This article analyises the possibility of achieving a state of democracy where all individuals have the same political power. It considers the fundamental principles of legitimacy, considers the properties that democracy tools need to exhibit from the perspective of the less technical users and the role that individuals need to asume in order to make grassroots democracy a reality.
These troubled days everyone speaks about “democracy”, but it is not clear if the term has the same meaning for everyone who uses it. Democracy for me is a constitutional agreement which regulates the relationships among a group of individuals when dealing with a given set of commons, material and immaterial, which guarantees that all people have at all times the same right to decide what is to be done with the commons. In the field of power, if they are all equal, all individual are grass shoots of the same height. Nobody stands above the rest. Democracy for me is “grassroots democracy”.
The fundamental reasons why democracy is a desirable state of society follows from the historical observation that most humans, if given sufficient power, will use it to their personal advantage and not for the common good. Any given law or political decision is likely to favour a particular group of people, normally akin to those who made it. Hence, in order to foster decisions which benefit the largest part of society a great number of people should be included in the making of those laws. The larger the number of people involved, if coming from a random variety of backgrounds and social strata, the better the laws, i.e. more beneficial for society as a whole. This argument is further developed in a previous post which I simplistically called “Why Democracy?”
The bottom line is that, as long as decisions can be taken efficiently and in a timely manner, by free individuals, the “quality” of a democracy will improve with the number of people involved in taking those decisions. Ideally we would like to have a society were everyone is involved in one way or another in taking decisions, but that is not realistic. In practice we have to find the way of making the decision making processes as easy and accessible for all members of the group as possible, hoping that people will take part when they feel affected in one way or another by an issue. It’s important that everyone is aware of their ability to take part in the decision making process. We must all be conscious of our minute but inalienable political power.
Eventually, the process has to become so accessible, so effective, that a new form of democracy can spread effortlessly from one human group to the other, from one country to the other. Once the method is sufficiently refined to be useful, it will certainly be adopted by other groups, movements and political parties, from these to a peacefully organised civil society, from there to the European government… We want nothing less than freeing human kind from itself by making self organization of large groups possible and realistic. That is our challenge.
These are truly fertile times for democracy, everyone seems to want it, but we do not yet have the ingredients nor the recipe to make it bloom. There is neither a sufficiently large group of people who knowingly agree on this common objective nor the mechanisms to help us make those decisions. Furthermore, we must keep in mind that those few that today hold the reins of power are already trying to stop us. They will never help us. Democracy has to come from the grassroots, from the common people, from us, with no significant financial or institutional support. There is only us, all of us, and we only have our words and our hands to change the world, but we are billions. Welcome to the quest for a new democracy.
1. Making grassroots democracy possible
As I stated in an earlier article I don’t think it is possible to build a grassroots movement. We can only create and improve the conditions for such a phenomenon to thrive, but its energy will always stem from the individuals who make it happen. The same people, under the same circumstances, sharing the same commons, could organise in very different ways. One of them is democracy, which can be understood as a state of society in the same way that diamond can be understood as a state of the chemical element carbon. We need to find the conditions that privilege democratic organisation in favour of other social states. In order to do this, we need to work along two lines that are closely entangled around one another: human relationships and technology.
The perfect democratic system is useless if not put to use by a large number of people. On the other hand, millions of indignados sitting on the squares of Spain or the Occupy movement had no power to change society because they didn’t have the tools and methods to organise themselves. Both ingredients, large numbers of people trying to make a decision and the tools to do it efficiently, must be found at the same place, at the same time.
There are many of us who already share the common goal of participatory or grassroots democracy but, do we know who we are? Have we agreed to do it together? Are we trying to find the means of doing it? Our first objective should be to unite in the search for effective mass decision making systems. The role of leaders in a grassroots democracy should be to listen to the people and be smart enough to help people to find room for agreement but decisions should be possible without ideological leaders.
