Cyberparty: Popular Politics in Digital Times

A conference at Kings last Friday had something of the excitement, the sense of destiny, that delegates must have felt at the early socialist meetings (perhaps the Second International meeting in London in 1896, held not so far away from Kings).

Here was an international group of people making new things happen in politics, people with vision and ideals and a sense that they had found the scientific key to bring about real change.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir of the Iceland Pirate Party; Sofia de Roa from Podemos; Davide Barillari of the Five Star Movement in Italy: all now elected representatives on governing bodies, but all had been political nonentities a few years ago, and all owed their sudden preferment to new political technologies and structures.

Even in the UK, Aaron Bastani the founder of Novara Media described successful interventions in student politics, such as the 2010 occupation of UCL.

Observers from the front line included Arnau Monterde from Catalunya, who spoke about Decidim, the on-line self-government project in Barcelona, and Francisco Jurado who described the excitement of the 15-M movement, in which some 200 small associations came together, starting in May 2011, and up to 8.5 million Spaniards participated.

Academics such as Andrew Chadwick and Marco Deseriis analysed the background to these successes, and identified the techniques that have won them.

There was much talk about ‘the Movement’, although in fact these parties are not always as similar as they seem.

There was the same undercurrent of suspicion as in 1896 about the intentions of government and big business, but for Okhrana then read NSA now.

Chadwick drew attention to the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and the use of similar techniques in their campaigns. Other campaign managers have used a “top down, analytics driven, inauthentic and disempowering model”. Both Sanders and Corbyn have appealed to a wider (and younger) group of voters, disillusioned with traditional politicians. They have used new methods to do this. The same can also be said of Donald Trump, who appears to have succeeded in a takeover of a factionalised Republican Party, again by using a social media campaign and by reaching out to new voters who are disilluaioned with the existing options.

These changes are not just about technologies, using social media to organise and so on. (You might as well argue that, because in 1889, a “Progressive” party composed of Fabians and British Liberals took control of London County Council at the first elections held there, and Europe’s first telephone exchange was opened in London in 1878, that the Labour Party was a ‘telephone party’.)

The inspiration is really the free software movement, and the methods it has developed for consultation and change by consensus. The technology simply makes these methods easier to achieve. For example, Davide Barillari spoke about software to make collective law writing possible. Arnau Monterde showed usage statistics for Decidim: 23,695 users, 10,875 proposals made, 18,619 comments, 428 meetings with 10,428 participants and 165,121 votes on proposal. There is a sense that the ‘old’ methods of politics are in themselves the problem: as Birgitte Jonsdottir put it, why do we have to do politics through a party? As long as we don’t change the fundamental system, nothing is going to change. The system is rotten, so as soon as you enter it you are rotten too. We should move power to the people in a legal constitutional pattern.

In part these events are due to local problems: austerity in Spain, Italy and Greece, loss of trust in politicians everywhere. The change has indeed been dramatic. The Icelandic Pirate Party claims 35-40% popular support (but only 3 MPs out of 63). Podemos won 69 seats out of 250 in the December 015 general election in Spain. (No-one has been able to form a stable government and at the time of writing another election has been called for next month.) The Five Star Movement has 54 seats out of 315 in the Italian Senate.

Given established electoral patterns, like ‘first past the post’, it’s notoriously difficult for small parties to get beyond this sort of percentage and form governments. (For example UKIP, in the 2014 UK general elections, won 12.6% of votes and was the third largest party on vote share, yet won only one seat in the House of Commons.)

There are several points where I don’t share the enthusiasm.

Firstly, listening to Birgitte Jonsdottir, I was reminded of a speech by Hitler. (I’m not comparing her to Hitler at all. She seemed to me very idealistic and sensible. But she said the same things about parties.) Hitler talked of 30 political parties bickering, when Germany really needed economic revival, and dedicated himself to getting rid of the parties. (He got rid of them much more directly and violently than anyone at Kings on Friday would have advocated, of course.) Last Friday, there was also a shared sense that political parties create artificial divisions in order to maintain the power of a ruling class, and that there would be more connection with teal life if we did away with the party system and followed the ‘will of the people’. (Of course, by ‘the will of the people’ Hitler meant his own will. All I am saying is that the words are sometimes similar.)

Hitler used new technology as well – aircraft (‘Hitler over Germany’) in the 1932 elections, the cinema (the films of Leni Riefenstahl, and radio.

There’s a great risk in appealing to the basic instincts of the people: Hitler’s offers of bread and work appealed to the same instincts as the M-15 slogan ‘non hay pan para tanta chorizo’. (‘Not enough bread to go with so much chorizo’ – where ‘chorizo’ has the double meaning of theft, or corruption.)

