller on Unsplash

[This article is concerned with the issues involved in deciding on an ethic to govern the governance of a community; the form that governance would take based on the ethic arrived at herein is inAlright, Already” (here in Medium, but not behind the paywall). That could be (freely) copied, too.]

I am convinced that civilization as we know it will soon collapse. That is to say cities, defined as geopolitical entities in which people do not produce a significant amount of food relative to their population, will cease to exist.

Lawless chaos will ensue. People will flee from those places, overrunning the countryside. Manufacturing will cease. Life will be a fight for survival among people over the remnants of the available things necessary for life: water, food, shelter, appropriate clothing, and tools/equipment/supplies (including, to be sure, weapons/ammunition).

Eventually, after billions of people will have died — most from dehydration, starvation, exposure, and disease — things will settle down. At that time re-establishing geopolitical communities will emerge as a possibility.

Let’s face it: the most likely outcome will be for warlords to rule over small areas. Anyone not a warlord will be a slave of some kind.

Let us say, though, for goodness’ sake, that in some few places people will be in a position to form a community. They will be once again thinking very seriously, but in practical terms, about governance. That will be happening soon enough for people to remember what life used to be like. Presumably, people will be looking to improve on the old approaches to governance.

Right then, the singular legitimacy of self-governance of some kind will be self-evident. It must be for ‘the people’ to decide as a group how they will be governed.

Self-government starts with people governing themselves as individuals. For a community to exist, though, people cannot be totally free to decide for themselves as individuals how they will act in their relations with other people. So some idea, or value, or principle, or such must govern, even before a single law is passed, the conduct of people in their relations with one another as members of the community. That basis of self-government will of itself inform all further aspects of governance in such a community.

So it will immediately become further self-evident that the people must first of all agree on what will govern the governance of the community.

In Modern times self-government has been based on equality and liberty. People do want to be treated as equals in a fundamental sense, despite any material advantages or disadvantages anyone might enjoy or endure. Also, human beings do prefer liberty to oppression — though anyone living in a community will be subject to its governance.

Yet, one lesson we can take with us into this new reality that is coming is that equality and liberty are not as compatible as bases of governance as people had once assumed. Some better basis of governance can be sought. A ‘better’ basis of governance would be one that preserves the benefits to people of equality and liberty in the matter of governance, but is more coherent, one that precludes the inevitable, irreconcilable conflict that results from attempting to base governance on those ultimately divergent concepts.

I submit that the clear choice for a principle to govern relations among individuals is for people to respect one another. That is, people must take one another — their persons and interests (to include whatever forms of private property might exist) — into account in living their separate lives together in the community.

Such respect is a display of a sense of fundamental equality. Furthermore, it is obvious that mutual respect of that kind would maximize liberty in people’s relations with one another in the sense of people ‘giving one another their space’. Also, I can think of no reasonable argument to be made against a requirement for people to respect one another in that way. To my mind, all of that makes mutual respect the best candidate to govern the governance of a community.

Still, I think we can do better.

Mutual respect is a fine concept, but it is vague. That makes it open to interpretation. Also, it lacks specified boundaries and limits. Those characteristics make even mutual respect — or at least some narrow interpretation of it — a candidate to be a basis for an authoritarian regime in which some people forcibly impose their interpretation of it on all others.

A fear of authoritarianism is eating away at Liberal societies. A schism has developed. Increasingly, people feel forced to take a ‘side’ in that schism. It is recognized that an emphasis on equality or liberty — again, actually a narrow interpretation of one or the other — can be a basis for using the offices of government to impose that viewpoint on all others. Each side has come to fear that the other side is intent on precisely that. Such a fear is legitimate insofar as neither equality nor liberty has within it any specific boundaries or limits regarding its applicability.

The most fundamental problem with both equality and liberty as a basis for governing governance is that neither is an ethic, a rule for governing conduct of human beings. If neither is in itself a rule of some kind, that means some rule(s) must be drawn from either of them. That opens them up to interpretation right there.

