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jueves, octubre 22, 2020

Democracy in the Time of Twitter

by Rogelio G. Díaz Méndez

The term ‘trench dynamic’ has been used repeatedly to refer to a type of exchange occurring on online social media (OSM) regarding the Cuban political issue, and which has received particular attention from traditional media in the last few months. Indeed, the OSM users who discuss Cuba inhabit a very polarized environment; we move in echo chambers that promote the reaffirmation of increasingly irreconcilable stances, equally digging deeper into the trenches of McCarthyism and orthodox Leninism.

However, the phenomenon is far from being uniquely Cuban. In the last few years, a growing number of researches have cropped up in high-impact scientific journals, trying to decipher the deep keys of the emergence and consolidation of OSM tribes and bubbles, especially those related to polarizing topics. It’s a flourishing and complex corpus of studies, in which epistemological approaches as distant as cognitive psychology and statistical physics are applied.

And it happens that, beyond academic interest, polarization exacerbated with the help of Twitter, Facebook or Telegram begins to threaten the very stability of liberal democracies, obstructing the generation of wide consensus that would allow progress in society. In the last decade, OSM went from being alternative media for electoral propaganda to becoming the preferred stage for political information and debate. In parallel, the model of capitalist political representation entered a crisis that is externally visible in specific macroscopic splits such as the ones embodied by Brexit, Trump, or Bolsonaro, but which is much more general and contains a significant institutional (structural) dimension.

Political representation is a concept in constant evolution. It is affected by social changes is nothing new. In fact, echo chambers aren’t always uncritical environments for the simple repetition of messages; and they are certainly not a product of the internet. In a way, an echo chamber is precisely what a political party ideally generates in its members: a sort of think tank at the base. The problem is that OSM, unlike the traditional social networks, is largely a self-organizing system, where it’s often difficult for the elites to maintain control over discourses, and where extreme stances are inevitably reinforced by the unprecedented range and mass dissemination of interactions. With OSM we’re getting closer and closer to people who think exactly like us and feeling less and less the obligation to interact cordially with those who think differently: the perfect cocktail for extremism.

Maybe we shouldn’t worry ourselves too much with liberal democracy.

If there’s something capitalism deserves credit for, it’s precisely for its tested resiliency. And one would still have to remember that the democratic element in capitalism is neither essential nor foundational, but an expression of that resiliency configured to smoothen the rough elements of representation. The original form in which France and the US conceived themselves was that of a republic with the representative government; and one speaks of suffrage and representation as support for the anti-monarchist platform, but the term democracy does not appear in any of their foundational documents.

That eternal and dangerous struggle of power-in-the-representatives versus power-in-the-citizens, which wasn’t immediately resolved with the political revolutions of the 18th century, finally found a détente in the bourgeois form of partisan democracy. Today, it’s well established for many academics that the model of liberal democracy only became possible when, after careful theoretical consensus, a system was designed in which the popular vote wouldn’t be dangerous for property or for the maintenance of society with class divisions. This point, far from being idle, has much practical importance, because it helps to dismantle the logic presently identifying democracy with ‘liberal democracy’, which is but a particular implementation of the concept.

There’s no doubt that liberal democracy has served as a means for the development and consolidation of a specific group of mostly first-generation human rights. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a design of democracy subordinated to the interests of a class, whose immediate agenda doesn’t include social justice or several other basic human rights. Therefore, from our perspective and perhaps also from a general anti-capitalist perspective, it’s much more interesting to think about the effect OSM and the technological revolution of communications are having on popular democracy, and specifically about their effect on the Cuban system of participatory democracy.

