Are assembly-based parties network parties?

It is difficult to put out a definition of the network party. Maybe — or mainly — because it is much a theoretical construct that does not exist purely in the real world. Any kind of human organization can be characterized, but it will rarely fit the theoretical model: the world is a world of grays.

New politics, technopolitics and political parties

The Spanish 15M Indignados Movement — and everything that came before it — brought new ways of organization which, later on, some of them, entered the political institutions. 2015 saw witnessed three important elections in Spain — municipalities, the Catalan Parliament, and the Spanish Parliament — to which some new and not-so-new parties concurred. A recurrent debate between new and traditional parties was whether these parties, respectively, were doing “new politics” or “old politics”.

One way to define “new politics” was that “new parties” were putting in the political agenda the quality of democracy, sometimes labelled as the “regeneration axe” (in addition to the social or right-left ideological axe). Little to be mentioned here. I personally believe that defending this new axe is a necessary but not sufficient condition or characteristic of new politics.

Another way to define “new politics” was that some political parties were assembly-based. That is, decisions are made at the grassroots level, in the party’s general assembly, and the representatives of the part translate them in the institutions.

In my opinion, this is not only not new politics, but totally misleading to what technopolitics is bringing to the political arena.

First of all, while unheard in most Western democracies, assemblies are anything but new. To say the least, they date from the late XIXth century. This is neither bad nor good: it is just not new.

Second, assemblies might by a part of new politics — or, better put, network parties — but the tool does not make the thing. Following, we will try to describe how three different organizations work: hierarchical parties, assembly-based parties and (despite the difficulty to come up with a proper definition) what a theoretical approach to network parties would look like. Please bear in mind what was said above: theoretical models of organizations do not aim at describing how specific organizations should be or work like, but to understand why the are or work the way they do. In a world full of greys.

Hierarchies

Let us propose a very simplified model where only three things occur: electing representatives, making decisions and executing them.

In a hierarchical party, most things happen in the upper layer of the organization: the lower layer elects their representatives (a secretary general, a secretariat, an executive committee, etc.) and, most of the times, remains outside of the general dynamics of the party.

The elected representatives, though, make all decisions and directly or indirectly execute them. Most of the times too — sad as it may sound — these elected representatives do not even inform the members and sympathisers of the party of the decisions made, and of course very rarely consult them on any issues at all.

At the end of the political cycle, the representatives are accountable for their successes and failures and can be replaced depending on their performance — usually measured in votes or seats, and not in the programme they put out and the actions they took (tough, of course, both of them had an impact that translated in votes, seats, laws passed, etc.).

Assembly-based parties

Assembly-based parties work almost opposite than hierarchical parties: the assembly meets, deliberates and makes a decision. Then, once the decision is made, the assembly elects some people that will carry on with the decision and put it into practice.

Oftentimes, these parties have to engage in conversations with other parties, translate the decision into an institution, or simply speak to the media. It is then usual that the same elected representatives emerging from the assembly also play the role of representing the assembly before third parties.

Note how the pair electing-deciding is inverted: if hierarchies elected people to decide what to do it and do it, assemblies decide what to do and elect the ones that will do it.

As we have already said, things in the real world are much more messy and much less clean. But, in simple lines, this is more or less how it theoretically works.

Network parties

Network parties also invert a pair of steps, but it is not electing of deciding, but executing: in network parties, executing comes first. How is that possible?

Levy, Himanen, Raymond or Benkler, among others, have explained with details the logics of free software and how they can be translated into other knowledge intensive projects. Like, for instance, politics.

In a gift economy, powered by meritocracy and led by do-ocracy people just can set the snowball rolling. If it catches, people will join and the idea, the project, will grow and become important. Otherwise, the idea will be tacitly abandoned and people will move onto other ideas and projects to join and contribute to.

In (pure) technopolitics, network parties emerge from people making decisions first and then executing them. If the projects grow and communities form, then comes the need for some coordination, for some “benevolent dictator” that may coordinate the efforts, make some punctual decisions. These coordinating person or body is elected by the participants on the projet, either tactitly — based on her own merit — or explicitly, if there is a need to.

Sometimes the coordinating body will, as it happened with the assembly-based organizations, play the role of representing the collective. But sometimes it will not, as the collective will also have a collective identity and thus will represent itself without the need of intermediation from a specific body.

Following we can see the three (simplified) models for better comparison. It is worth noting how both assembly-based parties and network (or technopolitics-based) parties invert the relationships of power, bringing the decision-making to the bottom — and unlike traditional or hierarchical parties, which have decision-making at the top. But a crucial difference between assembly-based parties and network parties is where execution happens: in network parties, not only decision-making but also execution is distributed and takes place at the bottom. And this is what makes politics new: not only where decision-making takes place, but also where execution does.

