Arriaga: Democracy Does Not Live by Tech Alone

Manuel Arriaga‘s Foreign Policy magazine article is a well-aimed, much needed corrective to the techno-progressivist formula of popular political theory:

Democracy Does Not Live by Tech Alone

Democracy is in crisis — and more apps won’t save it. Instead, bring decision-making back to the people.

Enthusiasm for reforming our democracies has been gaining momentum. From the pages of FP to the colorful criticisms of comedian Russell Brand, it is evident that a long-overdue public conversation on this topic is finally getting started.

There is no lack of proposals. For example, in their recent FP piece, John Boik and colleagues focus on decentralized, emergent, tech-driven solutions such as participatory budgeting, local currency systems, and open government. They are confident that such innovations have a good chance of “spreading virally” and bringing about major change. Internet-based solutions, in particular, have captured our collective imagination. From Pia Mancini’s blockbuster TED presentation to New Scientist‘s recent coverage of “digital democracy,” we’re eager to believe that smartphone apps and novel online platforms hold the key to reinventing our way of governance. This seems only natural: after all, the same technologies have already radically reconfigured large swaths of our daily lives.

To put it bluntly, I believe that focusing on innovations of this sort is a dangerous distraction. Sure, empowering citizens at the local level and through trendy new technologies — and the greater public involvement in policy-making this promises — are positive developments. But we must remember that the bulk of political power still lies in the hands of the professional politicians that govern our nations. Being able to affect how things are run in our neighborhood is great, but how much of a victory is that if we have so little control over our national governments? Similarly, technology that lets us “crowd-source” writing legislation is fine, but how much good will this do us if the political class continues to have the final say on what actually becomes law?

Instead of letting ourselves become distracted by the glitter of the local and the technological, we should focus on reclaiming some real political power at the top levels of government. The question is: how might we do so?

Arriaga lists some alternative ideas and concludes:

The most promising proposal, which repeatedly appears in the work of academics and democratic reformers alike, is to create a “citizens’ chamber” in our parliaments. Think for a moment about the tremendous potential demonstrated by the experiments in both British Columbia and Oregon over the last decade: if ad hoc citizen panels work so well, why not try to tap into this source of reasoned, public-spirited decision-making on a more permanent basis? This citizens’ chamber could supervise the work of the elected political class, ensuring that professional politicians did not betray the trust of those they represent. When a sufficiently large majority of the citizens’ chamber deemed that to be the case, it would have the power either to veto the decisions made by elected officials or at least submit them to a popular vote. This is the true potential of citizen deliberation as a way to radically transform our way of doing politics.

Given our political system’s current crisis of legitimacy, we have before us a unique opportunity to truly democratize our way of doing politics. The technology we should be excited about is one that actually dates back 2,500 years. Digital democracy, as well as the other modern developments discussed earlier, promise to give the public a better chance of making itself heard by the political class. Yet, as was already evident to the ancient Athenians, only citizen deliberation can ensure that the public will speak in a way that is, not only empowered, but at the same time representative, reasoned and well-informed.

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One Response

  1. Yes, nice article. I recently read a paper claiming that the techno-utopianism of the Italian 5 star movement is a cover for authoritarianism:
    https://www.academia.edu/12180242/Net-authoritarianism_How_web_ideologies_reinforce_political_hierarchies_in_the_Italian_5_Star_Movement_

    Like

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