Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Political Hive - What can Bees teach us about politics?

At this time of the year beekeepers up and down the land are peering into their hives, checking for signs that the queen is laying properly. There must be enough food to sustain the development of the colony and there must be enough room for the colony to expand to build a foraging force to exploit nectar and pollen provided by the local flowers and trees.
We are approaching the "Swarming" season. This is when the colony decides whether they are happy with the performance of the current queen and that there is enough resource available to continue in the current hive. If they decide it is time for a change then the Beekeeper will see the signs. The worker bees will start creating special cells in which to raise new queens. They will select day-old larvae to populate the cells and feed and nurture these larvae with special hormones and "royal jelly". In a couple of weeks the new queen will hatch out. The existing queen will have left the hive with all the foraging force of flying bees. This is the "swarm" which will have already selected a suitable new location in which to live and a new colony will be established.
So what has all this got to do with politics? Well...
We are in the midst of an election, we as a nation are deciding whether our current leaders are fit for purpose and whether there is sufficient resourse available to continue in the current "hive" or whether it is time for a change. This is a decision which we make collectively for the good of the colony as a whole although most of us will have personal considerations to take into account. We are not bees so we are not constrained by the ruthless logic imposed by our biology and the thought process is probably a great deal more complex than that of the humble bee.
However if we look at this from the persepective of the Beekeeper things start to get more interesting. You might think that the best way of ensuring a good honey crop is to have as big a hive as possible, economies of scale, more bees mean more honey. Up to a point this is true. The problems start when the hive gets too big to manage. A smaller hive can be quickly looked through every couple of weeks to check all is well. The bigger it gets, the bigger the task of managing it. Hives are made up of individual boxes of matching sizes made to a standard pattern and years of experience, experimentation and developement have provided us with two or three basic manageble hive types. At some point you need to split the hive into two to bring it back to manageable proportions. No beekeeper would want to have all his bees in just one hive. If something goes wrong his entire "apiary" is at risk. Of course one could imagine all kinds of technical innovations that may assist the beekeeper in ensuring that his one hive doesnt fail. He could set up cameras, heat detectors, inspect every day, record every movement and run statistical analysis in a laborotary environment. All of this is possible but hugely expensive and completely unnceccessary. Bees can do quite a good job of managing themselves so long as their colonies are not allowed to get too big. The wise beekeeper tries to manage the colonies in tune with the natural behaviour of the bees. It is in the bees best interest to build strong colonies and work efficiently, they do this with very little need of encouragement. If there are signs of disease then they can be treated. If a colony is clearly struggling it can be combined with another or frames of stores can be taken from strong hives and given to those with not enough.
It is important to note that bees manage themselves so well because they have a supremely efficient communication system and each bee takes responsibility for their allotted tasks.
Our political system has evolved over the years to favour central management of a monolithic state machine. The assumption has always been that economies of scale will lead to value for money and efficient government. The only reason this may have been true in the past is because we have not had anything like the same level and sophistication of communication that we have today. When the mechanics of decision making are supported by very slow and unwieldly processes you need to keep the physical distances between the parties in those conversations as small as possible. Therefore it makes sense to build huge office buildings and and huge organisations that can afford to run those buildings. The task of managing this is enormous and demands huge resourses just to keep the process running. The management overhead has now got to the point where it is unsusstainable and as with the beehive is actually becoming completely unnecessary.
In the coming election I will be looking at those candidates who genuinely have a desire to start making some radical changes to the way the government runs things. The collapse of the banks has given us all the wake-up call that allowing big business to get "too big to fail" is not a good idea. Global warming is telling us that we have very little time left to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The growth of the internet and development of highly sophisticated technical means of realtime communication is capable of giving us the way out or our current troubles. So long as the government can manage not to sabotage it with ill-informed interference. So long as self-interested big business can be persuaded not to exploit and trivialize it for their own ends and so long as genuine criminal elements can be persuaded to stop sabotaging it. We as a society must start communicating with eachother properly with a view to rebuilding our local community spirit. We need to allow people to feel responsible and proud of the part they are individually playing in building the future. We need to give small businesses the facillities to provide long-term susstainable employment to their local communities. Of course the term "local" is no longer necessarily tied to its geographical sense. The new communities can contain valuable contributing members from anywhere in the world.
So in my view, the bees can teach us that the way to prosperity is through small scale local responsibility. We build to manageable sizes and then split to form the basis of new enterprises and just keep communicating with eachother.