Politics, the Internet and Changing Times

Our point of departure is the conviction that we are not merely undergoing an economic crisis, but a shift into a new era, and that this may be perceived and corroborated by analysing the relationship between the Internet and politics. In the latter part of the last century, our means of confronting social change, the protagonism of the State, and the ways in which it operates were all questioned.

The society we live in now is much more complex, that is to say heterogenous, diverse and individualised, with vast amounts of knowledge and information -- yet no more certainties -- and with a notable crisis of legitimacy in hierarchical methods of problem-solving. As we understand it, traditional forms of government and conventional mechanisms of political participation have a serious problem of functionality when faced with this new and changing scenario.

We are also seeing a crisis of legitimacy. The Welfare State ended up reinforcing a model of "democracy by delegation," in which citizens delegate to politicians a technocratic provision of public services; the latter conceive of citizens simply as "clients" of these services who become voters once every four years.

This dynamic, described briefly here, has contributed to the growing distance between 'the politics of institutions' and citizens. The economic-financial crisis of 2007 has unstitched many of the checks and balances which had been painstakingly woven between the market, the state and society. Without a doubt, the lack of transparency in the management of the crisis and in many of the processes that prompted it, the proximity between political interests and interests in the financial sector, and the apparition of multiple cases of corruption have contributed to shifting the discussion from an economic-financial crisis to a crisis in the democratic system itself, in which politicians are more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.

At the same time, the technological revolution of the Internet reached its zenith with the tools of version 2.0, and especially with the spread of social networks. This change is not only transforming the way we relate to one another, but also challenging all the structures of mediation (including the State), opening the door to new forms of political participation. The Internet is fostering changes in the process of creating, shaping and implementing public policy, and forcing the position and role of public powers and the administrations that depend upon them to be resituated.

Even so, public institutions, policies and administrations tend to maintain their patterns of action, as though the new social and political context were merely temporary, or that it did not pose essential questions about the way forward. Public institutions, policies and administrations continue to be largely anchored in the logic that Jellinek (1978) summarised as 'territory, populace, sovereignty.' Simultaneously, we are also seeing a profileration of citizen initiatives, from the "they don't represent us" of the 15M Indignados movement to the perception that the administration is incapable of resolver its daily problems, which aim for new means of self-organisation based on cooperation and collaboration between citizens on the margin of (or against) the State.

In short, and in contrast to prior forms of government, we can distinguish the following characteristics of these new forms of political participation from a grass-roots level, which use the Internet and social networks extensively: democratic radicalism; collaboration; connectivity; pressure and implementation; and glocalisation.

But has the impact of the Internet on processes of political and administrative intervention really been significant? Certainly, public administrations have made an effort to incorporate the Internet into their proceedings, even attempting to use it to deepen democracy with expressions such as "e-democracy" or "e-government." However, the democratising potential of these paradigms is limited to the Internet's abilities to improve mechanisms of transmitting information and transparency towards citizens. In the vast majority of cases, neither what is being done, nor how it is being done, have been questioned; rather, all that is sought from the new technological resources is a more efficient, more agile, more speedy method of carrying out same procedural routines as before.

So what has been its impact on politics? As Mark Poster (2007) affirms, the Internet is not simply a new "hammer" with which to better hammer in the same old "nails." The Internet modifies the way in which people relate to and interact with one another, profoundly altering processes and positions of intermediation, and generating links and connections much more directly and horizontally, at lower costs. The Internet makes it possible to alter power relationships and change organisational structures in administrative procedures and established hierarchies and intermediations. In this sense, it is not ludicrous to say that the Internet might be tracing a new social and political order. Not necessarily a better one, but definitely different.

As we understand it, the Internet has allowed for a multiplicacion and diversification of political actors. It has also managed to massively reduce the costs of collective action. On the other hand, the Internet is allowing for a redistribution of resources among political actors and, consequently, a change in power relationships. Lastly, but certainly not least importantly, the repertories of collective action are diversifying. With the Internet a broad spectrum of opportunities has opened up, allowing us to innovate with new forms of collective action based on the connectivity of citizens with shared goals. In the words of Bennet-Segerberg (2011), we are moving from collective action to connective action. Citizen mobilisation via the Internet can introduce topics into the political agenda which would never have entered otherwise; it can configure the definition of the problems faced by a certain policy through Internet-based diffusion of contents and arguments; it can mobilise citizensß by proposing responses to or opposing actions planned by public institutions, and allow institutional action to be followed from outside of public administrations and with collaborative actions evaluating the results. Because of all this, the processes of conforming to politics are now much more complex and unpredictable (Subirats, 2011).

References:

Bennett, W.L., - Segerberg, A., 2013, The Logic of Connective Action. Digital Media and the Personalization of Contentious Politics, Cambrige, Cambridge University Press

Jellinek, G. (1978): Fragmentos de Estado, Civitas, Madrid.

Poster, M. 2007. "Internet Piracy as Radical Democracy", en L. Dahlberg y E. Siapera (eds.), Radical Democracy and the Internet. Interrogating Theory and Practice, Nueva York: Palgrave-macmillan, 207-225.

Subirats, J. 2011. Otra sociedad ¿otra política?. Barcelona: Icària