Once we have agreed on this objective we have to reach out to the rest of society in order to involve in our quest increasing numbers of people. How do we do that? Which will be our strategies? Which our short and long term goals? Well, it is up to all of us to decide, which means that we have to put in place the necessary mechanisms, use the right tools. We have to dive into the problem of democracy from the very moment in which we start walking the path of democracy.
Whatever decision we make must be the result of a democratically approved process, rejecting the temptation of being “practical” in order to “make progress”. Not only should we do it because we believe in democracy, we should practice democracy in order to get ready for the people who will respond to our call. An ad-hoc decision making system which is not sufficiently transparent, which does not offer sufficient guarantees, which does not have the necessary checks and balances, may be OK for a small group of ten to thirty people who trust each other, but will become authoritarian as it grows. That is part of human nature. Who has personal power will use it, even if it is with the best of intentions. Each and every one of the people who join our quest for democracy must know, must see, must feel, that their opinion is as valuable as anyone else’s, that their ideas have the same opportunities to be heard as those of the other, more stablished, better known, members of the group. At least they must see that there is a constant effort to make it so.
It is a well established fact that groups use the internet to organise themselves. It makes sense. It would be foolish not to (unless may be in very extreme circumstances) but internet means nothing anymore. The question is how we use it, which apps, which sites, which tools to we use to organise ourselves and take decisions.
1.1 IT Tools
Most people’s first impulse is to resort to Facebook, Google drive, Twitter and other social apps to communicate in groups, because this is what they know. I do not want to get started here about privacy and surveillance capitalism, or the fact that using them gives more power to the people whom we have to take it away from. Social media are just extremely inefficient at generating decisions. They are not designed for that. Democracy needs it own tools, and there are hundreds of them out there, each one of them hoping to be the final solution to the problem. None of them, as far as I have seen, getting anywhere near.
A common mistake repeated over and over is to imagine that the perfect internet tool is going to be the solution. The experience of “El Partido de la Red” in Argentina indicates that a good application may be an important part of the solution. However, there are two relevant considerations to be made. First, the technical solution chosen must be subject to permanent evolution, responding to the changing needs of the decision making group. No system should be final, just as no democracy should be final, and we are still very far from even a reasonable implementation of a digital democracy. The second point is that technology may facilitate human interaction, but it is the later, and not the former, what makes society. Hence the question is, to a certain extent, how the app or set of apps is used, but most important by whom and for what it is used.
As I mentioned before, democracy is about people, so people needs to be put at the centre of the problem. There are very technical people and people who do not like technology. There are shy people and outspoken people. Whatever system we decide to use will be more convenient for some and less so for others. It will keep some people out, it will attract some others. Our aim must be, always, to find out how to make it more inclusive, more welcoming, until the last member of society has been taken into account.
This does not mean that we should not start until we have designed the ultimate system. This just reminds us that at any point in time we should be thinking of the people who are not taking part in the process. We must find a constant balance between how efficient our decision making process is, and how effectively decisions increase the number of users in the group.
Most importantly, when we speak about a “system” we do not speak about an app, we have in mind holistic view of the group. If you look at the workers revolution in the twentieth century you will see that with barely any technology very strong organizations were built which accomplished great achievement for the working class. It is the strong bonds among people what strengthens society. Leaflets or sophisticated software are just a means and not an end.
The way to go is to adopt and develop technology to satisfy people’s needs, but since technology develops slowly and there are material constraints to what and when can be done with it, people have to make an effort to adapt to the available technology. We are entering a new era for democracy, we are giving birth to this era, and those of us who choose to take part in this quest must understand that a titanic effort is required to get this ball rolling. From all of us.
The one thing that is pristine clear to me is that we need to unify the tools we work with. However, this must not be the result of imposition, but observation and education. Which are the most adequate, most easily accepted tools? Which work best for people? Let us find out and then make a real effort to bring everyone on board. We have to help each other, create tutorials and videos that illustrate what the tools are for and how they are used, create free helplines for the less tech savvy…
How are we going to do this? Who is going to do it? How are we going to organise ourselves as a group of humans? We must consider this questions introducing the concept of topology of society.
