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Wikileaks (1): the secrecy tax*, or the triumph of Monitory Democracy

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
1st December 2010


The more secretive or unjust an organization is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie. This must result in minimization of efficient internal communications mechanisms (an increase in cognitive “secrecy tax”) and consequent system-wide cognitive decline resulting in decreased ability to hold onto power as the environment demands adaption. Hence in a world where leaking is easy, secretive or unjust systems are nonlinearly hit relative to open, just systems. Since unjust systems, by their nature induce opponents, and in many places barely have the upper hand, mass leaking leaves them exquisitely vulnerable to those who seek to replace them with more open forms of governance. – Julian Assange.

According to author John Keane, in the book, The Life and Death of Democracy, Monitory Democracy is the third contemporary form of democracy, which succeeds Assembly Democracy and Representative Democracy. It’s not a great leap of the imagination to see the emergence of Wikileaks in that context.

Keane’s book is quite marvelous, and I really recommend reading the whole introduction: amongst the things you learn is that democracy was NOT a Greek, and thus Western, invention.

See also, at bottom, how Guardian editorialist Heather Brooke , expresses this shift to a monitory democracy in defending Wikileaks.

Part 1: John Keane:

“Changes in the real world of democracy are happening as well. For some six decades now, assembly-based and representative mechanisms have been mixed and combined with new ways of publicly monitoring and controlling the exercise of power. In the new era of democracy, representative forms of government do not simply wither, or disappear. It is mistaken to think that they are heading for oblivion, for the old representative mechanisms that operate within the framework of territorial states often survive, and in some countries they even thrive, sometimes (as in Mongolia, Taiwan and South Africa) for the first time ever. There are also plenty of efforts to revitalise the standard institutions of representative government, for instance by fostering civic interest in the work of politicians, parties and parliaments, as has been attempted during the past two decades in the clean-up and public accountability and civic involvement schemes (known as machizukuri) in Japanese cities such as Yokohama and Kawasaki. But for a variety of reasons that are traceable to the devastating effects of World War Two, and that now include mounting public pressure to reduce corruption and foolish abuses of power, representative democracy is morphing into a type of democracy radically different to that our grandparents may have been lucky to know. For compelling reasons that will become apparent, The Life and Death of Democracy christens the emerging historical form of democracy with a strange-sounding name: ‘monitory democracy’.

What is meant by ‘monitory democracy’? Why the word ‘monitory’, with its connotations of warning of an impending danger, admonishing others to act in certain ways, or checking the content or quality of something? A vital clue in responding to these questions and understanding the changes that are under way is this fact: the years since 1945 have seen the invention of about a hundred different types of power-monitoring devices that never before existed within the world of democracy. These watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions are changing both the political geography and the political dynamics of many democracies, which no longer bear much resemblance to textbook models of representative democracy, which supposed that citizens’ needs are best championed through elected parliamentary representatives chosen by political parties. From the perspective of this book, the emerging historical form of ‘monitory’ democracy is a ‘post-Westminster’ form of democracy in which power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments. These extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions include – to mention at random just a few – public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts’ reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, ‘blogging’ and other novel forms of media scrutiny.

All these devices have the effect of potentially bringing greater humility to the established model of party-led representative government and politics. The same humbling effect is reinforced by the spread of monitory mechanisms underneath and beyond state borders. Forums, summits, regional parliaments and human rights watch organisations, as well as open methods of cross-border negotiation and coordination (OMCs) and peer review panels, of the kind practised respectively by the member states of the European Union and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, all begin to play a role in shaping and determining the agendas of government, at every level.

Experiments with spreading democracy through the institutions of civil society, into areas of life beneath and beyond the institutions of territorial states, are also much in evidence, so that organisations like the International Olympic Committee, whose membership is otherwise self-selecting, are governed by executive bodies that are subject to election by secret ballot, by a majority of votes cast, for limited terms of office. With the help of a new galaxy of communication media, including satellite television, mobile phones and the Internet, the public monitoring of international organisations of government is also growing. Bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) find themselves under permanent or intermittent scrutiny by their own legal procedures, by outside bodies, and by public protests. In the age of monitory democracy, loud calls for ‘global democracy’ can be heard. And for the first time ever, there are even creative efforts to ‘green’ democracy. Time and money and energy are invested in building bio-monitoring institutions geared to the principle of public scrutiny of those who exercise power over our biosphere, which in effect is granted a virtual vote, a right to be represented in human affairs. There are growing numbers of examples of these experiments in ‘democratising’ our interactions with the world of nature, in whose affairs we act as if we are an outlaw species, with criminal tendencies. Independent monitoring bodies responsible for whole geographic regions and civic organisations sponsored by friends and protectors of the earth are cases in point. So, too, are newly established independent science and technology assessment bodies. An example is the Danish Board of Technology, a body rooted in much older Danish traditions of public enlightenment through networks of adult education (folkeoplysnig) but designed, in the new circumstances, to enable high-profile public consultation exercises, and to raise the level of parliamentary understanding of citizens’ hopes and fears, in matters ranging from genetically modified food and stem cell research to nanotechnology and laboratory experimentation on animals.

