As human beings we have an atavistic belief that we are constantly moving forward and changing. In today’s day and age, technological development has surpassed the limits of representative democracy. Citizens are demanding more direct democracy. As a consequence, innovating in politics means adapting to the times and redefining democracy in “technical” terms. We have greatly changed our ways of consuming and participating in our social and political lives compared to our parents. Democracy is not expensive. It does not require us all to be in the same place, at the same time. We need and can create the tools for the 21st century.
In a normal context, the political parties and public representatives would take the lead in the process to adapt to today’s reality. Unfortunately, they are precisely the ones who are resisting change. They are the individuals who decide and implement policies on behalf of us all and yet they are the main obstacles to finding the new democratic process for the 21st century. This leads us to believe that this will not just simply be a “technical” evolution or adaptation of democracy, but a full break with the past.
We are not the only ones questioning whether or not we have surpassed the limits of representative democracy. What we are dealing with is a global failure of the system. There is an overarching questioning of our political and economic system and no one and no entity is exempt from it. What’s more, this questioning goes beyond the traditional ideological divides in a context in which the discourse of status quo no longer works as an excuse.
Some people believe that once the economic crisis is over, the political crisis will disappear too. But, we cannot forget that the crisis did not only seriously impoverish the people, it also stripped bare the mechanisms of power revealing how little democracy there actually was in this democracy. The failure of political parties to fulfill their role as representatives and the enormous new potential of technology have created a very serious situation. In fact, the mechanisms of representative democracy in the majority of cases have proven to be inefficient, ineffective and most importantly frustrating.
Citizen’s space for change
Times have changed. Technology and the crisis have changed us. We have reached the point where 20th century tools and structures can no longer represent 21st century society. Companies, predominantly SMEs, organizations, social movements, causes, etc., have alternative ways of staying connected. The society of tomorrow is already using new tools including town hall meetings, crowdfunding, networking, the Economy for the Common Good, ethical banks, cooperatives, social market, time-based currency, the Platform for a New Energy Model. This has shown us that society can function with different structures and that they account for economic, social, environmental, and democratic standards, with the shared sovereignty and legitimacy that only collective deliberation can offer. Shockingly, political parties are the exception to this list of organizations using innovative new methods.
There is no monopoly on representation and interaction. As Ismael Peña López (@ictlogist), professor at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, “We are currently undergoing a transition from politics as an ends towards politics as a process, from the institution as a solution towards the institution as a toolbox.”
From party headquarters to networks
Political figures have already become a simple backdrop and Internet has revolutionized the social and political panorama. New forms of activism and participation are opening the way and making possible another way to think of and do politics.
In this way, there are some interesting projects in which people are conceiving of the democracy of the future. They question the monopoly of political parties on representation and intermediation. Democracia 4.0 is the brainchild of attorney Juan Moreno Yagüe from the legal service of the Seville Chapter of Democracia Real Ya (DRY). Democracia 4.0’s objective is to collect signatures for a petition to the Spanish Parliament demanding electronic voting for citizens. Unfortunately, more than a year has gone by without a response from Spanish Parliament or the Spanish Institutions.
Openkratio is another initiative by a citizen’s group that works to promote the principles of governance and Open Data. The project aims to form a community to constitute a national citizen’s action group. It would serve to promote the spreading, participation, cooperation and development of public and political projects. By doing so, a network for social interests and transformation would be created to improve democracy through the promotion of Open Government especially through Open Data.
Citizen watchdog groups that keep checks and controls on politicians have also been increasing in number with a number of política vigilada (monitored politics) initiatives. Qué hacen los diputados (What your members of Parliament are doing) defines itself as a “Parliament of people who monitor the work of the Members of the Spanish House of Representatives.” It began as a small group of individuals interested in politics and that decided to use digital tools to monitor the work of politicians. The initiative aims to bring citizens closer to the political decisions that affect them, improve transparency, and involve citizens in the monitoring of political activities.
We’re undergoing a move away from the use of intermediaries in the political process. People are demanding more direct democracy. AgoraVoting is an innovative project using free software to establish social citizen networks for the development of a system for secure electronic voting. Equo collaborated with them to carry out our country’s first experiment with direct democracy and we look forward to developing this area of work.
Much is being done in the area of politics outside of the political parties and institutions. The new focus, objectives and tools being used are placing those in power on the defensive, but, are changing politics and the way in which we do politics. Despite the resistance to this change, everyone is aware that it is possible even desirable for the institutions to function through different structures.
We must be able to design innovative solutions. Until now there have only been two choices in policymaking: the free market or the State. You would think that by now we would have understood that the free market neither distribute resources fairly nor protects human rights. We also should have learned by now that the State cannot and should not do things alone. There are a lot of initiatives, talent and collective intelligence out there, all of which we must take advantage. Citizens are already working in this direction. They are not placing all of their hopes in the markets. They are not waiting for “their side” to win the elections to solve the problems. The disobedient are daring to establish other business models and forms of economy, such as Economy for the Common Good or Economy for Solidarity. Citizens are demanding their sovereign role in the area of energy supply through the Platform for a New Energy Model or Som-Energía and journalists are seeking the truth on various subjects through media like La Marea. A new ethical bank has even been established by citizens, Coop57. Cooperating with these movements will be key to representing the radically democratic green movement of the future.
We must also be innovative in the tools. The main tool that we’ve used to date has been elections every four years. The system was designed so that we vote only every so often and in the meantime delegate completely to our elected officials until the next election. This feeds opacity, irresponsibility, corruption, etc., and also supported a closed particracy in which it is the party that can best survive the political climate and not the most suitable that prevails.
Transparency, accountability, direct democracy. Today, all of this is not only possible it is necessary for the survival of politics as the tool of collective action. Technology makes it possible. Yet, it is not just a question of means but also of political will to rise to the enormous challenge that we face.
There is no disaffection for politics. There is disaffection for dishonesty and for a system that has taken a turn for the worse. As Antoni Gutiérrez Rubí stated, “We are fighting political laziness and indifference. By refusing to explore new paths we are straying from new solutions. Citizen disaffection to a good part of our politics and institutional architecture does not stem, simply and solely, from criticism of errors (management) or excesses (corruption), for example. The bluntest criticism is that of the perception that citizens have that people have ceased to lead. Action is inseparable from shifting gears, direction, destination, trajectory, and vehicle. Politics run through ideological and attitudinal automatisms is the best way to give up on representing and serving the citizenry. More thought and less inertia, please! The challenges that we must face will not be solved by running on automatic pilot, but with veritable pilots”.
This article was written for the GEF event “Political innovation: opening the debate” organised with the support of Fundación Equo.