The world and the internet: influence, openness and community, a view from openDemocracy

On our tenth birthday, we republish the interview Haegwan Kim conducted in 2010 with founder, Anthony Barnett, on his past and future ambitions for openDemocracy.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett Haegwan Kim
12 May 2011

Haegwan Kim  Today I’m going to talk with Anthony Barnett, the founder of the openDemocracy, and a well-known writer on world affairs and democracy. I am really honoured to meet you.

Anthony Barnett  My pleasure.

HK  I want to talk about your personal life first. Why did you decide to become a writer?

AB  Well I didn’t decide to become a writer. I could talk! But found writing very hard. Just before I was forty I cracked it and wrote my first book. Before that, and often since, I was more a political activist and organiser. Then things needed to be written: I learned by trying.

HK  But the result was that you became renowned internationally. What was the key element to success in terms of writing? Is it just working hard or did you find some talent in yourself? 

AB  Well it would be nice to be renowned, I am not sure I am! As for success. One simple measure is whether you can earn your living by writing. Another is whether you are an influence, whether you are being read by people in a way that they will remember. A third is whether, if you re-read something that you’ve written in the past, you think, “Oh, I’m proud I wrote this.” 

HK  Talking about more political issues, you founded openDemocracy. And it is now a kind of platform for many political intelligences and cultural intelligences. Can I ask what was your motivation? Why did you start openDemocracy?

AB  It started with a group of three other people, four of us began it. I’d been the first director of Charter 88. It campaigned for a democratic written constitution in Britain. New Labour had been helped by the novel energy of Charter 88, but Blair and Mandelson were not going to deliver the new settlement we called for. I was very interested in the question of how do you achieve democracy. It seemed to me that this question was becoming, at the end of the twentieth century, a global one - because of the power of corporations, the global media, and the impact of international inequality.


More on openDemocracy's history:

In with the bricks, out for life, DAVID HAYES
A recollection of openDemocracy’s early days, by David Hayes.

How will we resist another decade of low-hanging fruit? TONY CURZON PRICE
openDemocracy's first decade has opened and closed with economic and financial crises. The first gave us the tools that will be needed to reorganise our politics. What should the second give us?

An improbable team, SUSAN RICHARDS
It took an unlikely combination of talents to start building openDemocracy’s Tower of Babel, comments one of its founders

Weaving networks: the growing conversation of the world, PAUL HILDER
Paul Hilder was co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of openDemocracy.net. He is now Director of Campaigns for the UK arm of Oxfam, the global development movement.

Ten years, ten articles: a retrospect, DAVID HAYES
openDemocracy is ten years old. Its deputy editor David Hayes chooses his favourite articles from the archive, one from each year of publication.

The web made it possible to try and start a global conversation which didn’t express the interests of one particular nation. But would become, if you like, the vehicle for a discussion of world affairs of a critical kind, in terms of looking at all of the political and democratic costs, gains and the opportunities of ‘globalisation’. To put it in a grand way, we set out to do the opposite of what The Economist magazine does. It tells its readers what to think about everything, from the point of view of the internationalist capitalist system. Very intelligently, but it is like a weekly directive on how you should look at things as a shareholder in the global system. What we wanted to do was address the global readership who don’t feel they own the world in that sense, but who are on the side of the great majorities. People who are educated and very interested in global affairs, but with a sense of openness, asking how it can change, wanting debate, discussion and exchange (of course, some of them are Economist readers too). That’s why we started it.

Early days at openDemocracy, summer 2002, courtesy Ian Christie

HK  And you were successful. 

AB  No, as well as yes. Yes, in the sense that we started something that is wanted and appreciated, the range, the quality, the seriousness, and sometimes the inventiveness. One way of looking at the success of openDemocracy is that it has a wonderful, international reputation greater than any of its writers. With blogs, even influential group blogs, this often isn’t the case. Huffington Post, the world’s largest, with millions of dollars, isn’t really bigger than Arianna Huffington, for example. All power to her. She has hit the spot in terms of creating a centre of influence. But institutions that last are bigger than the people who run them: who knows the name of the editor of The Economist? I think openDemocracy is something that could last. It isn’t self-sustaining yet - not that anything is as yet on the web.

However, we didn’t, or rather I didn’t, succeed in at least three ways. First of all, for any publication to work it needs a community of interest, in our case a global community. But does it exist? Perhaps millions work and connect with others at a global level. But almost all do so in a specialist way. There are very successful global websites that are technical, professional or issue-specific, with dedicated followings. But we are about democracy and politics and human rights in the popular not the professional sense. I suspect openDemocracy’s potential community of interest is there. But it has not got the immediacy that allows it to feel and experience itself as a community.

