Memetic Turn, 1.8.2012:

Liquid Democracy

Joerg Blumtritt.

by Joerg Blumtritt

“Code is Law” is the catch phrase of Lawrence Lessig famous bestseller on the future of democracy. From the beginning of the Internet revolution, there has been the discussion, whether our new forms of media and communication would lead to another revolution as well: a political one. Many of the media and platforms that rose over last decade show aspects of communal or even social systems – and hence might be called Social Media with good cause. Thus, it does not come as a surprise that we start to see the development of the communication platforms that are genuinely meant to support and at the same time to experiment with new forms of political participation, like Proxy-Voting or Liquid Democracy, which had been hardly conceivable without the infrastructure of the Web. Since these new forms of presenting, debating, and voting for policies have been occurring just recently, we can expect that many other varieties will appear, new concepts to translate the internet paradigm into social decision making. Nevertheless how do these new forms of voting work? Are they really mapping the volonté generale into decisions? If so, will it work in a sustainable, stable, continuous way? And how to evaluate the systems, one compared to another? I currently work in a scientific research project on how to deal with these questions. Today I am not yet ready to present conclusions. Nonetheless I find it worthwhile to tryout and think through the new ways of democracy.

Politics is nowadays often set equivalent to negotiating opinions in the parliaments, committees, or gremia. Representatives are given the mandate from the voters to represent their interests. Not everyone can be an expert in every field. To foster adequate decision making, lobbyism is integral part of the parliamentary system. First, this is industry associations and interest groups (the JICs, ethnic organisations, religious and cultural associations etc.) relaying their clients’ interests to the representatives by providing arguments. Furthermore there are those groups of experts that gather around certain topics, rather loosely connected compared with the industry associations. Those think-tanks are often initiated by politicians and are much less transparent regarding statutes or goals compared to the associations.

Liquid democracy is a conceptual alternative to pork barrel politics and lobbyism. It is designed as a method for direct democracy, where voters not only ballot at the decisions but negotiate one with each other every step of forming a political opinion and “volonté générale”.

Brief introduction to the method

Liquid democracy is a form of proxy-voting. Participants have suffrage and are at the same time eligible, can thus better be called ‘actors’ than ‘voters’. Actors can issue initiatives for projects like laws, changes in laws, budget decisions, etc.

Initiatives
First step is formulating the initiative as a proposal and upload it to be reviewed and discussed. This step can be preceded by informal discussion going on before the actual upload. During this discussion-phase, the initiative’s author can still change the initiative and react to criticism and suggestions. After a fixed time span (the same for all initiatives on one topic), the initiative’s text is frozen and can no longer be changed. In this ‘frozen’-phase, the initiative has to gather support from other actors who openly and actively register as voters for this initiative. Also, alternatives to the initiative can be added to be decided at the same ballot. For each topic, there a quorum of minimum support can be set, and only initiatives which get above this threshold make it to the ballots.

Delegation
All actors can delegate their vote to some other actor, who then may delegate her vote together with all votes delegated to her further on, thus forming chains of delegations. Delegation can be withdrawn and changed anytime until the deadline for the decision has passed.

Secrecy of the vote
Of course, delegation to everybody requires transparency who gets delegated by whom. As soon as somebody passes on my delegation, I want to be sure who that is to have the possibility to decide to withdraw and re-delegate or vote to myself. Thus at least for actors who offer themselves as delegates, secrecy of the vote is not an option. It is debatable of computer-based voting systems in general should require full identification of the voters to the public to prevent fraud. With liquid democracy, however, it would become mandatory to disclose the identity of most voters.

Of course, by skipping secrecy, liquid democracy makes lobby-driven decision transparent, because everybody can see who was involved.

Today liquid democracy exists as a mixture of direct and representative democracy within some regional affiliations of Germany’s Pirate Party. The idea is, that representation becomes more flexible by the fact, that every delegation can be immediately withdrawn.

Liquid democracy is often compared with Wikipedia – everybody can participate, all discussions are open. On the other hand, the principal of delegation applies likewise, if perhaps you would not see yourself as competent for the decision or you would be busy during the election process.

Liquid democracy is not necessarily contradicting classic parliamentary democracy. It could very well be used by the voters, to articulate informed proposals to their representatives, who could incorporate this input to their parliamentary work and adjust their decisions in parliament accordingly.

Slacktivism or “We are 99%”

In the media, often a hint of cultural pessimism is heard about atomization of society, breaking with solidarity or even decay of values, and a lament on the climate of disenchantment with politics. At the same time, people all over the globe gather, protest against bondage, exploitation and particularly lack of participation. #arabspring, #spanishrevolution or #occupywallstreet are the most prominent examples of this movement. Also the remarkably vivid participation of German voters in petitions to the German Bundestag and the explosive growth of the Pirate Party tell less of an end of politics, but more of a changing in political culture.

