Monocentrism vs. Polycentrism: Two Competing Images of Civil Order
What is the best way to govern the life of a large, complex, and internally differentiated society? For example, should pandemic responses be closely coordinated by an international authority like the WHO, or only loosely coordinated internationally? Should cities be designed from the top down or from the bottom up? Should there be a global regulator of environmental sustainability, or should local actors take the lead? Should political systems like the European Union be controlled by a powerful centralised government, or decentralised along federal lines?
The case for and against centralising this or that governmental function, while it may turn, to a certain extent, on the competing merits of rival techniques of governance, is usually driven by certain assumptions about the foundations of civil order. Often, these assumptions are not made explicit. But there is more than one way to think about civil order, so we ought to critically interrogate the assumptions behind rival solutions to complex problems of governance.
Two Ideas of Order
Two ideas of order in particular have played a significant role in the history of governance: on the one hand, the idea of social order as the product of top-down central planning, and on the other hand, the idea of social order as the product of many diverse, bottom-up initiatives that gradually crystallise into a plurality of systems of rule bound together by emergent customs.
Let’s call the first idea of order monocentrism and the second idea polycentrism. Admittedly, these categories are somewhat reductive and do involve some simplification of real-world thinking and practices. Nonetheless, one of these ideas of order frequently predominates in an argument, and may explain many aspects of a person’s or institution’s approach to problems of governance.
Monocentrism: Viewing Complexity as the Seed of Anarchy
Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1651) could be considered as one of the most trenchant representatives of the monocentric position. He argued that human communities, absent a powerful public authority to keep them in check, are likely to rapidly descend into a condition of insecurity and anarchy. According to Hobbes, many people will selfishly and aggressively pursue their own interests, even if they must lie, cheat, steal and kill to assert their power over others.
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