Second, the web was ahead of me. I saw its potential early but I brought a traditional publishing model to the web. This was expensive and fraught. Tony Curzon Price who took over openDemocracy has brought the web right into the process of publication itself, radically decentering it into an editorial network. This is potentially very dynamic and a lot less costly, with a federal model where autonomous parts can create their specific communities of interest, strengthened by being part of an international site in a way that reflects their lived realities.

Third, openDemocracy will soon be ten, which makes it more than a survivor by web standards, and there is a persistent demand for it. But it hasn’t as yet taken off in the way that we would like. Tony has made two conceptual breakthroughs which may now achieve this. First, he realised that the radical aspect of openDemocracy is openness. This is the new and internationally shared experience: what will it be like to live in and on an open planet? Openness does not mean neutrality, for example. It is not about being balanced or indifferent to what is said or argued, it means taking a point of view in a way that is open to being engaged with, surprised and influenced by opposing arguments. Second, he is trying to build into the way the editorial coverage is framed a recognition of the two wings of our approach that are in tension: human rights, on the one hand, which are universal, and democracy and politics on the other which are particular, with their specific national histories.

I think what this means is that the reader’s experience of openDemocracy is still somewhere in the zone of a centralised print-publication model which I and my co-founders created. Whereas what Tony rightly sees is that we need people identifying with these two aspects of openDemocracy, until a significant part of its readership becomes a networked community, sharing a conscious need and contributing to its fulfilment.

It may be that the great financial crash and the end of neo-liberalism and its model of globalisation will create the opportunity for this. Nine years ago we started out as a kind of anti-chorus to a globalisation that made spectators of us all. Now we might become one of the homes for suggesting and showing how neo-liberalism can be replaced. This will need to be done in a distributed fashion that emerges from the web and unites form and advocacy.

HK Let’s go back to democracy. There are arguments for and against it. So let’s split up our discussion. In your viewpoint, what are the pros and cons of democracy? i.e. How do you legitimise international democratisation in the 21st century? 

AB  I think that to be fully human (or successful as a human being to pick up on your theme) you need to enjoy self-determination, to use a term that a collaborator, Gerry Hassan, is developing. It is not about determining one’s self as an individual thing. We are not born as islands. I don’t mean it in a competitive way although we have to strive for it. I mean it in the sense that love leads to self-determination.

This may sound like a paradox as love is a form of fate that captures you as its prisoner. You are “in” love, as well as well as seeking to “make” love, it is something you can’t do on your own. To borrow a phrase, you can’t yourself determine the conditions of your self-determination.

I don’t think we have achieved democracy anywhere. What I call the ‘official’ view in the west and Japan and India is that we are already in a democracy and look how flawed it is! As if the problems were caused by democracy, or too much of it. I see it differently. All we know in practical terms are forms of representative democracy. But this is a two-edged form of power designed by ruling establishments to keep the people at arms’ length from power while ensuring they don’t rebel, and permitting peaceful transfers of power so that government can refresh itself. So we don’t have direct democracy although we don’t live under dictatorship.

We are learning how to be free, learning what liberty means and what democracy might make possible. Meanwhile the people in power want us to forget even that we know how to learn, by deploying the circus of consumerism.

HK  I think in a democratic society, the primary thing is to empower individuals. The term democracy literally means demos and kratos, people and power. Therefore to embody ‘democracy’, people have to have power. And many people, often conservatives, are afraid of the fact that the empowerment of the mass will lead to the collapse of authority. What do you think about this assumption?

AB  I don’t like this term “empowerment of individuals”. Obviously, we are individuals, but as I have said, power and democracy turn on what we can do together and how we do so. I don’t think the term “democracy” any longer means what the Greeks literally defined it as, meaning rule by the majority, or mob rule. Today, it means the rule of law, it means no one source of power being absolute. It means minorities having fundamental rights.

For example, in terms of decision-making I’m for deliberative democracy. Suppose you want to have a decision as to whether to build nuclear power stations as these do not burn carbon. I’d like the decision taken in a way that I feel reflects the interests of our society not the interests of corporations, but they are very big decisions, which need government (i.e., other people) to deliver them. But whose interests does that government act in? Is it the interests of the people as expressed once every few years in a vote? Nobody really believes that such people always act in the public interest.