In contrast to those policy makers, activists and scholars who suppose that the fundamental choice facing contemporary democracies is that between accepting the terms of Westminster-style electoral democracy and the embrace of more participatory forms of ‘deep’ and ‘direct’ democracy – in effect, a choice between embracing the present or returning to the imagined spirit of Athenian democracy – The Life and Death of Democracy carves out a third possibility, one that has much contemporary history on its side, an option, the growth of ‘monitory democracy’, that needs to be recognised for what it is: a brand-new historical form of democracy. All the trends towards monitory democracy described later in this book illustrate the pertinent points: that what we mean by democracy changes through time; that democratic institutions and ways of thinking are never set in stone; and that exactly because they are the most power-sensitive polities ever known to humanity, democracies are capable of democratising themselves, for instance by inventing new ways of ensuring equal and open public access of citizens and their representatives to all sorts of institutions previously untouched by the hand of democracy.”

Part 2: Videos:

Watch the video, of the author presenting his book, followed by an explanation on monitory democracy:

1.

2.

Part 3: The Guardian editorial by Heather Brooke (excerpt):

“Leaks are not the problem; they are the symptom. They reveal a disconnect between what people want and need to know and what they actually do know. The greater the secrecy, the more likely a leak. The way to move beyond leaks is to ensure a robust regime for the public to access important information.

Thanks to the internet, we have come to expect a greater level of knowledge and participation in most areas of our lives. Politics, however, has remained resolutely unreconstructed. Politicians, see themselves as parents to a public they view as children – a public that cannot be trusted with the truth, nor with the real power that knowledge brings.

Much of the outrage about WikiLeaks is not over the content of the leaks but from the audacity of breaching previously inviable strongholds of authority. In the past, we deferred to authority and if an official told us something would damage national security we took that as true. Now the raw data behind these claims is increasingly getting into the public domain. What we have seen from disclosures like MPs’ expenses or revelations about the complicity of government in torture is that when politicians speak of a threat to “national security”, often what they mean is that the security of their own position is threatened.

We are at a pivotal moment where the visionaries at the vanguard of a global digital age are clashing with those who are desperate to control what we know. WikiLeaks is the guerrilla front in a global movement for greater transparency and participation. There are projects like Ushahidi that use social networking to create maps where locals can report incidents of violence that challenge the official version of events. There are activists seeking to free official data so that citizens can see, for example, government spending in detail.

Ironically, the US state department has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for technical innovation as a means of bringing democracy to places like Iran and China. President Obama has urged repressive regimes to stop censoring the internet, yet a bill before Congress would allow the attorney general to create a blacklist of websites. Is robust democracy only good when it’s not at home?

It used to be that a leader controlled citizens by controlling information. Now it’s harder than ever for the powerful to control what people read, see and hear. Technology gives people the ability to band together and challenge authority. The powerful have long spied on citizens (surveillance) as a means of control, now citizens are turning their collected eyes back upon the powerful (sousveillance).

This is a revolution, and all revolutions create fear and uncertainty. Will we move to a New Information Enlightenment or will the backlash from those who seek to maintain control no matter the cost lead us to a new totalitarianism? What happens in the next five years will define the future of democracy for the next century, so it would be well if our leaders responded to the current challenge with an eye on the future.”

Part 4: More Information

(*For commentary on the concept of the “secrecy tax“, see John Robb)

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2 Responses to “Wikileaks (1): the secrecy tax*, or the triumph of Monitory Democracy”

  1. Lesenswerte Artikel 2. Dezember 2010 Says:

    […] Wikileaks (1): the secrecy tax*, or the triumph of Monitory Democracy "According to author John Keane, in the book, The Life and Death of Democracy, Monitory Democracy is the third contemporary form of democracy, which succeeds Assembly Democracy and Representative Democracy. It’s not a great leap of the imagination to see the emergence of Wikileaks in that context." […]

  2. What Do Wikileaks and Foreclosuregate Have In Common? « Volatility Says:

    […] — Tags: MBS, transparency, Wikileaks — Russ @ 2:24 am   Much has been written about Julian Assange’s theory of how aggressive forced transparency can impose a “secrecy tax” on authoritarian […]

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