Leadership and Trust in Liquid Democracy-based Systems: Interview with Marina Weisband (part II)

—[continues from part I]–

Marco Deseriis (MD). Switching topic, I wanted to ask you how you became a leader in the Pirate Party. I am also interested in how people become leaders within LiquidFeedback. Because I believe there were emerging forms of leadership that were coming from within the system. Have you ever thought that the qualities of a leader within Liquidfeedback are perhaps different from the qualities of the leader who is good at talking in public or on television (like yourself)?

Marina Weisband (MW). I identified certain things that are exactly similar in the offline elections and LiquidFeedback, which are: the power of the word, a good speaker or writer would become a leader in LiquidFeedback (LF) easier. Also people who you just know and see. . . .  As soon as you do stuff, it doesn’t even matter what–you just have to do it very publicly and a lot of it–you become the most trusted person. Not necessarily because you are the most trustworthy, just because you are the person most people know. So people say: I don’t know what he is like, but I kind of heard the name before, or yes, he does a lot of good stuff, so he probably knows his way around. And that is an effect that the Pirate Party always had and LiquidFeedback kind of mirrored.

MD. So there is no difference between LF-based leadership and more traditional forms of leadership.

MW. Yes and no. For me personally leaders in LiquidFeedback were very much defined by their ability to explain their decisions, which is something that Martin Haase did a lot. For example, I had a global delegate [delegates to which users entrust all their decisions in LiquidFeedback, AN]. I didn’t necessarily participate all that much in the system, which was why, interestingly enough, I was extremely unpopular in the party.

I was on national tv, I did interviews, but in LiquidFeedback I hardly had any delegations. Because I didn’t do so much there and people noticed, so why would they give me delegations? It was very right.

I delegated my vote to someone who would always, when they voted, write texts about why they voted in a certain way. And I found that to be truly helpful because I could monitor, you know, “am I still on board with that?” I felt still responsible for my vote as I delegated it. Because of the possibility to take advantage at any time, I was responsible for that. You carry that responsibility, I had to know the arguments for voting in a certain way. So that’s why I always only delegated to people who would explain their voting style.

MD. Did you change your global delegate over time or did you stick to one person?

MW. I stuck to one person because he never disappointed me.

MD. From what I gather, you are saying that LiquidFeedback is supplementing certain skills that are based on physical presence. Indeed, a super-delegate such as Martin Haase was also very present at party meetings and as a professor he certainly knew how to speak before an audience. I was wondering whether there were other people who were not very good at talking in public, but who could still carve out a space for themselves in LiquidFeedback, for example by writing more than others, investing more time in online participation…

MD. Yes. Actually my global delegate, Ingo Bormuth, was not a public speaker at all and I think he never held any office, which was rare for a Pirate because there were just so many posts and so few people to fill them, but he was an excellent mind. I don’t really know how good they were as public speakers because many of those people I never saw, which probably means that they were not good public speakers, but they wrote well. And there were some working groups who consisted of one or two members, who were outspoken and known in the party, but also many other people who were not, who supported and who drafted major parts of the papers. I think for them LiquidFeedback  was really a vehicle.

MD. I was told that there were people who were really shy in public meetings but were quite active in the system. That is quite interesting because it bespeaks the possibility that these participatory forms of democracy may also expand the range of abilities that are necessary in order to become a leader.

MW. I hope so too. I would add that this is a new form of leadership, not only for people who are shy but also for people who are busy, who cannot travel a lot to assemblies and yet are good policy makers. I think about people with children, people with full-time jobs. . . . Many of the most qualified people have less time. LiquidFeedback compensates for that. I also use it in my school project as a form of integration because I try to enable foreign students, the refugees here in Germany, to participate in this process and it’s much easier for them when they can type, and use translators, and so on as opposed to being forced to present their ideas out loud in the classroom.

MD. So there are all these other abilities that a participation platform such as LF allows to emerge. At the same time, from the interviews I have made so far it is pretty clear that the use of LF produced a significant amount of mistrust and misunderstandings among members. What are the reasons of such mistrust in your opinion? Do you think that there were usability issues with the user interface, for example? Or does this lack of trust depend more on the liquid nature of delegations, their capacity to “travel” within the system, which caused a significant amount of anxiety?

MW. I think both of those things were issues. The interface issue was not so much of an issue within the Pirate Party because, let’s be honest, we are just used to very messy interfaces–our Wiki is nuts! But I talked to a lot to people who are not used to online participatory systems and they were enormously confused. From a psychological point of view, I studied with a focus on software ergonomics. It was really just a bad design. That could be improved.

