Fishbowl Democracy

Much has already been said and written, some of it beyond weird, about Wikileaks and reactions to it.  I remain uncertain about what to think about the Wikileaks phenomenon, what the implications and lessons might be,  but I am reminded of some work I had come across not long ago and that now seems more prescient and relevant than ever:   John Keane’s depiction of  “monitory democracy”.  In a number of papers and most recently in a huge book published last year, Keane  argues that over the past several decades representative democracy has been transforming itself into something fundamentally different, different enough that it deserves a new name, hence “monitory democracy”.  This infelicitous phrase is intended to capture what is the essence of this new version of democracy –  scrutiny, constant and comprehensive, facilitated by the information revolution and “communicative abundance”, government in a fishbowl.

Says Keane, no longer is democracy expressed primarily by voting as the key moment of citizen involvement and decision.  Voting and political parties defined representative democracy.  Today, the argument goes, voting and political parties are losing their central place.  Far more important to most citizens is the scrutiny of the state between elections.   Keane describes the extraordinary growth of formal and informal oversight that brings our public institutions and their secrets into the sunlight, some of these mechanisms created by governments themselves, others like journalism now playing new roles, and still others springing up anew from civil society and the private sector – and they are many and spreading.   Watching over government is now at the heart of the matter and this is changing politics and public life in ways we only dimly understand.   And, love it or hate it,  this unprecedented scrutiny and transparency are here to stay.

Keane, essentially optimistic about all this, is happy that power is constantly checked and chastised, kept humble.  But he does recognize the risks and the costs. Here, for example, is some of what he has said about the “new journalism”:

Helped along by red-blooded journalism that  relies on styles of  reporting concerned less with veracity than with ‘breaking news’ and blockbusting scoops, communicative abundance cuts like a knife into the power relations of government and civil society. It is easy (as many do) to complain about the methods of the new journalism. It hunts in packs, its eyes on bad news, egged on by the newsroom and bloggers saying that facts must never be allowed to get in the way of stories. Professional and citizens’ journalism loves titillation, draws upon un-attributed sources, fills news holes – in the era of monitory democracy news never sleeps – spins sensations, and concentrates too much on personalities, rather than … contexts. The new journalism is formulaic and gets bored too quickly; and  it likes to bow down  to corporate power and government press briefings, which helps explain why disinformation (about such matters as weapons of mass destruction and excessive leveraging of risks within financial markets) still whizzes around the world with frightening speed and power.

Notwithstanding the limits and risks, institutions and agencies devoted to scrutinizing government abound and continue to multiply.  In his own words again, “Nothing is sacrosanct … Past generations would find the whole process astonishing in its global scale and democratic intensity. With the click of a camera, or the flick of a switch and the tap of a keyboard, the world of the private can suddenly be made public. Everything from the bedroom to the boardroom, the bureaucracy and the battlefield, seems to be up for media grabs.”

And the consequences of this new scrutiny?  Less deference certainly, more humility in government one hopes, more checks on power.  All to the good.  But let’s not believe some of the hype that pretends that transparency and oversight in and of themselves are the answer, a road to true democracy, the solution to what ails us.  And  let us not minimize the risks.

For one thing, the explosion of scrutiny is not in itself “democratic”;  we have not even begun to think of how power differences play on people’s capacity to access and influence “information” and messages – and who holds the unelected scrutineers to democratic account and how?  And how do we manage the noise?  Is more always better? With so many voices in the game and the abundance of accessible information, we are already seeing the devaluing of expertise and knowledge, the discounting of evidence and the scientists who produce it.  Healthy skepticism is one thing – evidence and scientific findings are not certain, once and for all – but rational argument bolstered by the best available information is vital to democracy, one of the key means for constraining raw power.

In the face of all this, it should be no surprise that cynicism and disaffection are on the rise.  Too much information battling with misinformation, too many views, too much noise.  So Canada’s climate change performance was scrutinized and found wanting in Cancun.  How many noticed? Does anybody care?  Who are we to believe?  How do we sort through the abundance of views and news?

