The world is changing due to new technologies available, which affects not only the economy but nearly all spheres of people’s lives, including politics. Nowadays, democracy is worldwide the most common form of governing. However, this change does not yet affect politics as much as other areas of life, as Irena Guidikova already mentioned in the interview reported about in the previous article “The rules of the game are changing”.

What is liquid democracy?

Liquid democracy is a collective term to describe a more “fluid and responsive participation of citizens in the democratic process through the use of both online and offline networks. What these approaches have in common is the concept of delegating your vote for certain subject areas or topics. Hence, it is possible to actively participate in one topic while delegating one’s vote to someone else for others. It is this fluid rotation between direct and indirect democracy that characterises the model of liquid democracy (as is perfectly explained in this short video).

In order to understand why so many people claim a new form of democracy, one has to take a look at the context in which modern democracy was developed. According to Jakob Jochmann, in ancient Greece all the men came together on a designated hill in order to discuss current issues and create policy solutions. The word on the street was transformed into politics. Nowadays, in modern states there is no possibility for the common public to regularly meet somewhere. Additionally, today’s problems are a lot more complex than those of the ancient Greeks. That may be part of the reason why many people today feel they do not have the adequate expert knowledge about the issues at stake in order to contribute to the political sphere. Instead, most modern democracies have designated representatives who devote all their time to be professional politicians. The public is informed on the issues being in dispute by mass media, but only the appointed people are in the position to shape the political arena.

However, the technological progress of the last few decades has made global communication a lot easier and faster. Liquid democracy focuses on a dilemma that many citizens face – they are involved with organisations and networks of all kinds, personally as well as professionally, but at the same time, many people have the feeling that they lack the opportunity to effectively influence and campaign for their stance on a higher level.

The German Pirate Party

The possibly most famous example within Germany of an organisation using liquid democracy is the German Pirate Party. It was founded in September 2006 and is part of the international movement of pirate parties. The platform used by the German Pirate Party is called Liquid Feedback. Briefly, it is an open-source platform that manages competition and decision-making. Since it is an open-source software, any of the more than 35,000 members of the German Pirate Party can use it and propose a policy. In the ideal case, different people work on the same alternative policy so that a healthy competition is created in which the best will win the poll. Hence, people stay involved with the topic.

As mentioned earlier, every member has one vote which can be delegated to someone else for certain topics or specific proposals, or not at all. In order to avoid votes being passed up the chain leading to a person obtaining most of the votes and consequently a lot of power, every delegated vote can be reclaimed at any time. It is a trust-based approach, as explained by Bormuth:

We want effective people to be powerful and do their work, but we want [the grassroots] to be able to control them.

“You should have your goals besides the technique”

Jens Seipenbusch, co-founder of the German Pirate Party presented the topic of liquid democracy on 28 November 2013 at the World Forum for Democracy. One day later, he gave Society 3.0 an exclusive interview about liquid democracy, citizen participation, and the importance of “silly neighbours”.

 

 

Advantages and disadvantages

Obviously, this concept is not all rainbows and butterflies. Some questions and issues at stake are just too complex and important to be only a decision depending on Liquid Feedback. But there is no denying the fact that involving everyone in a nation’s decision-making process is more desirable than only a few steering the wheel, isn’t it? 

Another point is social exclusion. Liquid democracy obviously excludes media illiterate people, meaning people who are not able to handle digital technologies or people who do not have access to them. This leads to a global digital divide which Manuel Castells famously described as the gap between the promise of the Information Age and its bleak reality for many people around the world. The digital divide often also reflects the inequality within a nation. Furthermore, only one in two people has access to Internet worldwide and this number even shrinks to one in six when looking at Africa only.

Social exclusion is widely discussed among scholars and bloggers. In order to overcome social exclusion, some scholars propose to connect online possibilities such as Liquid Feedback to the already existing participation methods. Consequently, Ertelt claims that participation is an educational process and not primarily a matter of software. Thus, from kindergarten onwards, constructive participation needs to be trained so that everyone can take part in the development and design of our world.

Admitting more direct democracy tools within the traditional forms of democracy, like liquid democracy does, can help fighting political apathy. Furthermore, it can help to better represent the will of the people especially in issues of topicality. There are also fewer possibilities of abuse of power, corruption, and lobbyism. On the other hand, there are often organisational and technical problems which jeopardise the efficiency of the political system. Moreover, minorities could be deprived of their rights by the vote of the majority and the media obtains more power which gives room for manipulation.

Nevertheless, this should not be an argument to withdraw the model of liquid democracy. Since there are new technologies available in the digital age, we should make use of them for the public good. But in order not to exclude anyone, there should be a mix between traditional and technology-based methods. Eventually, media literacy has to be ensured from children’s earliest days, so that everyone has the same chance of getting heard.  

 

Picture showing Jens Seipenbusch (by Council of Europe / World Forum for Democracy)