Technologies and institutions for democracy in the 21st century

*Talk delivered in Madrid, May 2016, Democracy Lab/D-CENT International conference: Democratic Cities – Commons technology and the right to a democratic city 

I was asked to contribute to this session presenting various thoughts regarding a feasible political strategy and methodology based on lessons from the recent political experience in Greece.

My core assumption is that the political imagination, the methodology of mobilization and the organizational principles of the traditional political left and movements do not meet the requirements of the today’s political and social antagonisms. There is a time lag or inability of adaptation to the emerging authoritarian environment that the neoliberal project is imposing to societies.

Another aspect of the necessary update is the need to transform methodologies, organizational schemes and the respective imagination and mentality of fighting taking into consideration technological advances that swift the battleground and the rules of the political and social struggles. This is not just a matter of incorporating new technology in the traditional paradigm of doing politics; what we need is a paradigm change.

The current level of performance of what we could call “forces of emancipation” is not sufficient. The political left and the movements seem outdated as social organizers of building popular power in a productive sense, instead they continue to express and represent demands in a toxic political environment designed to be intolerant to people’s needs.

On the other hand, the thousands of alternative initiatives seem marginal, feeble, lacking a “critical mass”, they are not integrated into larger operational frameworks, it is difficult to upscale, they end up isolated and fragmented destined to face the same difficulties again and again.

We need a new organizational/operational DNA capable to replicate in various social levels and sectors creating cells of collective, productive activity governed by a different logic. Cells that can be combined in such a way that a new paradigm of emancipatory social change can emerge.
Τhe ominous battlefield of the 21st century

but before I begin I would like to highlight that it is vital to have in mind that the development of technologies and the building of institutions that promote democracy will take place in a context of brutal political and social struggles.

Let’s be frank to ourselves; despite all the subtleties and the complexities of our predicament the truth is that we are facing an extermination process and a danger of severe regression of what we could called modern societies that would affect the fate of humans in the entire planet. We are entering a transition phase in which a new kind of despotism is fast emerging, combining the logic of financial competition and profit with technological advances and pre-modern modes of brutal governance: multi-dimensional exclusion of people in terms of access to crucial decisions and satisfaction of vital needs multi-dimensional process of enclosure (resources, spaces, knowledge, information etc) and of course pure, lethal violence and wars.

At the same time long-term tendencies approach a critical point threatening humankind with severe regression: depletion of natural resources, environmental instability, food crisis and collapse of national and regional systems of administration and performance of basic social functions.

The elites today care only how are they going to accumulate more power, and by doing so they push humankind in decline. Neoliberalism is not only unfair for the people without economic power; it represents a future that reduces the emancipatory dimension of modernity into an unstable and feeble outcry within the dark ages. at the same time it fundamentally cannot provide the proper conceptual and operational framework for real solutions to the today’s global threats of humankind

These solutions must be based on sustainability, solidarity and openness in order to check the long-term tendencies of reaching a crucial bio-social limit, the rise of inequallity and barbarism that gradually takes the form of an extermination process of the poor and the threat of digital/military/financial authoritarianism.

At the same moment, for the first time in our evolutionary history we have so huge reserves of embodied capacities, a vast array of rapidly developing technologies of connection and data collection, and values and life philosophies from different cultures within our reach. Apart from the dangers, We are living in extreme times of unprecedented potentialities.

So, the context of developing technologies and institutions for democracy will be a very brutal battlefield; my experience from greece shows that we are forced to evolve and become more efficient while at the same time we -as people – are suffering huge losses, we retreat bleeding and every day we are pushed into greater misery and despair.

Why do democracy and the relevant technologies matter

But if this is the case then are we loosing our time with democracy, relevant technologies and other luxuries instead of focusing on survival strategies? Are we disillusioned and miss the overall picture? It depends on how we frame this kind of work in this broader picture. The crucial question is: Does democracy matter in terms of survival? The answer is yes; democracy is not a luxury as the mainstream narrative suggests but the most powerful weapon of the popular classes if properly treated. In order to respond adequately in these suffocating conditions, new organizational standards and methods are needed for the engagememnt of thousands of people in this day-to-day and multi-level fight. Here the role of technologies and institutions that promote democracy is crucial. Democracy is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in order to deploy a survival strategy. We must unleash all the embodied capacitites that people have and throw them into this battle.

