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The Transparency Delusion endangers really existing democracy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
4th February 2013


Is the citizen with the smartphone the one who can restore our trust in democracy and democratic institutions? I am sceptical. Smartphones may make it easier for us to control our politicians, but trust refers to the confidence in the operation of institutions that people cannot directly monitor and control. We don’t trust our families and friends because we are able to control them. The increased capacity of people to control their representatives doesn’t translate easily into trust in democracy.

Excerpted from the article:

* The Transparency Delusion. By Ivan Krastev. Eurozine, 2013.

(the original Eurozine text is itself an edited excerpt from Ivan Krastev’s book In Mistrust We Trust: Can Democracy Survive When We Don’t Trust Our Leaders?)

Ivan Krastev:

‘So does the citizen with the smartphone represent the power we have accrued or the power we have lost? Should we be nostalgic for the decline of ideological politics or liberated by its burden? And can we trust the smartphone to be an effective new instrument to defend our rights?

Is the citizen with the smartphone the one who can restore our trust in democracy and democratic institutions? I am sceptical. Smartphones may make it easier for us to control our politicians, but trust refers to the confidence in the operation of institutions that people cannot directly monitor and control. We don’t trust our families and friends because we are able to control them. The increased capacity of people to control their representatives doesn’t translate easily into trust in democracy. Lenin used to believe that “trust is good, control is better,” but the Bolshevik titan is not widely known for his model of democratic governance. And while it is likely that today’s crisis of trust is probably less dramatic than the surveys tell us (and the current public debate suggests), sociologist Niklas Luhmann has argued that trust is “a basic fact of social life,” without which one could not get out of the bed in the morning. It is also clear that the increased ability of citizens to control their governments has not led to more trust in democracy. Unfortunately, most of the initiatives that claim to rebuild civic trust are in reality helping arouse a democracy of mistrust. This trend is nowhere more evident than in today’s popular obsession with transparency.

Transparency is the new political religion shared by a majority of civic activists and an increasing number of democratic governments. The transparency movement embodies the hope that a combination of new technologies, publicly accessible data, and fresh civic activism can more effectively assist people control their representatives. What makes transparency so attractive for different civic groups is the exciting premise that when people “know,” they will take action and demand their rights. And it is fair to admit that the advancement of the transparency movement in many areas has demonstrated impressive results. Governmental legislation that demanded companies to disclose the risks related to their products empowered customers and made life safer (we have today’s often reviled Ralph Nader as one early person to thank here). Demand for disclosure has also transformed the relations between doctors and patients, teachers and students. Now patients have a greater capacity to keep doctors accountable, and parents can more effectively decide which school to select for their children. The new transparency movement has empowered the customers.

Thus it is logical to assume that, stripped of the privilege of secrecy, governments will be irreversibly changed. They will become more honest. Where the government maintains too many secrets, democracy becomes brittle, even when competitive elections produce, ex ante, uncertain outcomes. Only informed citizens can keep governments accountable. In short, it is unsurprising that democracy activists have invested so much hope that transparency itself can restore trust in democratic institutions. As American legal scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig stated in his essay “Against Transparency”: “How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious.” But while the virtues of transparency are obvious, the risks should not be ignored, as Lessig powerfully argues.

The notion that transparency will restore public trust in democracy rests on several problematic assumptions, primarily the presupposition that “if only people knew” everything would be different. It is not so simple. The end of government secrecy does not mean the birth of the informed citizen, nor does more control necessarily suggest more trust in public institutions. For instance, when American voters learned that the US had started a war with Iraq without proof of weapons of mass destruction, they still re-elected the president who led the way. And when Italians kept Silvio Berlusconi in power for more than a decade, they had long been saturated with news of all the wrongdoings that anti-Berlusconi activists hoped would be enough to get rid of the guy. But in politics, “knowing everything” still means knowing different things. And the very fact that governments are compelled to disclose information does not necessarily translate to people knowing more or understanding better. Inundating people with information is a time-tested way to keep people uninformed. If you don’t trust me, ask your accountant. He will tell you that the best way to discourage any tax inspector to look into the workings of your company is to give him all available information instead the needed and the useful items. When it comes to the relations between trust and control, the issue is even more complex. Does control create trust, or is it simply a substitute for it? Do authoritarian governments increase their capacity to control society in order to trust them more?

Contrary to the claim of transparency advocates who insist that it is possible to reconcile the demand for the opening of government with the protection of citizens’ privacy, I contend that wholly transparent government denotes a wholly transparent citizen. We can’t make the government fully transparent without sacrificing our privacy. In contrast to those advocates who believe that a politics of full disclosure improves the quality of public debate, I think that injections of huge flows of information make public conversation more complicated, shifting the focus away from the moral competence of the citizen to his expertise in one or another area. Contrary to the expectations of the transparency movement that full disclosure of government information will make public discourse more rational and less paranoid, my argument is that a focus on transparency will only fuel conspiracy theories. There is nothing more suspicious than the claim of absolute transparency. And nobody can honestly say that when our governments have become more transparent our debates have become less paranoid. The rise of the transparency movement has the potential to remake democratic politics, but we should be sure we are in agreement as to the direction of the change. Is the transparency movement capable of restoring trust in democratic institutions, or is it, alternatively, going to make “mistrust” the official idiom of democracy?

