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Good and Bad Power


Through the lens of a recent book review and my recent experiences in the field, this essay reflects on various strategic questions regarding "worldchanging." Specifically, I muse about how we can get leaders to understand at a deeper level the positive implications of peer-to-peer governance and its potential for enabling a more active citizenry.

Last summer at the Tällberg Forum, in an otherwise stellar experience at this annual Swedish conference, I distinctly recall a very disappointing workshop on the "Future of Politics." The panel included Mona Makram-Ebeid, Former Member of Parliament in Egypt; Graham Watson, Member of the European Parliament, UK; and Geoff Mulgan from The Young Foundation, UK. Also present was Anders Wijkman, Member of the European Parliament. Moderated by Bo Ekman, the founder of the Tällberg Forum, I thought we'd get into the meaty stuff since the topics listed in the programme were: powerless governments, voter desertion, the expansion of politics — what will happen? I came curious and hungry for new perspectives.

Sigh. Not only was the conversation startlingly banal and absent of any new ideas; but the tone was marked by a depressing resignation about how bad things are in the public space. These august persons offered little prospect for improvement in sight. Astonishingly, blogging never came up! Arguably one of the most important developments in the political space since — what? the expansion of the franchise? — was totally absent from their radar screens. I was gob-smacked by this omission, not to mention dismayed at what this meant; sometimes what's not said is just as important was what is.

In retrospect, this shouldn't have been a surprise. Look at who was on the panel — regular politicians — who, while decent and hard-working people, are not exactly on the cutting edge of innovation around governance. In fact, their very position ensures that they cannot be. The one glittering exception on the panel, however, was someone of my cohort, Geoff Mulgan, and that was no coincidence. Mulgan is also a politico not politician, the former Director of the UK's Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, Co-founder and Director of the London based think-tank Demos, and now at the Young Foundation. Yet even he seemed to lack a deep connection to what's emerging. But more on that later.

Almost a year later, Mulgan has a new book out, Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government. I have not read the book yet, but it looks worth getting, judging by the excellent review in the Financial Times Weekend ("Dispirited Democracy" by Vernon Bogdanor, June 2, 2006). The book addresses the central question of how we must reinvent the relationship between the rulers and the ruled or as I prefer to put it, between our political leadership and the citizenry. While a timeless problem underpinning governance, a fresh look at this question is particularly timely because many political elites and the institutions they run have been in the midst of legitimacy crisis for decades, and will continue to do so, until we see some alternatives to the status quo.

Mulgan starts us off in the right direction by reframing the traditional answers to the question of how to achieve good government. As the reviewer summarizes:

The first, which stems from Plato, suggests that the quality of government depends upon the values of those who rule. The second, given prominence in western thought by Montesquieu and Madison, contends that the answer lies with institutions; it is the constitutional structure of a state that makes for effective government. Both answers are incomplete, Mulgan says, because they imply that the role of the people in government, even in a democracy, is passive. [My emphasis.] Passive democracy was given a theoretical justification by elite theorists such as the Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca and the Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter, who likened voters to consumers, their task confined to a choice between elites. [Don't you just love such elegant, pithy summaries of key memes in intellectual history!]

By exploding the assumption that we are not passive citizens — and by advocating that active citizenry might be a good thing for the world, a still highly contestable assumption itself — Mulgan points to more fruitful and exciting solution spaces. Instead of retreating into circular conversations around the need for new leadership (so 'they' can solve all problems and save 'us' from our sins) and institutions (which need to be reformed even thought are impossibly complex and stuck), the shift in focus to something more distributed like citizenry is far more likely to yield effective, systemic change.

Imagining this new reality of active citizenry, however, is where the book falls flat, according to the reviewer:

"Sadly, just when we want to know how active democracy would work, the argument tails off. Mulgan talks of “scattered experiments with deliberative polls, citizens’ juries, open source methods of communication and participative decision- making”, but says that “the only successful innovations that have taken root are tools of research (the opinion poll and the focus group) and tools for communication (the ministerial statement on television rather than in parliament, and the more sophisticated marketing of the television spot and the internet)”. The political class has clung to its privileges “and fixed the rules of the game to make it harder for outsiders to break in”. We need to know more about what an active democracy would look like, how the machinery would operate and how feasible it all is. But Mulgan does not tell us. One finishes the book, therefore, with a sense of impatience.