This confusion and alienation seems no less true for public officials than for the rest of us according to the unsettling exit interviews of recently departed parliamentarians.  Perhaps most worrying, the room for public officials to do their work is being gobbled up and with it the allure of public service.  Maybe this is exactly what Wikileaks wants.  In any case, it is what we may get.  Imagine trying to do any job when virtually every step, every word, every idea shared is eventually played out in public.  Foolish ideas are available for the world to see, so better to play it safe, say nothing or stick to the conventional wisdom.   Government becomes more and more timid and finally paralysed as decision making is held down “by a thousand Lilliputian strings of scrutiny”.  There is probably some equalising pleasure in seeing the powerful feel the pinch that the powerless have always known but how can we make public life attractive, how can we make it work, if it is all about pinch and not about purpose.

Keane’s  work sheds important light on the new world in which public policy is contested and recent days have added weight to his depiction.  He seems optimistic though he never quite explains why.  He is certainly seized of the risks, the displacement of knowledge by “foolish illusions”, the disengagement of many, especially those who might benefit most from collective action, the attempts of the powerful and wily to control the information, the media  and the message – but he leaves to ” the future” how these factors will get sorted out.

So it is left to us to ask if there is some way to manage down the risks and enhance the benefits?  Are there things we can do that help us realize the benefits of transparency – more humble government, more focus on the common good, greater personal freedom and responsibility – without making government dysfunctional and irrelevant?  The urgency of these questions is why I continue to believe that revitalising our democracy is a “national project” of the highest importance.

The starting point is and must be that more “open government” is desirable.  Indeed, especially with the rise of the  security state, turning 1984 on its head, watching big brother, seems absolutely essential.  In any case, greater transparency is inevitable so we had better learn how to govern within it.  Notwithstanding the inevitable march to transparency, however, our political culture is still one of risk avoidance and secrecy.  Perhaps more than ever, the overwhelming temptation of our leaders seems to be to fight a rearguard action, to exert even more control, more secrecy.   There are many reasons to keep some things secret  – some good, some bad – but in the current culture, secrecy doesn’t need a reason; it is the default position, the safest way.  That has to change.  It doesn’t work.  Those days are done.  If we do not open the windows, somebody will break the glass and that is far more dangerous and damaging.  Only if transparency becomes the norm do we have any hope of protecting those spaces that truly ought to be confidential to protect our security and the safety of others and to serve the public interest.  Today, a Parliamentary Committee that had always done its work in secrecy announced that it was going public for the first time.  Some meetings might still be private if necessary, said the announcement, and that will require learning and discussion over time.  But secrecy will be the exception and will have to be explained.  Maybe that is a sign that the future has arrived.

But again transparency is not the end of the story.  Keane, in his larger work, describes three stages of democracy, the original assembly democracy where the citizens actually could come together and take part directly in decision making, representative democracy where voting is the “magic moment” of democratic engagement, and, over the past few decades, “monitory democracy”.  But of course monitory and representative democracy co-exist and surely part of the solution is to make representation more meaningful, to make voting count, to make representation fair.  Let us take this even further, the new technologies that make transparency inevitable also make new forms of citizen engagement possible.  Perhaps now we can recapture at least to some small extent some of the best aspects of assembly democracy too. The new technologies and social media are not just about surveillance, they are about participation with others.  We would do well to take on board the increasing number of innovations, often at the local level, that seem to close the gap between government and citizen.  The less government is viewed as a foreign thing, the less damaging will be the consequences of scrutiny and transparency.  The more citizens are actively engaged in making decisions, the more  they will have a context for those decisions even when they may disagree. Engaged citizens, participating more, taking greater responsibility,  may want to know what the latest evidence says about how Canada is doing.   Citizen engagement does not have to be only or primarily an expression of distrust.

In the end, the focus on scrutiny as the defining feature of democracy may be based on a too negative view of governing, a view of government as a force for ill or more accurately an irritant or obstacle to our freedom. What is missing here is an appreciation of the collective, of the inseparability of self and other, individual and community, private troubles and public issues.  What is missing is a sense of collective purpose, the grand things we might be trying to achieve together – shared purpose that would put into context all the constant fuss about hospitality and travel and MP’s expenses that are after all not what government is about, shared purpose that would engage citizens beyond their private interests and personal preferences, shared purpose that might even create some reason and room for governments to reinvent themselves.  In the words of David Runciman, “Democracy needs something more than the feeling of irritation that comes with being ruled. It needs a sense of purpose – some kind of kratos that the demos can live with.”

