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LiquidFeedback: What A Genuine Democratic Process Looks Like

photo of Franco Iacomella

Franco Iacomella
23rd May 2012


From David Bollier:

At a time when representative democracy is increasingly revealed as ineffectual, phony or both – a kabuki theater of empty formalisms that disguise the offstage conspiracies of corporate/state elites – many people look to the Internet for salvation.  After all, the Internet is far more open, participatory and meritocratic than the closed, corporate-dominated process of our formal democracy. 

But even with these capacities, the Internet is not a solution because in the end the Internet is only a hosting platform.  A basic question must be answered:  How should a more serious deliberative democracy be structured in online spaces? 

Let the record show that the insurgent Pirate Party in Germany has made some significant progress on this problem.  Its new open source software platform, LiquidFeedback, is credited with helping the Pirates host more open, participatory and serious internal debates about party policies — and to organize themselves to take action in conventional political arenas. 

The makers of Liquid Feedback characterize their platform in a mission statement as “a bridge between direct and representative democracy.”  They believe the software “has the potential to empower the ordinary members of mainstream political parties, making these parties more attractive to citizens and democracy stronger.”  The software, released in version 2.0 in March 2012, is currently used by several associations and political parties.

It is too early to know if LiquidFeedback is a breakthrough or not, but it clearly shows the potential for re-imagining more open, legitimate and responsive forms of governance.  A recent piece in the New York Times explained how LiquidFeedback enables the Pirates “to create a continuous, real-time political forum in which every member has equal input on party decisions, 24 hours a day. It’s more than just a gimmicky Web forum, though: complex algorithms track member input and generate instantaneous collective decisions.” Thanks to the software, some 1,300 Pirate Party members were able to mobilize themselves to travel to the German city of Neumünster to elect a new executive board.

Liquid Feedback is not just another web forum platform.  As Andreas Nitsche explains on the website for the software (developed by Public Software Group of Berlin):

LiquidFeedback is an online system for discussing and voting on proposals in an inner party (or inner organizational) context and covers the process from the introduction of the first draft of a proposal to the final decision. Discussing an issue before voting increases the awareness of pros and cons, chances and risks, and allows people to consider and suggest alternatives.

It combines concepts of a non-moderated, self-organized discussion process (quantified, constructive feedback) and liquid democracy (delegated or proxy voting). Following the idea of interactive democracy, LiquidFeedback introduces a new communication channel between voters and representatives (in this case, members and board members), delivers reliable results about what the members want and can be used for information, suggestion, or directive depending on the organizational needs and the national legislation.

Because of this system, the concentrated power of boards of directors can be minimized and made more directly accountable to large memberships.  This, in turn, is makes for more substantive dialogue about what members want.  It avoids the familiar pattern of leaders trying to temper members’ demands for change and urging them to be “politically realistic.”

LiquidFeedback would appear to invert this dynamic by empowering the members of a party or organization to make their “leaders” more directly accountable to them.  Instead of elected leaders and boards neutralizing dissent and co-opting power threats, members can collectively determine how they really feel about issue x or y, and demand that the organization publicly advocate those positions. 

This is exactly why the Pirate Party is so refreshing:  it is willing to entertain new forms of direct participation and aggressive leadershp while avoiding demoralizing slides into the mushy middle.  It adopted LiquidFeedback because it “wanted to perpetuate the chances for each and every party member to participate in both the development of ideas and decisions.” 

The idea is that leadership must be kept accountable in practice.  Members should not just be passive donors.  As the LiquidFeedback website explains: 

Although we want everybody to be able to participate in the development of ideas, we believe at the first instance many drafts will be created by small groups or even individuals. This is no problem providing

  • everybody can find out about the initiative
  • everybody can contribute by making suggestions
  • everybody can create an alternative initiative
  • everybody can vote in the end.

Every member may start an initiative. During the discussion period the initiators advertise their proposals and get feedback about the degree of support within the organization…. This system allows all members to participate not only in voting but also in developing ideas and at the same time it is helping board members to understand what the majority really want, to make right and responsible decisions based on the “popular vote.”

….The basic idea: a voter can delegate his vote to a trustee (technically a transitive proxy). The vote can be further delegated to the proxy’s proxy thus building a network of trust. All delegations can be done, altered and revoked by topic. I myself vote in environmental questions, Anne represents me in foreign affairs, Mike represents me in all other areas but I can change my mind at any time.

Anyone can select his own way ranging from pure democracy on the one hand to representative democracy on the other. Basically one participates in what one is interested in, but for all other areas gives their vote to somebody acting in their interest. Obviously one may make a bad choice once in a while but they can change their mind at any time.

