Who Will Shape 21st-Century Politics?
The political events of 2016, from Brexit to Trump, left many without an explanatory narrative, blindsided by actors and interests beyond their control. Panicked explanations ran the gamut from geopolitical conspiracy to the mass-diagnosis of the psyches of “deplorables.” Many looked to external causes for these events, citing the authoritarian personalities of those who had voted; the post-truth, “fake news” world of those without media literacy; the ingrained sexism of those unwilling to check their implicit or explicit biases; and the triviality of citizenship in a culture of celebrity and audience democracy. Each explanation might speak to a truth about our world, but common to them all is an insistent, defensive focus on the behavior of others rather than one’s own actions.
The truth is that the structural cracks in our representative democracies have long sprung from the inside. Caught in short-term news cycles, we tell stories that explain the most recent polls rather than looking for longer-term forces. We began 2017 with the Edelman Trust Barometer showing declines in trust across all institutions of business, media, government, and NGOs. But who was there to remind us that already a decade earlier, in 2007, both Gallup and the General Social Survey showed that public trust in nearly every single major institution was at or near an all-time low? With symptoms like these brewing for over a decade, how many of us took the time to make sense of them, to identify the underlying causes, and to imagine alternative political futures?
Instead, we doubled down and rebranded hope for another campaign cycle. We glossed over the frustrations of a political system that many felt no longer represented their interests, one that had severed the feedback mechanisms between the governed and the governing. With this technocratic mode of governing, politics was replaced by a narrow band of policy solutions. We nudged the machine slightly to the left in favor of equality, slightly to the right in favor of liberty, but we never questioned the premise that creating change was just a matter of tweaking the existing system. In the end, we constricted our values by defining them only within the context of acceptable policy solutions, rather than changing our policies to fit our evolving values; in the process, we lost our collective imaginations.
What recaptured it last year was the dark mirror image of technocracy: populism. Some saw it as a useful corrective for a gridlocked political system. Putting aside the actual content of populist claims, it can be hard not to be seduced by how effectively the form reset the playing field, acting as a seemingly anti-fragile force that gained strength with every faux pas the status quo deemed impossible to recover from. But, as Jan-Werner Müller – a professor of politics at Princeton – explored in his 2016 book on the subject, populism poses a serious threat to anyone invested in democracy. Just like technocracy, it removes pluralism from politics, but through a different approach. Instead of seeing policy as the only measure of legitimacy, populism claims “the people” as the only arbiter of value, outside of which there is nothing and no one. For Müller, populism’s anti-elitist claims create a people without difference, whose interests are totally and exclusively represented by the populist. Anyone who criticizes or disagrees is simply not part of the people.
We are against this future.
Here, we illustrate some emerging alternatives that don’t sit solely on the poles of technocracy versus populism; they run across the political spectrum. We use them to ask three fundamental questions that often get left out of policy- or populist-oriented discussions: Who has a voice? Who governs? And finally, who gets a share?
Who Has a Voice? Liquid Democracy vs. Epistocracy
Liquid democracy is a system of democracy where members of the electorate have the choice to delegate their voting power in flexible ways. If voters choose an approach where they vote on every issue, it could resemble a direct democracy. On the other hand, it could also resemble a representative democracy, where voters delegate their vote to someone else.
With this type of system, delegation can be around one issue or many issues; voting power can be delegated or revoked at any time. Many feel that the proliferation of mobile phones that allow real-time civic engagement has made a liquid democracy model a viable political option in certain countries. Argentina’s Net Party, for instance, has developed a mobile application, DemocracyOS, to run on a liquid-democracy-based mandate.
Epistocracy is a political system in which only the well-informed may vote. This has long been an undercurrent in American politics, and in the aftermath of recent events, some establishment figures have called for stronger checks and balances against the capriciousness of the electorate. Last year, James Traub – contributing editor for Foreign Policy – published an article titled “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses.” Traub argues that taking such a stand is necessary in order to save democracy from itself.
Meanwhile, libertarian economist Jason Brennan’s book, Against Democracy, argues that many voters don’t have the competence necessary for proper decision making. Instead, he believes that passing some form of test that assesses basic political knowledge should be required for those wishing to vote. This minimum threshold would supposedly ensure a more rational, deliberate sphere of politics.
Who Governs? Crypto-Anarchists vs. Neo-Reactionaries
Neo-reactionaries are united in their opposition to democratic politics. They reject the view that the arc of history bends toward liberal democracy and its view of progress, which they see as a contemporary religion upheld by “The Cathedral”: a set of Ivy-educated individuals, media culture, and civil servants who indoctrinate citizens with their egalitarian worldview. Instead, neo-reactionaries see freedom and democracy as being incompatible, with their attempted combination creating destructive feedback loops of fleeting and selfish demands. Instead of seeking a voice in the current system, they advocate the design of political systems that give citizens the option to leave and join another state with different values. The result of such systems would be a network of charter cities, with individuals free to choose cities amenable to their way of living but not free to voice their opinions on those cities.
Crypto-anarchists believe in a form of anarchism enabled through cryptography. Cryptographic methods can effectively make communications secure and anonymous, which allows crypto-anarchists to evade prosecution and harassment. Crypto-anarchists have a diminished trust in institutions and use cryptography to circumvent perceived censorship, as well as state-sponsored and corporate surveillance. They also believe in building counter-economies. Through crypto- graphically secure social media, knowledge bases, alternate currencies, banking systems, and marketplaces, crypto-anarchists can exist outside the purview of our current political and legal framework.
Who Gets a Share? Surveillance Capitalism vs. Platform Cooperativism
Surveillance capitalism, a term coined by Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, is a mode of creating and extracting value from people through the surveillance and modification of their behavior. It harnesses the immense amount of data created through our use of digital tools in order to profile us and develop behavior-modification techniques based on that information. For Zuboff, surveillance capitalism sits on par with the scale of transformations wrought by the mass production of the last century, and it is poised to similarly transform commercial practices across industries. But unlike an economy of mass-produced goods, it operates below the threshold of our conscious perception – subtly transforming the ways we behave and make decisions while funneling much of the profit upward. In its more radical forms, it appears as a high-tech version of feudalism, in which neither goods nor data are owned by those who use them.
Platform cooperativism is a movement to create a new ownership model for digital companies. Rather than centralized platforms headquartered far from where they operate, this model advocates for local, worker-owner cooperatives and true peer-to-peer platforms. It sees the sharing economy as a set of logistics services, each of which takes a cut whenever you rent your car, your apartment, your time to others, or any other service. Fundamental to platform cooperativism is the idea that those who create value for companies should also have a stake in them. Its proponents suggest that it can be enabled by protocol-based forms of cooperativism, such as the use of blockchain to support shared ownership models. Trebor Scholz of The New School, who introduced the term, admits that many objections to the concept can be raised; however, he suggests critiquing the concept should spur us to look critically at the values embedded in our digital economy.