The topic of the protests mentioned above is always a taking-back of responsibility and influence which had been handed over to the state – more or less voluntarily, depending on the social constitution. This calling “We are the 99%” is thus not without problems. Just because many rally around an idea and articulate themselves, does not tell, if a majority would share this view. Often the majority opinion is even totally unclear, as e.g. it was the case with the construction of Stuttgart’s new main railway station, that succeeded at the ballots – just the opposite that everybody had expected after ongoing fierce protests that where suppressed even by excessive police brutality.

Often it is feel-good-topics, cheep reductions to simple phrases; we are now speaking about “slacktivism”, “engagement from the couch”; this form of political activism is often at not more than liking something on Facebook without having really thought through the desire to change something. And even if it is likely that a majority of the concerned would support the protest, important democratic correctives of minority protection and other non-negotiable rules that we think as not changeable even by majority vote, are still missing.

Delegation

Communities exist by their members’ taking tasks, fulfill duties within the community, and participate in the successes that are communally achieved. In a society, citizens delegate parts of their tasks and duties to the state’s administration. Over the course of the last two hundred years, the citizens of the so called western world have handed over more and more of their very own responsibilities to the state – caring for the sick and elderly, birth and death, provisions for retirement, education and many more.

How these delegated tasks have to be carried out is fixed by the process of representative decision making that characterizes parliamentary democracy.

Elected representatives are assigned to taking care about this for a time of multiple years. That all these jobs can be done, experts have to be paid for and equipped with the necessary means of work. To control the adequate application of these means, finally an administration is needed to oversee it. It is not clear, how the carefully balanced system of checks and controls between administration and parliament would be affected by such a radical change in delegation that liquid democracy would propose. The promise, however is to take back responsibility into the hands of the people.

Presentation instead of representation

“Speak with us, don’t speak for us.” is the central phrase form the statement of autonomy of OccupyWallStreet. In more then 2000 years, from the beginning of the Greek democracy and the Roman republic, the representative system prevailed, in which people delegate their interests to someone to represent them. It is not necessarily the case that representative systems are also democratic but in our contemporary understanding, all democracies are representative, that is, the decision making is done indirectly and not directly. There are obviously hardly any examples of grassroots democracy that could be called a success, apart from a few counties in Switzerland. Is the ideology of representative democracy thus without alternative? Representation, the parliament, has a long list of advantages – from “not everybody can be expert for everything” to “not everybody can join every conversation” – a discussion of which would lead to far here, as would a criticism of representative democracy as such. Here we want to focus on liquid democracy as an alternative hypothesis to representation.

Delegation and “spiral of silence”

A path to non-representative democracy was described by Habermas and others in the concept of deliberation. Political intention is negotiated directly in discourse between people, and relayed accordingly to the political actors (ideally professional politicians) that work in the center of society. This process of decision making faces some sound criticism: people who cannot articulate themselves very well or who would have to fear that they become “talked into something” or shouted down in the discussion, will not even begin to take part. Everyone who became victim to one of Wikipedia’s deletion-discussions knows how this feels. But still, Wikipedia stands without doubt for one of the very big successes in collective collaboration in the Net. It may appear unbelievable, what was achieved by thousands of people together, without any monetary incentive – and continuously, Wikipedia is brought further, gets enhanced, and this despite the communication culture there is after all gruff, to say it moderately. Wikipedia’s culture nevertheless is not a good example for inclusion; the horrible gender-bias alone is telling.

A concept to soften this spiral of silence is to give the actors the option to perform under a self given name and identity. As long it is guaranteed that every physical person would get only one vote, this ‘autonymity’, the freedom of flexible choice of name, has the advantage, that it is possible to articulate a particular opinion without sticking this permanently to the own personality. However the disadvantages of acting under pseudonym in a system like liquid democracy stand, as discussed above.

Practical implementation

With the establishment of the Pirate Party in 2006, the demand for a practical implementation of direct democracy in the political discussion became considerably more vivid. The Pirates formulated a postulate at the beginning of their party programme:

“We Pirates aspire democratically equal rights of all people to the highest possible extend. Therefore it is the goal of the Pirate Party to increase every individual’s possibilities of direct and indirect democratic co-determination and to foster the participation in democracy of every citizen.”

And as Jan Hunold, then political secretary of Piratenpartei, explains accordingly:
“I regard the long range goal to include the citizen contiguously into the decisions on the development of society as extraordinarily worthwhile, independent from the actual implementation. The advanced connectedness of men and the freedom of information render this dream ready at hands.”

End of 2009 Piratenpartei had finally introduced a platform for liquid democracy map the Pirate Party’s idea of liquid democracy into a web based platform. After successful test runs this was integrated with the Berlin state affiliate and at the national party convention May 2010, the party’s platform for liquid democracy was set up for non-binding polls for the whole Piratenpartei.

The introduction of its liquid democracy platform as an instrument for party-internal decision making did however not remain without controversy. Especially questions on privacy protection and integrity of the votes are dominant in the discussion on IT-supported voting until now.

Everything flows.