One reason that representative democracy took hold in the 18th Century was that it was arguably the only practical form of democracy.  “Pure” democracy – direct participation by citizens in actual decisionmaking – was simply not feasible, and many considered it the equivalent of mob rule. 

But the problem with representative democracy is that public opinion can only be expressed crudely.  Citizens vote every few years – and then a single legislator is said to “represent” you and tens of thousands of other citizens for a fixed term.  But if circumstances change, if you change your mind or if you don’t like all elements of a candidate’s bundle of political views, you’re out of luck.  Your opinion can be safely ignored by those in power.  Politicians come to mold and manipulate public opinion, with help from corporate money (“manufacturing consent, in Chomsky’s terms), rather than public opinion having sovereignty over politicians.  

No wonder there is such alienation from conventional politics!  We’re relying upon political structures invented in the 1700s when mail was delivered by horses, and public opinion had few vehicles to manifest itself, let alone do so rapidly and with granularity.  Now, we have myriad forms of instantaneous private and public communication, many accessible repositories of serious expertise, and many supple systems for forging and mobilizing public opinion – yet our government system remains resolutely stuck in a 18th Century frame of reference.  Constitutionalists may try to ignore this egregious mismatch, citing the sanctity of history and patriotic tradition, but the Internet generation, and the Pirate Party in particular, may have the last word.  LiquidFeedback may be the “first word” in this longer debate.

The LiquidFeedback mission statement concludes, “All the experience we have gained over the past months shows people participate if they think it makes sense and representatives at least acknowledge the will of the participants rather than arguing with silent majorities.”  It concludes with a ringing line from Thomas Jefferson:  … every man is a sharer… and feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs, not merely at an election one day in the year, but every day.” 

Devise a process of governance that is open, fair, trustworthy and participatory:  that may be the best prescription for reinvigorating democracy. It will be fascinating to watch the future evolution of LiquidFeedback and the Pirates.  For more, here’s an article that appeared in Der Spiegel.

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2 Responses to “LiquidFeedback: What A Genuine Democratic Process Looks Like”

  1. Tom Crowl Says:

    This is great stuff!

    It might be assumed that I “LOVE” money in politics… (since I’m advocating more people giving more often via a micro-transaction capability)

    But this is not necessarily so… what I crave is a better balance of inputs to decision, mechanisms of accountability, … and some means of responding to and reducing the enormous costs* for anyone but an “Establishment” approved candidate to ever see the light of day. And I see the micro-transaction as a vehicle for doing that.

    * costs have always been a problem but they are magnified as a result of not properly protecting the interests of the Commons when new technological ‘landscapes’ (radio, television) were incorporated into our existing cognitive environment. I believe the network I suggest can drastically reduce and/or eliminate those costs.

    I’d like to argue that should the Pirate Party’s approach succeed… and I hope it does… and eventually negate (or at least seriously reduce) the need for monetary participation in politics… that nevertheless, the commons-owned account network remains a fundamental for scaling human association and decision.

    It may be that its political contribution potential serves only as one of a number of possible avenues for catalyzation of this (or these) transaction networks.

    I have to confess that it may be my own cognitive bias (talking my own ‘book’) that convinces me that this commons-oriented capability is vital well beyond its role in whatever current representative models are out there… but I rest it on some roughly forming ideas:

    1. That money really IS rooted in motivating the transfer of a decision (an idea + an action) from one to another and was made necessary with the growth of human groups beyond natural human community size… that its a tool utterly dependent on socially shared assumptions… and that hence, the manner of its creation and distribution become critical to the decision and survival capabilities of a group

    2. And that money, while a necessary tool without which human groups would not have ever been able to scale at all… as currently formulated is a technology incapable by of addressing what I consider the three scaling dilemmas humanity faces… and without remediation exacerbates those dilemmas.

    THE THREE SCALING DILEMMAS

    (While humanity faces many, many problems with scale… water shortages, climate change, wars, plagues and on and on… what I’m talking about are qualities inherent in our very biology… tensions that truly aren’t ‘solvable’ but can only be managed… and must more or less… be eternally monitored. In fact I’d argue that these dilemmas are universal and applicable to any intelligent social species anywhere in the universe)

    1.The Altruism Dilemma:

    Its natural that we are more emotionally upset by the death of a close friend than reading about the death of thousands far away that we don’t know. It’s also essential! Caring strongly about those around you is necessary to form the bonds to keep a group functioning… but were the same degree of attachment to exist with all members of our species… we’d either be in constant grief unable to function… or we’d have to live in an world of very restricted information so as to not be bothered with the constant onslaught of very sad news.