Crucially, our extreme focus on transparency influences the very way democracy works. It may even contribute to a process of replacing representative democracy with political regimes that limit themselves only to citizen control of the executive. Contrary to its stated ambition to restore trust in democratic institutions, the transparency movement may accelerate the process of transforming democratic politics into the management of mistrust. The politics of transparency is not an alternative to a democracy without choices; it is its justification and blurs the distinction between democracy and the new generation of market-friendly authoritarian regimes. It is not surprising that Chinese leaders enthusiastically endorse the idea of transparency. What they oppose is the competition of parties and ideas and the search for political alternatives to the Communist rule.

If the idea of the “naked” society is the dream of governments, the idea of a naked government and denuded corporations represent the wish fulfilment of many democracy activists. Initiatives such as Publish What You Pay, Open Government Initiative, or radical political efforts such as WikiLeaks are the best studies making the case that when armed with the “right” information, people can keep governments accountable. Louis Brandeis’ oft-quoted line that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” succinctly summarizes the philosophy of the transparency movement. The movement aims to build a reverse panopticon whereby it is not government that will monitor society but society that will monitor those in power. The totalitarian utopia of people spying for the government is now replaced by the progressive utopia of people spying on the government.

The problem, however, is that spying is spying, regardless of who is spying on whom (just as the winner of a rat race is, alas, still a rat). Should we concede our right to privacy in order to get better public services? Is it fundamentally different from the demand of totalitarian regimes to proscribe individual choice in order to achieve national greatness and a more equal society? The debate over WikiLeaks’ published cables brought into full view the moral dimension of the war against secrecy. As a rule, governments monitor people. When you make such efforts transparent, you also open up to the world those citizens who spoke with or were monitored by the government. It is impossible to publish authentic documents without putting at risk government sources. And it is impossible to open state files without reading the information they have collected about its citizens. The opening of secret police files in post-communist societies is the classical example of the dilemmas behind any politics of disclosure. Should everyone know what others have been doing during the communist period? Should only the files of public figures be opened? How reliable is the information collected by the secret police? Will the knowledge about others produce moral catharsis in society, or will it be used simply as “kompromat” (compromise) in sordid power games? These are not easy questions.

Modern society was built on the hope that one day we will trust strangers and institutions as if they were members of our families. Recent experience shows, however, that the reverse is true. We have begun treating our families with the mistrust earlier reserved for criminals. What we are witnessing is how the combination of mistrust and new technologies is remaking our private lives. Mistrust is now the default option even in family relations. Indeed, lawyers now say that technology is turning divorce into an arms race. Kitchens and bedrooms are now bugged like the American embassy in Moscow was in the days of the Cold War. Thus, while the promise of transparency was to restore trust in public institutions, in reality it spread mistrust into the sphere of private life.

“You can be sure that in the nearest future, someone will create software that will make it almost impossible for politicians to lie,” my old friend Scott Carpenter, a deputy director of Google Ideas, told me only half-jokingly. Recently, Google established Google Ideas, a think tank that works to put technology into the service of citizens. For years, politics was the art of telling people what they want to hear. Carpenter’s suggestion was that in the age of transparency, this should no longer be possible. What my friend had in mind was that the new software would track all the statements and positions taken by a politician on a certain issue so that when he changes his position and starts to flip-flop, the voter can punish him for his opportunism. Not only that, we would know whom the politician meets, who contributes to his campaign, and whether his spouse or kids serve on the boards of the government’s favoured companies.

Transparency then stands less in opposition to secrecy but to deception and lies. The promise of the transparent society is no different from the promise of the science-fictional Truth Machine. It is the promise of a society without lies. You can never eliminate the liars, but you can eliminate the lie and its attendant power to subvert society. What is disturbing in the growing hope that transparency will improve our societies is something T.S. Eliot observed almost a century ago: how the advocates of transparency are “dreaming of systems so perfect so no one will need to be good.” In this imagining, trust comes not from shared goals or experience or from certain ethics but from the mastery of the institutional design. Rather than believe in the self-correcting nature of democratic society, they hold out faith for the establishment of societies that make no mistakes.

Albert Hirschman argues that there are two kinds of responses to the deterioration of services or the performance of institutions: exit and voice. To paraphrase Hirschman, “exit” is the act of leaving because a better good or service is provided by another firm or organization. Indirectly and unintentionally “exit” can cause a deteriorating organization to improve its performance. “Voice” is the act of complaining, petitioning or protesting, with the intention of achieving a restoration of the quality that has been impaired. Easy availability to exit is inimical to voice, for by comparison with exit voice is costly in terms of effort and time. Moreover, to be effective, voice often requires group action and is thus subject to all the well-known difficulties of organization – namely, representation and free riding.

Voice and exit thus distinguish the world of politics from the world of the market. The politics of voice is what we call political reform. But in order for political reform to succeed, there are several important preconditions. People must feel committed to invest themselves in changing their societies by feeling a part of that society. And for the voice option to function properly, people should strategically interact with others and work to make change together. Commitment to one’s group is critically important for the messy and methodical politics of change to work properly. What worries me most at present is that citizens react to the failures of democracy in a way similar to how they react when disappointed with the market. They simply exit. They exit by leaving the country or stopping voting or, indeed, voting with blank ballots. The citizen with the smartphone acts in the world of politics the same way he acts in the sphere of the market. He tries to change society simply by monitoring and leaving. But it is the readiness to stay and change reality that is at the heart of democratic politics. It is this basic trust that allows society to advance. This is why democracy cannot exist without trust and why politics as the management of mistrust will stand as the bitter end of democratic reform.”

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