Is change without theory change we can believe in?
There's a fascinating world of difference between social change seeking a generation ago compared with today. Then, political projects – around equal rights for women, employees and minorities, and greater respect for our environment – were largely about public policy and wider cultural norms. Accompanying this, ‘theory', political campaigning and raising awareness were at the heart of activism.
Today's change-seeking is different. The ultimate concerns are similar. Most change-seeking shares left-of-centre values, but today a lot of the focus is directly on the doing of good. Typical forms of the new activism include social entrepreneurialism, personal commitment to such things as ‘ethical’ consumption and investment, and its corporate analogue – corporate social responsibility and/or ‘shared value’, transparency (of governments and corporations), hacktivism and open data.
There’s a lot to like about this new world where the prizes go, not to those with the loudest, angriest voices, but to those who’ve done the most. Instead of asking kids what their take on Marx is (and following that whether they're Stalinists, Leninists, Trots or Maoists), and how many times they've been arrested, we ask: if you believe in these causes, what have you achieved for them?
Still, in some areas the absence of theory is debilitating. Here’s a simple example. The Slimehead is a delicious species of fish that became overfished following a 1970s US National Marine Fisheries Service program to promote it for eating – including changing its name to the more palatable “Orange Roughy”. Fishing it is now subject to quotas in most countries, though some argue that the quotas are too large. If you think the quotas are too large, what should you do?
Is it unethical to buy and eat Orange Roughy in these circumstances? Perhaps. But your abstinence won’t reduce Orange Roughy consumption. It’s not that your tiny contribution won’t have much effect. It won’t have any effect. The quota you don’t take up will be taken up by someone else. Indeed, your abstinence will subsidise them by lowering the price they pay. In this situation, simple theory tells us that the only private action that improves outcomes is through private (political) voice influencing public policy – to lower fish-catching quota.
Two areas close to my heart are open data and democratic renewal. I think we could do wonderful things by truly embracing the potential for all information to be a public good. We could build public private digital partnerships in areas like genomics. And imagine how much we might contribute to productivity and job satisfaction if governments used their convening power to promote standards of reporting that encouraged firms to compete for employees by releasing their employee engagement data.
Yet, as I discovered attending the 2014 Open Knowledge Festival in Berlin, somehow the data activists aren’t excited by these ideas. They are, after all, fairly abstract. Two things seem to float their boat. First, data on pretty much anything they might build a cool app for. Second, those with more subversive intent campaign for things like 'extractive transparency' which, with their cool apps and volunteer forensic work, enables them to expose hitherto unknown corporate linkages, questionable dealing and wrongdoing of many kinds. Both activities are entirely worthwhile. But for me, they still miss some of the most important things about information and the new possibilities of the internet. I think the right kind of collective action could bring forth a whole new constellation of digital public goods.
I also got a snapshot of the prosecution of democratic renewal upon accepting Geoff Mulgan’s kind invitation for me to attend Nesta showcasing D-Cent (Decentralised Citizens Engagement Technologies) when I was recently in London. For what it’s worth, my own 'theory' of the ills of democracy is not comprehensive or elaborate. It’s based on two points made by Joseph Schumpeter in 1943 that have always struck me as fundamental, though I’d take them in a far more democratic direction than he took them!
- Affect and expression provide the motive force for politics – as (mostly) rational self-interest and calculation does in markets. It also interests us in collective wellbeing as well as our own.
- All social organisation of the slightest sophistication requires a division of labour. This requires delegation of authority which creates conflicts of interest between the parts and the whole.
Representative democracy manages these conflicts of interest with politicians' 'accountability' to the people in elections. And this accountability has been leaching its historic aspirations to civic virtue and morphing instead in the direction Schumpeter sketched – towards a political ‘market’ with citizens as the consumers and politicians the producers. And mediated as it is through the mainstream media (mass and social), democratic engagement is amplifying the affective nature of democracy at the expense of careful deliberation. And this opens up huge opportunities for vested interests to manipulate democratic politics.
Now while I liked all the projects that were showcased, none of the presenters told us what they thought were the major problems of democracy, or how their innovations tackled them. In place of that they seemed to apply a particular mindset – of human-centred design, transparency, user experience, and engagement – to politics. That might be worthwhile, and I particularly applaud the presenters’ efforts to engage disengaged and disadvantaged groups, and Indigo Trust’s transparency work to tackle corruption.
But while it’s a mainstay of digital commerce and social media, that is a routine part of the tool kit of the new change-seekers, lowering transactions costs on participatory digital platforms could exacerbate the worst features of what I call vox pop democracy, focusing political practitioners even more relentlessly on the instant infotainment cycle. Internet-enabled democratic engagement could see deliberation squeezed even further from the fabric of our politics. Yet this risk was given little attention.
My theory suggests at least two fronts on which to fight the democratic decline engulfing us. First, for representation, delegation and legitimation, I’d like to see far more weight placed upon the solution the Athenians introduced to fend off oligarchy – bodies of randomly selected citizens, able to deliberate and weigh expert evidence as occurs with juries in our law courts. Digital tools wouldn’t be central to such initiatives, though they could usefully help communication within standing citizens’ bodies over time and between them and the wider public.
And I suspect digital tools are absolutely instrumental in building what I've called the middleware of democracy, where we cultivate the skills of deliberation necessary to productive debate. Thus, a discussion site, YourView, helps identify and reward participants in democratic discussions that exhibit virtues of democratic deliberation, such as being able to debate positions whilst retaining the respect of those defending different views.
At the end of the evening, Geoff Mulgan sagely observed that the innovations we’d seen showed some promise, but we’d find out in a few years whether they’d affected major change. My guess is that, as worthwhile as many of them are, without a stronger sense of the key problems they’re tackling – and how they’re tackling them – we’re seeing change without theory. And change without theory offers us little hope of change we can believe in.