Commons technology and the right to a democratic city

Madrid, May 2016

“Our discussions will start from the assumption that institutions are in great need of revival since they are out of synchronisation with 21st century technologies, norms and collective aspirations. They haven’t been able to respond and adapt to the new technologies of participation, transparency and proximity, which, for example Spanish citizens demanded following the big wave of the 15-M indignados movement in 2011 that radically changed Spanish politics.”

So said Francesca Briar, Project Coordinator for the Europe-wide D-CENT Project, opening the Democratic Cities conference in Madrid last week.

D-CENT (Decentralised Citizens ENgagement Technologies) is the glue between decide.madrid.es, decidim.barcelona, decisions.okf.fi and betrireykjavik.is: digital platforms for citizen engagement in participatory budgeting, open consultation and direct democracy.

The conference opened with a warning from Carlos Prieto del Campo, “If we don’t seize this political moment, the future could be extremely neo-authoritarian and sinister.

Indeed, much of the discussions centred around the sinister neo-authoritarian characteristics of the present. I was invited to participate in the conference as a representative from Loomio, and perhaps as a representative of a neo-democratic and optimistic alternative.

It’s difficult to capture the spirit of such a dense, provocative, energetic event, so I’ll just sample some choice quotes to give you a flavour. I’ve also included some of the brilliant 3-minute video participant interviews that were filmed during the Democracy Lab hackathon at MediaLab Prado in the week leading up to the conference.


Manuela Carmena

Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena opened her conversation with journalist Paul Mason by stating her first priority on taking office:

She described herself as “just another neighbour in the city, but one who manages things.”

She was unequivocal on the topic of ‘smart cities’, whose proprietary closed-data systems have inverted governance roles, with public managers accepting corporate demands.

Manuela predicted a dramatic transformation in Spanish politics from this generation. For inspiration, she pointed back to dictatorship era, which fell to subversion and internal infiltration rather than public agreements from incumbent powers. (I took this comment to be a reference to the current strategy of 15M activists infiltrating municipal governments all over Spain, with grassroots coalitions now running most of the major cities.)

Her closing comment has stuck with me as a daily call to action:

“Change always involves continuous confrontation.” — @ManuelaCarmena

Raquel Rolnik

Interview with Raquel Rolnik before the conference

For me coming from New Zealand, the absurdly peaceful land where everything is “sweet as”, Raquel Rolnik’s talk was a refreshing dose of fire and brimstone.

Her takedown of neoliberal capitalism was unflinching, describing it is a colonial power, always extending its physical and virtual borders to occupy new territory in pursuit of ever-increasing rent and profit.

She ended on an optimistic note though, saying that neoliberalism is as good as dead because of it’s incapacity to respond to citizen questions that have been growing in volume since 2011. Considering so many of those citizens are now running their city governments in Europe, she might be on to something!


Pablo Soto w/ Julian Assange

Julian Assange joined the conference by videocall from his ongoing captivity in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, reducing the auditorium to a state of religious silence.

Pablo Soto (free software hacker turned 15M activist turned Councillor for Citizen Participation in Madrid) asked him about the link between public leaks by Wikileaks and public actions for democracy.

Assange was sanguine, pointing out that the course of history is not straightforward. He described the joy of watching citizens ransacking the intelligence archives on the night Mubarak was deposed in Cairo, and then the horror as the existing hard power in Egypt adapted to the new socio-political conditions.

“Many Egyptians now call the Arab Spring the Arab Winter.” — @JulianAssange_

He turned our attention to TTIP, TISA, and TPPA, the three trade agreements attempting to lock two-thirds of global GDP into a uniform regulatory framework. He described this as the largest shift in formal international organisation since the creation of the EU, or possibly even the UN.

Pablo Soto gave an example of a decision that would be impossible under the TTIP: Madrid city recently decided to municipalise all cemeteries so all citizens have a dignified place to rest. Then he bravely declared the City of Madrid TTIP free, to which Assange replied, “you better secede from Spain then.” In other words, while cities can represent radical pockets of resistance, a huge amount of power still rests at the state and international levels.

I’ve never found him to be an easy person to support, but I must admit it was incredibly moving to hear Pablo Soto’s encouragement to this man, so respected by so many in the audience, yet locked in captivity for the past 5 years: “stay strong, change is coming to Europe, we are waiting for you in Madrid!”


Paul Mason

I felt lucky to hear from The Guardian journalist Paul Mason, as I’ve just finished his book Postcapitalism.

He described the book as an attempt to fill the strategic gap that has kept the horizontal protests of the past 15 years from translating into major political change.

His proposal is a mix of reformist and revolutionary strategies: “do radical things, mixed with old Keynesian solutions.”

Because infotech destroys jobs faster than it creates them, he said we need to delink work from wages as soon as possible. And municipalities should behave more like software projects:

His conclusion was equally optimistic and sobering:


Trebor Sholz

Trebor Sholz’s critique of the platform monopolies that have dominated the dawn of the 21st century is very straightforward:

This pattern continues at many levels of scale, from the risk of injury to an Uber driver, to the risk of bankruptcy for the financiers at the top of the pyramid.

