After the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011, the “internet generation” breathed a sigh of relief—they seemed to be free of the stigma of being seen as armchair revolutionaries. The hyperconnected youth had proven that the virtual world can foster major transformations, even with regard to matters as old and established as politics.
The worldwide series of protests, characterized by the way they were formed outside major circles of influence and with no central leadership, inspired the June Journeys, in Brazil in 2013.
But years have passed and the way things are organized has changed. The discontent expressed in the streets has left a void. Certainties were broken, institutions were tainted. However, the movements lacked the power and continuity needed to put something new in place.
The very network once celebrated as a space for free information and popular mobilization was now the home of post-truth and social bubbles. The partnership between democracy and global monopolies, which had looked like it was nearing its end, took a new breath. The result is that today we are living with the Trumps, Macris, Macrons, and Temers of the world.
Although fundamental, the purpose of this text is not to point out the reasons that led us to the end of an illusion. We want to discuss how new technologies can dilute (or not) the concentrated power of the government.
Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells begins his book Networks of Outrage and Hope (2013) by talking about the rupture that occurred a few years ago:
“Financial magicians went from objects of public envy to targets of universal contempt. Politicians were exposed as corrupt and as liars. Governments were denounced. The media was suspected. Trust vanished — and trust is what binds together society, the market, and institutions.”
While Castells’ positive hypotheses may not have materialized—the revolutionary potential of a networked society—the fissure he described seems to be widening.
In Brazil, the antiquated views of the leading powers are almost unbearable: mirroring the available leadership has become an act of regression or desperation. But it is not just here.
Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens (2014), recently noted that “for the first time in history, we have no idea what to teach children in school or students in college.” This sense of disorientation is widespread.
Specifically regarding protests, for example, Micah White — one of the leaders of the Occupy movement — released a book called The End of Protest (2016). In an interview with Douglas Rushkoff in Team Human, White says:
“The end of protest is not the absence of protest, but the proliferation of ineffective protests […] What happened was that the concept of protest was separated from the concept of revolution. Protests have become a spectacle, designed to attract the attention of the media and spread a message.”
There have been attempts to diminish the critical character of practical forms of struggle, street protests especially, now that they have become part of the corporate agenda. However, facing difficulty when tackling a problem does not mean that the problem has not been identified. On the contrary, it has never been so clear. With each revelation of its lumbering mass, there is further evidence of a crisis in the marriage between democracy and capitalism.
In the documentary Requiem for the American Dream (2015, available on Netflix), American linguist Noam Chomsky describes the effects of a “vicious cycle”: concentration of wealth, concentration of power, and further concentration of wealth”.
The “We are the 99%” slogan highlights the disproportionate financial power held by the richest 1% of the global population.
Okay, so that is the problem. But what is the solution?
The pyramid has become a network
“To our accustomed way of thinking, technologies are seen as neutral tools that can be used well or poorly, for good, evil, or something in between. But we usually do not stop to inquire whether a given device might have been designed and built in such a way that it produces a set of consequences logically and temporally prior to any of its professed uses.”
Winner says that “the factory system, automobile, telephone, radio, television, the space program, and of course nuclear power itself have all at one time or another been described as democratizing, liberating forces.” The internet is of course a part of this ensemble, and is experiencing its own tug of war.
It is possible to take at least two perspectives of the internet. One sees a connected society as a chance to consolidate the old order—in which very few reap the rewards and many are left wanting—in a new arena and on a global scale. The other sees a connected society as a chance to finally dilute the concentration of power, enabling fairer and more cooperative forms of organization and reducing the distance between people, both geographically and economically.
When we look for a political alternative—a real political alternative—we experiment with the internet, which is perfect for decentralization, plurality, and autonomous users free of servitude.
Even though these qualities have not yet found harmony in one single model that can serve as a reference, they have featured irregularly in various initiatives and ideas.
For example, in a recent episode of Brazilian TV show Roda Viva, economist Eduardo Giannetti proposed a new motto: “less Brasília, more Brazil.” He says, “Power to the local government. Citizens live under the local government, in their municipality, not in Brasília […]. Who really wants to pay money to Brasília just for it to then come back? We want decentralization.”