The other main issue that many people had was the fact that the wandering of their votes and the superdelegates. I think that had two roots. First, there is not enough education on the purpose of the system, why use Liquid Democracy in the first place. The second was the circumstances in which LiquidFeedback was implemented in the party. This has nothing to do with Liquid democracy or LiquidFeedback per se. It was really just a social thing that while one groups still had doubts the other group tried to forcefully implement the system at the time causing massive distrust between the two groups. And from that point on it was pretty much lost.

MD. But did LF users understand the point of delegating their vote and under what circumstances?

MW.  Probably not, or not entirely. They delegate in the first place, because it is about trust. And when you trust someone you trust them to know what is best for your political view. So when someone decides that they are not the best decision-makers in that case, but they want to delegate their vote to someone else, usually your trust in that is implied as well. “I don’t know a shit about economics, my mother is an economist, and I would delegate my vote to her, but she might know a politician who is even smarter than her. Because I don’t know exactly how smart she is, I just know she is just better than me.”

MD. That’s why they are called transitive delegations. The idea is that you trust someone you trust to trust someone else.

MW. Indeed. So this is not a buying product, this is a goal we have in liquid democracy. And superdelegates as well, they are not all-powerful beings, as was always discussed in the Pirate Party. They lose their votes the moment they do something bad or something against your worldview. What I always try to explain to my students is that the delegation process creates a network that is always a changing, adapting network, much like our neurons in the brain create a network. And neurons are inherently stupid, all they know is to be on or off. Only through that connection into a neural network they create things like love, mathematics and doubts about the future. This process is what makes a group of people more intelligent than the sum of the people, and [explains] why direct democracy is a pretty stupid tool, why is good that my vote can travel on, can build that complex network, because only that mirrors a possibility to society to make that decision.

MD. When you say that you are not in favor of direct democracy do you mean that you are not in favor of a process in which you cannot delegate, or something else? For me direct democracy is very much linked to the assembly, the council-based process. But you know, sometimes people mean other things by direct democracy. So I wanted to ask you what do you mean by that.

MW. In Germany direct democracy is often associated to the model from Switzerland, where a large group of people who don’t know each other, just get to vote on one certain topic, like a referendum. I don’t believe in that because the whole deliberatory process is not part of it, and also people are very differently qualified to make such a decision. Deliberation is key for long-lasting decisions.

MD. I see. But if I am not wrong a couple of months before a referendum (or a popular initiative), the Swiss government mails a booklet to voters that allows them to get a fairly neutral picture of what they are going to be voting on.  Don’t you think that this process is fair enough to express an opinion?

MW. Not at all. Even assuming that this booklet actually manages to create a neutral picture, the point of having a democracy is to tap the resource of a large population in that people understand their own lives better than one government could. When you ask people ‘Do you want A or B?’ you are not tapping that resource, because you are presenting two alternatives, to which there might be a much better third alternative or a fourth, or a compromise. And you will never even discover these things. There might be alternatives that the government has not even thought about that it would never know, because all the population is presented with, is this decision. And if this decision doesn’t go along with a deliberation process it is severely bound to certain topics or to populist movements and voices. I think that the deliberation process is the whole point of democracy, but it has to come to a conclusion at some point, that’s what the voting is for. The voting is the end of the process, it is not the process itself, it is not the goal.

MD. I see your point, voting is not necessarily the most important aspect of the democratic process. At the same time, deliberation can also lead nowhere. As you noted before, the so-called “liquid wars”–i.e. the conflict between the faction of the PP that supported LF and the faction that rejected it–were one of the main causes of the decline of the PP. And yet on paper none of these two groups would downplay the importance of deliberation, of relying on a decision-making process that taps the collective intelligence of the network…

MW. Yes but this was by no means the only reason. The Pirate Party’s problem was that they grew too fast too soon and on a wave of a hype, and this wave of a hype was the first populist wave in Europe. You could see that throughout Europe: right-wing parties gained traction in 2011-2012, not as much as they do today but [that was] their first grow. And the only blank spot was Germany which saw the rising of the Pirate Party, which was not a right-wing party. But I think people joined it for the exact same reasons. People thought “it’s new and fresh and they will show those politicians that they will change things for the better,” without defining what the better actually was. People started to join the party, but normally, you know, when I joined I was recruited, and I was introduced into a process, you know regular meetings, political education, we educated ourselves. I became familiar with the party and with its goals and worldview. In 2012, when we had first 12.000 members and then suddenly 34.000 members, nobody was there to greet them. First of all, there were more new members than old members–especially old active members. Secondly, it was the year when we came to all the parliaments, so we were all busy with the campaigns and our most active people were suddenly in the parliaments, and they had to get used to their new jobs. So nobody was really there to explain ‘this is how we see things and these are our views.’ So many many joined out of populist reasons, they had no idea how politics work, how different ideologies work, they were post-ideological and technocratic, or just plain populists. Many of the members that joined since have left the party and are now AfD voters, although from the contents, these [two] parties have nothing in common.

