Fractured backbones, and how we need to avoid them


Our last article for Radix was ‘Why we are optimists’ in December 2022. We have not been goofing off since then – on the contrary, we have been writing a new book.

One of the ‘Aha!’ moments that we had during writing is a concept that resonates with everybody we share it with. It is the concept of a societal backbone.

A backbone is an agreed set of rules which are shared and support the way that things work. Societies design backbones to enable their particular society to work well and to be effective. Backbones cover many aspects of life such as financial services, governance, international (technical and professional) standards.

As we discussed the concept of backbone across our network, we realised that any backbone can only function on the foundation of a Rule of Law.

The Rule of Law consists of four essential components:

  • everyone is equal in front of the law.
  • everyone has access to the published law.
  • that law is administered by an independent judiciary.
  • that everyone has access to justice.

The Rule of Law can be seen as the foundation of all other rights, and, without rights, nothing else works. For example, without the Rule of Law:

  • There is no contract system and no financial services
  • There is no intellectual property so that wealth creation is stymied.

There is evidence that the Rule of Law is not always observed. For example:

  • Elites and countries are seen to flout the law globally
  • In some parts of the world the judiciary is not independent.

There is also evidence that the decay of the rule of law is a global phenomenon. Reasons suggested for the decay of the Rule of Law include democratic decay and social inequality.

We find it useful to explore the causes and effects of this decay through considering the visible fracturing of backbone systems, which expose the underlying characteristics of the Rule of Law.

Individual backbones are designed for a set of circumstances. And circumstances change.  With time, systems of governance, trade, standards – backbones –  may become unfit for purpose. They can decay through lack of maintenance. They may become irrelevant, challenged by new circumstances.

Backbones and their underlying detailed laws often evolve over time to meet these new circumstances. The threat is when they fracture and break rather than evolve. We are particularly focused on international backbones in the discussion below – though national backbones (health services, education systems, physical infrastructure) are also fracturing in many countries.

So, what is causing international backbones to fracture?

The world is emerging into a newly multipolar system where differing worldviews co-exist.  Many of the backbones used over the past decades (these include the many international co-operation institutions set up after World War II) are no longer acceptable to Majority World.  

This has come about partially through the disruptive effect of information and communications technology in supporting the exchange of rules-based information.  The majority of the world has access to information now, in a way that was never possible before. So when international organisations, governments or corporations renege on a rule, it is visible to many. Many of these post-WWII backbones are fracturing.

The internet is another international backbone. It depends on hardware, software and platforms across many different suppliers operating in many different locations and countries. The suppliers work to agreed international standards of components.

The internet is fracturing through the development of new “islands”, and it is threatened by cyber and other attacks on strategic points. The effects of a fracture in the internet could cripple millions of users, countries, financial systems, transportation systems – similar to the blocking of the Suez Canal.

In conclusion: the world is seeing many changes. The rule of law as a set of principles is an important base as countries, economies and societies depend on a variety of backbones to facilitate life work and pleasure.

Recognising the concept and the importance of backbones is a first step to averting their fracture and to mending the backbones that are fractured.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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