Soapbox Post

To an increasing extent, social movements such as those ongoing in Spain –and elsewhere in Europe and the world- are becoming a conscious opportunity for exploring new paths for democracy. These explorations seem not to be the result of any technological fate, but rather a feat of sociotechnical change, with some concrete antecedents.

Among those antecedents it could be mentioned the feeling--certainly not new--that a sociotechnical update of democracy is needed because others got that update first. Crucially, among them were financial systems and the markets. As Manuel Castell´s analyses in The Network Society show, the economic sector, and, within it, the financial one, were among the first to take advantage of the rise of new information and communication technologies (NICTs) in our post-industrial societies. That fact exponentially increased their size and power. The situation was rather different for civil society and the main institutions of democracy, which have suffered relative decline in terms of relevance and operativity in the last decades (at least in Spain and the EU). From this viewpoint, this crisis may represent a further step in that decline, a chance for deep transformation, or-–more probably--one of the many possibilities in between.  One thing seems clear, though: international finance and key economic institutions have proved their influence over the policies responding to the crisis as much as they did so during its incubation-as various documentaries have tried to show with wilder or milder rhetorics--always moving at the speed of light thanks to digital operations worldwide.

In spite of antecedents of social protests catalyzed via NICTs and the work of many groups--especially cyberactivists and hackers--for transforming the internet into an openly political space, these emerging platforms remained primarily oriented towards production and consumption. Consumption, in turn, continued to be taken as a key index of the will of the citizens, a will whose ultimate value could be measured in terms of purchasing power. In this context, for the last two years, online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook--and Youtube, Gmail, etc--have been connected to social revolts of increasing relevance and potentially lasting impacts. Uprisings such as those initiated in many Muslim countries showed the possibilities of NICTs for contributing to deep changes in political regimes. 

In the case of Spain, the democratic regime was well established. Nevertheless, to the eyes of an increasing number of citizens, it has proven inoperative and ultimately subordinated to the allegedly anonymous will of the markets and the political-economic institutions tied to them. In a sense, the ongoing protests in Spain can only indirectly be considered an outcome of ´´the crisis,´´ and are better understood as a direct response to the way in which official institutions are dealing with it. Their policies seem not only unwise (see Krugman´s articles in NYT) or unjust (as Galbraith and Stiglitz have pointed out) to many citizens, but symptomatic of deeper structural problems. To the people camping and assembling for the last month in many Spanish and European squares (most camps in Spain are now becoming itinerant, transforming into periodic assemblies and online-offline work groups), one of those problems is the mentioned obsolescence of current institutions of democratic representation.

The so-called Euro Pact, already agreed upon by leaders of European nations and to be signed on June 27, is interpreted within the movement as the next step in a neoliberal response to the crisis, promoted by certain national and international economic institutions without much direct input from a wary citizenry. This perception is already catalyzing a first response, a demonstration convoked for June 19th at the national and international level.

As events unfold and protests march, a growing public is realizing the potentialities of NICTs –and specially the Internet- as crucial venues for instigating, promoting, and developing structural changes in contemporary democracies (Iceland is seen as an inspiring example, even if difficult to extrapolate elsewhere). Among the different groups composing the 15-Movement, many are exploring new forms of political participation and deliberation. Some want to support or innovate on earlier proposals for a Democracy 4.0 or a Wikiparliament. Alternative forms of political organization seem to be at stake in these works, and more so to the extent that similar movements mushroom elsewhere. This is true not primarily in ideological but rather in sociotechnical terms. It is true of the kinds of spaces and networks of humans and technologies, ideas and practices that are being assembled.

Whether these forms will be able to crystallize, to what extent, with what characteristics and influence, etc. are open questions. The assessment of what they may bring about, of the problems that they may solve or generate, are -and will be- open for debate and contestation. Only action and time will tell if, as unanticipated consequence of this finance-driven crisis, democracy is finally able to catch up with finance, and what that may mean.

About the Author: Antonio Calleja-Lopez was visiting Fulbright student with CSPO and CNS from the University of Seville, Spain.
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