I've been thinking about issues around the "emergent democracy" topic for a couple of years. I think the energy shown both in the anti-war protests and in the various groups of people thinking about e-democracy is very exciting. It's all rather unfocused at the moment, but I suspect we're reaching a tipping point, where emergent democracy (or whatever you want to call it) becomes a "next big thing".
I think the reason that emergent democracy has such appeal is that modern politics is falling behind people's expectations. I don't
believe that standards of political behaviour or the conduct of government have got worse - in fact, I think they've been getting better in recent years, largely thanks to unforgiving and sometimes unfair media pressure.
However while politics has not declined, it is still trying to conduct business in a manner that looks increasingly out of date. In the consumer world, people are wanting more and more authenticity, "real" experiences, tailored to their personal preferences. In a world of reality TV, Have It Your Way and cars with more options than Microsoft Word, it's no wonder politics-as-usual is looking a bit faded.
So people feel that politics is not connected with their lives or desires, and so they ignore it, or protest against it, or protest against it and then ignore it in frustration, as you rightly say.
But some of the alternatives are suffering from the same sort of disconnection. You are absolutely spot on to describe blogging as a form of Freemasonry, and also right to point out that being a protestor is merely being counted as one of the numbers roughly supporting the views of the organisers.
My first answer to your question about giving the anti-war protesters influence is that the anti-war protests are the wrong place to start. If it had been a domestic issue bringing that number of people onto the streets, the PM would have done a U-turn quicker than you could say "knife". But foreign affairs are a special case. Apart from the close relations between the US and UK at all military levels, which no PM in his right mind would want to jeopardise, the nature of diplomacy is such that once you have allied yourself with a position, it's a lot harder to flip-flop than it is on domestic issues.
But, more generally, what is it that makes Governments sit up and take notice? I've had a few years working in the Civil Service, under both political parties, and I'd say from my experience, the following characteristics (in no particular order) make a message more likely to have influence in the political world.
1. Expertise. Academics and think tanks, depending on reputation, have
a lot of access to Government, and are listened to. Politicians and civil servants are usually generalists, and so they are always ready to hear views that have been developed through years of practical and/or intellectual experience.
2. Coherence of view. This is important for groups and organisations. Organisations that have a strong opinion - even if it is opposed to the general tenor of the Government's views - will often get a hearing if their opinion seems to be well-thought out, and coherent across the
piece. If they are (e.g.) proposing an increase in EU funding while also railing against interference from Brussels, they are likely to be ignored. Similarly, protest movements will be held to be less important if it seems that their members' views are all over the place (e.g. Countryside March) or motivated by a "motherhood and apple pie" slogan that covers a wide range of views.
3. Reasonableness. The political classes (and this is particularly true of civil servants) have an extremely low tolerance for single-issue obsessives, of whom they see quite a lot. Organisations that explicitly acknowledge the problems with their preferred outcomes, or show an openness to compromise will receive a better hearing than last-ditchers. Conversely, people or organisations with extreme views (withdrawal from the EU, fluoridation a conspiracy, extreme anti-capitalist) will be bracketed together as "loonies" and given a (more or less) polite brush-off.
4. From an MP or well-known pressure group. These get a hearing because they are respected for their political knowledge rather than (necessarily) their knowledge of the subject area.
5. Public support. Petitions with a lot of signatures, or well-run local campaigns do make a difference if they are coherent and the people involved seem to have thought about the issues involved.
From an emergent democracy point of view, I'd add the so-obvious-people-forget-it point that the political class have to be *aware* of the view. Most politicos don't have time to read more than one newspaper a day, let alone blogs or specialist magazines. civil servants have a little more coverage, but even their media exposure is
less than you might think.
So, if emergent democratic methods are going to affect what politicians do (and I think that must be the aim), they need to give the right people reasonable, thought-out opinions in a format that is easy to digest, through a medium that those people know and trust.
I think that for this to happen, there needs to be some sort of institutional structure imposed within which debates can take place. That institution can then build a reputation with the political classes in a way that the more ephemeral blogs and protest groups cannot. It can make it its business to promote debate in an impartial way, and then present those views to government.
Needless to say, from a democratic point of view the institution needs to be:
But, given what it needs to do, it also needs to:
Thinking about this over the past few months, I've come to believe that the most scalable sort of institution would have a central organisation and a number of branches or colleges. The colleges (let's call them)
would be a bit like business franchises - anyone could set them up, in any way they liked, as long as they stayed in line with the democratic principles of the institution. They could be set up, for example, in a village or a company, or over the Internet. That collegiate system
would allow low-level debates to take place in small groups where people would know each other and feel able to contribute without being squished by one of the big beasts of the jungle. It would also allow debates on local issues to take place without occupying the time of the rest of the institution's members.
Then those colleges would elect or select by lot, or however they chose, some of their members to the centre of the institution. From those members would be selected a Senate to act as a central discussion forum, "citizen jury/deliberative democracy" groups that could discuss a particular question or (like Commons Select Committees) 'cover' all aspects of a particular area, and a small group to run the
institution's day-to-day affairs.
There would, I think, also need to be a class of members who give up their rights to speak and vote, and in return are given "host-like" responsibilities as guardians of the institution's principles - adjudicating disputes, chairing discussions, etc., like a combination of the Commons' Speaker and a judiciary.
I was jolted by the concluding suggestions. I guess I've fallen into the Californian / libertarian influenced ideology of assuming networks must be as decentralized and uncontrolled as possible. What my correspondant could be describing is a chaordic organization, co-ordinated only by minimal protocols. Or he / she could be suggesting that there are good reasons for a centre which demands more . I think the devil is in the details of this one. Possibly subtle details of how a campaigning organization is constructed, including it's
constitution, are likely to affect whether it
- can be constructed at all
- can reach a unified opinion
- can delver that opinion authoritatively to government representatives
So my naive first draft at translating how this might be constructed is Wikiarchy. A one level deep hierarchy of wikis.
What would a Wikiarchy be? A place where any interested group who wanted to form a college could sign up and get a wiki
(which members of the college could post to). This college would be able to use the wiki any way that suited them. To structure their discussion however they liked. However, only one page of the collegial wiki would be visible outside the group. This page would be where the college would have to distil their discussion into a unified point of view for presentation outside.
Centrally, there'd be another wiki, comprised of each of these collegial public pages, and with some housekeeping managed by the central gatekeepers. These people would have no editing rights over the collegial public pages, but would have the power to make supplimentary clarifying and indexing pages. They would have a high level control over the structure of the overall wiki, but coupled with a powerlessness due to the recognition that they represented only themselves. (Perhaps colleges could be obliged to publish the number of members, so readers of the central wiki would know how much weight was behind each of the colleges.)
Q : but isn't this top level just a collection of static(ish) pages. How is it wiki? Could colleges edit other colleges pages?
A : Yes. But through a very specific mechanism which, inspired by Ted Nelson, I'll call a transclusion request. College X can add to it's public page, a macro which says something like add this paragraph to college Y's public page. The central wiki then transcludes the
paragraph onto college Y's page. If college Y doesn't like it, then they can remove the insert.
Q : Sounds convoluted, what's the point?
A : If we let anyone personally add anything to college Y's page, then we lose the hierarchical structure and the idea of colleges altogether. It just becomes a standard wiki free-for-all. If we don't let people change college Y's page at all, we've lost the wiki benefits. Given that what appears on college X's public page is meant to represent the common opinion of the college. (howver arrived at), a transclusion request macro on college X's public page represents an agreed desire to add a comment to college Y's page.