As it has been said, these are “elements rarely found as pure substances”, that is, theoretical (and very much simplified) models whose aim is neither saying how things should work, or how all parties can be distinctively and exhaustively categorized. On the contrary, we may find parties whose inner structure follows a different model depending on the stage, the level at which is is analysed, or even the time or specific task being developed. Thus, it is unlikely to find a party or an organization that perfectly fits the theoretical model, as it is likely to find many parties and organizations that embed in their organizational and operational design several bits of these models. Depending on which one prevails, or leads the culture of the organization, we will be able to generically label them one way or the other.

CDF2015 (IV). Jonathan Gray: Open data

Notes from the Connected Develoment Festival, organized by Partos, and held in The Hague, The Netherlands, on November 13, 2015.

Jonathan Gray, Open Knowledge Foundation

Why does data matter? Data is evidence for action, it’s about facts that support action.

Data is not sacred: data is partial and data is profane. Data is a by-product of former actions of many actors, especially institutions.

Data needs a critical literacy to understand it, to understand the hidden message. And it also needs data infrastructures as socio-technical systems.

Datasets are a mixture of different sources gathered for different purposes. But is data relevant? Is it collected for what we need? Is it useful?

There’s another problem concerning data and it’s its excess: a fever to collect so much data that (a) then it becomes difficult to treat, at it is difficult to handle with current tools and (b) we begin to “throw data” to try and cover everything without making much sense of it.

Will here be a data revolution? Can we democratize access to data?

There are many things that civil society can do to (a) change the way public institutions measure, (b) to become more responsive and creative in the way datasets are given life outside of the public sector.

Data infrastructures shape life and civil society.

Connected Development Festival 2015 (2015)

CDF2015 (III). Margot Bouwman: on the power of communication

Notes from the Connected Develoment Festival, organized by Partos, and held in The Hague, The Netherlands, on November 13, 2015.

Margot Bouwman

Communication works with single minded propositions, providing a conversation value, aiming at doing good, and trying to establish a relationship.

People have to watch communication deploy before their eyes, and be aware of the nuances. Communication is crucial so that people understand and even end up loving what they are hearing.

Listening to people is crucial so that people remain interested in what you have to offer.

Dominance is just as important as relevance. And new always gets attention, and it’s a good way to work for dominance. Supernormal stimuli awake interest, but we have to be aware that sometimes they can be intimidating. Stimulation of instinct is very powerful, such powerful that it can even nullify our own will, or trigger it towards very directed targets.

The goal of some communication messages is going from image to icon, from what you see to the representation of what you aim to.

Summing up:

  • We are vain.
  • Make it complicated.
  • Relevance is as important as dominance.
  • Supernormal stimuli help with that.
  • Attract attention.
  • Drive awakening.
  • Use them ‘slightly out of context’.
  • Transform them into iconic design language.
  • Tool or weapon?

PS: my gratitude to Babah Tarawally for the translation tips! [original talk in Dutch].

Connected Development Festival 2015 (2015)

CDF2015 (II). Ismael Peña-López: The SDGs and the oversight of disregarding social revolutions

Notes from the Connected Develoment Festival, organized by Partos, and held in The Hague, The Netherlands, on November 13, 2015.

Ismael Peña-López: The SDGs and the oversight of disregarding social revolutions

This presentation elaborates the short reflections stated in Emancipation and the failure of the Sustainable Development Goals under the approach of Open Social Innovation. Please refer to these articles for a clearer explanation of what is presented in the keynote.

[click here to enlarge]

Connected Development Festival 2015 (2015)

CDF2015 (I). Babah Tarawally: On the refugee crisis

Notes from the Connected Develoment Festival, organized by Partos, and held in The Hague, The Netherlands, on November 13, 2015.

Babah Tarawally

There is a difference between seeing and looking. When it comes to refugees, we should look, not only see. About seeing, the issue is how to help people to connect with the local community, to know the culture, to know the hidden and tacit things a community knows and does, so that their full potential can be realized.

Are we helping people? Yes. Are we empowering people? Maybe. Are people’s lives changing? That is the question. But not only the lives of the people we are “helping”, but everyone’s lives, including “ours”.

Both governments and NGOs have failed in making an impact in lesser developed countries, as the inflow of migrants demonstrates each and every day. We have to change global politics.

Development, innovation, is not only about copying and pasting practices around. It’s about giving hope.