HK  The thing is responsibility. Who is going to take the responsibility? Democracies often make mistakes, and as we have already seen in the US, around 80%, 90% of people think they had got to go to war against terror and now they know that was completely a mistake. I’m not supporting authoritarian regimes but…

AB  One of the big issues in the United States is about the ownership of the media. It was said that in the run up to the war on Iraq, half the American population said that they thought Saddam Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda when he wasn’t. They could only have got this idea from the media. So when I talk about democracy, I think it is perhaps important to say that I’m not in favour of what historically would have been called, ‘Mob rule.’ “Democracy is constitutional or it is nothing”. Democracy has to be open. People with other views have to be protected; minorities must have their human rights. An open process, pluralistic, not monopolistic and not, therefore a winner-takes-all system even if the winner is the majority. This is very important. The Americans (and the British in a different way) have a political system in which the winner takes everything.

HK  That is an impressive insight. In that light, we can make a transformation of democracy by creating reliable platforms for many people, which you’re doing now.

AB Yes.

HK Do you believe that kind of social media will change even the form of media? More and more people are now getting information from the Internet, rather than TV or newspapers while the main media are changing their policies. The New York Times, the Economist, the Financial Times – they use massive resources on the web. Can you give me your prediction for the next couple of decades on this media transformation?

AB  I can’t give you any prediction. The web and the internet are a wonderful opportunity for the creation of what you might call collective wisdom. But the downside of the web, its strength but also its weakness, is its speed. If you need a quick decision it gives you an immediate answer. As a result there is a great cult of experience: of the sensation, of how you feel about something, rather than what to think about it. Difficult problems need thought and intelligence.

The web is finding ways of filtering and identifying who can be trusted and is doing the work. And my belief is if we leave the web open, if it is not controlled by states – whether it’s Iran or China or large corporations such as Google or Apple – then it can work for all of us.

But it can also be controlled. If the networking power of the web is controlled by vested interests, then it could become another form of domination rather than a means to democracy.

HK  Can you give me your understanding of the private corporations? Google has a huge share in the field of search engines. We go to Google and then we do our stuff, right? Now many people are afraid this assumption might be a myth, that Google will dominate all resources of web information. And Google is not a nation, just one company. The fundamental function of companies is to maximise their profits not to make people happy. Not only Google, but Facebook, Twitter… we have got many companies that have a stronger potential than one nation. Do you think this is the inevitable development of human society?

AB  The thing is social networking companies like Google and Facebook succeed because they offer unlimited numbers of people new ways of communicating with each other, or finding things out. And because we’re all very busy, you just want one simple way of doing this. So if the simple way of doing it is by doing it on Facebook, or by using one search engine, then that’s what you do. In this sense they are providing a neutral service, which we use for our purposes. Then the question comes up, is this company just neutral? Or, 1) is it starting to tell you what you can and can’t connect to and do? And 2) is it using your information in ways that you don’t want it to? These are two different issues.

I think we all  work out a certain sort of balance on these questions. Okay, they know about me, so they know something about me. But nonetheless, I am gaining advantages being able to communicate. I can Twitter all my followers instantaneously.

People are making those calculations, and I think there are two big issues here. One is that we must beware of the way these companies will aim to monopolise their activities. We have to make sure that they do not become monopolies that can’t be challenged. Second, and quite different, is that they have information on us, which they may use without us knowing what they’re doing. Which is a form of control. It isn’t slavery but it becomes a form of diminishing our liberties because they can use our information in an arbitrary way. We need to be able to control that process.

I have developed an argument, along with others, for what I called modern liberty. We used to think ‘who we are’ is physical. Our belongings, our physical property, our home, what we make or supply or give. But now we have digital information, records and relationships. We have a record of what websites we have visited, who we are communicating with. We need to enforce, by law, our freedom to control what happens to this information. This is a distinct issue from the monopolistic ambitions aspect of information and networking companies.

HK  I have been thinking about dehumanisation. The freedom on the internet may cause dehumanization, because we are linked with Facebook or Google every single day; we just spend so much time on them. We can no longer live without the internet. How do you explain this transformation? Can you say it is a merely the process of natural selection in the Darwinian sense? I found openDemocracy because I have the internet, so the internet is very nice. I have to say I am definitely pro-internet to avoid misunderstanding.

