From the assembly to the party, and back. The Network Party in Argentina, five years on

In 2012, a group of “crazy people” in Buenos Aires founded the Network Party. Five years on, one of its founding members reflects on activism, power, leadership and participation. Português Español 

Florencia Polimeni
7 February 2017

Partido de la Red. Some rights reserved.

Intervention at the Social Forum of the Resistances, Porto Alegre, January 2017.

Never in my life have I lacked a roof over my head, food, or work. When, at the age of 15, I approached a committee of the Radical Civic Union (a historical party in Argentina), my sole aim was to honour my father by following in his footsteps. I think that at that age - let us be honest - one approaches politics for only two possible reasons: to be loyal to one's parents or to rebel against them.

I learned very many things from my first experiences within a traditional political party. You had to respect the organic ways and you were obliged to follow a long training process: cleaning up the committee room, listening carefully to what the affiliates and the neighbours who frequented the premises had to say, studying a lot - history, statutes, laws -, gaining your colleagues' trust and respect, and daring to speak at meetings while you were being judged by the most experienced members.

But the 1990s smashed the Argentine party system to pieces and what had for decades been the fundamental cursus honorum for maturing within a party organization was swiftly replaced by opportunism and genuflection before power. In order to survive, you now had to learn the vices, you had to accept that, as a woman, your effort's worth would always be less, and that you would almost certainly be asked to serve coffee, you had to tolerate the fact that many, with no legitimacy, would assume positions within the organization not by merit but by submission, you had to accept that all the rules have exceptions. Tired of being given orders which clashed with my beliefs, of having the organization's bureaucracy muzzle my criticisms and proposals, of witnessing how power was destroying the party's transformative vocation, and of having no expectations to access any real decision space, I quit.

I was out of politics for a few years, and then a new, personality-centred party, led by a member of the establishment, with a catch-all vocation, offered me a seat in Congress with apparently no strings attached. I hesitated, but finally accepted for I felt I could not let slip that unique opportunity. On the condition that I would keep my independence of judgment, I began my term as a deputy. Very soon the first conflicts surfaced. Traditional political parties are places full of unfair and un-meritocratic decisions, but personality-centred parties are the realm of caprice and the apotheosis of finger power. Everything always boils down to pleasing the one who lets you play with his ball. There is no place for critical thinking, no interest or motivation other than that of a king/owner inspired by surveys, marketing strategies and the advice of some fashionable gurus.

After countless ideological clashes and much methodological tugging, I again decided to leave. I set up my own personal block and decided to taste the nectar of political individualism at its harshest. If I had to abide by a whim, I would rather prefer it to be my own.

I didn't do badly. I used the opportunity to favour causes that I impulsively considered fair, and I managed to have several transcendental laws passed which I still feel very proud of. But despite the good cross-cutting alliances which I built, I felt alone. I knew full well that, ultimately, only collective projects can generate deep and sustained social transformations. It was this conviction, among others, that made me withdraw temporarily from party politics and devote myself to civil society.

I wanted to know if it was possible to rethink organizations, power, the state, from outside the political system. I wanted to know if it was possible to transform the authoritarian enclaves that permeate Argentine society and their conception of leadership and power.

I was obsessed with the thought that power perverts everything it touches, with very few exceptions, and that there seemed to be only one model for leadership, namely that which is relentlessly busy at concentrating power instead of delegating it, at perpetuating itself at any cost, at distrusting, at building relationships with its own team and with citizens based on demagoguery and paternalism.

I was obsessed with the thought that power perverts everything it touches, with very few exceptions, and that there seemed to be only one model for leadership.

I wanted to empower civil society, train it in public affairs so that it could influence and exercise control over the system. My aim was to contribute to building a new political culture, from the bottom up, which would experiment with new forms of organization, participation and leadership.

And to this end I devoted myself, founding and integrating non-profit organizations in several key areas such as science, culture and education. I spent many hours volunteering, talking, meeting with people from different walks of life, listening, thinking, learning and dismantling my own prejudices.

And then, one afternoon in 2012, together with some other crazy people, the idea of the Network Party suddenly cropped up. The original question we asked ourselves was, admittedly, a tempting one: How can we disrupt the current logic of the political system so as to bring it truly closer to citizens? The “Net" offered us a unique opportunity: it was the technological, cultural and symbolic help some of us had been hoping for so long, and we just had to jump on it. Internet was generating a profound transformation of people’s lives in many aspects. So, why not expect it to transform the way in which we are governed too, to transform democracy?