He introduced platform cooperativism, a new movement rapidly gaining momentum. It’s values are based on worker-ownership, commons, unionism, and cooperativism. The theory is rooted in commons-based peer production, i.e. moving transactions out of the market and out of hierarchies. It’s intellectual heritage includes Yochai Benkler and Clay Shirky:

He asserts that realistic alternatives are ready to be deployed, utilising platforms like Uber, but with coop values designed into them.

He reiterated the call for cities to rebel against the growing dominance of the platform monopolies:


Franco Berardi

Interview with Franco Berardi outside of the conference

Fransceco Berardi is a phenomenon of gesticulation and great hair. He opened his talk with the visceral observation:

He described the rise of racist nationalism as one symptom of citizens trying to kick their way out of the corpse. In the end though, he was optimistic:


Adam Greenfield

Interview with Adam Greenfield outside of the conference

Adam Greenfield is currently writing a book examining the political implications of emerging technologies like distributed manufacturing, virtual reality, and machine learning. He sees a lot of threats, and a lot of promise. Right now at least, the threat seems to outweigh the promise.

Using the blockchain to disintermediate governments and banks sounds pretty cool, but replacing human judgement, trust and discretion: not so much.

He called for more criticality in the decentralisation discourse, which is typified by a naïve understanding of how power operates in the material world.

Adam’s talk contrasted the trustless infrastructure of the blockchain, with the face-to-face trust-building of assemblies typical of horizontal protest movements. He conceded that while the assembly might not be an efficient way to make decisions, it’s an unparalleled method for building affective bonds, common values and collective identity.

He asserted that in reality, humans don’t really make informed decisions: data is much less relevant than affect and the lived experience of collective power.

This talk gave me words to describe my frustration with so much of the blockchain discourse: firstly, blockchain evangelists frequently treat the subjectivity of human experience as a problem to be solved. More damaging, they ignore the entire history of power and resistance, whether that’s anti-colonial, anti-sexist, or anti-racist movements who have literally written the book on decentralising power.


Evgeny Morozov

Evgeny delivered another in the series of critiques that put neoliberal capitalism in the spotlight. This talk focussed on “smart cities” and the private fortunes of big data they are generating.

He eviscerated Silicon Valley’s obsession with “disruption”.

He warned that without busting up the platform monopolies, the emancipatory impact of other gains like universal basic income will be severely limited.

“Emancipation is impossible without simultaneously fighting commodification and domination.” — @evgenymorozov

Like Paul Mason, he named radical cities as the site of struggle against neofeudalism. And he drew a great big red arrow on their Achilles’ heel:

This meshed perfectly with Fabrizio Sestini’s call from earlier in the day


Sergio Amadeu

Like Raquel Rolnik the previous day, Sergio opened his talk by denouncing the coup d’état in Brazil. His talk was a chilling reminder that the risk of antidemocratic governments misusing technology to control the citizenry is not an academic threat.

He showed how the end user license agreements of corporate software promise to disclose your private information to protect their own interests. Considering much of this proprietary, privacy-hating software is being used to mediate the relationship between citizens and their city governments, he concluded his talk with a reminder:


Natalie Fenton

Natalie Fenton was brilliant, bringing the unfashionable topic of the digital divide back into the conversation.

She reminded us that most people are still getting most of their information through legacy monopoly media.

Finally, she returned to the emergent theme of the conference, concluding that neoliberal capitalism is a scourge on democracy globally, our international governance organisations are bad and getting worse, and hence the city is the most promising site of struggle.


Global Hacktivism panel

Jinsun Lee, Diego Arredondo Ortiz, Audrey Tang, Marco Sachy and I were on a panel hosted by Yago Bermejo Abati.

Jinsun, Diego, and me

Jinsun introduced the fabulous work they’re doing with WAGL (We All Govern Lab) to rewrite the terms of engagement in South Korean politics.

Diego was there representing Wikipolitica. He crossed the digital divide, telling stories of online and offline engagement in Mexico.

5 years of horizontalism. From right: Pablo Soto (15M, Spain), Nati Lombardo (Occupy, New Zealand), me (Occupy, New Zealand), Baki Youssoufou (Nuit Debout, France), Audrey Tang (Sunflower Movement, Taiwan)

Two days prior to the conference, I’d had a phenomenal conversation involving participants from 15M, Occupy, Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, and the Nuit Debout. So in my talk I attempted to stitch these stories together to describe an emerging non-local culture of new democratic behaviours.

Interview with me prior to the conference
Lo-fi video of my talk at panel.

Audrey set the room on fire with her hyper-accellerated rundown of the new politics in Taiwan. In 2014 their occupy movement won, since then they’ve been reformatting the government to be accountable, responsive and transparent. Last week, they became “the first country to beat the Uber problem”.

“For our generation, internet and democracy are the same thing.” — @audreyt
Interview with Audrey Tang before the conference

Marco from dyne.org did an excellent job of connecting the blockchain to social impact. After weeks of disconnected conversations about blockchain, it was super refreshing for me!

My favourite quote of the event was from Jinsun Lee: “we need a new grammar of politics.” Compared to the relentless call for us to “rewrite the narrative”, I found this notion totally refreshing, highlighting the depth of change required: we don’t just need to throw out the book, we need a whole new language!