After reading this, I immediately became impatient myself, not because I was left bereft of answers, but rather because I wanted to jump up and down with a big arrow sign pointing Mr. FT and others to the many answers — and growing vision — we've been writing about for a while here at WorldChanging on what a more active citizenry might look like. Of course, this is presumptuous and self-promoting, but I simply can't help it because, well, we are onto something. The evidence is right here. While these aren't even the best posts I'm sure, a cursory scan produced everything from:

  • The Second Superpower and how this is transforming activism and collective action
  • the implications of the many collaborative technologies for future-making
  • the host of related ideas around Public Diplomacy, Open Source Politics, Extreme Democracy, and Smart Mobs

    In short, I wanted us to provide that missing chapter in Mulgan's book and prove him wrong that these are much much more than just "scattered experiments." As the reviewer reminds us, "Aristotle told us that we cannot judge forms of government merely in the abstract but must look at their actual working." This test has already been met; already there is an impressive body of work, not just in the blogsphere, but also in the trenches of social entrepreneurship and grassroots innovation at the community level. Perhaps WorldChanging's forthcoming book will help make this case even more persuasively.

    Being Part of the Conversation

    Of course, this wasn't the first time I made this impassioned plea to look at "worldchanging" developments as the vanguard of the near future. Many of us are suddenly finding ourselves in this position these days. And while this is an exciting role to play, if we're honest with ourselves, we're getting some mixed results. I think I know some of the reasons why. But before I get into this, let me take you back to that lackluster panel at Tällberg's on the "Future of Politics."

    When blogging never came up, I struggled to get my voice into the conversation. Unfortunately the moderator decided to pass over my agitated hand, possibly because he knew me. ("What could she know about this topic?") Maddening, to put it mildly. Later on in the conference I did manage to speak up, but I was listened to with vacant, glassy-eyed looks or courteous, condescending bemusement. ("What could she know about this topic?") At subsequent conferences, as a participant on blogging panels or the topic de jour, I even got some vibes of latent anger from the audience. I could feel a kind of irrational fear in the room. I would get questions like "how can blogging be of any lasting importance if there is no one to confer legitimacy on your point of view?" "How can their be any value in just opinion?" 'Why would anyone read you anyway?" "Who has the time?" (The inference, only losers who aren't important have the time to read blogs.) And so on.

    Audience matters: Culture + Generation = Worldview

    I've concluded two things from these experiences that have some bearing on our strategies as worldchangers. The first has to do with audience. It makes a big difference who you are talking to: specifically what generation they are from and where they are in the power structures. At places like Tallberg, I was talking to people in their 40s to 60s — decision-makers and leaders —  people in positions of authority in government and industry. Blogging never came up, not just because of a lack of an awareness, but because the very concepts of peer-to-peer are totally outside of their frame of reference and experience. More than that, peer-to-peer governance runs smack against some of their fundamental beliefs about how governance can and should work.

    A bit of context helps explain this. Not just in Europe, but in many places (say large corporations), people have a deep distrust for the masses and anything "bottom-up" —  with the exception of perhaps the marketplace though even here we're seeing elites getting in the way of these mechanisms working well. No doubt this sensibility comes from a long and bloody history of revolutions where bad things usually emerged from collective action. As many Americans fail to appreciate, its relatively peaceful revolution was the exception, not the rule. This deep-seated bias against bottom-up solutions is limiting politicians' ability to innovate at a governance level. (A case in point: witness the failure of the EU Constitution.) Most politicians would proclaim this isn't so, that this goes against their democratic ideals etc. But I've been around this world enough to know they are very happy with limited representation.

    Of course, basic power issues enter the picture as well. Bottom-up is inherently subversive. We in the blogsphere can get a little complacent and blaisé about what a big deal this is in the grand scheme of things. If you digest the implications of the excellent work Michel Bauwens has done around Peer-to-Peer Governance, we see an emerging platform that can enable true participatory democracy — the stuff only political theorists could dream about over the past millennia. So we shouldn't be surprised nor naïve about what we're taking on. Just look at what's happening in the entertainment industry, the thunder of a coming storm, perhaps.

    Another factor complicating things is that many important and interesting ideas happening in governance are happening outside of what we call "politics." In fact, most of the innovators don't even think what they are doing is political and would decry that label. For instance, if I were to put together a panel on the "future of politics", I'd add to the usual suspects: an online gamer, a blogger of course, a social entrepreneur working in rural communities in say India or China, an executive working for a very decentralized global corporation, a biologist working for the Resilience Alliance, or complexity science academic from the Santa Fe Institute. —just for one quick brainstorm.