The practical application of liquid democracy in the Pirate Party made some apparent weaknesses or liquid democracy visible. A certain bumpiness is directly entailed by the compromise of the juridical necessity of having a commonly constituted party with the structures of direct democracy. German law does neither support proxy-voting nor deliberation, but demands from the parties to be strictly representative, divided into the geographic subsidiaries with a hierarchy of delegates. Many conflicts thus are generated in the gap between the approach of grassroots-democracy of direct presentation of every individual’s arguments and the indirect representation by parlamentarians trying to push majority opinion by any means – as intended by our political system.

There are some aspects in criticizing liquid democracy yet, that make apparent, where the real changes to the representative system lie:

“Do you want to work together or even form a coalition with a party in permanent interaction between their grassroots and their delegates by means of Liquid Democracy? […] The general question however would be if a coalition would not rather stand in the way of searching the best solution. Orientation on factual issues could save us from such remarkable experiences like turning something down just it was initialized by the wrong side, even if it is exactly what would be your own cause. ” (wiki.piratenpartei.de)

Continuity and predictability are obviously a necessary part of representative systems. The members of parliament represent their mandators only indirectly. For showing to their voters, that their intended politics would be dutifully represented, they have to stay constant and reliable in a few striking aspects, while their motives for most of their decisions would remain undisclosed to their voters. Whip and fidelity to the coalition are the well known consequences – not really in the very sense of our constitution that would see the the decision behavior only bound to the conscience.

No power for no one!

“Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions.” (occupywallst.org)

Direct democracy is often seen as plebiscite, that is to “give the decision to the polls”. Basically, the political Work in this case is still done by the elected representatives. The proxy-vote or the imperative mandate goes considerably farther by tying the votes to a definitive decision behavior of the parliamentarian representing these voters. Imperative mandates are usually bound to decisions of conventions of voters. A party conventions or a citizen councils decides by majority, and the delegatee has to represent this decision in parliament. Proxy voting however allows for every single person to delegate their vote to those who would represent their opinion in the session. All three forms, plebiscite, imperative mandate or proxy voting – as in the same way then the classic “conscience-bound mandate” of the German election laws – assume that there is a group of people, homogeneous enough to be abstracted into one set and then represented by their member of parliament.

In liquid democracy there is no separation of suffrage and eligibility, because everyone can contribute and vote. Everybody presents themselves – and even if they would have delegated their vote to someone else, there is no abstraction of people to groups that are represented in liquid democracy. Liquid democracy is a System of direct, non-representative democracy.

A complete presentation of everybody for themselves show of course the marks of Max Stirner’s anarchistic egoism. And communities that are organized in such a non-representative way, like e.g. Wikipedia, in fact well appear like you would imagine Stirner’s anarchy.

A logical outcome of such a non-representative system is also, to no longer distribute governmental transfer payments, subsidies or appropriations top-down, but allow every person the same access. It is thus only consequent that Piratenpartei takes the basic income guarantee as a programmatic goal.

Consensus instead of compromise

Liquid democracy means everyone is able to contribute, and consensus is to be build above the suggestions. Consensus does not mean majority. A majority overrules those who do not share the opinion – after the ballot, the set of voters will be regarded as homogeneous regarding the decision in question. For the daily party business this means: once a party committee has made its decision, all members have to stand behind this (at least this is expected from the party members).

In a non-representative, direct democracy, having unity behind the majority is not the point, since every opinion remains valid and cannot be overruled. Thus it is especially important to concentrate on finding consensus on the crucial topics. Consensus means to really stand behind the decision and not just be outvoted. So we could call consensus in politics as “agreement on the truth” in opposition to “deciding on opinions”.

The struggle for truth leads, as mentioned above, immediately to a rather gruff tone in the debates. Those inferior with arguments frequently take their last stand: the “Shitstrom”, usually a ranting against decisions or actions without arguments – completely convinced to be right and full of anger, not getting right.

Other then the compromise which is closed between the two sides engaged – often formalized as in a coalition agreement – consensus is not fixed and not binding. Like in Wikipedia where existing texts are always open to edition, and where the authors continuously have to defend their words if they would like these to remain, the consensus in liquid democracy can always be left, and an initiative for change be placed. Frequently, so called trolls appear in the course of decision making in liquid democracy – people insisting on certain topics in a very destructive way. As inconvenient such arguing with trolls is, it still leads often to overcome differences and find a broadly based consensus. The continuous attack on established consensus stabilizes.

Liquid democracy is, when thought to its end, a radical breach with the foundations of democracy that we know and take for granted. Fully evolved, liquid democracy turns the whole process of delegation to parliaments, experts and administration around. The global crisis of the established economical and political order makes it worthwhile to think about opening a new chapter of enlightenment and really consequently accept humans as autonomous beings, that may better care for themselves as benevolent representatives ever could by governing them.

“Today, we proudly remain in Liberty Square constituting ourselves as autonomous political beings engaged in non-violent civil disobedience and building solidarity based on mutual respect, acceptance, and love.” (nycga.net)



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