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The Future of Democracy
European Straits #100
Last week I wrote about the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement and . This week, the political conversation in France has turned into a debate on democracy and citizens’ participation in the government’s process—all the more interesting because democracy has been in a state of crisis for several years now. Is democracy here to stay? And if yes, how will it evolve?
Thoughts on democracy
Democracy as we know it is a fairly recent invention. As I explained in a recent op-ed in Le Monde (paywall, and in French), modern democracy was born in the wake of a discussion dating back to the seventeenth century. In A Grammar of the Multitude (MIT Press, 2004), Italian philosopher Paolo Virno recalls the debate that took place back then between two understandings of individuals within the city. On one side was Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who thought that individuals should renounce their singularity and participate in politics only as the people, “a kind of unit possessing a single will”. On the other side was Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), for whom individuals formed a multitude, “a plurality that continues to exist as such on the public stage”.
The Hobbesian version clearly won and inspired how democracy was designed in the subsequent period. At the heart of democratic progress throughout the Western world was the idea that citizens should only contribute to politics in their guise as a people, a rather homogeneous political body.
For a long time, that homogeneity was ensured by imposing various limitations to voting rights. At first, only those with significant wealth could vote, as Western countries first reserved the right to vote to individuals owning property. Enfranchisement then became the central aim of liberal organizations such as the Chartist movement and the Whigs in the UK. Their opponents, the Tories, resisted as long as they could because they (rightfully) feared that if working people had the right to vote, then they would form a majority and support expropriating the wealthy from their estates. (Later this defiance would lead the German aristocracy to support the anti-democratic Nazis, whom they saw as a counterbalance to socialism’s growing influence on the German electorate.)
The idea of giving women the right to vote then encountered the same kind of reluctance. Many opposed it because they thought that greater diversity in the electorate would make it impossible for democracy to function. The arguments against women voting in France are infamous: the right thought that women would be keen to support socialist ideas, whereas the left dreaded women thinking they were under the influence of the Catholic Church. Both preferred for democracy to rely on the supposedly more homogeneous body of male voters—until 1944, when things changed, at long last.
Even when the right to vote became universal, in practice the homogeneity of the electorate was ensured by two traits directly inspired by the economy of the time. First, like the great Fordist corporations that dominated the 20th century, our democracies were structured into a pyramid. The practice of citizenship was, in many ways, Taylorized. We invited individuals to line up and exercise their right to vote in a standardized, regular fashion: just slip your ballot into the box once every four or five years.
Second, the media of the age of mass production contributed to solidifying this Hobbesian vision of the unity of the people. in sectors such as the press, radio and television that a few major organizations were able to divide the market for information amongst themselves. Speaking to the majority both as a matter of principle and economic interest, mass media gave us a consensus view of the world, reinforcing the apparent unity of the people.
Today I think it’s obvious why the shift to the Entrepreneurial Age makes it hard to keep democracy as is. Digital technology allows individuals to affirm their differences, all while connecting with others and creating a network. As such, the Hobbesian viewpoint is more and more out-of-step with life in our society. Now it’s Spinoza’s multitude that is imposing its will—and its plurality—on organizations.
Tech companies have long understood this change. They’ve learned to capture the strength of individuals, seeing them not as a mass but as a multitude. Likewise the politicians that are winning elections are those who realize that they need to address citizens as a multitude. (And yes, the democratic process can now be hacked by foreign powers who’ve realized that democratic institutions were ill-fitted to govern Hobbes’s people once it turned into Spinoza’s multitude.)
For me, the ‘Yellow Vests’ movement is only the latest demonstration of democracy going through this paradigm change. If the French government and the demonstrators have such a hard time interacting with each other, it’s because they live in two completely separate worlds and follow completely different rules of engagement. The government is still trapped in institutions designed to govern the people, while the ‘Yellow Vests’ organize themselves into networks and form a multitude.
As a result there’s now a lot of talk around the idea of citizens contributing more to government. But I don’t think that the answer lies in implementing California-like direct democracy. First, California is already here to prove that it can end up in disaster. Above all, I think such a reform misses the mark. If it’s about a paradigm change, then the goal shouldn’t simply be to invite citizens to contribute more directly to government as we know it. Rather, it should be about changing what government is about and how it should transform itself to account for individuals acting as a multitude.
Here’s just one example: I think that in today’s world, every civil servant should have a Twitter account and be assessed on their ability to use it in an official capacity—not by publishing press releases dictated from the top, but by genuinely sharing about what they do everyday, building relationships with ordinary citizens, and becoming more sensitive to them as a multitude. That relationship would be a very effective way for citizens to contribute to government: not by voting every once in a while but by casually interacting with those who do the actual work at every level of government.
Apologies for the lengthy essay, but we’re getting close to the Christmas period, so hopefully you’ll have more time to read. I also thought it was important to cover this important topic to mark the hundredth issue of this newsletter—and I’ve decided to put numbers on them from now on 😘.
Highlights of the week
As we’re approaching the holidays, there’s not much to note later this week. I’m flying back from Nantes (Western France), where my colleague Zineb Mekouar and I had various talks and meetings with local officials, including Mayor Johanna Rolland, one of the rising young stars who have emerged on the French political scene in recent years. See the picture here!
I also wanted to attract your attention to two complementary writings related to the German startup scene:
One is this enlightening article by my colleague Hugo Amsellem, who manages our operations in Berlin, in which he explains that Berlin is rather over-hyped as a major startup hub: 3 Myths from the Berlin Tech Ecosystem.
The other is a Twitter thread by Jack Owen, who manages EF in Germany, discussing talent fragmentation and density in decentralized Germany: THREAD.
Also, we’ve lowered the price of my book Hedge until the end of the year, thinking that people would be interested in buying it as a Christmas present. So don’t wait! Get it from the relevant Amazon website depending on where you are: 🇺🇸US, 🇬🇧UK, 🇫🇷FR, 🇩🇪DE, 🇮🇹IT, 🇪🇸ES.
Further readings on technology & democracy
New Clues (Doc Searls & David Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto, January 2015)
The Refragmentation (Paul Graham, Essays, January 2016)
Hillary’s Problem, Explained by Technology (me, The Family Papers, July 2016)
How Libertarian Democracy Skepticism Infected the American Right (Will Wilkinson, Niskanen Center, November 2017)
The surprising way the Chinese Communist Party keeps power (Peter Hartcher, The Sydney Morning Herald, November 2017)
How democracies die, explained (Ezra Klein, Vox, February 2018)
(me, May 2018)
Experiments in Alternate Democracies (Azeem Azhar & Anab Jain, Exponential View, July 2018)
Is technological change a threat to democracy? (Matt Clifford, Thoughts in between, September 2018)
The Suffocation of Democracy (Christopher R. Browning, The New York Review of Books, October 2018)
Warm regards (from Nantes, France),