We propounded, to begin with, a double-entry strategy. On the one hand, founding a political party to influence the system from within, and getting a member elected to the legislative body of the City of Buenos Aires committed to voting according to what was decided jointly with the citizens in an online participation platform. On the other hand, developing this civic participation platform to enable citizens to inform themselves, debate and vote, and thus build collective decisions in any field. We progressed along this line and set up the Network Democracy Foundation. We organized, we were efficient, we raised funds and we developed the software. We also pushed other projects which helped us accumulate experience on participation with both the State and all sorts of civil society organizations.

But, clearly, the most difficult task in this twofold strategy was creating and organizing a political party. How were we to do it? Under what form?

For the very first time since my teens, I was thrilled by a collective political project. I felt that we could gear up to question the system's main structural problems and humbly try something different.

I was under 40 then, and I suddenly found myself being one of the oldest persons on board (I had always been one of the youngest!). I found myself being one of the few who had any prior professional political experience. I found myself being the only one who had ever held political office of any kind. I remember thinking: where do I stop? What should my role be? Should I lead? Should I inspire? Should I educate? Should I organize? Should I be a guarantor of the foundational spirit? I remember distinctly feeling anxious not to curtail or condition the freshness of an organization that was trying to be born under a new paradigm. And there I was, in the middle of it all, with mixed feelings: skeptic and hopeful and a little sorrow for breaking with the old.

And then, one afternoon in 2012, together with some other crazy people, the idea of the Network Party suddenly cropped up. The original question we asked ourselves was, admittedly, a tempting one: How can we disrupt the current logic of the political system so as to bring it truly closer to citizens?

We were facing many challenges: finding an organizational structure as horizontal and democratic as possible, so that we could train ourselves in new collective decision-making practices; training dozens of militants who were going through a political experience for the first time in their life and who were very distrustful of the whole traditional political system and, at the same time, dealing with that incredible cocktail of innocence, brutality and pride called youth; and, of course, being efficient at meeting all the bureaucratic requirements established by law for constituting a political party.

But in addition, to make things even more complicated and fun, we were treading on ground which had never been explored before. We wanted to test some provocative hypotheses:

Are decisions taken by many better decisions? Under what conditions does the concept of collective intelligence work? Can political transformation be generated avoiding the trap of classical leadership? Is a self-organized, decentralized political space, with a diluted and rotating leadership, viable? Is it possible to encourage citizens to become more involved in public matters? Can virtual political participation replace the physical one - in what situations and how? For putting together a political party, does it suffice to propose, as a core idea, a new method of semi-direct democracy supported by technology?

Which of these hypotheses were correct and which were not? What did we learn? Or, rather, what did I learn in these 5 years?

I learned a great deal on three levels. On the first level, the anthropological one, I had to accept that beyond the paradigm shift that technology enables us to do, the central problem of how we relate to power remains the same: the Ego. Techno-utopianism (the innocent idea that technology can improve everything, with which many of us started) led us to think that the "new network practices" would naturally tend to de-concentrate power and help us assume collective commitments. However, there is a part of our ego that is proving to be resistant and even adaptable to new formats. In the era of online reputation, honorability is in disuse and Lady Fame (if it is indeed a lady) is going around waiting to be found behind any post, tweet or photo-shopped image.

How, then, are we to train the new generations of militants to resist a small dose of real power if they are being tamed by the networks’ virtual and transitory power? Our only hope is disciplined, self-observation based training, which can make us aware of the way in which power affects us, so that it does not enslave us. Meanwhile, we must be extra attentive until we can transform this pattern within ourselves and get down to building new models.

So, this makes things difficult on the second level, the sociological one – organization. As a reformer, I believe that the main challenge an organization faces is getting to know the system it intends to transform, in order to infiltrate it and interact with it without losing direction. Ignorance and fear of the political system are huge obstacles to organizing a new political force. As a society, we have no training in looking for reliable information and a healthy exchange of ideas. And activists are no exception. Most activists are not familiar with the basic protocols of politics. It is thus essential that they practice participation internally until they are capable of exercising consciously and responsibly their civic commitment. In the end, what we can pass on is personal experience: a taste of what citizens will experience if they actively participate in political decision-making. And then I wonder if in order to build empowered groups which are capable of making decisions we should infer that giving one’s opinion online is tantamount to participating? Or do we need something else? Are those who give their opinion within an organization aware of the commitments and responsibilities that this entails? Who is to shape collective decisions into collective actions?

