PostDem (II). Joan Subirats: Governance. The Third Axis

By Ismael Peña-López
ICTlogy (ISSN 1886-5208). Issue #118, July 2013


Notes from the Institutions of the Post-democracy: globalization, empowerment and governance conference, organized by the CUIMPB and the Communication and Civil Society program. Held in Barcelona, Spain, the 17th August 2013. More notes on this event: postdem.

Joan Subirats. Governance. The Third Axis.

(Subirats’s session begins at 47:00.)

The separation of powers is based on the idea that powers are not to be trusted, but that they can be controlled by the other powers. The role of the government, in this scenario, is to represent those who are absent when and where they are not present. The government had two main components:

  • Competence: finding the solution or person that most fits for a given issue.
  • Hierarchy: sorting, according to the values, the several issues to be solved, including the ones that will solve them. It is thus a hierarchy of problems and people/institutions.

Is that still so? There is a growing problem with the definition of competences. More than levels of governments we should be speaking of spheres of government. Things have become complex.

Complexity has grown:

  • The heterogeneity of the population has increased notably. There are no more two social classes but many more and more difficult to be defined or delimited. This has created a more fragmented society.
  • The action of government has much more externalities (e.g. NIMBY syndrome). And the problem is that speaking with the affected stakeholders may not solve the issue, as the fragmentation of the society means that these stakeholders may not be representing all their peers.
  • We have grown in knowledge, but only to have less certainties: we know have complex answers for complex problems, and not simple solutions for simple problems. Tame problems have become wicked problems. More knowledge often implies that decisions are harder to make… and can end up not being taken.
  • Authoritarianism is becoming less accepted. Hierarchy and power is not enough, and people ask for deliberation and founded arguments.

We used to see power as status, and related with occupying an institution: the one who was sitting on an institution was the powerful one. But now, power is being able to exercise influence over the ones who make decisions or over the ones that have an influence over the ones who make decisions.

Thus, old politics is very concerned in occupying positions of power, of occupying institutions. And they work for the preservation of institutions and institutionalism. Institutionalising institutionalism: insiders vs. outsiders, decision-makers vs. normal citizens.

When some citizens state that you do not represent us they mean that (1) you are not answering my needs and (2) you are too different to me, and thus sure have different interests than I do.

What is changing?

There is a growing acknowledgement that “Politics” does not only happen within institutions, but also outside of them, on the streets, all the time. Politics do not end at parliaments and political parties, but outside of them.

This spreading of politics in everyday life, means also that vertical or homogeneous ideologies are less useful to provide answers or even to provide a good diagnosis of the issues at stake. It is no more about synchronicity, but about convenience, about flexibility.

In a network, authority is granted by peers, and not given by occupying a certain position. The processes of intermediation that do not contribute to the solution are automatically circumvented.

Hierarchy and competence are no more useful functions. A good function can be coordinating stakeholders, articulate solutions, being a platform for collective government, but not any more a core of power.

A new axis appears confronting old politics with new politics, the traditional way to approach government, problem-solving and decision-making and new approaches to face these challenges.


Q: do we need different ethics or philosophy for the “new politicians”? Subirats: A good definition of the old politician is the one that always has an answer. We need new ethics based on acknowledging that the world is complex, that solutions are many (or none). On the other hand, the traditional (and necessary) lack of trust or modern democracies surely has to give way to more trust in the collective to produce answers.

Q: how should be the design of the new institutions? SUbirats: influencing democratic institutions from the outside; dissenting from the actual institutions (which are also part of the problem) and proposing new designs; and resisting the old ways of functioning.

Lourdes Muñoz-Santamaría: how do we go from making proposals to making actual decisions? Subirats: it is true that making decisions is not only about aggregating different opinions or options. But it is also true that governments should acknowledge that many problems are wicked and that solutions are not simple. And defining the problem and finding out the solution collectively implies different ways of running a government. Increasingly, participating is doing, not being informed.

Marc Esteve Del Valle: is there really a third axis? Is actually the left-right axis over? Subirats: maybe not, but what we surely find is that people are less and less identified with the left-right axis. And, actually, there is people that identify themselves with new ways of doing politics and participating. The left wing has still many difficulties in understanding freelancers, cooperativism, etc. Our coordinates are so mujch Fordist that they have serious difficulties when it comes to understanding the World and providing good and effective answers.

Institutions of the Post-democracy: globalization, empowerment and governance (2013)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2013) “PostDem (II). Joan Subirats: Governance. The Third Axis” In ICTlogy, #118, July 2013. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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