"When I was a kid, my aunt — she was a famous architect — she used to show me the blueprints of her buildings and skyscrapers. We'd go and visit the buildings in Milan together on weekends, and I'd always insist on carrying the rolled-up blueprints because it made me feel grown-up. I was entranced by how she unrolled that crisp paper with those beautifully clean lines. We'd stand right there in front of those places, juggling the papers, working out how to make it line up with reality. The idea that a drawing, a design could change the world for thousands of people, that's what put me on my life's work."
So said Sonia Ballaman, member of Lega Nord per l'Indipendenza della Padania and one of the founding architects of the new federal region of Padania in north Italy. Ballaman's signature political achievement, however, wasn't the formation of Padania — it was her role in creating another kind of blueprint. A blueprint for a national constitution.
If the 19th and 20th centuries saw vast empires fragmenting into individual nation-states, the 21st century saw the rise of supranational unions that allowed nation-states to further dissolve into looser federations and city-states. It was a long and halting process, buffeted by contingency and accident but ultimately powered by the gradual, inexorable fall of centralised authority and bureaucracy — itself preceded by the shift from mass media, mass production, and mass politics to a more individual world.
Many of the new states, such as Catalonia and Scotland, came into being due to centuries-old historical divisions that were reinforced by stubbornly long-lived ethnic and language differences. But those differences had existed for some time, so why now? Historian Claire Armstrong explains:
"It's all about the carrot and the stick. In the Atlantic Archipelago [also known as the British Isles], England had long held out the carrot of greater wealth through trade to the other nations in the Union, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; and for their politicians, England offered them a place on the world stage. Just as important, but perhaps less apparent, was the stick: the threat and use of force.
"As the decades passed, both the carrot and the stick withered away. Access to the European Union and the slow shift towards freer international trade, along with the UK's dwindling importance, meant that it was much more realistic for the individual nations to go it alone.
"Counterintuitively, the end of the traditional two-party system in the UK highlighted the lack of representation for Scottish and Welsh voters in the government. Under a more proportional voting system, the increased number of parties might have been a strength, but the UK's first-past-the-post system allowed parties to govern with only a plurality of votes and seats, undermining their legitimacy.
"As for the stick, well... it was pretty much accepted that a referendum would settle things very firmly. Force was not an option."
The heady prospect of regaining sovereignty gave many countries the opportunity to establish constitutions that would be more perfect — or at least, less worse — than what had come before. Most notably, the development of the open source 'Constitutional Blueprint' software by Ballaman and others allowed citizens to understand the ramifications of proposed articles by simulating their effects.
Here's how the Constitutional Blueprint worked: it analysed leading constitutional and legal drafts and simulated how they might affect the workings of a country in vividly drawn scenarios. Some constitutions might have fixed-term elections, others might call for a basic minimum income, yet others for strict environmental regulations. Each constitution was put through the wringer in imaginary booms, busts, disasters, elections, and wars.
Users experienced these scenarios in a mixture of stories and role-play, and in a suitably Rawlsian twist, they weren't able to control their player character's background in this new nation; in one simulation, they might be a highly educated professional born to immigrant parents; in another, they would be suffering from a chronic disease from an early age.
We shouldn’t overstate how important the Constitutional Blueprint was — after all, political parties still commanded a great deal of loyalty — but it gave citizens a real understanding, and thus a voice, in political issues, especially in those countries that had a participatory drafting process.
As the hunger for self-determination and the reassertion of more local governance spread across the world, people began talking of semi-autonomous regions, city-states, and even more atomic forms of organisation — most still rooted in physical geography, but some ('phyles') that were distributed across the globe, linked by cultural ties. This movement was accelerated by the alarmingly fast and unpredictable sloshing of people, occupations, fashions, money, and resources from place to place (c.f. Rechartered Cities).
Since the daily operations of rich states were becoming increasingly automated with the help of software and AIs, it wasn't impossible to try out different Constitutional Blueprints at will, especially since so much economic activity and so many services were now being provided online and in fully trackable ways. With the buy-in of citizens — more easily found in smaller states — various forms of taxation and legislation could be tried and tested very quickly. The prospect of such dynamism only boosted the appeal of breaking up large states.
Armstrong speculates that the old notion of the 'frontier' may have also played a role in the 'fast dissolution':
"There was a lot of talk about 'Orbit' and the Moon and Mars, but let's face it — only the rich, lucky, highly skilled, or insanely motivated were able to reach that frontier. But there was another frontier waiting down at the bottom of the gravity well, one that promised that a new society could be created with a new Blueprint, if only you could get enough like-minded people together."
Nothing in life is quite that easy. A great deal of 'local' Constitutional Blueprints failed thanks to the inability of potential citizens to agree on anything at all for extended periods of time, and some argue that the bait of new semi-autonomous political units merely distracted people from the more important decisions being made at the supranational level.
Today, Ballaman admits that there was some truth to this. While she remains proud of what the Blueprints have achieved by advancing self-determination around the world, she acknowledges the damage her software has caused. Communities divided, long-standing traditions dismantled, useful compromises pulled apart. "Yet why shouldn't people have the freedom to succeed and fail gloriously, to see new sovereign states and new sovereign cities rise according to plans that they all create together, plans that might improve their lives and the lives of their children and grandchildren?" asks Ballaman. "Why not let them draw up a new blueprint for society?"