Liberty is not an ethic of any kind. Indeed, it is the absence of an ethic. Some people make a case that is liberty is distinguished from ‘freedom’, much less licentiousness, because liberty somehow contains ethical limitations of some kind within it. Really, though, any such limitations would have to come from some other source. That would make that source of those limitations, not liberty, the true font of justice in human relations.

Whether an advocate for liberty as the predicate of justice acknowledges it or not, in the Liberal paradigm for governing governance limits on liberty follow from a belief in equality. Equality makes anyone’s liberty end at the person and property of any other human being. John Locke recognized as much. The first of his two famous Treatises concerned equality, suggesting he saw it as a pre-condition for a just society, i.e., one that maximized liberty subject to the limitations equality places on it.

As such, equality does give rise to an ethic of mutual respect. Still, in itself equality is not a rule of any kind. Some other interpretation of it other than acting as a limit on liberty could become a limitless, unbounded basis for a form of authoritarian governance of some kind.

In this new material reality the nature of the source of limits on liberty would be open to debate. Religion (any particular religion) could be another possible source of limits on liberty. Whichever source of such limits got adopted — and how that came about — would end up determining the form that governance would take. It could definitely be the basis for an authoritarian regime of some kind, despite its supposed link to ‘liberty’.

There is a way to approach mutual respect in a way that is not vague and does contain internal limits and boundaries. It therefore cannot be a basis for any form of authoritarian government.

The difference between self-government and an authoritarian regime is arbitrariness. Authoritarianism is the quintessence of arbitrariness in governance whereas self-government is the mitigation of arbitrariness.

Locke again comes to mind. He famously defined injustice as (if we ignore the mindless genderism of the times in which he lived that permeated his work) any person(s) “being subject to the arbitrary will[s]” of any other(s). He had in mind, above all, the claim of ‘Divine Right of kings’.

Immanuel Kant considered arbitrariness more deeply. He concluded that the only legitimate (i.e., non-arbitrary) ethic could be one that a person accepted for oneself. He acknowledged, though, that if an ethic can be demonstrated to apply to any and every human being — its obligations and its protections — then people can be legitimately required to accept being governed by it whether they like it or not. An ethic in any other form would have to be imposed on some people who could legitimately deny its applicability to them. That would take us back to Locke. [The ethic Kant came up with is his famous “Categorical Imperative;” it can be argued that his the entirety of his vast philosophical construct was an attempt to make that ethic’s applicability to all people valid.]

So at bottom, for any ethic for governing the governance of a community to be legitimate it cannot itself be arbitrary. To avoid arbitrariness it must be one that has a source that is known to all people. It is not enough that the source of it could be known by all people. That source must be one that is known — and is known to be known — by every single human being on the planet. Only such an ethic can completely avoid arbitrariness.

Ultimately, as Kant would say if he were here, what we are talking about here is knowledge of what should govern governance. Heretofore, people have always looked to beliefs to provide that knowledge. Historically, such beliefs have most often been sacral, referring to God or ‘the gods’ or some other spiritual reality, but they can be secular, such as a secular belief in equality and a priori Rights (Rights said to have been perceived by people, not conceived by people, and to apply to people as individuals, without any reference to a social existence of any kind), e.g., a Right to liberty.

I argue that beliefs are a form of knowledge. Let’s say for present purposes that knowledge is information that has been sufficiently validated.

“Information” is any input of which a person is consciously aware. It can come from material reality, via the senses, or it can be immaterial, coming from intuition, ‘feelings’, revelations/epiphanies (secular or sacral), encounters with a spiritual reality, etc. Any information can be first-hand or it can come from other people (directly or indirectly, through various media).

Let’s define a belief as knowledge of an immaterial kind. We make immaterial information into knowledge — recognize it to be “sufficiently validated” — by accepting the truth of it.