Popular democracy, which was born from the struggles of the working class in the first models of socialism, understood from the beginning that a political party system, which administers plurality with the approval of the bourgeois class, could only be consistent with the exploitation of the majority. After the brief yet intense experience of the Paris Commune, this democracy reappears with the foundational Russian model of all the power to the soviets, materializing the popular aspiration of a government emanating from the citizens. Thus, in a world that understood liberal democracy for what it is: an incomplete mechanism, associated with economic elites, and even when in practice the new mechanism of popular democracy would also become the instrument of an elite – this time a political-bureaucratic one –, the countries that advocated socialist revolutions gave a central value to the implementation of democracy, in the accepted consensus that it pure and simply meant true popular democracy. That’s why there was a recurrence of the terms democratic and/or popular in the names of most of the new socialist republics, whose focus on a number of human rights – typically second-generation ones – propelled the civic struggles for the rights of majorities worldwide.

When democracy was restored in revolutionary Cuba, it was restored in the form of popular democracy.

Thus, the socialist model of participation as a platform for the election of a legislative branch and the subsequent formation of the government was espoused. We have then inherited an electoral system that’s structurally anti-bourgeois, but at the same time implemented with the representation defects that accompanied the democratic practice of real socialism; namely, strict control by the communist party, especially in the mid and high levels of representation. Additionally, the context of the Cold War, extended into this day by the imperialist aggression against Cuba, has helped to maintain a series of largely anachronistic social obstacles for the exercise of the freedoms of speech, association, and others, which obstruct efficient democratic debate.

It is perhaps too early to venture a sufficiently fine analysis on the impact OSM will have on a model of democracy such as ours. By any reckoning, the most important element seems to be connected with facilitating new forms of expression, association and interaction through the internet. That is, not only the impact of its global scale but even the mere existence of these platforms outside the established institutional channels.

From the point of view of range and mass dissemination, the Cuban political debate now suffers from the same problems of polarization seen elsewhere. Moreover, Cuban society is now becoming inserted in a global agenda of topics that already was very polarized, and that contains many areas, often related to the rights and perspectives of minorities. Despite the emergence of discourses of hatred, this widening of active debate positively influences or is bound to influence the quality of Cuban democracy, thus resolving one of the weak points of the popular democratic conception: the visibility of minority groups.

The growing visibility on OSM of minorities and of the less fortunate sectors, in general, provides unprecedented strength for democratic debate in Cuba, energizing from the digital realm the traditional functions of associations, journalism, and the accountability of government officials. It may be that our democracy is not yet assimilating well this abrupt readjustment of tolerance codes, the fallibility of sources, and the relativity of self-validation mechanisms, but it should be able to do it perfectly, and the effect can already be seen in the influence the government itself has acknowledged a couple of times. There’s a negative influence on the pace of this assimilation from the role of illegitimately-financed actors, that is, with money for regime change. This happens not only because they generate an often artificial distortion of the debate, but also because they generate the constant need to identify and denounce these illegitimate sources, thus complicating the rational operation of the extensive Cuban mechanisms for the defense of sovereignty and state security.

This contribution by OSM to the Cuban democratic debate occurs in a rather top-down manner.

The better perception of minorities, the expression of citizens on topics of general interest, and the spirit of oversight of representatives have a direct influence on legislative and government structures, naturally with more strength on the mid and high levels. In that respect, there are already numerous efforts underway for the creation of digital systems and applications for oversight, open data, electronic government, etc, both from civil society and from state institutions, which beyond OSM are starting to make up the group of indispensable tools for the interaction of representatives with voters.

But there’s a second potential contribution, profoundly linked to the development of popular democracy, which consists of the implementation of systems devised in order to strengthen a bottom-up organization of citizens. This variant of digital interaction focused on the territory and community participation has been scarcely exploited by the regular internet actors and the great OSM developers beyond dating services and route and local interest mapping. However, at the center of this territorial conception lies a relatively new and dangerously tangential idea for the mechanisms of bourgeois democracy: democracy 2.0.