Giannetti’s opinions may not please ecovillage enthusiasts, but it is impossible not to see a convergence between his motto and the essence of these communities. Usually situated in rural locations, ecovillages are settlements that value sustainability above all else. They produce food and use energy in harmony with nature. Among themselves, residents also maintain a balance between independence as an individual and responsibility as a member. In other words, local power.
“This is a world in which the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and its cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization. […] The results are indelibly etched on the spatial forms of our cities, which increasingly consist of fortified fragments, gated communities, and privatized public spaces kept under constant surveillance.”
Whenever possible, Harvey cites the Paris Commune. In 1871, the instability generated by the Franco-Prussian War gave French workers the opportunity to overthrow the Assembly and take control of the city. The measures taken by this new society included equality between the sexes, abolition of the death penalty, and doubling teachers’ salaries. The story ended in tragedy with an attack by the French government in collusion with their former enemy, the German Empire, but the experience made history. Sometimes the inspiration for a democratic society can come from far away in distance, as well as in time.
All these examples are searching for answers to the same questions: is it possible to live in a society without inequality? Or is it natural, is it necessary that a small number of people control and maintain certain privileges?
These are issues that we have faced since Ancient Greece and that are now entering a new chapter with a powerful new character called digital technology.
Liquid democracy: a utopia?
Argentine activist Pia Mancini gave a TED talk about Democracy OS in 2014. The application she invented began as a bridge between voters and politicians, and then became something of an Argentinian version of DemoEx, a Swedish experiment in which elected politicians vote according to the will of their constituents.
MiVote is an Australian democracy startup that uses the internet and smartphones to enable citizens to vote on national issues that matter to them. The platform educates users and helps them choose from a variety of policy options, breaking the binary mold so often presented by democracy on broad issues, such as refugee policy, for example.
There were times when people were enamored with the possibilities that digital technology brought to the field of politics. It even seemed like the implementation of liquid democracy could have been imminent. There were times before the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit.
But while the idea of the hacking of politics fosters innovation, it is not new. William “Boss” Tweed, an American politician born in 1823, commented: “I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating”. Modern democracy has been hacked for as long as it has existed, by bankers, landowners, and corporations. What we have is just an image, a shadow of a democratic system. And this is where other complex facets of this utopia are revealed: it is possible to regain power by playing the game of the powerful.
Micropolitics: advertising uses humor to encourage political engagement among the Egyptian public.
Yes, it is better than nothing, and yes, trying to occupy these spaces of public representation is worth it, but social transformation does not begin in the House or the Senate. It begins here.
If hacking politics is still an embryonic idea, its potential creates certain paradoxes. How could technology, which connects the whole world, have created a distance between us, mistrust, and the culture of self? Can we find a balance between the programmed intelligence of political applications and the instinctive revolution of events such as umbrella movement in Hong Kong and the occupation of schools in Brazil? Will a time come when large technology companies become the targets of mass protests, like governments and the financial system are today? How can we win a battle that is fought with our minds and not with our hands?
“We were called naive, and to be honest, we were. Because the challenges that we face are not technological. They’re cultural.” — Pia Mancini
Beyond its exciting numerical and aesthetic possibilities, it is time we started seeing digital technology as an auxiliary tool for a political project that permeates and surpasses it. It has already been discussed by The Guardian: “To re-energize democracy, we need to spend less time talking about technology, and more time understanding how it helps ordinary people develop a sense of their own agency […] The power of the traditional institutions of government, political parties and the media has long been exercised through top-down structures and gatekeepers who controlled access to ideas, information and mass audiences. But the gatekeepers are now losing control, as individuals realize their capacity to join with others and exercise real power.”
Of course the paths are precarious and the idea of a direct democracy in utopia seems like a contradiction, but it is worth remembering that “utopian thinking is a primordial political action. It involves a refusal to be limited by the obsession with the here and now, to focus on a world that could and should be.”
“The fundamental battle being fought in society is the battle over the minds of the people.” — Manuel Castells
In the void that we are currently living in, with such a broad reformulation of our political institutions, this could be both a danger and an opportunity.