The other evening, within a matter of five minutes, I sent messages to socialist colleagues in France, Spain, Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania via Facebook and received answers back. The content was more social than socialist but I could have easily been organizing a Europe-wide campaign or demonstration.
This is of amazement to me because I grew up in the post-War era where there were two ways to communicate: by letter or by face-to-face contact. True telephones did exist but they largely were the preserve of upper and middle class families. Housing estates tended to have a red public phone box to serve the community: it was the days before vandalism struck. Companies and governments were restricted to the letter and the telephone too although the larger ones also had telex.
So in my lifetime we have seen a profound change in how we communicate. However how government works, in a creaking and remote top down fashion, has not altered at all.
Modern communications via the internet, the social media, smart phones and tablets might be viewed by some as the media of the young. They are wrong. Just as I use Facebook and Twitter it is not unusual to see men and women of the generation before mine on the streets or in the supermarket clutching their smart phones. You no longer have to buy a newspaper or rush home for the main news broadcast to find out what is happening in the world: your smart phone will tell you in an instant.
So how can this massive shift in how we communicate impact beneficially on our politics? The answer comes in a new publication by Compass Chair Neal Lawson and Danish MP Uffee Elbaek. Compass promotes the concept of the Good Society and here it meets our new flat world. It is entitled: “The Bridge: how the politics of the future will link the vertical to the horizontal”. It makes stimulating reading.
In an article in The Guardian on the day of the publication’s launch the two co-authors wrote: “So what does the age of the internet, the smart phone and social networks give us? It gives us informed, enabled and empowered citizens because we can learn, talk and act together to solve the critical challenges in our world because traditional politics can’t reverse inequality or climate change.
“The old icebergs of state and corporation are dissolving into a flat and fluid sea where action only becomes meaningful in concert with others. The waves of change demand interconnections to flow because we know that all of us are smarter than anyone of us. Kickstarter, Wikipedia, Open Source, Mumsnet, The People Who Share and Thoughtworks are some of the first movers in a future that is being co-produced.”
The Bridge makes a very strong point which I believe is of key importance. I fear that many people believe that these mass movements either on the streets or the social media can change the world hence political parties or governments will no longer be necessary. We have seen people power at work in Egypt and now in Ukraine. However once the tyrants fall, what then? As the journalist John Harris said at the recent Change: How? (Un)Conference “you can’t redistribute income sitting in a tent outside of St Paul’s”.
The Arab Spring started in Tunisia and it is there that the public protests have followed through to profound democratic change with a new constitution and parliament. This is stressed by Lawson and Elbaek who write: “But in these ‘new times’ political parties will still matter. After Tahrir Square or someday soon Trafalgar Square someone has to stand the candidates, cohere the manifesto, set the budgets and establish the policy basis for capacity building and be the ‘bridge’ between the state and the new horizontal movements.”
The message of The Bridge is - there is hope. It tells us: “Instead of trying to fit people to a bureaucratic state or a free market – we can bend this increasingly flat world to our values and us. We are all particles in the wave of a future that is ours to make.”
Some governments, especially in small countries, are already responding to this communications revolution. Estonia has embrace e-government and e-politics. Gibraltar is about to follow suit. Other governments allow its citizens access via the social media to question ministers directly and to hold them to account.
The Bridge concludes: “For the first time in a long time, radical egalitarian democrats face a future in which there is hope, real hope. The advances made in the last century were secured through bureaucratic and top down structures that were at best remote, and at worst, elitist. A good society was never going to be constructed through them as means clashed with ends. As such they simply paved the way for the free-market revolution in the closing decades of that century.
“Today and tomorrow we build in a different way. We start with human beings and our infinite capacity for love, empathy and connection. Instead of trying to fit people to a bureaucratic state or a free market we bend this increasingly flat world to our values and ourselves. We are all particles in the wave of the future. If we get it right, modernity can again be on our side.
“To paraphrase Marx ‘we make history, but not in conditions of our choosing’. The context of our actions strongly influences the effect of those actions. But the context for those actions has never been better aligned with our beliefs. As the earth is flattened, the prospects for a good society rise. So we stand at a threshold – an era in which means and ends can be united – the more democratic and equal society, which we desire, is being made feasible by democratic and egalitarian behaviour. The future is ours to make. Because we can.”
To read The Bridge – click below.
(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on March 7 2014)