Berlin, 2017-04

How did Bauwens, Casaleggio, Lovink and Morozov get Liquid Democracy all Wrong?

As early as 2013-02-11, at the first signs of collapse of the German Piratenpartei, Michel Bauwens blamed it on its use of Liquid Democracy: Failure of the Pirate Party's direct democracy based on the Liquid Feedback system?

Obsessed with process — decentralized and horizontal, of course — they offer little by way of goals and policy positions.

In fact, 2012 saw an explosion of brilliant policy proposals in the national Liquid Feedback (LQFB) legislation development platform. The problem about the Piratenpartei was that it didn't dare to go a step further and hold actual effective assemblies in it — therefore all the great ideas that surfaced didn't easily make it into the rare, time-limited and extremily expensive general assemblies.

The conseguence is that only a very limited number of proposals would find its way into the programme, pushed by influential individuals at the assemblies and amended by whoever had the time and money to be there. A typical distortion of physical direct democracy that some would call the Tyranny of the Active Ones.

A poll on one such issue — the controversial ban on circumcision — attracted only twenty votes. As 'Der Spiegel' dryly put it, "It's a grassroots democracy where no one is showing up to participate."

That's inaccurate. The correct depiction would be that participation in LQFB dropped from over ten thousand to a few dozen for the simple reason that its results had no effect. What do you expect if you only speak of liquid democracy but can't come up with the majorities to make it more than just paying lip service to it?

The German Piraten focused on traditional direct and representative democracy, rather than taking liquid democracy into real power. What a shame, and how confusing — as everybody expected those who speak about it on television, those who had a significant role in inventing the concept and software, to actually be on the forefront of making use of it!

Instead it was the Italian Pirates who first made LiquidFeedback an official legal kind of "permanent assembly", thus empowering simple participants to end up authoring fundamental pieces of political programme from their sofas — soon to be imitated by Austrian and Israeli Pirates — later, tentatively, also by some of the German regional groups (the so-called SMV as in Ständige Mitgliederversammlung). The Italians however remained the only ones to go as far as abolishing the traditional board, thereby shaking off the most obviously powerful incarnation of representative democracy a political party can have.

By consequence, the Italian Pirates have experienced the opposite of the German ones: pensioners eagerly figuring out how to use the software all by themselves, because that's where the action is. Not offering a way to bypass electronic democracy with whatever traditional assembly, was key to establishing the new platform and reaping the power of it. There wasn't even a need to offer tutorials in learning how to use the software.

Back to what went wrong in Germany:

The lack of leadership and basic discipline within the party has turned them into a national joke.

Correct, but that is a problem of setting up proper rules of conduct — which is probably the number one mistake made by any idealistic bunch of young activists — pioneered by the failed communes of the Anarchists at the end of the 19th century and repeated by the Grünen in the 1980's. The importance of structuring authority is adverse to the thinking of those who want to re-invent things from scratch, with or without the Internet in place. So the Internet and its electronic decision-making tools weren't the problem.

I was part of the initial installation of Liquid Feedback in Berlin, 2010, that pulled several political topics out of a magician's hat that are still being talked about in German politics day-in day-out, at a time when the Piratenpartei was only aware of itself as a digital civil rights platform.

The Pirates of Berlin, who then won the 2011 elections, agreed that the principle of Liquid Democracy was the key ingredient to their success, because it gave them the argumentations that won people on the streets over, on issues that were far from the regular digital ones. I documented this in Italian.

The greatest threat to electronic democracy is social and political, not technical. The reason why the original LQFB of 2010 worked like a charm was social: there was hardly any participant with mean intentions. Of course this is not a long-term solution, so e-democracy platforms have to learn to deal with dominant people — they may not even intentionally be evil.

Years after, Berlin Pirates have attempted to follow the Italian lead in instituting a permanent assembly rather than just a survey tool, but they still haven't solved the in-fighting issues — so the LQFB assembly has been seeing legal trouble from people that do not want the Pirates to succeed.

Luckily it worked in other German bundeslands, so, by now, several Pirate Parties exist that not only have LQFB running — they use it as an official form of permanent assembly, empowered to take real decisions. Still, that is not enough to fix the world.

The Italian Pirates dared to go a step beyond and developed suitable LQFB areas to take everyday organisational and editorial jobs into Liquid Feedback, instead of delegating them to a traditional board. The Partito Pirata is indeed figuring out the operating system upgrade to a political party system that Marina Weisband was talking about on TV.

But what really made the difference is the introduction of a dedicated organ to take care of civil conduct, completely separated from any other executive role which would inevitably end up in conflict of interest when policing its own critics. This could have been the step needed for Piraten to succeed. And using more Liquid Feedback, not less.

It's ironical how Morozov, Bauwens and even Geert Lovink fell for a far too simplistic analysis of liquid democracy. The things they say do make sense, but they miss the point of what actually went wrong. Caught up in exactly what they criticize about the Internet, a filter bubble of circular opinion-making, they tragically forgot to have a real-life conversation with people who actually were there. Casaleggio then picked up on that, as it naturally fit his agenda, to steer the 5-Star-Movement clear from anything that may imply actual inner democracy.


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