Another thing I learned is that despite its potential danger, it is very difficult to organize without a strong leadership. There are times when there is no other option, for instance at elections: you have to close ranks behind a strong leadership that can effectively lead towards achieving the goals. But when does that end? When are we supposed to strip power from the praetors? When the election is over? Ever since the days of Rome, history has shown us that the most difficult thing of all is learning how and when to cut it and get back to the assembly, the collective. We have experimented with several different systems of (peacetime) organization and we have found that, so far, all of them are somewhat inefficient.

How, then, are we to train the new generations of militants to resist a small dose of real power if they are being tamed by the networks’ virtual and transitory power?

For a new political force, assembly-associated inaction and the "drifting boat" feeling generated by a fuzzy leadership are a death threat which drains its vitality, drowns its effectiveness, and makes it less attractive to citizens.

The problem is that many of us are tired of the old leadership models. I myself am no longer interested in participating in organizations which only move forward if I carry them on my back and start giving orders, or which oblige me to blindly obey the instructions of a supreme leader. I wish we could build alternatives to these options. If we are to optimize the time spent on public matters and avoid concentrating power, we need to find new systems of participation that are efficient, based on trust and easy to audit. I still believe that this is possible, but it takes time (which you are always short of), patience, and lots of new blood flowing through the heart of the organization, so as to systematize fair organizational practices and build the intermediate leadership capable of sustaining and pushing a joint vision.

And here comes the third level, the political one, the level of the idea that we are proposing as a party, which, if it is sufficiently clear and is a convening one, can by itself move mountains. What did I learn from this?

The original idea for the Network Party was essentially based on methodology. We wanted to oxygenate a system that was creaking on all sides through a strategy of semi-direct democracy assisted by technology.

For those of us who have a political science background, this is an absolutely ideological concept that stems from a profound belief in democracy as a political system, for it values the citizens’ voice and vote as the inalienable source of the legitimacy of power. Referring to our platform as a tool of semi-direct, non-direct democracy is also an ideological decision. At no point did we attempt to violate the essence of representation; on the contrary, we wanted to strengthen the role of the parliamentary representatives, to underpin the legitimacy of their positions by offering them the support and permanent debate with the rank-and-file they represent.

Having clarified this, I must confess that, to me, this original idea for the party has lost its freshness and transforming power for a number of reasons. First of all, I believe that we have somehow managed, together with hundreds of thousands of people across the globe, to install the need to open up the democratic system to real participation by the people. It is true that nobody has committed so far to this aim in a binding and permanent way, as we intend to do from our parliamentary bench. But that commitment alone is no longer enough for me. We must go further. It is not just a matter of reviewing the idea because it has been taken up as a global claim: it is that many of us feel that it has been cosmetically appropriated by some sectors of the establishment.

The project that we started five years ago has taught us a lot about the innocence with which we observe the new mass phenomena, about how we get caught up in the narrative and practices of techno-utopianism, and how this puts us sometimes in the same bag as those who want change so that nothing changes.

We are in a corner of the world which is plagued with pain and inequality. I believe that in order to build real network power and rethink participation, it is necessary to do so in an ideological framework that clearly expresses the new and old problems of the societies in which we live. It is necessary to propose possible, concrete solutions to empower people, and to accompany them in their emergence from exclusion, poverty and alienation.

This is why we began a profound debate within our organization which has so far produced sketched a new vision of the city along three conceptual axes: Sustainable City, Open Source City, and Integrating City. We do not know yet where this process will take us.

Today, as a woman, as a mother, as a 43-year-old activist, I believe more than ever that the most difficult and most important task we can undertake in order to contribute to social transformation is the task we do with ourselves.

The original idea for the Network Party was essentially based on methodology. We wanted to oxygenate a system that was creaking on all sides through a strategy of semi-direct democracy assisted by technology.

I can go from one organization to another, from one party to another, from cause to cause, from office to office, but if I do not get down to working on the profound mechanisms that keep on driving my own behavior, I shall keep on adding my little grain of sand to the perpetuation of a system that nurtures individual success, concentration of power and the endless repetition of the logic of exclusion.

If I dare look into all the power relations that I am involved with, the decisions that I make every day, the way in which I relate to both my body and the world, there may be some chance that I will succeed in making something different happen – that I will manage to change myself, and thus change the world.

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