    This is the inescapable distinction between biological and intellectual altruism. This doesn’t suggest that the expansion of intellectual altruism is a bad thing. In fact its a very good and necessary thing. It just means that, by itself… it can’t solve the inherent bias in decision makers. And this, btw, in my opinion is why Authoritarianism is able to exist at all. But its more pernicious effects are more subtle… and has much to do with the history of colonialism and how the introduction and eventual dependence on non-indigenous monetary systems has inhibited local development in much of the world.

    And it really is the dilemma all representative systems in whatever form are attempting to address.

    2. The “Monsters From the ID” Dilemma:

    Simply put, the rational mind evolved to serve the lizard brain. However convoluted the path of motivation… Einstein came up with E=MC2 to get laid, fed and approval from the fellow members of his tribe. In fact there’s been a positive feedback loop for quite a while now (millions of years) between better cognition and better chances for survival. I’m big on rationality! I too hope to get laid, fed and approval from my fellows.

    But there’s an issue that has to be managed when our ability to serve the lizard-brain becomes… well… just too good. Because the lizard-brain doesn’t want to do a thing except have sex, eat and admire itself. And it really reacts badly to being thwarted.

    And in terms of representation and decision… in a scaled society without remedial mechanisms, especially one afflicted with the first dilemma (namely all large societies)… the resulting hierarchical structure (despite being representative rather than authoritarian in concept and intent) results (quite naturally but problematically) in a narrow decision making class… utilizing ‘lizard-brain’ laden messaging (emotion-based argument is as old as humanity) over rational argument to advance its agendas. In other words, any group will have divisions. But in a larger group… especially a hierarchical one… unless mechanisms are introduced to combat it… the leadership, even if believing fully in their own good intentions in some representative system, will cultivate the ‘mob’ rather than the ‘crowd’ if for no other reason than that its easier and cheaper. This is a problem.

    Because ‘democracy’ can be seen as name applied to both a mob or a crowd… But its only a “crowd” democracy that can avoid devolution into the manipulation and eventual internalized exploitation of a stagnant representative system.

    In other words, if isolated from the decision process and its consequences… and moreover intentionally deceived or kept in the dark (even with good intentions by people who may well believe in their tales and purposes)… people DO accept ‘idiocracy’… at least long enough to burn through their resources and the inevitable collapse… while at the same time eroding whatever civic decision capability they have.

    And the ultimate “monsters-from-the-id” dilemma really was laid out by that old science fiction movie… “Forbidden Planet” and ties into the third scaling issue we face: What happens when technology scales the power of the individual to the point that one or a few pissed-off-people can blow up the world? That may be an extreme way of framing it but this changing power relationship magnifies a justice imperative hyperbolically.

    3. The “ICT and the Ultimatum Game” dilemma:

    Authoritarianism was justified by the authoritarian with rationalizations offered by the first dilemma (“The ‘little people’ must be content with their lot… this is the way of the world… without our leadership they would certainly fall into chaos and disaster.”)

    And maintained with the second. (bread-and-circuses, flag-waving nationalism and promises by politicians made that are not to be too closely examined).

    But its the third dilemma that made Authoritarianism possible at ALL… technological limitations and especially the limited availability of information, communication and organizational capabilities made it impossible for any small discontented element to do much about it. So problems built up until either social explosion, collapse or both occurred.

    Even democratic and/or representative systems can only be maintained so long as discontent remains below a threshold whereby the hypothetical number needed to prevent its operation is greater than the actual number of discontented actively seeking to do so.

    I’m convinced this is a very real threat. Cultivating ‘idiocracy’ may work for a while when times are good… but when stresses occur… will lead to inevitable disaster preceded by a hopeless but tragic detour into repressive police state-type approaches tying to stop some inevitable number of discontented from doing what they want to do.

    A necessary defense against a rising number of discontented is much greater citizen participation in decision within a framework guarding minority rights, cultivating rational rather than lizard-brain debate.

    Beyond that however, ultimately the promotion of an economics of ‘distributed resilience’… (localized, independently survivable economies) seems, from an ecological standpoint, to be an important goal though I’d argue with only the minimum number of global but narrowly defined issues remaining necessarily determined by global consensus.

    This is contrary to the current globalization meme which sees inter-dependence and cultural harmonization under a commerce-based value system as a positive inhibiting armed conflict. This is a well-intentioned position and not without merit.

    A model for the synthesis necessary between localization and globalization models is needed. But won’t work as envisioned.

    Enough for now.

  2. Albert Saxén Says:

    – yet our government system remains resolutely stuck in a 18th Century frame of reference. Constitutionalists may try to ignore this egregious mismatch, citing the sanctity of history and patriotic tradition, but the Internet generation, and the Pirate Party in particular

    At first i read that w/ dismay..but why could history not be respected when crafting new systems?
    But, let’s not bash the middle.’ Mushy? That is where the Sensible Center is.
    At any rate, within such a system, it is my understanding any party can be formed So …

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