Connected Development Festival 2015 (2015)

Rosa Borge. From protest to political parties: online deliberation in the new parties arising in Spain

Notes from the research seminar From protest to political parties: online deliberation in the new parties arising in Spain by Rosa Borge, organized by the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University of Catalonia, and held in Barcelona, Spain, on July 20th, 2015.

From protest to political parties: online deliberation in the new parties arising in Spain
Rosa Borge, Eduardo Santamarina

What are the deliberative practices of the two most important parties (Podemos and Barcelona en Comú) that emerged from the 15M Indignados movement in Spain? What trade-offs entail the process of transformation from social movements into political parties? To what extent participation and deliberation could be realized at the same time?

Podemos and Barcelona en comú were founded in 2014. Three months after its foundation, Podemos won 5 seats at the European Parliament, and less than a year after its foundation Barcelona en Comú won the mayoralty of Barcelona.

Internal organization:

  • Anyone can easily register online and participate in important decisions.
  • Open particpiatory spaces at the base of the party: assemblies, high degree of independence, etc.
  • Dominant position of the General Assembly or Plenary.
  • Specific consultation or referendum for important decisions: electoral programme, agreements with other parties, etc.
  • Participatory preparation of the electoral programme and organizational documents.
  • Channelling for individual proposals (Plaza Podemos).
  • Revocation of elected positions.

Developed a theoretical framework for measuring online deliberation, after Kies (2010) and Friess & Eilders (2014):

  • Institutional or structural dimension: technical and structural design of the online platform in order to build a deliberative space: inclusion, asynchronous communication, content visibility, moderation, identification rules, division of labour, relevant information, horizontal interaction, etc.
  • Communicative dimension: deliberative attitude of participants and how the communication process looks like, mainly with relation to the reaction of participants to each other’s ideas: discourse equality, reciprocity, justification, reflexivity, empathy, sincerity, plurality (inclusion).
  • The outcome dimension: results or impact of the deliberation that could be individual or collective (external impact): tolerance, knowledge, efficacy, compromise, preference shift, consensus, legitimacy, impact on political decisions or public debates.

The research analysed the two most voted debates held in the online platform known as Plaza Podemos and the online process of developing the municipal electoral programme of Barcelona en Comú. The three levels (institutional, communicative, outcome) were examined through the deliberative criteria: analysis of the design of the platform and content analysis of the threads of the debates.

Plaza Podemos run on an installation of Reddit; while Barcelona en Comú used DemocracyOS for the deliberation, plus Agora Voting to prioritise and vote the final proposals.

Main conclusions:

  • Both online processes were designed to be both participatory and deliberative spaces. This “procedural duality” seems to lean towards the voting side, becoming a kind of competitive space.
  • Tensions between openness and closeness (a typical tension of a party).
  • Extensive experimentation of new democratic processes: learning by doing.
  • Inducement of a “participatory literacy” among citizens.
  • These processes and the internal structure will be subjected to future changes.

The processes maybe were not optimal, but very much aiming at improving democratic processes.

Discussion

Q: are there facilitators in the platforms? What is their role? Rosa Borge: yes, there are facilitators, which usually do not appear on the front row, and whose role is mainly technical.

Q: how can you assure that you are fulfilling anyone’s expectations? Rosa Borge: we do not know by sure, but the overall sense of the community is of high satisfaction with both the platforms and the results.

Ivan Serrano: after this research, how do we characterize Podemos or Barcelona en Comú? Are they deliberative parties? Aren’t they? Were do they stand between the extreme of being a traditional party and a fully deliberative one? How can they compare one with each other? Rosa Borge: it is difficult to say after our research, as only a few debates were analysed. But, there is enough evidence to say that these parties look different from other more traditional ones. And yes, there is a tension between pure Habermasian deliberation (which aims at consensus) and the need to participate within the constraints of electoral times. Indeed, the idea of consensus is highly criticised by some authors, and that is why it was not included as an indicator for deliberation: there seems not to be that important that there is an agreement at the end of the process (and just vote instead).

Q: how long does it take to become a regular party? Rosa Borge: Everyone is quite surprised with the political success of both Podemos and Barcelona en Comú. What is true is that an initial lack of structures or political organization allows movements to move faster than traditional parties. After that, there is a tension between being operational and being more participative, and the tension is solved with a pendulum movement approaching each side until a balance is reached.

Marc Esteve: what about the tension between consensus and voting? Rosa Borge: lately, the priority is to have a decision or a position after the process of participation and/or deliberation. Thus why in most platforms everything can be voted on the go. Yes, it adds a sort of competition unnatural in a deliberative process, but it also allows to have “something” at the end of the process, and to make the process a finite one, one that won’t last forever.