AB  Put it this way. I think that the digitalization is changing what it means to be human. You are in one sense your friends, your family, who you communicate with, who you think about. If, when you wake up in the morning, you can see your grandchildren on the screen, every day, even if they are in another country, this will alter your relationship to your grandchildren and what it means to be a grandparent. If, instead of going into a factory or a big office, you work from home then the way in which you live is fundamentally altered. So, it used to be that if you wanted to work on a magazine like openDemocracy, you had to get up, go by public transport, go into an office and work with everybody there. Now you can work in different cities and you can produce the publication together. And you can meet maybe once a week. But the way in which you live has been changed. Today, in a deeper fashion, the way in which the young people now learn and communicate has been altered.

A teenager, or even younger, gets their emails, their Twitter and their Facebook on their phone when they get up in the morning. What it means to be human is being altered by this. It doesn’t mean it is becoming inhuman. Up until very recently the majority of humankind did not go to school and didn’t learn to read and write. Perhaps they lived in a rural, or in an urban situation, it doesn’t matter. They were not human in the same way as somebody who learns to read, who can write and who can travel, and who works only 48 hours a week. You become a different kind of human being. Most of us would say you were becoming more human. Now the way in which we learn to communicate with each other is being transformed. This transformation is only just beginning, and it will take at least another generation for it to be worked through. I don’t see why it should dehumanize us.

HK  So we can change the values and definition of success, in the 21st century. Towards the success that all human beings can achieve. It is quite interesting.

AB  You see it is a tricky one, success. One measure of success is competitive. If this person is successful, that person is not. If this company succeeds, that company is forced into bankruptcy. Not completely zero-sum, but there is an element of that depending on whether the space can be expanded. But another element of success is by being a creative person, achieving something which makes you feel fulfilled, where your potential, if not completely realised has been used and you have done something with your talent and your capacity. Making a success of being a mother or father, for example, in so far as one can. That’s not zero sum at all. I think the web and the internet help people to be more creative, able to give more and receive more, because it gives people a much greater productive capacity. Once, you had to be a very wealthy person to be able to communicate to many or over distances. Now it is quite easy.

HK  What I’m afraid of is, as you said, the first definition of success in terms of competition. And competition in capitalist society will lead us to self-destruction. Of course in terms of the environment. But also in terms of income gap. It would lead to relative success being measured by money. People working for Wall Street have very many times higher incomes than the average US citizen. Relatively, in terms of competition, people on Wall Street are all successful.

AB  There are two aspects to capitalism and you have to be careful to recall both. There is a very destructive aspect. Many of the bankers and hedge fund managers on Wall Street are thieves, transferring capital to themselves, not creating wealth. They claim that they are making the world economy grow better and more efficiently, but actually they are robbers. At the same time contemporary capitalism creates wealth in an immense fashion. Whether it is in terms of technology or housing or food, it is an amazingly productive force as well as a destructive one. It’s very important not to simply see capitalism as only destructive.

HK  That’s really interesting. But there are other types of capitalism as well. Incremental capitalism for example, like Japan, Germany, that's what they are really good at …

AB  And China?

HK  Yeah… but China is, for me, it is an authoritarian capitalism. Anyway, for example, they are good at making things better, not bringing radical changes. My question is, do you think because of globalisation all capitalism will be integrated into one form?

AB  No. Progress and growth lead to differentiation not uniformity, to pluralism, not monopoly. I am sure we are not going to end up in a single flat world. Were capitalism to take us there, it would be the start of its end.

HK In that sense, you have an optimistic viewpoint on, for example, the conflict between Google and China which we saw last year.

AB  Yes.

HK  China has its own function as a nation, which is to keep their nationality and bring prosperity themselves. It’s quite difficult to see Google winning isn’t it?

AB  I identify with Google’s policy towards China and I think it can win. The dictatorships like China or Iran attempting to control the world will fail. The only question is how long it will take to defeat them. But we have to organise as democrats, open democrats, to see that they do fail.

HK  If in terms of the market and innovation we can differentiate our models of society, how can we do the same in terms of political participation, will the way people participate in decision making be universalized?

AB  One of the problems is that party politics and the traditional forms of the organisation of political parties are breaking down. We haven’t yet found social networking forms of organisation that can create forms of deliberation for parties. Take democracy as an aggregate of votes. You need parties to help organise the choices people can have. But these organisations themselves have been captured by the media and by vested interests. So how do you organise public choice so that we are not just reduced to being naked individuals? I think we need processes of deliberation which the web can help us to create.

HK  Whether we can participate in that process of deliberation is I think the important thing.