1.2 The topology of society
If we imagine individuals as points in a map, and we draw lines between them to represent political interactions, we will see a pattern emerge in front of us. This is what I call the topology of society. Traditional democracy shows a pyramidal topology. Power is concentrated in a few hands and there are no lines that consolidate the bottom of the pyramid. Corruption, revolving doors, social privileges, wars caused by economic interest… these are all results of pyramidal social structures. This traditional pyramid must be substituted for other structures, flatter, wide and low, in which all points, all people, occupy a similar place. No one is at the top, no one at the bottom. We must be people surrounded by people. A new social topology is necessary if we want to improve the quality of democracy, new ways in which members of society interact with each other. In this article you can find some considerations about the topology of a grassroots movement. https://democracyindiem25.wordpress.com/2017/05/17/a-topolgy-for-grassroots-democracy/
May be in the future, when society reaches a higher degree of democracy, the need to invest resources in making it even more stable, inclusive and efficient, will be evident but until then, until society invests the necessary resources in re-designing itself, the burden will be in the hands of isolated individuals that decide to unite and work together without support, without other means than what we can offer ourselves in the construction of a new democracy.
At this very moment in time DiEM25 is fertile ground for grassroots democracy to blossom. Thousands of us were brought together by the ideas of Europe and democracy. Me must bind ourselves together by democracy. We must develop that new type of democracy which does not create ruling classes but binds society in the knowledge of a common purpose: live together in peace. Let us learn to decide together.
2. Information flow
Votes, ideas, plans, decisions, orders, alerts, all these are forms of information. A cry for help, an invitation or a threat are also forms of information. The nature of information varies both in content and quality. The exact same words (content) have completely different consequences in the organization depending on when, where, how and by whom they are expressed. There are many aspects to the quality of information but we shall refer here only to the channel used to transmit those contents. Any organisation can be described by the nature of those channels, or rather, its information topology. What goes from which emitters to which receptors, with what frequency, how. Most important, what different consequences the same content has depending on the channel. A top down organization is characterised by grossly asymmetric channels depending on the direction. A neat radial or pyramidal structure will become quickly apparent if we draw the information channel in a people map. Indeed the topology will immediately identify the positions of power: at the top, at the centre, from where broadcasting media will flow out onto the rest of the organization while there will be no open channels for information to flow from a roots member in the periphery to the centre.
One of the fundamental questions for a traditional democracy is who controls the broadcasting channels, whose words get to more people. How this considerations apply to DiEM25 is the subject of a previous post. This text, however, aims at construction of alternatives. Rather than questioning how existing channels should be controlled, I would like to address here the existing problems and consider alternative information topologies which may help to make the struggle for power over the existing media completely irrelevant.
Let us start by considering an ideal grassroots movement where no one has more power that anyone else. From the outside, a grassroots movement shouldn’t necessarily be different from a crowd. In both we should find one to one conversations, isolated, small groups of people chatting away “solving the problems of the world”. The difference, however, is that the former moves in a predefined direction, the crowd just wanders. Ideas should not get lost in the movement, they should travel free and far, be collected, processed, agreed upon, until they set the new course of the movement without anyone in particular having taken the decision but with a wide spread feeling that such a decision was taken by a majority, in the hope that is the best for all. In one word, that the decision was legitimate.
Legitimacy requires in chronological order:
- Formal agreement
3.1 Formal Agreement
A vote is only the cherry on the cake and not the foundation of any legitimate decision. A vote does not legitimate anything. A vote is a formal agreement required as final proof of the legitimacy of a decision, but it is not the only necessary requirement of legitimacy. The vote may not even be necessary, or may be a mere formality, if there is wide spread consensus. It may be irrelevant if only a small percentage of the group do take part in it. The question is first what, how and when is to be voted, and the results of the vote are only legitimate if there was a prior will from the voters to take that vote. No small group of people should put things out for vote. Governments win votes they organise, and losing the vote may be also be a gain in their hidden agendas. Any group controlling what and when is voted is actually ruling society. Facilitating the polls is an administrative task. Proposing or imposing the vote is a leading task. Hence, in a grassroots movement there must be clear processes which lead to those polls.
That process, in a general sense, can be called the debate phase, even if the debate itself may need multiple other votes taking place along the way. A debate leading to a profound transformation of the movement must have multiple smaller debates, and smaller decisions, in order to steer the question and formulate the exact words to be chosen through the vote. In a healthy democracy the debate should be constant, the same goes for decisions, participation should happens every day or every week, not every four years, not every six months.
The vote is preceded by a debate but who or how starts the debate? When does a coffee table conversation become part of a formal debate? When do your personal concerns become an issue for the movement? Very simple, when a sufficiently large number of people share those concerns.
Someone will be the first person who rises a concern or interest. Sometimes many people see it at the same time, but other genuine ideas come up who no one else has thought of so there must be ways for these ideas to travel through the system, have a fair chance to be listened to by other members, there must be tools to create awareness. Then, and only then, if the idea is of value will it echo in other people’s minds and will bring those people in the debate. If people are not aware of an issue, it is impossible to know what they think about it.
Are you aware about what the others think? Are they aware of what concerns you? How can you know if you agree on issues you are not aware of, or opinions you have never heard?
Awareness goes in two senses: from the individual to the group (ideas spreading) and from the group to the individual (dominant ideas being identified, their level of support sensed and exposed the group as a whole). In order to express a common will the group needs to have self awareness, and that is just a fancy way of saying that it must have the necessary tools to enable anyone, at any point in time, to be informed about what the rest of the group expresses in as much level of detail as desired. What has been said, how many times, where, by how many people.
Needless to say in a medium size group no one can know every detail of what has been said. In the future we will be able to apply increasing levels of artificial intelligence in order to have a rough idea of what is going on out there but we are not ready for that (caution is advised, of course, before letting machines tell us what we think as a group). Right now, the question is to make awareness possible using the technology that we have and trust. Simple tools like filters and alerts.
Say I am interested in environmental issues in the region of Catania. If all the opinions from all stake holders are out there, accessible, I may set an alert that will be triggered anytime someone raises a concern about an environmental issue in Catania.
Transparency of the political debate is an essential ingredient of group self awareness. Every statement should be public or else only a few will know about it. Islands of people separated by information barriers will emerge and with them the power struggle and with it the death of equality and democracy.
The fact that all the information is available doesn’t make us be aware of it. There is so much out there, so many people thinking, that it is just impossible to keep track. If you followed everyone on Facebook you would know nothing about anyone. You would be swamped by information and that is equivalent to having none. It is important then that all the information is public, but we only get the information we want, not what the owners of the media decide.
4. Reducing the information flow.
In a social network it may make sense to follow some people, because they are your friends and you are interested in anything and everything they do. Furthermore, the world is not going to end if you miss a funny video or a joke. Things may be more important in the political arena. That is why you need to filter and retrieve information efficiently.
You don’t necessarily want to know everything someone says. Even if this is a very wise person your interests may differ. You wouldn’t generally want to follow people because you want to strip the information flow to the bare minimum, unless you know the their ideas are normally surprising, innovative, so they are worth being heard just in case. Unfortunately there are very few such people.
How do we choose what we are notified of? What do we “listen” to?
We need a system which does not rely on us reading through thousands of words every day just to find out if some has said something interesting out there. We need to have the relevant information delivered to our inbox. We need to “hear” the group speak. The group needs to listen to its own multiple voices in order to produce a unique voice that represents them all. Yes, we are talking of the self awareness of the group, of an act of collective consciousness. This is not completely new, but collective consciousness normally only occurs when a population undergoes extreme situations. We need this to happen daily, we need society to be conscious as a whole of where its left and right hands are at every time.
