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Frank Hendriks

One of the theme’s at INLOGOV’s 2014 summer symposium is “Strengthening democracy and participation: routes to re-connection and engagement.” One of the possible routes is tellingly sketched in Dave Eggers’s recent novel The Circle (2013).

I will not try to summarize this rich, dystopian novel which is in the tradition of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, brimming with ideas as well as fears. The vision of democracy presented in The Circle is what I focus on here. It is called ‘demoxie’, and it might be a better prediction of future democracy than many theorists would think.

In the book, demoxie is quite typically introduced as a hitherto unthought-of ‘next step’ in a development process. It starts with the idea to make everyone with a Circle account automatically a registered voter. In the brave new world of The Circle, virtually everyone has such an account, as it is the merger of all other accounts. Think of Google, Twitter, Facebook, and all that coming together in one big company, with a monopoly on the internet and all connected data. One of the company founders, Bailey, first sees this as an opportunity to perfect electoral democracy, to close ‘the circle’ between electors and elected so to speak. “Now think,” he says at a company meeting, “if we can get closer to full participation in all elections (…) As we know here at the Circle, with full participation comes full knowledge. We know what Circlers want because we ask (…) if we observe the same model nationally, electorally, then we can get very close, I think, to 100 percent participation. One hundred percent democracy.”

There is applause, but the fatal heroine of the book, Mae Holland, has a brainwave and suggests to take the whole thing one step further. Why not oblige everyone to vote? “Everyone would agree that 100 percent participation is the ideal.” Until the requested vote has been cast, a circle account will simply be blocked. “And then we can take the temperature of everyone at any time.” The developers at the firm are so excited that within a week they have a beta version of what now is called ‘demoxie’ – “It’s democracy with your voice, and your moxie. And it’s coming soon.” The first try-out question is “Should we have more veggie options at lunch?” In no time the demoxie result appears: “75% of respondents want more veggie options. More veggie options will be provided.” The company’s founders are excited, they want more of these direct votations and promise to implement the majority ‘moxie’ within a day. Demoxie would be the best shot at ‘pure’, direct democracy the world ever had.

Is this unreal ‘science-fiction’, completely detached from our world? I don’t think so. Like everything in The Circle, demoxie is a radical extrapolation of developments already visible. It’s actually quite close to what the Five Star Movement, one of Italy’s biggest parties nowadays, envision. It’s very close to what pirate parties around the world call ‘liquid feedback’ – heeding the voice of constituencies on a permanent basis, feeding it back directly to political processes at hand. It’s an extrapolation of consumer polls, internet surveys, facebook counts, and the like, now with the promise of swift take-up, and response rates that can hardly be ignored.

I see ‘demoxie’ as a radicalized version of what I call, less poetically, ‘voter democracy’. I tried to give it due attention in my book ‘Vital Democracy’, but quite honestly it needs much more. Democratic theory is traditionally focused on the distinction between Westminster (indirectly-aggregative) and consensus (indirectly-integrative) democracy. More recently the attention has been extended to communicative and deliberative democracy of the directly-integrative type. Surely, these are routes to re-connection and engagement, and we should continue to study them. However, we should also realize that these routes are followed more often in theory than in practice. Democratic theorists are intrigued by experiments with mini-publics, deliberation days, and the like, but the wider public quite often just prefers to quickly vote, and see their votes aggregated directly and efficiently.

There is not only a popular pull in this direction, but also a strong technological push, which are two reasons to take this other, directly-aggregative, route to re-connection and engagement more seriously than we do. Because whether we like it or not as democratic theorists, it is here to stay and it is bound to grow.

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Frank Hendriks is full professor and research director at the Tilburg School of Politics and Public Administration, and co-director of the Demos-Center for Better Governance and Citizenship at Tilburg University. His current research is focused on the design and quality of democratic governance – on political leadership and active citizenship, on public decision-making and participation, on reform and innovation in democratic institutions – at the level of the city and the state at large. Frank is also a Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute in the Hague and Visiting Fellow at St Edmunds College, Cambridge University.

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