The clicktivism of very targeted campaigns, like Londoners on Bikes, Move Your Money or the Big Switch will transform our democracies. The important lesson from micro-campaigning is that identity follows political relevance, not the other way around. There are lessons here for European democracy - European political identities will be built through the right single-issue political campaigns, however hard it will be to convince citizens that their efforts will be well spent
"Ju" is the founding concept of Judo - that oddly tumbly martial art. The idea of "Ju" is that one should always try to blend with the energy and force of whatever you are trying to change. You use the force of others to achieve your own goal - when someone lunges at you, you try to turn their energy into something that will ground them. "Ju" is the right metaphor for the clicktivist campaigns that work and those that don't: to what extent are citizens being invited to engage in an action that takes existing commercial or political energies and transforms them to a particular end?
In December this year, a few friends got together and created Londoners On Bikes (I was and still am very much involved) - a campaign to get Londoner's cyclists to commit to "voting with our bikes" in the mayoral elections this year. This morning, after preparing an email to blast to the fast growing list of LOB, my eye got velcro'd by a message in my Inbox from 38 degrees who have teamed up with Which, the consumer advocacy magazine, to organise a mass-switch of electricity and gas provision to the company that offers the best deal. And openDemocracy's own Clare Coatman has been involved in the very brilliant Move your Money campaign to force banks into better behaviour.
In all three of these initiatives, it is very clear how a small amount of clicktivism - and some bricktivism for those who want it too - can aggregate power into a substantial block and can lead otherwise complacent institutions to change their behaviour. My experience of Londoners on Bikes is that the prospect of actually changing something is hugely motivating, and a large number who do not describe themselves as particularly political decide to get involved. The goal is very specific, the means are very clear. The 38 degrees/Which collaboration and Move your Money share that character.
So what are the conditions that elicit enthusiasm and participation in an aggregation of power? In my old days as an economist, I attended countless seminars that had to somehow get around the "paradox of voting". The economists felt paralysed in developing a political economy because voting is based, as they see it, on a fundamental irrationality: the probability that your individual vote makes a difference is vanishingly small, so you cannot be motivated as an individual to do so. So democratic politics - except in so far as it is the interest group politics of organised lobbies, the politics that we know so well - is beyond comprehension to economics. If you let it in, who knows what else will follow?
But the success of campaigns such as these shows that the problem was not with rationality, but with economics, or perhaps I should say the profession of economists. We, regular people, will put effort into forming a group where this seems likely to make a difference. Indeed, we will seek out any opportunities to do so, because, as Benjamin Constant, reflecting on his experience of revolutionary France put it,
Political liberty, by submitting to all the citizens, without exception, the care and assessment of their most sacred interests, enlarges their spirit, ennobles their thoughts, and establishes among them a kind of intellectual equality which forms the glory and power of a people.
So ... the economists made a simple error - joining together to improve our lives is a social end, not just a social means. And the weekly get-togethers of Londoners on Bikes makes this abundantly clear: it is simply no chore for us, occupying for the evening the public space of the Royal Festival Hall, to be joined together in a common enterprise to improve our city. (Slightly tangentially, the reason that this error was so tempting to economists is that one of their mantras is to be neutral about preferences; economics wants to be a structuralist discipline: starting only with nature, technology and preferences, let's explain the world. What is in those preferences should not matter. But what we have here, in the basic political motive, in what Hannah Arendt identifies as "the love of the world", is a preference which by its nature is fundamental to understanding the nature of social existence. It therefore flies in the face of the structuralist project. And why the attachment to the structuralist project? A good question, whose answer will take us too far from this piece... even if Uneconomics is struggling with some answers.)
Back to this question of what are the conditions for meaningful political activity? I was struck by this invitation that I saw in my Facebook stream yesterday:
European Alternatives London is delighted to invite you to the informal talk \"Toward a more democratic EU: from Transnational Lists to Accountable Institutions\", on the 29th of March in the private room of the Red Lion Pub in 41 Hoxton Street at 18:00(18:30 start of the talk).
Join us for a pleasant conversation and for a reception.
The talk will deal with the questions of the hypothetical democratic deficit in Europe and the weakening of the European Elections caused by both the constant diminishing of the participation rate and the predominance of national issues in the electoral campaigns. The economic crisis, followed by the debt crisis, showed the necessity of common decisions among EU state members; on the other side EU institutions suffer from a lack of recognition and legitimacy that prevent them to take decisive solutions on crucial topics. MEPs are still strongly tied to their national political roots and this makes the European Parliament more a place for delegation of national interests than a supranational assembly. Which devices could produce more effective and comprehensive policies in the EU? Which is the role the European Parliament can play in order to reverse the perception of a EU dominated by bureaucracy on one hand and national government on the other?
European Alternatives seem to be asking the same question, in a rather more negative way: why can't Europe engender the sort of engagement that micro-clicktivist campaigns have gathered? Could I enthusiastically join a project to put pressure on the European Union? Can we imagine a Move Your Money or Big Switch style activity that is focused on the European Parliamentary elections?
Well ... it looks just about possible. The critical question in creating meaningful engagement is to communicate the possibility of changing outcomes that matter to the groups engaged. There are essentially two channels for citizen influence under the Lisbon Treaty:
- through the Parliament's power to veto legislation proposed by the Brussels bureaucracy
- through "European Citizens Initiatives", by which 1 million citizens from a spread of countries can require the Commission to propose a particular piece of legislation.
Neither of these is attractive from a campaigning perspective. The Parliament's power is entirely negative - it effectively has veto power; the Citizens' Initiative hurdle-rate is huge; and even if that were passed, the Council and the Parliament could still quite easily block a proposal.
Nevertheless, here is a scenario which could lead to a democratic political community being born. Take a real transnational issue that affects a large minority spread across many countries - for example gay marriage rights, as discussed here by Alessandro Valera. This should be able to gather the 1 million signatures. Once that is done, the traditionalist right in the Parliament would have either to develop a European campaign to counter the demands for mutual recognition or to retreat into Europhobia. But note that it would be a new kind of Europhobia - no longer directed at the faceless Brussels bureaucracy, but instead at the democratic forces all around. At this point, we can imagine European Parliamentary politics becoming polarised and important in many Europeans' lives. On both sides, a sense of political identity could be created.
I am a Londoner on a Bike rather than a Hammersmithite on a Bike because the mayor of London controls transport and not much else. 38 degrees has taught me that I am English when it comes to my gas and electricity bills because that is how the industry is regulated. I need to be shown in what way I am European by being shown that it matters. Identity follows political power, not vica versa.
Over the coming years, clicktivism will exploit the political power of aggregation wherever that power actually exists. Political institutions with genuine power - however circumscribed - will find themselves overwhelmed by groups joining up and demanding change. Businesses, parliament, political parties etc. will be transformed. One has to hope that the faintest chinks of democracy in the European institutions will be large enough for the winds of democratic change to blow through them.