5. Developing self awareness for a group.
This is probably one of the most complex problems that humanity has faced so far, and it probably has no final solution. Right now, however our perception of the rest of society derives on one side from what we read, listen and watch in the media, which are heavily manipulated and on the other from a restricted sample of society who work and live with us in our information island. Society has a distorted, manipulated and incoherent sense of self perception which is probably worse than a lack of it. We are certainly not going to solve this problem completely in our lifetime, but we can certainly do a lot better than we are doing now. There are many ways in which this can be done such as democratized information channels, newsletters, and, of course modifying the topology of society to allow ideas to flow unhindered from one person to the rest, but here you have an idea which uses proven technologies which only intents to spark your imagination:
Think of any tool used to communicate via internet. Chat, blogs, forums… whatever. Each post, each thread, each comment published in it can be classified by topic, location, language or else by either the person who writes it or people who read it. Also, this items of information will be automatically qualified according to the amount of readers, supporters and detractors.
Each user could have a “listening criteria” profile. They can can subscribe to a category or receive a direct notification whenever a topic has high impact (big audience or level of activity). At any time the users can stop following a particular topic in order to stop receiving unwanted information, even if it still meets their listening criteria.
In this way. Once users have created their listener profile, they will receive selected information in a passive form, just waiting for it. They will be able to follow every topic in an ad-hoc fashion or stop following those who they do not find interesting. Of course, the possibility of actively looking for information remains intact. They would “listen” to the rest speaking
Not so difficult, is it? Is this a perfect solution? Certainly not. Is it an improvement over what there already is? We will not know until we try.
Obviously one of the key issues here would be how categories are chosen. When we add a #tag to a post we are qualifying information, but not classifying it. A hashtag can be misspelt, millions of hashtags could be created everyday, they can only be searched alphabetically and hence do not allow for meaningful navigation. A proper taxonomy would limit the set options, but these could be refined in one or more tree structure as the need arises.
As I said before, this is just one idea. There are other methods, such as the World Café, and many more, that can help us share our experiences effectively so we get to know, to a good extent, what the rest of the group thinks. There is certainly a long way to go until we solve the problem. Until then we should not adapt ourselves to the rules of the existing apps, but we should push and twist their functionality so they serve our purposes. We should also try completely different approaches, such as the use of Appgree and other statistical probing tools. Try, fail. Try, fail better. Try, fail better… and so on.
6. Connecting people
All the above discussion is implicitly referred to written online information, however, the most effective way to communicate, for a significant part of us, is speaking and do so face to face whenever possible. Talking to people creates bonds and bonds instil trust, and trust help us think, to look at what we think and not at what other people are going to think about us. Also, conversations in small groups are less prone to trolling and often much more productive.
Local, face to face conversation, however, is not a very good way of building a global international or even national movement unless combined with other methods. Personal conversation over the internet shares to an extent the benefits of face to face interaction. Is not as direct, not as warm, not as human, but it can establish bonds over thousands of miles, even more so if you video connections are used. These bonds are much stronger than what impersonal written debate on a forum can build. Once the bond is stablished a simple comment can rise awareness about an issue in all meeting participants. Different positions resulting from different discussions at local level, can be shared and discussed in a circle of trust, letting unifying ideas emerge. These can go back to the local level or to the written media and thus revert on other members on other groups.
As non local working groups appear a mesh of human relationships is stablished which provides flat topology for the movement. If the mesh is dense enough, with sufficient redundancy it will avoid the bottle necks of traditional centralised topologies, flattening out the organization and empowering ideas over people. Both awareness and debate can be really be developed in this way. In the context of DiEM25, the concept of Networking Spontaneous Collectives or Non-local DSC’s is developed further in this article and a more general analysis of topologies for grassroots democracy can be found in the article article mentioned above.