8 Responses to “Fishbowl Democracy”
  1. citizen 5241131 says:

    Hope Obama can handle WL Change?
    We NEED transparency for our global society that we created an cannot control.To many crises.
    We’d never gone to Iraq if we read the cables first? Can gov. cut own flesh and downsize coldwar min. of foreign aff./CIA that cost as much as public health care. Wars ? Environment ? The public and is needed to get involved to let our global society survive.
    How can a few wise leaders alone solve complex global issues pending ?
    If democracy fails, the only solution is More democracy. Know It’s a hard path, but harder for our totalitarian enemies. E-vote(power), not E-commerce(money) that changes our world, stupid!

  2. B York says:

    Another thought provoking piece, Alex. Monitory democracy is an interesting concept. As you say, monitoring alone does not necessarily lead to better governance or more transparency.

    I think people feel empowered by their ability to access more information and scrutinize government action. Citizen journalism is not necessarily more accurate or better researched than mainstream media but it provides an opportunity for direct participation in discussing issues of the day. And no matter what perspective one comes from, there is a jaundiced view of the role the media is playing and general lack of trust of elected leaders and decision-makers.

    But harnessing that curiosity and energy into more participatory democracy is a challenge. Political parties and elected representatives use new media for one-way communication, which usually amounts to campaigning for future votes.

    Another problem with the noise of the internet is that it can serve as a distraction and/or be manipulated. Look over hear, a new shiny object – lets chat and share. Plus it’s often backwards looking, scrutinizing events that have occurred. There are less opportunities to engage in discussion of where we should be heading (leaving aside the whole Tea Party shopping list of “change”).

    • Himelfarb says:

      Thanks Cristina, if I read you right, you are saying that in the end it has to be about purpose, the kind of Canada we want. Yesterday, I was at a talk by Richard Wilkinson (The Spirit Level) who makes a compelling empirical case that equality benefits everyone and that the most successful societies against almost every measure are the most equal societies. He ties this in powerfully to the need for sustainability, and environmental stewardship. He also sees leisure as key to well being. Enhanced equality, sustainability, citizenship and democracy is an agenda I could get behind. If our leaders were talking about these things we would perhaps be less distracted by the rest.

      • B York says:

        Yes, I think you captured the essence of what I was trying to say, Alex.

        Most activism I see is reactive as opposed to pro-active. It’s an unfortunate by-product of lack of transparency and trust in our elected officials. Everyone is trying to stop or redress what they consider poor if not dangerous policy decisions, and there are so many that it’s very hard to work on a shared positive vision.

      • himelfarb says:

        I think that – the reactive character of much of progressive politics – is a very important insight.

  3. Matthew says:

    Nice piece, Alex. It’s uncanny how the structure of your articles seems to mirror my own way of thinking through problems. In this instance I was happy to see that you reached the conclusion that “monitory democracy” is good as along as we simultaneously strengthen the representative and assembly democracies. I still think the representative democracy is most important area of focus here, and electoral reform is #1.

    But electoral reform seems so difficult to achieve. How do you convince those in power to change the system that got them into power? This is especially true with the Conservative government, simply because their electoral strategy relies so much on divide and conquer tactics, which are now reaching a local level of granularity.

    Any of the proposed shifts in our electoral system would necessarily reward election platforms with broader appeal. I think this would benefit the Liberals, who have historically won elections by governing straight up the middle, or wherever the broadest base of support is. But even they seem uninterested in reforming the system.

    I’m also very interested in reforming the municipal system with instant-runoff voting.

    I think that mixing these electoral reforms with proactive open-data (government 2.0) policies could really give our stale democratic institutions a breath of fresh air.

    • himelfarb says:

      Thanks for this Matthew. I am, by the way, gearing up to respond to your last post on the failure of the left to find an issue.

      • Matthew says:

        That’s great! I look forward to it.

        I noticed in your bio today that you were a professor at UNB. I’m actually a UNB alumnus. I’m also a member of the great New Brunswick youth diaspora. (I’m not supposed to like Toronto, but I do. Don’t tell anyone.)

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