The idea of democracy 2.0 is based precisely on exploiting the power of integration of electoral actors by means of the internet, and it’s compatible with a territorial structure, with designs focused on the election. In a context of liberal democracy, the spirit of democracy 2.0 is doubly original. On one hand, it takes advantage of new communication technologies to organize debate and the expression of citizens, and on the other hand, it brings about active empowerment of electoral bases. This empowerment has its most obvious expression in the natural nomination of representatives, as opposed to the existence of representatives that are previously designated and are provided with pre-calculated discourses by a party. Thus, it is understandable that the conceptions of democracy 2.0 in the world are developing much more in a purely legislative direction, rather than towards mechanisms involving the election of representatives. At present, however, valuable attempts for practical implementation in both directions within the liberal system are starting to build up an experience. In order to see two examples, those interested may visit the French electoral platform La Primaire (https://laprimaire.org/) and the Brazilian application for interaction with the legislative branch Poder do Voto (http://www.poderdovoto.org/), both organized by civil society.

We must point out that this bottom-up approach, which is transgressive for the democratic system of real capitalism, has a very different reading from a system of popular democracy such as the Cuban one, where the essential elements of democracy 2.0 come smoothly and naturally into the electoral process, especially in the current mechanisms at the base, which have no contradiction in principle with the fundamentals of online strategies for the election of representatives. Contrary to most countries, the implementation of systems inspired by democracy 2.0 doesn’t change the essence of a democracy such as the Cuban one, and it could surely propel decisively the quality of our electoral process from the base.

The novelty brought by online social interaction in the discussion of opinions and viewpoints on a community level, the validation of actions, the feedback for proposals, and, above all, the wide spectrum of inclusion that can be achieved through its interactive component, goes way beyond the idea of democracy 2.0, although it would have a privileged connective function between the micro-scale and the macro-scale of popular democracy. In any case, the revolution of communications and OSM still has many things to say in the democratic exercise of society such as ours, and one of them is that there’s a lot of room at the bottom.

The community is a space avid for initiatives.

Would territorial initiatives bring with them the same evils of intolerance and hate typical of mass OSM into community debate? Maybe. Even for the micro-scale, this continues to be a problem in need of study and systematization. But there are many reasons to expect that in a local context people will end up being a lot more tolerant and inclusive. And the key is empathy. The fact of not only interacting in order to effectively change something but also to do so from a debate with people who are around you in a three-dimensional space, within a community in which attachments and coexistence compromises have developed in a personal manner. There’s ample evidence on the role of empathy in the generation of consensus through the emotional assessment of other people’s experiences and their importance for one’s own.

It would be a favorable success if the solution to the discourse of hatred and the polarization of the Cuban debate should precisely be in a participatory expansion into the micro-scale, supported by the popular democratic structures. It’s a reasonable hope; it has even been said that the hatred and intolerance problem in Cuba, beyond specific instances, is mostly posturing, because it’s something that the Cuban family has long resolved at home, where the most original component of what we are lies. How much help could OSM with neighborhood structures provide then?

The trench dynamic makes for a bloody, yet metaphorically adjusted image. There’s a fierce ongoing struggle on OSM, in blogs, and in any other forum for an opinion. But it’s more dangerous that we’re trying to improve this exchange following the same liberal logic of opposing sides as the only possible expression of democracy. It’s time to start thinking about the growing opportunities of the new communicational scenario, and connect the system of Cuban popular democracy with OSM, in debate models that empower the neighborhood and legitimize consensus and representatives from an honest exchange based on empathy.

In the First World War, when the trench dynamic (in the strict sense) reached the peak of brutality, the enemy lines were often so close that the soldiers on both sides could shout at each other. Sometimes, when they found a common language, they would begin by inquiring about football and weather news… Christmas truces are an impressive and significant episode of human history, in which soldiers who had been killing each other by the hundreds for many weeks spontaneously decided at some point to stop the war; none of them being any less German or British for it. Regrettable consequences are to be expected, a French commander wrote during the same war when the men become acquainted with their neighbors on the opposite side.

Contact the author at nep2n0@gmail.com

Translated from the original