When we accept such information as being true we do not feel that we have chosen to believe it. Rather, we ‘feel’ the truth of it. We simply ‘know’ it to be true. Afterward, we can argue logically for the truth of a belief and even seek evidence to support it in the material world. We can also make a logical case for the implications of a belief for material existence. Even so, we do not arrive at our acceptance of a belief in a rational way.

So beliefs are extra-rational as a form of knowledge. The only basis for such knowledge to be true is if a person accepts it as true.

All such knowledge is therefore personal in a radical way. No matter how many people might share any knowledge of that kind, it is still always in the form of purely personal knowledge.

All such knowledge is absolutely true for the believer. We must all accept, however, that such knowledge can only be true for those who believe it to be true.

It is the case that any belief could possibly become universal, be accepted as true by all people. To be sure, everyone who has a belief of any kind feels that everyone should accept it as true. Otherwise, why have that belief in the first place? Moreover, every person is absolutely free to accept as true (at least ‘in one’s heart’) any belief. (Perhaps that’s why we can’t help but feel at least a bit hurt, or even insulted, or perhaps even vilified when a belief we profess is rejected by any other person(s); in general, the more strongly we profess a belief the stronger our reaction, should it be rejected, is.) Even so, no belief ever has been universal among all human beings.

All of that tells us that no belief(s) can be a legitimate basis for governing governance. From the point of view of any person any belief held by any other person is completely arbitrary. That absolutely applies to secular beliefs every bit as much as it applies to sacral beliefs. So basing governance on any belief(s) is inherently arbitrary and therefore illegitimate (unjust). (It also invites endless conflict, as testified by the interminable strife sacral theologies and secular ideologies have inflicted on the world.)

Knowledge stemming from material information, gleaned from material existence, is different. Whereas it is the case that the source of a belief is something that any person can come to know, in the case of material knowledge the information that is its source can be known and be known to be knowable by every single human being. There is material knowledge for which one has to be expert in this area or that to be able to evaluate it for oneself, such as in the sciences, but there is knowledge of material existence that follows from information inherent in our experience of that existence that all people who are now living or have ever lived or ever will live cannot help but be aware.

An ethic following from such knowledge would not be in any way arbitrary. Such an ethic could therefore be legitimately (justly) used to govern all matters pertaining to relations among people in a community of human beings — whether any particular person(s) liked it or not.

One such ethic is ‘mutual respect in effecting choices’. It follows from the observation that human beings have no choice but to effect choices (i.e., choose among perceived alternatives and take action to bring that choice to fruition). That makes choosing integral to being human. That means that to recognize one another as fellow human beings we must respect one another’s capacity to choose — beginning with choosing whether/how/to what extent to be involved in any way whenever any choice is being effected. As an ethic it is limited to actions undertaken in effecting a choice. With its determinant (the above observation) and its referents (those actions) located within material existence, going outside that existence, to immaterial knowledge of any kind, to claim that anyone — to include oneself — is outside the protections or the obligations of this ethic is legitimately de-legitimated. The extent to which a person can respect others is still open-ended, but this ethic has within it a minimum condition people must meet in effecting any choice, whether for oneself or on behalf of any other person(s) or entity, no mater what: no co-opting or otherwise preempting any other person’s capacity to choose. That boils down to a handful of absolute prohibitions: no killing, harming, coercing, stealing, or manipulating (which includes lying cheating, etc.) to get what you want. Governing governance with an actual ethic with clearly defined internal boundaries and limits would prevent using it — or any interpretation of it — to establish any kind of authoritarian regime.

It must be acknowledged that more than one ethic following from material information might be derived. In that case ‘the people’ would have to choose among the candidates for an ethic to govern the governance of their community, based on expected outcomes. Governance under the ethic of mutual respect in effecting choices is the subject of “Alright, Already.”

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Stephen Yearwood

unaffiliated, non-ideological, unpaid: M.A. in political economy (where philosophy and economics intersect) with a focus in money/distributive justice