By transferring the decisions to the people, by giving them the space, the tools and the freedom to realize and mobilize their capacities, we can unlock crucial reserves of creative power. Unlocking these reserves will change substantially the balance of forces between the popular classes and the elites. If we elaborate effective ways and means of democratic functioning we will realize that we are actually much stronger than we think. This is the lesson of the syrian Kurdish: democracy is not mainly an ideological preference; it’s what the people need in order to make full use of their embodied capacities in order to upgrade their power and survive.

That’s why the work on developing technologies that enhance participation and democratic decision making is an essential dimension of the battle that has been intensified the last years between the popular classes and the elites. It’s the answer on the how question; how we – movements and organizations/institutions fighting for emancipation and societies running a severe risk – are going to mobilize the human reserves of creative power which are the only form of power we can have at our disposal in this struggle.

In the remaining time I am going to present some thoughts based on my experience of being at the leadership of Syriza for 12 years, of doing politics from that position under the regime of troika the last 6 years till my resignation last summer, and from the perspective of what happened in 2015.

In EU and Eurozone today, people’s democratic will has been successfully limited. In the case of Greece, democratically electing a government is like electing a junior partner in a wider government in which the lenders are the major partners. The junior partner is not allowed to intervene and disturb the decisions and the policies implemented on crucial economic and social issues (fiscal policy, banks, privatizations, pensions etc).

If it does intervene and demand a say on these issues then the people who appoint it are going to suffer the consequences of daring to defy the elites’ privilege of exclusive access to these kinds of decisions. The European elites have managed to gain unchecked control over the basic functions of the society. It is up to their anti-democratic institutions to decide whether a society will have a functional banking system and sufficient liquidity to run basic functions or not.

So, in order to be in a position to pursue or implement any kind of policy one may consider as being the right one on the governmental level we need to create a degree of autonomy in terms of performing basic social functions. Without it we will not be able to confront the hostile actions of the elites and their willingness to inflict pain to a society that dares to defy their privilege over crucial decisions.

Based on people’s capacities, proper alignment, connection and coordination it is possible to acquire the necessary power to at least be in a position to assume the basic functions if needed. In the worst case, we will achieve some degree of resilience; people will be more empowered to defend themselves and hold their ground. In the best case, we will be able to regain the hegemony needed: people could mobilize positively, creatively and massively, decidedly reclaiming their autonomy.

Based on a strategy of this sort we can launch a process of redesigning the operating system of the Left so to speak. If we look at the horizon of the political practice of the Left we will see that it mainly contains demonstrating, that is organizing movements, pushing demands to the state; and voting, trying to change the balance of forces at the parliamentary level and hopefully form a government. But we know that moving and fighting within this framework is not sufficient. The amount of power we can reach through the traditional political practice is not enough to pave the way for the restoration of democracy and popular sovereignty in Europe.

When one wants to solve a particular problem, expanding one’s solution space increases one’s potential to find that solution. If the ground of the battle has shifted, undermining your strategy, then it’s not enough to be more competent on the shaky battleground; you need to reshape the ground. And to do that you have to go beyond it, expand the solution space and find ways to change it favorably in order to continue fighting from a better position. One way to expand the solution space is by shifting priorities: from political representation to setting up an autonomous Network of production of Economic and Social Power (NESP).

Which means that we must modify the balance between representing people’s beliefs and demands and coordinating, facilitating, connecting, supporting and nurturing people’s actions at the profiling of the Left. Instead of being mainly the political representative of the popular classes in a toxic anti-democratic european political environment designed to be intolerable to people’s needs, we must contribute heavily to the formation of a strong “backbone” for resilient and dynamic networks of social economy and co-operative productive activities, alternative financial tools, local cells of self-governance, democratically functioning digital communities, communities control over functions such as infrastructure facilities, energy systems, digital data and distribution networks. These are ways of gaining a degree of autonomy necessary to defy the control of the elites over basic functions of our society.

Is this feasible? My hypothesis is that literally every day the human activity – both intellectual and practical – is producing experiences, know-how, criteria and methods, innovations etc. that inherently contradict the parasitic logic of profit and financial competition.

Of course we are talking about elements that may not be developed sufficiently yet.

Elements that may have been nurtured in mainstream contexts and that are often functionally connected to the standard economic circuit.

However, the support of their further development, their gradual absorption in an alternative, coherent paradigm governed by a different logic and values, and finally their functional articulation in alternative patterns of performing the basic functions of our societies is just a short description of the duty of a Left that has a clear, systematic and strategically wide orientation.