And also the Pirate Party has one major problem and that it is anti-elitist regarding its own people. They vote people on their board and as their speakers, and are immediately discontent that those people have more of a say. The media went to them and not older members. This whole approach of “ideas not heads” is a major problem because the Pirate Party would instantly crash and shit storm each and every of their competent members who get to a certain high position. So the fluctuance is enormous as people can’t learn, and the people who learn something get shitstormmed out of position.

MD. I think that this is a typical contradiction of a movement-party. Because if you tend to lean more on the side of a movement, say, you are a young member, you don’t even see the point of having a party because you understand politics as a movement of civil society. And in a certain sense LiquidFeedback is exactly there to undermine the old division of labor, typical of parties with their appointed leaders and formal decision-making bodies. In a certain sense the Pirate Party was not able to overcome this contradiction between being a party and deploying these new tools to open itself up to civil society. They even had a discussion about whether you needed a party membership to participate in LF. “I am a Pirate but actually I don’t care about the organization because being a Pirate is almost like a lifestyle approach, more than the idea of belonging to an organization…”

MW. Yes, there is a huge problem with over-identification. I don’t trust anyone who has the word ‘Pirate’ in their Twitter handle because they over-identified with the party and when you over-identify with something it becomes a question of your ego, not a proper discussion and deliberation process. Those people will not compromise because their ego and their self-picture depends on the party. The second problem was just what you’ve mentioned. The party was not only not aware if it was a movement or a party, it was even not aware if it had an ideology in itself or if it was like an adaptant for the whole of society into parliament, which is an absurd idea because obviously as soon as you become an adaptant for the whole society you get a smaller parliament ideology bias in your fraction of the parliament. . . . And Pirates have always problems with excluding certain people, they had major problems excluding anti-Semites and right-wing people, citing that they don’t want to police thoughts and they are open to everyone, not understanding that as a party you are partial, it’s the definition of a party.

MD. You said that the party was an adptant, adaptor of society?

MW. Yes, an adaptant. The idea, even behind many backers of LiquidFeedback was that we get into parliament and we will install LiquidFeedback in the party and everyone, not only members, but every citizen can participate in that. And our delegates will vote according to LiquidFeedback results. We wanted a new system which would be liquid democracy, a whole system, and ideally, in the idea of this people, we will get one hundred percent, thus giving a picture of the population through Liquidfeedback into parliament.

MD. So, you will no longer need a representative because the representative is just a “terminal and executor of the popular will,” these are words of the leaders of the Five Star movement. You just need a software, you don’t even need a person to push a button. Having said that, what is it that can be saved of the liquid democratic process going forward? How would you explain LF to people in a way that it can actually be used rather than being this fantasy of a frictionless society that uses a software that solves magically all the problems?

MW. Two things I have mentioned already. One thing is the deliberation process. That is a clear huge step forward, and it cannot be underestimated, this is not a small byproduct. I think the deliberation process that functions online connects people who are not geographically connected. And that improves on the results of any member, that is an enormous step forward that needs to be used. The second thing is the enablement of people who were not previously well equipped to do politics, who can emerge as leaders now because they are shy or because they don’t have time or money to get around a lot. If you can write well and think well, then you are a trustworthy figure and you have this integrity. These are two things.

A third thing is that I still believe that the emergent network ought to be cleverer than the sum of its parts. . . . And I think a very important part of the system is also the potential of global governance. Because when we think of how can we guarantee net neutrality and ultimately who owns the internet, this is a very important question of the future. Because I think that there will be a decentralized parallel system to the one we have now, the infrastructure, that is owned by the people, because it’s ultimately a common resource. And the question that will emerge from that is who governs it and how. We need clever solutions that are not dependent on geographical locations or real assemblies and that scale well to a lot of people and function in a clever way, which liquid democracy is.

And I see no other answer right now to these questions, but we need to find an answer because those questions become very real. If you want to coordinate the workers’ movements in different countries, or if you want to have a democratic oversight over international banking, you have to develop a system. You don’t necessarily need to convince all of the people in the world, but they will have to connect people in different parts of the world.

And finally, something very positive about the Pirate Party, despite all the weaknesses, is that it always wanted to build something in a time of populism, they came along with rather concrete ideas of how the future could be. They don’t only said the present is bad, they also said, “look, the future could be like this and this.” And many of the political ideas of the party have been superficially copied into other programs, like transparency and digitalization. But ultimately the Pirate Party to this day remains the only party that has really thought that. . . . That’s what they did and that’s why it’s enormously sad that they are gone, not only as a party I would vote for but also as a party who constantly kept on applying pressure to the other parties to evolve. I think the other parties have evolved dramatically during the time of the Pirate uprising and had ever since stop doing that.


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