On the Problem of Scale

  • Benjamen GussenEmail author


The historical role of Venice in sparking wealth creation in Europe is instructive for understanding the axial shift taking place this century. The idea of an axial age can be traced back to John Stuart Stuart-Glennie, Karl Jaspers, Lewis Mumford, and Eric Voegelin. An axial shift ushers a new weltanschauung that emphasizes hypotaxis (or subsidiarity) over centralized power structures. The shift emphasizes a moral imperative where (evolutionary) change is driven more by cooperation than by competition. The descriptive ‘axial’ refers to the emergence of a transformative axis that enables a scale correction through alternatives to existing power structures. Venice is one example of this axial shift (after the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire). The shift is cyclical. Every 500 years, centralized power structures, epitomized by polities with large jurisdictional footprints, succumb to a new axial shift. This explains why the number of world polities has quadrupled over the last 200 years. These shifts are triggered by waves of technological innovation characterized by high-intensity and large-scale changes in socio-economic and political organization. The last axial shift saw industrial revolutions breakdown large jurisdictional footprints such as the British Empire. Historically, every axial shift made smaller jurisdictional footprints politically viable while enabling new forms of sovereignty for coordination between these polities (through federal orders). The problem with these federal orders is that they are unstable. In response to this instability, the axial shift in the twenty-first century is resurrecting the city as the dominant scale for political organization. Chapter  9 introduces an analytical model to illustrate the instability of federal and even unitary (nation-state) designs and to explain the role of subsidiarity in the stability of polities. Constitutional constructs such as sovereignty and subsidiarity weave an evolutionary dialectic between different organizational scales (the local, national, and global). This dialectic continues to wreak havoc at the local scale and can be interrupted only through explicit constitutional constraints on the size of jurisdictional footprints. The chapter argues for emphasis on polycentric constitutional orders in the spirit of Spinoza’s understanding of sovereignty.


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of LawSwinburne University of TechnologyMelbourneAustralia

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