This blog post is intended to provocative; I hope it will succeed.
It is prompted by last week’s decision by UK politicians to keep their second home allowance of £24,000. It is on a theme about which I have been ruminating for several months – and will no doubt continue to refine in the future.
That theme is: the increasing redundancy of Parliament, parliamentary process and MPs. Consider this post a first articulation of my argument for a – perhaps naïve – return to participatory democracy and towards an Internet-enabled anarchism.
So to return to my starting point: I heard one MP on BBC Radio 4 explaining his decision to support taxpayer-funded second home allowances tell the interviewer: “Without the allowance I wouldn’t be able to afford to be an MP.”
I choose this as my starting point for two important reasons that have relevance to the argument against Parliament.
Firstly, it is a great example of how wrong MPs are getting the reputational relationship between Parliament and the electorate. As Weber Shandwick’s UK CEO, Colin Byrne, rightly points out: this kind of excuse won’t wash with the electorate and will only draw attention to the fact they appear to be feathering their nest at a time when the rest of the country is battening down its hatches in the face of economy turmoil.
Secondly, the MP’s comment highlights that fact that he sees being an MP as akin to employment. That is, it is something you choose to do that has to earn you a living. This nicely forgets that the true role of an MP is to act as a democratically elected representative to act on the behalf of their constituents. While I totally accept that as part of this process there has to be a financial incentive to encourage people to become MPs, it can be argued that this relationship between democracy and financeial reward has passed into a purely transactional relationship that has rather forgotten the roots of the role.
Both of these points underline the growing – and widely accepted – distrust in Parliament and MPs. If anything this trend continues to grow and grow.
At the same time the internet use continues to increase and with this increase comes a growing empowerment of individuals to think and act for themselves.
The significance of this shift in power from organisations and institutions cannot be under-estimated. Harvard academic, Yochai Benkler, in his book Wealth of Networks argues that the Internet has transferred information production away from centrally organised bodies (commercial or otherwise) and put it in the hands of individuals.
Specifically, Benkler argues that “The declining price of computation, communication and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population.” As a result, “The networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals along three dimensions.” Two of which are particularly relevant to the argument here:
- [the networked information economy] improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves
- it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organise …in traditional hierarchical models of social or economic organisation
To draw specifically political conclusions from Benkler’s arguments, the Internet gives people the opportunity to make more (and better) informed political choices, find others that share their political views and co-ordinate political action that previously would have been the responsibility of political organisations or parties.
In short, the Internet encourages and empowers people to participate in politics and by extension, the democratic process.
All of this is great, of course. But what implications does this growing political self-determination have for democratic engagement and Parliamentary process?
To answer this question, let’s switch to a bit political philosophy. At a very crude level, two kinds of democracy exist: participatory democracy – whereby the public actively take part in the selection and agreement of legislation – and representative democracy – where the electorate select individuals to represent their interests. This is currently in place in the UK and most Western, liberal democracies.
From a hypothetical perspective, participating in the democratic process is the most desirable option. As Jonathan Wolff writes in his Introduction to Political Philosophy:
“Theorists of participatory politics claim that only active, democratic involvement in all matters of concern can achieve freedom and equality for all. Only when we are involved in making decisions which structure our lives in all spheres are we really free”
So why then, do we elect MPs to represent our political interests? This is a particularly pertinent question given MPs tendency to represent a minority of the their direct electorate at any given point in time, to have their representation determined purely by ultimately) arbitrary geographical boundaries and to seem to demand, even expect, unreasonable financial compensation in return for their duty.
The reason is representative democracy has been the best compromise available to those concerned with establishing democratic processes. Truly participatory democracy has simply been too impractical to be considered an option – until now at least.
If we now return to Benkler’s argument and replace “cultural production” with “political prodcutioin” we can recognise that “The declining price of computation, communication and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and political production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population.”
With the participatory web comes the ability of citizens to be empowered, enact political will for themselves and participate in the democratic process. As Internet penetration grows it becomes much more likely for people disenfranchised with the existing political and democratic process – calcified by process-creep and stagnant from institutional corruption – to take political and democratic decisions away from the bureaucratic official channels of parliament and into their own hands.
As this activity gathers pace and shifts from low level, local examples it will begin to challenge the entrenched and inefficient processes of parliament which are already fighting to catch-up with contemporary society.
Smart politicians, civil servants and technocrats will realise this before it is too late and understand that to regain public trust in politics and the UK’s political and democratic processes political parties and the state must adapt to empower the public to make and shape their own democracy. However, this is unlikely given the atrophied environment in which modern British politics and democracy operates.
What is likely instead is a ceding of control from traditionally organised institutions to the public over time without anyone acknolweding this gradual shift and the political status quo being maintained in the short term and historians picking over *exactly* what happened to British political democracy during the early 21st century in the longer term.
What may possibly happen is that the political classes may become scared by the inevitable loss of control over political and democratic power and attempt to regulate the use of the Internet, social web tools and participatory websites. If this happens then expect to see another 5th November – this time powered by the Internet.