As Andrew Chadwick said, the internet is good at the rapid diffusion of simple yet powerful ideas that crystallise support for causes. There’s a difference between this, and getting better democratic participation in complex resource allocation decisions.

Ultimately I think it comes down to whether you believe in the wisdom of the crowd. Does ‘crowd sourcing’ decisions, made so much easier by digital technology lead to better decisions? David Barillari claimed that more connections, more shared information, and the real-time comparison of opinions, would enable governments to find more sustainable solutions, and new collaborations between “local collective intelligence communities” would help to solve the biggest problems. (“…if we connect the people together, we can solve the biggest problems…” : my transcript of his comments.)


Decisions about (say) the best way to run a national health service are not simple, and should not be made without fully understanding the issues. Digital media may of course allow people to have as much information as they need to understand the issues, but I wonder how many people will take the time and trouble to read and ponder this information? Most of us tend to go for the easy option and the snap judgement.

As an example, sentiments in Europe about migration appears to have swayed dramatically on two recent occasions – the first when a photograph of a drowned child was widely published in September 2015, and the second after attacks on women on New Years Day 2016 in Cologne, widely alleged to have been made by migrants.

I suspect that direct democratic decisions about immigration would have varied greatly, depending whether they were made in September 2015 or January 2016.

We are all susceptible to sound-bites, and there are plenty of politicians, pressure groups and lobbyists ready to provide them. It’s much easier to respond to this sort of emotional appeal than to sit down with the statistics and the arguments and come up with a rational set of policies that balance idealism and practicality.

In other words, I think I am saying that the technoparties have a greater faith in human judgement than I do. Switzerland has a very direct democracy with its use of referenda – but it was not until 1971 that the (then all – male) electorate allowed women the vote.

All of which left me with mixed emotions after yesterday. The enthusiasm, the sense of having found the key to using political processes to make the world better rather than to enrich politicians, was infectious. It must have been like that for the delegates to the 1896 conference: they had Marx’s analysis to demonstrate the historical inevitability of change and to provide scientific tactics to bring change about. Yesterday, I had the sense of participating in a historical event, rather than an academic conference.

On the other hand… at least one speaker spoke of the influence on the Movement of the Arab Spring. Wikipedia says of this that “although the long-term effects of the Arab Spring have yet to be shown, its short-term consequences varied greatly across the Middle East and North Africa.” and analyses the Arab Winter which has followed.

However, as Stephen Pinker reminds us, the human condition does slowly improve. We are now a much fairer society than we were in 1896, even though some of the dreams of those days have not come true. Undoubtedly future politics will move towards more direct democracy, and the stranglehold of political parties may change just as the stranglehold of traditional media has already lessened. Hard work, enthusiasm and generous spirits will have some effect, even if not quite in the ways they anticipate. The next few years will be interesting!

One thought on “Cyberparty: Popular Politics in Digital Times

  1. I’ve been trying to find that reference in Hitler’s speeches to the 30 parties in Germany. Instead I found a reference to a speech by Goebbels, in Munich on 31 July 1932:

    “Power doesn’t belong to you [the politicians], it belongs to the people. You are the people’s servants, and when you use power poorly, the people will take it away from you. That has to be made clear to the people when one criticizes the government, and that we have certainly done.
    The government’s parties say that we could join them, we could form a coalition. If we want to squeeze in, they can make room for us.
    That is out of the question! We National Socialists have no desire to sit next to you, we want to get rid of you. You must make way for young Germany.
    The governing parties say that it would be nice if we learned the art of governing. They are for example willing to give us the Welfare Ministry and teach us politics. But education requires two, one who teaches, and one who wants to learn. They say we want total power?! We say “Yes!” They ask if there is to be only one party? We say “Yes!”
    We do not think thirty parties are to Germany’s advantage, but rather its misfortune.The parties are the beneficiaries of our division; they use politics only to preserve their own interests through their control of the government. They have spread the pestilential stench of their coalitions across Germany, and that is why these parties must vanish.
    They have lost their right to exist over the past fourteen years. They were born to help the people, but they have become the people’s greatest enemy. One can say of them what the Englishman Cromwell said as he dissolved Parliament: “The people elected you to eliminate their misery, and you have become their greatest misery. We are therefore putting an end to your chatter. Is their a virtue you still possess or a vice that you do not possess? You came to help the people, but I tell you that you were never a government.”
    Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you, is not Germany today in the same situation?
    Isn’t it necessary to eliminate these parties, and isn’t it time to put an end to their useless activity?”

    full text here:

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