    If the reviewer's criticism is right (and he may not be), this might explain why Mulgan took a cautious line in describing these "scattered experiments." He has been too close to the corridors of power, which might have limited his vision and convictions. As a young legislative intern, I know just how easily the culture of a political institution can start conditioning your thoughts and ideas without you even being aware of it. This might also be a matter of courage to shit where you eat, a conflict of interest I see a lot within the think-tank world, which manifests in a kind of subtle and insidious self-policing. ("Think out of the box, Nicole, but don't try to change it.")

    Breaking Through Mindsets

    This brings me to the second observation. It's about how we're communicating these ideas, which also has some strategic implications for worldchanging work. Many of you don't have to worry about this, because you're talking to the self-selected like-minded, other people like you. But some of us bridge-builders have to venture outside of this world — because we're interested in systemic change — and this requires a different approach, one that overcomes this worldview difference. I can tell you giving them the facts isn't enough. This simply won't penetrate through their cognitive walls. Rather we need more sophisticated, multifaceted, and experiential approaches to dramatizing why these are important developments to understand and invest in. Fortunately, we're getting a better handle on how to do this through better communication "technologies". (See the Mapping Dialogue book commissioned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.)

    Another concrete idea I have been starting to advocate is this: we need to convince someone at Davos, or one of these big conferences featuring the Great and Good, to turn over part of the event to some us who know about bottom-up design, using a variety of proven group process methods but also some experimental ones. (Besides, the conference format needs serious reinvention anyway. People are downright fed up with the talking heads model.) The idea would be give some of these folks a mind-blowing and positive experience of P2P collaboration, both in silica and in vitro. Instead of just "telling them" what's happening, we can show them at a visceral level that, under certain design conditions, collective wisdom can emerge. If successful, this would help transform their assumptions — their fears born of ignorance or need to control, their disbelief and distrust — into something more constructive for the future. Let me know if you're interested in this idea and give me suggestions on how to make it happen. I'm looking for collaborators and champions at present.

    As I compare notes with other colleagues, it has struck me that the worldview divide I'm observing runs strongly along generational lines. While we all know 70 year olds who are hip to this as anyone else, twenty and thirty-somethings intuitively get this because we have grown up in the a digital web-enabled world and this formative experience has engendered certain values and ways of being. Now, I don't want to get into the classic "younger versus older" generational, self-righteous rant. That's not going to get us very far. But the demographic fact is that we have been in the shadow of the Boomer generation, and many of us have been conditioned to apologize for being young. Well, I think we shouldn't be apologizing anymore nor pretend this worldview different doesn't exist. I think we should embrace this different perspective as a strategic asset. I think the time has come when the decision-maker generation needs us just as badly as we need them. We need them to help change the rules of the game because they understand the power structures and organizations must better than we ever will. Whereas these decision-makers need us to help understand things like peer-to-peer dynamics and this emerging context, not to mention the tricky issue of ensuring that their legacy isn't darkly told — a powerful reputation driver to be sure. For at the end of the day, we are all "decision-makers" of our future at different levels. I have, for the sake of my essay, put "us" and "them" in artificial camps which can create an unhelpfully passive posture if we let it. Having said that, there are stark realities about power differences that shouldn't be glossed over, which matter at a very practical level (more than ideological level) when it comes to worldchanging.

    I remember interviewing a CEO a while back at a large global construction company and what he said struck me as emblematic of what many leaders are thinking now, but may not have the courage to admit: "what scares the shit out of me [imagine a slow Texan drawl] is that the best and the brightest just 'aint coming to the smoke-stack industries anymore. Yet it's these young minds we need to understand what the hell is going in the world. We need them not just in the field, doing the grunt work, but also up here in the executive suite. How do we do that?"

    Well, by listening to us. By bringing us into the conversation in a substantive way, in a way where we all have skin in the outcome. This is best done through a real dialogue where we are both willing to understand our different perspectives with dignity, a sense of open-mindedness, and a view that we have equal value to bring to the table. We also need to be good hosts, which involves more than just talking. We need invite each other to live for a while in each others' world, a cross fertilization of experience that can only lead to good things.

    People are listening to Mulgan because of his ideas, his credentials, and his connections. This is good, especially since his ideas are clear and compelling, if incomplete. And while I still get glassy-eyed looks from the powers-that-be — which is so frustrating when so much needs to be done and soon — scary as it may seem, some are starting to listen to me. Perhaps it's my hard-won grey hair :) Perhaps this is still wishful thinking. Regardless, I think many more decion-makers and influencers will be listening to WorldChanging in the coming months. But this signals an important shift we should be aware of: what were once unattainable ideas or small experiments at the fringe might soon become plans for action, and with plans for action come new responsibilities and accountability. Are we ready for this? Are we ready for this as both our ideas and demographic line move from the periphery into center stage? The realization that the adults are us now, that the solutions won't be coming from the "experts in charge", that it's us who must step up now, is exciting yet frightening. These are the question on my mind as I head off to Tällberg again this summer. Wish me luck.