AB  We don’t all have to. One of the things about deliberation is that it is a better form of representation. The logic of representation goes: “I vote for you, you are a good person. You go off and you decide what is best.” The candidate asks for my support and I surrender my support. A deliberative process is one where there are, say, 200 people chosen by lot as a cross-sample, who are asked to solve a problem, like a jury. I feel well it could be me on this jury. It may not be me, but it could be me. I call it the Athenian Option, as with the jury in ancient Athens. A decision is taken by this grouping on my behalf. I can see how that decision has been arrived at. I can see that the jury has heard the experts and taken the time it needs to come to its view. I might disagree with its decision. But I accept its legitimacy because its composition represents the public and the process is open and based on public evidence.

HK  Okay so you support Rawlsian deliberation, the process of deliberation. I think we need to talk about  the reliability of human beings. If all people participate in decision-making even if in a representative way, the problem is, are they really reliable?

AB  I don’t think I am talking about Rawlsian deliberation. He contrived a decision-making process behind a veil of ignorance to establish principles of justice. I am advocating exploring how actually existing people can take decisions with full knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the available evidence and arguments to establish the principles of democracy.

However your question is very important. When people are involved in taking decisions you need to ask, whose interests are they carrying out? If regular people, who do not have a special education are to take decisions they need a controlled situation where the processes allow everybody to hear the evidence, hear the arguments and to speak for themselves – often the best way of testing your own thoughts. Then you will get better decisions. They won’t always be right, but that’s fine, all decision making is imperfect. In my experience people will step up to the mark. The process will not be asking, “How do you feel about this? Are you angry?” You are not appealing to their worst instincts. Of course, if you appeal to people’s worst instincts, you will get their worst instincts. But you can appeal to people’s best instincts with a process designed to achieve this. The evidence that I’ve seen is that people will grow if they are given time and the responsibility.

HK  I completely agree with your suggestion. But I am just wondering why the governments in this world, about 200 governments in this world, don’t think that way?

AB  Because they want control for themselves and because they love the power they have, and they don’t want to give that power away. And they feel that if they give that power to a deliberative process, they cannot predict the outcome. And they are often paid by corporations, or they are thinking that they are going to retire and who will look after them?

HK  If they don’t want to change, we have to force them to change.

AB  Yes.

HK  But how?

AB  Well there you go! If you can solve that one you will be very successful!

HK  [Laugh] I believe the power of technology and the internet has huge potential to change the tendency of the governments to keep their authority. In the democratic society, as long as we don’t vote for them they will never win.

AB  Yes, the internet is a dissolving force especially as traditional power relied upon the media. And the media are clearly being challenged. The big corporations, the big brands are still dominant. openDemocracy is quite marginal in terms of our influence. But still, how they report events is being changed. How people are organising is changing. So it is definitely dissolving the highly centralised forms of power that arose in the 20th century.

HK  Look at the example of News International. Many people say its arguments are those of Murdoch himself. If he has that power can we really say that this is freedom?

AB  Rupert Murdoch claims he doesn’t tell all his editors what to say. But he has 130 newspapers or media outlets around the world, I think, and every single one of them supported the Iraq war. But if you had taken 130 smart newspaper people in 2003 you would never have found all of them agreeing to support the Iraq war. So he definitely controls his newspapers on big issues. More important, Murdoch likes conflicts of a certain kind, they sell newspapers, they polarize opinion, they enable him to exercise control and to make money. It is a very destructive and pernicious influence.

HK  I learned a lot of things in this interview. As a final question, could you give me your advice on how to be successful in general?

AB  In general, when you face big decisions, and especially if you are facing a creative decision where you don’t know what the outcome might be, don’t ask, “Should I do this?” How can you answer that question if you don’t know what will happen? You should approach it differently. Start by saying, “Well it may not work but how will I feel if I don’t try?” This is a question you can answer.

If your answer is, “I might regret it forever if I don’t at least try” then, however risky it is, you should try. In these circumstances it is much better to fail, than not to try at all. If your only criteria when taking decisions is, “It must succeed or I will fail”, then you will not dare to try. Whereas – they are better at this in the United States, for example, than Britain – you should know that it is fine to fail if you have done your best. Don’t ask “Will it work?” but “How will I feel if I don’t at least try?” It is much better to try and learn from that, as no success will be complete, than to live with the regret that if only you had tried you might have succeeded.

Anthony Barnett is the founder of openDemocracy

Early days at openDemocracy, summer 2002, courtesy Ian Christie

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData