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Thursday, June 16, 2011

DirDem comes to Europe - Time for technology-enabled Democracy 2.0

As luck would have it I arrived in Madrid on June 12,
the very  last day of this two-month-old grassroots
movement occupation of the Puerta del Sol square.
But as the sign says, "we are not going away,
we are moving to your conscience." 
While in Madrid on business, I took the opportunity that I was staying downtown to visit the nearby Puerta del Sol camping ground of the Indignados  or "Outraged Citizens." These are the protesters who have taken over the Spanish capital's main square and, just like the Cairenes did in Tahrir Square earlier this year, the Madrilians are making themselves heard, rejecting a political-cum-economic system which has left the youth with a staggering unemployment rate of 45%. Most analysts forecast that it will take Spain a decade to get back to where it was prior to the crisis.

What a far cry from the three years when I lived in Madrid in the mid-1990's when the square, the heart and pulse of the city, was mainly congregated on for festive occasions such as New Year's Eve, to gulp down as many grapes as you could while the clock would chime the twelve strokes of midnight. The clock is attached to the building which houses the Madrid regional government whose president,  Esperanza Aguirre, clearly irritated at these noisy neighbors, said on TV, " If people aren't happy with the current political parties, they should constitute themselves into a new party and run for office at the next election." Sounds reasonable except that Ms. Aguirre, who belongs to the Conservative People's Party, is just not getting it

The issue issue is not whether it's party A or B which is in power, or a third party, it's the whole political system which is being challenged by citizens who realize that the old system might have had its use in the past but clearly it is now broke as it can't deliver the goods and therefore needs to be jettisoned. The same message is being broadcast every evening on Bastille Square, down the street from where I live in Paris, by fellow protesters who use the same slogan: "Real Democracy Now."  The financial meltdown and its aftermath of debt-related and construction boom-to-bust crises have brought home the realization that the political system is no longer here to serve the interests of the majority but those of a well-off minority (the bankers who creates the mess and demanded that average taxpayers bail them out) and a privileged group of self-serving politicians. (You can read a post I wrote a few months ago on what the debt crisis really means.)

A placard held by a woman protester in the Puerta del Sol encapsulates people's outrage: Crisis? Robos! (Crisis? Theft!) it loudly claims. How come that jails are full of people whose crime is "just" to have pushed or consumed drugs when those who are responsible for sending millions into unemployment, emptying the retirement nest eggs of millions more and almost destroyed the livelihood of entire countries, how come that those bankers and their regulators are still allowed to walk around free? How come that while millions are still hurting, losing their homes and seeing their living standards plummet, that banks are reaping billions in profits and awarding their executives indecently fat bonuses? How come that the political class, supposedly voted into office by citizens to represent them, perpetuates itself in power and does nothing to alleviate the majority's suffering while clinging to its privileges and that of its sponsors, mainly in the financial industry? 

How else can you explain that billions of dollars' in taxpayers' money were handed over to the banks when they made losses, but their profits are still being kept by the few? Citizens' sense of outrage with the public losses/private profits arrangement is understandable. It reminds me of the pre-revolutionary situation in France when over 95% of the wealth was in the hands of less than 5% of the population (the aristocracy and the clergy) and yet they were exempt from paying taxes, a "privilege" reserved to the poor. Small wonder that when the economic crisis became more acute people rose up and overthrew the old political system. Small wonder that two hundred years on, their descendants are going back to where it all began in July 1789 and protesting at a similar situation: privileges for the few and hardships for the many.

The reason the political system has become so dysfunctional is that it is based on representative democracy (or RepDem, for short) invented in the 18th century. While there is little doubt that it has served the West well for two centuries, it is no longer fit for the 21st century.  Much of the gridlock in the US political system can be ascribed  to the Americans' absurd adherence to the principles edicted in the Constitution by aristocratic gentlemen farmers wearing breeches and wigs. Direct Democracy (DirDem for short) was not practical when England, France, and even more so the United States, were large countries with big populations scattered all over the land. How could you summon all of your country's voters in your capital to vote on a  policy or a leader? So we had to settle for a proxy: smaller and more manageable constituencies would vote for a congressman/Member of Parliament/deputy and send him (then there was no "her") to the capital (Washington, London, Paris) to represent our interests. Except that two centuries on, as the current crisis shows all too clearly, that "representative" represents other interests and when those conflict with the voters' it is clear to all whose interests prevail.

Look at Obama, about to become a brilliant failure. He is a politician who came to power through a grass-roots movement. On Inauguration Day he announced (and signed) the closing of Guantanamo Bay camp, a blot on America's conscience, where hundreds of men have been kept in jail for a decade without any due process of law, no trial, let alone any conviction, a complete violation of the lofty principles those bewigged 18th-century gentlemen bequeathed to the nation. Also, Obama supporters expected tougher regulation and sanctions on those who, through their greed, fraud and incompetence, provoked the crisis. On the foreign-policy front, Obama promised a new dawn for the Middle East by promoting democracy and putting pressure on Israel to pull out from occupied Palestinian lands.

And what did we get? Zilch. Guantanamo is still shamefully open for its ghastly business; the Middle East peace process has resulted in neither peace nor a meaningful process, Obama caves in to the pro-Israeli lobby; Bahrain has instituted a reign of terror against its Shiite majority to America's silent acquiescence; and as for bringing the bankers to account for their (mis)deeds and reforming the system that produced the crisis from which the US is still reeling, two words summarize the situation: full impunity. In case you think I am exaggerating just read this report on the financial crisis by nobody else than the U.S. Senate or the one published by Stanford University. Both show unequivocally that the financial crisis was largely criminal and yet  none of the perpetrators has been made to pay for their crimes. Could it be that after the "military-industrial complex" of Eisenhower's days we have now entered the age of the "political-financial complex"?

Today outrage spread to the cradle of Western democracy with thousands of Greeks battling police in Athens while protesting against those who put them in that situation: the rent-seeking and maximizing elite. The Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou's offer to form a national unity government with the Conservative opposition is not going to change much since it is exactly the same situation I alluded to earlier: Party A or Party B will not change anything. They have both been in power and turned a blind eye, when they didn't actively encourage, the behavior that led to the current mayhem. In Barcelona, Spain's second city, what Gore Vidal would call the ruling class has resorted to tactics which we associate more with the Arab dictatorships in Libya and Syria than a  Western pseudo-democracy: planting plainclothes police as violent elements in an otherwise peaceful demonstration of the Outraged Citizens, in order to sabotage and delegitimize the movement. You can watch the video on YouTube (comments in Catalan.)

So, enough of describing the disease which we are all aware of. What can be done? The RepDem political system has shown its limitations and is increasingly losing its legitimacy as people lose faith in it. Citizens are no longer willing to elect a politician and then give them carte blanche for four or five years since that will just entrench them and their moneyed sponsors. What is needed is to move to a DirDem system.

If, as I said earlier, in the 18th century it already was not feasible to gather all voters in one place, in the 21st century it is even less so. But is it?  Maybe physically, but what about virtually? Technology, which has become so pervasive through every nook and cranny of society, can help bring people together in ways unthought of before ― in many countries now you can fill your income-tax return, and pay your taxes, online. If internet is good enough for my taxes, why can't it be used to get my opinion as a citizen and my vote? Why can't I vote directly on proposed laws? a privilege hitherto reserved for an elite that has done such a dreadful job of it. Any citizen should be able to suggest an initiative or law through a Facebook-like tool where its pros and cons could be discussed by the electorate at large (your user name would be your unique national identifier such as Social Security number, with maybe some biometric identification to prevent voters from selling their votes.) Such discussion of the proposed laws through comments would enlighten and enrich the political process and at the end of this debating process (akin to a political campaign) all interested voters could cast their vote online and, if a majority supports the initiative it becomes law. No more need for parliament or congress, half of which (the upper chambers) were completely useless anyway as they just served to provide cushy jobs for the well-heeled (case of the Senates in many countries such as France and Spain; in the case of the British House of Lords it is just indefensible that almost 100 members of this body are there just because they inherited the seat from some distant ancestor.) As for the other half (for example, the Chamber of Deputies in France) they often tend to just rubber-stamp whatever decisions the executive branch has decided on.

With technology we can get rid of the political middleman who served only his interests or powerful interest groups and lobbies, rarely the average citizen. This disintermediation process which has radically changed many businesses (brick-and-mortal travel agencies and  bookstores are on their way out as people buy directly from producers such as publishers and airlines) can be applied to politics as well. With the legislative branch technologized out of existence and the people finally regaining what has been until now a nominal sovereignty, we can shift our attention to another class of politicians: those in the executive branch of government, whose function will be maintained since somebody will have to implement laws and administer policies.

Bringing executive-branch politicians to heel is even more important since elected parliaments have anyway always be supine and deferring to the unelected administration of the day. One typical example in this pseudo-democracy that France is  can be seen through the use of décrets d'application whereby a law, although voted on by the people's "representatives," cannot be enforced until the government has decreed so. As an HR person I have always been shocked that the law voted on by the elected French Parliament in 2006 on anonymous CV's is still not enforceable (and therefore not adopted by companies) because the unelected government has yet to give it its stamp of approval And you call this a democracy?

The same technology used to bypass lawmakers can be used to keep executive-branch politicians and officials in check. For one thing, not only presidents and prime ministers  (I'd call them "Chief Executive") could be elected directly online but also any citizen would be free to run for office (with, of course, some conditions such as the number of certified friends they would have on Facebook to make the process manageable.) Why should politics be reserved to professional politicians? I don't remember who said that "the business of politics should be everybody's business" but they were damn right, and a public social media allows just that. For efficiency reasons, the members of a cabinet or administration would still be chosen by the Chief Executive but confirmed by the people (the way the US Senate confirms ambassadors and other officials) after hopefully vigorous online hearings. This should help weed out incompetence, nepotism and dishonesty, because, and this would be a marked departure with RepDem practice, at any moment citizens would be able to recall any official, starting from the Chief Executive down. That carte blanche given for several years to politicians to do as they please would thus be a thing of the past.

By the same token, every policy (war, taxes, budget etc.) will start with an online discussion and end with a formal vote where citizens sign off on it ― or not! By the way, if you think this is a novel approach, a little historical perspective is in order. In Republican Rome, during Cicero's time, decisions by the Senate were then read out on the Field of Mars to gathered citizens who would then vote them up or down. If it worked for ancient Romans, why can't it work for us int he 21st century?

Debating society's ills in central Madrid.
I was impressed at how peaceful,
well-organized and disciplined
the protesters were

Finally, technology is only an enabler as I have discussed in so many of my posts, articles, presentations and speaking engagements (mainly in the business arena.) There are also other cultural symbolic measures that can be taken to keep politicians and public officials on their toes and remind them that they are supposed to serve the people, and not the other way round. To go back to ancient Rome, when a general was granted a triumph after a big victory, he would parade through Rome in full glory but there was a slave standing next to him and whispering repeatedly in his ear, "Remember you are mortal." Our politicians need a similar type of reminder: You are here to serve the people. 

I have always been flabbergasted by the total lack of accountability of politicians in our pseudo-democracies. When  you give instructions to your cleaning lady, you can pretty much expect her to carry them out as well as show some respect to you. Same thing with your employees at work. Why? For a simple reason: you are the one who have hired them, you are the one describing their duties, paying them a salary and if you are not happy with them you can always fire them. That's why you usually tend to get from them what you need. But not with politicians. You are the one hiring them, because you vote them into office; you give them their job description, by choosing their political program over their adversaries' (I almost wrote partners in crime); you pay their salaries through your taxes; and you can fire them when you vote them out of office. And yet politicians behave as if they were the boss and you the employee, or the servant.

I would therefore suggest some symbolic changes to remind politicians who the real boss is and that the word public servant should mean what it means. One way would be to have direct access to them ―say, one day a week. Every public official from the Chief Executive down to a small-town mayor, should set aside a day a week where any citizen can come and talk to them. Since obviously it would not be feasible to see all citizens, the lucky visitors could be selected on a first-come, first-served basis or, after signing up online, be selected at random. Then, during the meeting, the citizen could ask any question they want, have access to any document (why did you pick this supplier? what was this expense for?)  and film with their smartphone the whole proceedings to be posted then on YouTube for the whole electorate to view, post comments on and, if they feel like it, initiate a recall procedure.

I can already see my detractors shouting down my proposals on the grounds that they would lead to chaos, demagoguery and populism. If you ask people whether they want their taxes raised, you can be sure they would vote it down. Ask them if they want welfare spending to be raised and you can expect them to click yes enthusiastically. How could you then ever be able to balance a budget? True, DirDem could lead to some messy outcome, but then many governments have been running deficits for years (the French government has NOT presented a balanced budget for over 30 years!) DirDem can't be worse. And then, I am pretty sure that most people would rather live with a mess of their own than one imposed on them by self-serving politicians and greedy bankers.