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    While my essay is not necessarily about Mulgan's knowledge on p2p, I should make the qualification that knows a lot more about this than my essay perhaps suggests, or perhaps as the reviewer of his book suggests, the danger of not having read it. This occurred to me as I discovered in my pile of unread publications a little booklet published by Demos called "Wide Open: Opens Source Methods and their Future Potential."

    Posted by: Nicole Boyer on 7 Jun 06

    which, opps, I forgot to add, is written by Geoff Mulgan, Tom Steinberg and Omar Salem.

    Posted by: nicole Boyer on 7 Jun 06

    There's a lot of interesting reflection here -- I enjoyed reading it. It feels like this space of decentralized, participatory citizenship is more neglected than other worldchanging areas (like tech) which more readily lend themselves to professionalization. It's something I'm extremely interested in for my own work. But I'm puzzled at why you would throw your energy into giving a group of elites "a mind-blowing experience of P2P collaboration". Are you suggesting that we can move towards active citizenship from the top down? Seems like a bit of a contradiction, not to mention unlikely.

    Posted by: Phil Mitchell on 7 Jun 06

    Thanks and good point. But I don't think this is an either/or, rather a both/and. I want to give decision-makers (both gov and industry) a good experience, instead of a fear-based view of P2P, because like it or not they influence the rules of the game and the flow of attention, legitimacy and money to these innovations. Also, if it makes you feel any better, only *some" of my energy is going to this :)

    Posted by: Nicole Boyer on 7 Jun 06

    I'm not sure if empowering the masses, without educating them, will improve the situation. Just look at popular culture.

    But evening out the information flows and improving accountability for all, is definitely the way to go.

    Posted by: jo monday on 7 Jun 06

    Hi Nicolle-Anne, you've had bad luck with the conference, conservative eurocrats aren't the most dynamic people out there, it's true. Hope you can catch a conference where progressive eurocrats are invited, once. You'll see the difference (most of them are active bloggers, even the 60 year olds).

    Let me know if you're interested in this idea and give me suggestions on how to make it happen. I'm looking for collaborators and champions at present.

    Don't talk to the European altermondialist movement or the folks of the World Social Forum. They are doing what you're suggesting, and they're considered to be the 'enemy'.

    To come to your main point, about p2p and blogging and other communication tools. I think you don't really understand the essence of the skepticism of many Europeans when you say that these tools have potential to transform politics.

    The problem they see in a discourse like yours is that it is very much based on what they would call thoughts about the mere flimsy "super-structure" of power (they would call it 'neoliberal', capitalist, 'Anglosaxon' superficiality). In the case of the tools you mention it comes down to: each his own little personal ideologically dead space of petty-freedom where he can practise his hobby (blogging), which can even be used to create a fantasy space of collective action, resulting in the illusion of a sense of power, which successfully defuses real political action addressing the "infrastructure" of power.

    Europeans tend to focus much more on this material infrastructure of power (that is: capital, institutional control, etc...). This is still a taboo in much of the Anglosaxon culture sphere, which is why I think the people at the conference might have neglected you a bit - blogging does in no way address this question of infrastructure, on the contrary, it successfully helps forgetting about it.

    Political ideas are easy to spread, you don't really need blogging or p2p to do so - that's just a question of communication tools, not very important (radio, '60s agitprop and samizdat do the job marvellously). But you can't change the material conditions of power through blogging and peer-work. Once you've got your ideas spread, you still have to go out and take the actual political action. Power is still something you "take", you don't "think" it or "talk" it.

    When the French students destroyed the neoliberal, capitalist CPE youth employment law, they "took" power for a while. This is politics. Politics has nothing to do with gradual reformism, or with allowing 'a multitude of differences' to be expressed (mellow multicul). Politics is radical antagonism, and "taking" power.

    Anglosaxons, who have always been more conservative, have a tendency to gloss over this materialism. To put it graphically: Americans did not take to the streets when George Bush was re-elected; instead, they blogged. To many Europeans this is a symbol of the bankruptcy of politics and "citoyenneté" in the U.S.