In a grassroots movement we should be able to interact, at any time, with anyone in the group who cares, at a given point in time, your interests or concerns. Ad-hoc working or discussion groups should be possible. They should appear and disappear as required. This means that you may find yourself surrounded by people who you do not know, and with whom you need to work. In the initial phase of any group there are complicated personal dynamics, power politics at small scale, often related to the habit of establishing hierarchies and dominant roles. In the spirit of democracy these dynamics are often counteracted by other unifying forces in the group, but this can take a lot of time and effort that should be used discussing the real problems. Hence, it would be of advantage to have in advance a common set of rules of engagement that are mostly agreed upon. We need a common democratic culture in the movement.
7. Democratic Culture
There are as many ideas about what a “democratic culture” is, as people who have asked themselves the question. Is is normal that different groups work in different ways across a large movement, each one adapted to the particular needs and desires of its members. However, one of the most important characteristics of a transparent, democratic movement, should be the ability of members to take part in any discussion they see fit. Discussion groups, local and non local, should be open to visitors at all times. Visitors coming from outside the mesh (members who live in a place without a DSC or are new to the movement) will always find a series of habits or protocols which they may find strange. This is to a large extent unavoidable. However, when an active member decides to take part in another group, or when a new thematic group is formed, everyone should know what to expect. We should not invent democracy every time. Our rules of engagement should be clear from the start, even if they should be always open for change if such is what the group needs. If we all want to belong to the same movement we have to share, without trying to find an orthodox standard everyone will be judged by, a common democratic culture, a series of habits and traditions that make it easy to take part in conversation here and there. This concept is further developed in this former article.
8. Final Considerations.
The above are the main issues that I think should be adressed in the construction of grassroots democracy. There are some final considerations that I would like to make. They are all subjet to further development, but I would like to briefly mention them here.
1.- Grassroots democracy can grow in a step wise fashion. We cannot expect democracy to suddenly emerge embraced by all European or citizens of the world. We can however envisage a series of expansion from smaller to larger groups leading from this instant to a world of peace. The more we are, the greater our impact, the greater our capacity to invite others to take part. In series of steps the circle of democracy can grow from a few people to actually change the world.
2.- Diminishing individual efforts. The amount of effort that everyone of us should do in the beginning is undoubtedly very large. Pioneers must take upon themselves to start working groups or other inititives and expect nothing from the rest until the rest offer to take part of the burden. As the group size increases, the effort required from every one of the members will be smaller and smaller, making it easier for people to participate, and increasing its growth rate.
3.- We are not necessarily doing things right. We must not imagine that our solution is the best or the correct one. There are already many groups in the world that have democracy as a goal. Our mission is to find them, join them, help them join each other. The means must be found to embrace their views, share their approaches and unite, always unite until we come to a common agreement of the fundamental values that we share. Any democratic movement should be born to flow into something greater and dissolve: a democratic society.
4.- The world powers are NOT on our side. It must be remembered that no one who has ever strived for and gained power will truly support a grassroots movement. Real democracy will stripe individuals of their illegitimate personal power. It will make them equals with the rest. It is futile to ask those who rule us to give “power to the people”. People have to take this power, and this power resides in unity and solidarity. Our task is to make this unity possible, effective, efficient.
5.- Democracy is possible. The hardest challenge that we are facing is not to find the way to change the world into a better place. That will be relatively easy once we take that decision. The biggest challenge right now it to believe that such a change is possible and that we are going to be part of it. Democracy will remain impossible until you realise it is not. The very day that we look at each other in the eye knowing that we are going to be able to follow this path together the path will unfold in front of us. No one said it will be easy. I can guarantee that millions of hours of work need to be done, but if there is a challenge worth taking, that challenge is the quest for democracy.
Salud, Paz y Democracia