Other critics might point out that in Europe many legislative and executive functions have moved one level up to the European Union institutions. My proposals are even more valid since most people, not less national politicians (who see the mote in somebody else's eye) have always decried "Europe's" democratic deficit. For issues that are a country's responsibilities (for instance taxes or labor relations) only national voters would participate in the Facebook-like voting system. For issues that are dealt with at European level (including the appointment of European commissioners) all European voters would participate. And as for the European Parliament it will join the national ones in the graveyard of history.

This is the longest blog post I have ever written, and I doubt I will soon be able to match its length. But then the stakes described here are higher than any other I have tackled in my one-year-old blog. My sincerest hope is that it would generate a lot of positive debate to fix what has become an untenable system. I still have confidence in my fellow humans and believe that many of my ideas make sense and, if implemented, could solve many of the current issues in our 21st-century polity.

What do you think?


  1. I liked what you wrote, but your DirDem system doesn`t takes in account a very common and human attitude: APATHY ! If voting is not mandatory, half the people don`t show up to vote. If soccer game or a nice sunny morning happens, the best issue can be lost. Renember Gabeira in Rio ?

  2. Voter apathy or stupidity will always exist so no system you and I devise will fix it. Just as in RepDem some voters don't bother to vote, when DirDem is the norm I can't see how it can change that. Mandatory voting? I am against it as I firmly believe that voting is a RIGHT and not an OBLIGATION: if people want to get involved in deciding society's issues, fine - if they don't, well it's their privilege, too.

    At least with DirDem (or Democracy 2.0 as I also like to call it) citizens won't be able to hide behind their representatives ("they didn't do what we voted them for.") If they are not happy with policies or public officials, they will only have themselves to blame. If only for that, DirDem is worth the try.

  3. Salam,

    Ahmed you write so carefully and eloquently. It is so difficult to come across such well-edited and beautifully composed articles on the blogosphere. I applaud your fastidiousness.

    However, I do disagree with you over this issue. You extolled the virtues of direct democracy. Your reason for these were the failure of Rep Dem due to it's association with big money and lack of "actual" representation. But do you know that California is one of the few places which allows for Direct Democracy and results have been quite disturbing if not downright disastrous. I recently came across an article which sought to highlight some major failures of the California model. I have included the link here for your perusal.


    Need I also remind you of the Mosque building ban in Switzerland and how the Dir Dem vote was hijacked by far-right special interest groups by painting an overtly negative image of Islam.

    I am not disagreeing with your fairly objective assessment of Dir Dem but merely highlighting some of inherent weakness in leaving decision making to the whims and fancies of the electorate.


  4. Dear Ahmed,

    You are right, and it is so pleasant to read things that are so in line with one's thinking! Would there be more people thinking that way.
    The only issue for me is the extensive use of social networks. I do recognise that it was thanks to such networks that people on the streets have been able to organise themselves against the ruling elite. But I left facebook some months ago after wondering what the point of it was for years. I especially deplored the contacts by people from the past interested not in you, but in increasing their friend count; the constant attempts of many to get you to subscribe to some useless app, and I frankly found it disturbing how many people used facebook to communicate triviliaties about themselves of no evident interest to others.
    And I cannot help myself seeing the rapid rise of social networks or of other nonsense networks like twitter [which has led anyone and especially nobodies who think they are somebodies, provide their commentary on everything and nothing, as if people frankly cared!] as somehow more of a threat, rather than a means to improve, the freedom of the individual. And progressively more and more online media seem to allow only people with social network accounts post replies to articles or blogs, which is worrisome.
    I'm sorry if I am detracting from the main subject though, but wanted to leave these thoughts to you.
    I have signed as anonymous

    1. Dear Phebius,

      I agree with you wholeheartedly, most social networks are of little intrinsic value, just a way for bored people to waste their time. In the past, bored people used to hang out in public squares (in sunny countries) or in bars (in chilly climes). Now, they are on Facebook, Twitter etc. Of course, like every thing else, some good things occasionally come out of largely useless outfits (for example, Arab youths organizing via FB to overthrow old regimes.)

      But, don't worry, help is on its way. I am working on just such a citizen's network to allow citizens to express themselves freely, vote on their leaders and organize around issues they care about.

      Don't hesitate to contact me for more info.