    Cyberspace does not have that big a revolutionary potential, I think. It does have a bourgeoisifying potential, though. It kills politics proper, it kills the antagonism inherent in politics.

    My fetish texts in this respect are all from Slavoj Zizek's hand (who writes a lot about the bourgeois, anti-ideological character of the cyber peer-to-peer illusion -- "blog around, go ahead, but don't take any system-threatening actions!"):

    -Self-Deceptions: On Being Tolerant and Smug
    -A Plea for Leninist Intolerance
    -Too Much Democracy?

    I seriously think that cyberspace systematically defuses the kernel of politics, namely radical antagonism. Therefor it must first prove itself, show that it has the potential to make real political statements (which come down to a collective 'singular-universal': "we, the people, on this very day"). It's obvious that cybertools have not proven any potential in this regard, so far. On the contrary, they tend to mellow it down.

    So the rightful suspicion remains that cybertools are bourgeois tools that work in favor of the neoliberal status quo.

    They must really prove themselves first.

    Posted by: Lorenzo on 7 Jun 06

    @jo Monday:
    (Of course, it might be possible that the masses will be empowered to educate themselves...;-)

    An interesting read. My own ruminations on what you refer to as 'active citizenry' stem from what it needs for an online electronic voting system. Not the dubious abomination that Diebold has been inflicting on US voters, but one that is:
    - open
    - reliable (ie open)
    - discrete
    - verifiable (by the voter)
    - convenient

    The latter point is important as it encourages participation (think: no queues!) and would also encourage a greater frequency of participation. Currently, the most advanced democracy = 1 vote every three/four years, not a huge advance on the divine rule of kings (although a crucial one)

    I won't bore you with the details here, they can be found at ... and yes, the entries are a bit musty!

    Posted by: Tony Fisk on 7 Jun 06

    David Brin's article on disputation arenas seems relevant to the discussion as well.

    Posted by: Tony Fisk on 7 Jun 06

    Citizen assemblies are one way of reducing reliance on political elites. British Columbia, Ontario and the Netherlands have all been experimenting.

    These all select people at random (ie via sortition). The use of an assembly makes the process more deliberative, and fixes the usual criticisms of direct democracy as allowing thoughtless or inconsistent policy.

    It's also an avenue for those who don't usually have time to follow issues week to week to set aside some time for them. Blogs are great (look ma we're on one now!), but civic-wise they're mainly a forum for political tragics. There's nothing wrong with this - in fact its already proved its worth - but citizen assemblies complement it by bringing in the other end of the spectrum.

    Posted by: Adam Burke on 8 Jun 06

    Hi. I definitely wish that this explicitly political aspect of "worldchanging" could be addressed more.

    I'm a bit new to these ideas myself, so I'd like to ask a question:
    how does this new-fangled hi-tech jargony p2p "active democracy" differ from the fairly well-established tradition of classical anarchism?

    From Proudhon to Goldman to anarchist activists today, it seems like they have already articulated a clear vision of what an "active democracy" looks like--
    decentralized, de-hierarchized power, consensus, local collectivity, etc.

    It doesn't seem necessary to reinvent the wheel quite yet, althought it may be more exciting to frame it that way.

    Posted by: Ethan Heitner on 9 Jun 06

    In my view, the question that lies at the heart of Nicole’s post is:
    How do we create new systems of communication that are more effective at not only reaching those in positions of power, but also at fostering trust and respect and a genuine desire to include all voices.

    As Nicole puts it: …"a real dialogue where we are both willing to understand our different perspectives with dignity, a sense of open-mindedness, and a view that we have equal value to bring to the table. " And i add to that: where creativity is embraced as a means to break out of the mold, not to merely trade it in for a new one, but to truly engage in an ongoing, ever-evolving life system.

    In natural systems, innovation usually (maybe always? I don’t know) happens in the periphery until the conditions are right for this new information to be transmitted to the whole system.

    In this case I believe the periphery is BOTH art and science, with much to give to the world of business as usual. Current research in neuroscience and cognitive science points to entirely new ways of framing our human experience. And who best to translate this new framework into visceral experiences than artists?

    I imagine collaborations between representatives from all three “camps”: an ecologist, a dancer and a think-tanker; a neuroscientist, a painter and a social innovator. Put them all in a room for a week with the goal of communication and see what gets incubated!

    In this quest for new paths, it is time to investigate the role of art and science and their unbridled power in creating positive space, open minds and new thoughts!

    (Thanks Nicole for framing this so succinctly, it helped me to coalesce some scattered thoughts.)

    Posted by: Amelia Terrapin on 13 Jun 06



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