The signs of collapse of the standard economic circuit are obvious in Greece but not only there. There is a growing exclusion of people from the economic circuit—having a job or a bank account, having a “normal life”. Modern society in general is in decline. From history we know that societies in decline tend to react in order to survive. It is up to us to grasp this and start building networks that can perform basic social functions in a different way—one that is democratic, decentralized and based on the liberation of people’s capacities. Since there are no empty spaces in history, if we do not do this, the nationalists and the fascists – with their own militarized ways of performing these basic functions – may step in to conclude the decline.

The formation of a “backbone” or better of the necessary “nodes” for the NESP poses the challenge for new forms of “organization”. We are living in a period of profound and structural changes and the traditional ways of organizing seem to be inadequate to seriously challenge the financial despotism that is emerging rapidly the last decades. Our opponents have already spotted the shifting nature of the battlefield and they have already moved to new, unclassified ways of organizing and acting. I am talking about building new kinds of institutions and promoting new methods that are compatible with the new emerging environment of fast flows of information, distributed knowledge and expertise, digital frameworks of action and production etc. It is evident that the forms of organization that we need in order to create and expand the NESP will be unclassified and hybrid from a traditional point of view.

We must and set up institutions that focus on identifying best practices, methods and regulations – both from the experience of our collectivities and from the scientific production regarding issues such as management, leadership, organizational, complexity and network systems theories, psychology etc. – in order to provide them to our agencies. It is also vital to upgrade our operational capacities through appropriate processes and nodes of connection, facilitating smooth flows of know-how, best practices and information, building databases and accumulating knowledge and expertise in an easily retrievable and useful way etc.

Actually, this is the advantage of multinational and large corporations in general, in comparison to others: they have a vast social network and powerful databases that give them the necessary tools to plan and pursue their goals while at the same time their smaller competitors seem blind and disarrayed in a global environment of rapid changes.

We need these qualities if we want really to be relevant and useful to the people from now on.

Let me conclude with the question of whether the Left must engage with the state or not. I would suggest that the question should be reformulated. What kind of Left we need in order to engage with the state in such a way that will promote even further the people’s leverage against the elites’ hostility?

The level of the state has its own modalities, but there is nothing there that in principle excludes the Left. However, when the Left approaches government power structural inadequacies can be disastrous. Moreover, the administration of the state poses questions and tasks that we cannot avoid. There is no way to transcend the dominance of the logic of profit and competition and deal with today’s challenges if we do not address large-scale questions of organizing, planning, managing and administering societies. Being at the leadership of SYRIZA during the period of preparation of assuming governmental power, I have come to the conclusion that the Left is missing a mode of governmentality stemming from its own logic and values. We miss a modality of administrating populations and run basic social functions in a democratic, participatory and cooperative way.

One aspect of this lack in the case of SYRIZA was the indifference towards issues that are related with the implementation process. The prevailing rhetoric was that the problems are political and not technical.

So, all we have to do was to decide what we want to do, not to explore the ways in order to be able to implement them.

The implicit premise was that the crucial point was to be in the government and the ministries taking political decisions, and then, somehow these decisions would be implemented by some “technical” in nature state mechanisms.

Apart from the fact that this attitude contradicted with what we were saying regarding the corrosive effect of the neoliberal transformation of the state and the complexity of being in the EU and the Eurozone in this respect, it also shows the prevailing superficial understanding of the notion “transformation of the state” and justifies fully the need for a radical redesign of the “Operating System” of the Left.

The major problem is that a mentality like this ignores the obvious fact that the range of one’s political potential in being in the government is determined by what one knows how to do with the state.

The implementation process is not a “technicality” but the material basis of the political strategy.

What the traditional Left takes to be the political essence, namely the general, strategic discussion and decision (what to do with the debt, privatizations etc) is just the tip of the iceberg of state-politics.

The implementation process is the “iceberg” of state-politics beneath the surface.

Actually, it’s where the political struggle within the state becomes hard and the class adversaries battle to prevail over implementation, that is over shaping reality.

One of the results in the case of SYRIZA was that the Programme Committee, the highest political organs and the departments of the Central Committee instead of working deliberately on managerial issues regarding steps, methods and difficulties of implementing our own policies and organizational issues like restructuring processes in the various state institutions we would have access to, they were sites of political argumentation in the most general and abstract terms.

The tip is not going to move the iceberg by itself as long as it is not supported by a multi-level and multi-personal implementation strategy with clear orientation, functional methods and high-level coordination.

This is the integrated concept of state-politics that we have forgotten in practice and by doing so we tend to fail whenever we approach the tip of the iceberg.

So, the question is not whether we should fight for the tip or not, but whether we have any clue what to do with the iceberg beneath it or not.



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