Limits to the scalability of online participation in the 15-M and Podemos: An Interview with Miguel Arana (part 1)

Last year-–on March 16, 2017–I had a chance of interviewing via Skype Miguel Arana, who directs the Participation Project of the City of Madrid  (Proyecto de Participación del Ayuntamiento de Madrid) and overviews the participation portal Decide Madrid.

Image result for miguel arana
Miguel Arana, director of the Participation Project of the City of Madrid

Our conversation lasted 2 hours and half and touched on many topics, including the role that Arana played as a member of the Participation Team of Podemos back in 2014, when he, along with a few others, tried to convince the party leadership to transform the political proposals that were emerging out of Plaza Podemos (a highly participated discussion forum based on Reddit) into binding initiatives for the first Podemos congress, which was held in Vistalegre in October 2014. As I have previously noted on this blog in relation to the use of Loomio within Podemos, this attempt to let ordinary members determine the political direction of the party was openly rejected by the party leadership, which preferred to control the political process from above.

Of course this tension between what Richard Katz and Peter Meir call the party on the ground and the party in central office exists within every party, and I challenge anyone to find a single party where the party leadership voluntarily gives up its leading function. But the Podemos of 2014 appeared to many as a movement party, that is, a party that inherited, at least in part, the extraordinary participatory experience of the 15-M movement. Indeed not only many who had participated in that movement were now ready to engage in party politics, but also saw the Internet as instrumental to scaling up the Indignados’ assemblies from the local to the national without necessarily reducing the complexity and diversity of mass participation.

On the other hand, as is known, Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón’s political strategy was explicitly inspired to a Latin American brand of populism, which leaves little room to the autonomous agency of the party base. In this respect, it was just a matter of time before the radical democratic understanding of technopolitics that came out the 15-M clashed with this charismatic and centralizing style of leadership. Here it is how Miguel Arana, who is an advocate of participatory technopolitics, recalls the initial evolution of Podemos from a party that was initially open to experimenting with participation platforms such as Loomio and Reddit to a party that became increasingly reluctant to use such tools to empower its base.

Marco Deseriis (MD). Before addressing your role within the Participation Team of Podemos can you tell me a little bit about the digital tools that you were using within the Indignados movement?

Miguel Arana (MA). In the indignados we had these ongoing assemblies with dozens, hundreds, sometimes even thousands of people. As you can imagine, in a situation like that the vast majority of the people were not able to speak during the assemblies. So we needed new tools to really organize the movement. From the very beginning we  started to look for tools that allowed us to scale and organize the movement at a much higher level. We started using a tool that was called Lorea, or N – 1, that was like a free software alternative to Facebook, developed in part by people from Spain. It looked a bit like Facebook but also with working groups, Etherpads, a space for uploading photos and documents, and so on. It was a bit more thought for the organization of a social movement. At the same time, we created a website called Propongo that was using a software called Question2Answers, and that was a space where everybody could join and vote the best proposals, the best ideas. Neither of these two software worked.

MD. Why?

MA. The idea of using N – 1 as an alternative to Facebook was a total disaster, because people were on Facebook, not on N-1. And also it was too complex and not well maintained, it didn’t work properly, and people really couldn’t use it. Propongo didn’t also work very much, it was a very simple website and it was not really serving the needs of the movement, it didn’t really help to establish the main ideas of the movement. It was useful to see the kind of ideas that we wanted to defend, but not really immediate in this fluid and open movement that didn’t have any head or central direction. So, we kept looking for digital tools.

MD. Were you able to find them?

MA. Yes, half a year after the start of the 15-M we organized a global demonstration on October 15, 2011. The idea originated in Spain, in Madrid and other cities, but we were calling everybody in the world to go out and join us in a global demonstration. In about one thousand cities people went out to the squares. One of the places that joined this demonstration was New Zealand and there were some people in some of the cities that started a new movement that was inspired to Occupy Wall Street. In New Zealand they faced our same problem, there were not really tools to solve the need of people talking and debating and organizing. So they decided to create a new software called Loomio. Loomio appeared at exactly the opposite point of the globe, but out of this common need we had at the time of trying to organize something more complex, more intelligent.

MD. Can you talk about how the use of these tools changed once you joined Podemos?

MA. Yes, and as soon as we joined Podemos, there was this need: if we wanted to try to make a new political party we had to face again the problem of having the right tools to organize and structure the party. The first thing we did is to try to use a tool like Reddit, which contrary to Propongo, that didn’t really work, was based on a preexisting software. It was tested, free software, so it was perfect and a good start. And since in this case there was something much more organized, because it was a political party and it had the communication channels, it had decisions to be taken, a program, it worked really well. Lots of people went into Plaza Podemos and started communicating, and a huge community appeared. The people at Reddit were amazed because they saw a new community in Spain that were now using the tool [Reddit was virtually unknown in Spain until then, AN] and then it really exploded. But at the same time we had the problem that Podemos was also organizing small groups, the Círculos, the Circles, that also needed some tool for scaling these small debates.

MD. So that’s how you thought about Loomio?

MA. Yes, since we knew Loomio, and we thought it was a very nice tool, we started using it. That was also a huge surprise for the people of Loomio, because from one day to another one thousand new groups appeared in Spain and they became the most active groups in the whole world. At some point it was like a half of the whole Internet traffic of Loomio was coming from Spain. So we talked to them and we started having a good relationship with them because they understood it was an important moment and an important process. So, this tool was very useful for the circles to have their debates. And it was also thought to be able to solve problems in the assemblies, like to really help everybody to speak, not only the people who speak more, and really finding consensus, and things that sometime are difficult to find in the assemblies.

MD. And then you thought of connecting the Circles to one another, correct?

MA. Yes we  thought that it was a good idea to try to connect the Circles to one another, that it was a big pity that the Circles were kept a bit hidden, not really well organized. So there were like two layers, the Circles by themselves and then also the people at the top of the party. So we asked the Loomio team to introduce a functionality that they developed specifically for Podemos. This functionality would group all the discussions happening in the Circles of Podemos in a single website. You could see the most active discussions in each Circle and have an idea of what was happening in the Circles without visiting all the Loomio groups. I think it was a nice functionality, I don’t know if it really had a lot of effects, but I think it was a good approach.

MD. What was the response of the party leadership to all these innovations you were bringing to the party organization?

MA. In the beginning Podemos liked to use this kind of tools, but very suddenly the leaders of Podemos feared that if they really opened decision channels from the bottom up they would lose control of the party and that was not gonna let the party win the elections and produce changes. They were really afraid of this kind of new mechanism. So when they saw that that the mechanism was growing and there were proposals to really let the mechanism take the important decisions, they stopped it.

MD. How?

MA. There was an important assembly in Podemos, I think it was in October 2014, where everybody was invited to create and propose a document to propose the internal organization of the party. The party was already created, but there was not really any constitution, any statutes, so it was not really clear how the decisions were going to be taken, the definition of roles inside the party, and so on. So we had a huge assembly where everybody could propose an organization document and a political document to define the ideas of the party, and then all the documents were going to be voted on. The leaders of the party proposed an organization where the Circles had no power at all, it was some place just to meet but you could do nothing from a Circle. And also this tool that we were using had no role in the party. There were some alternative documents that were proposing the opposite, but the leaders campaigned hard and killed the alternative documents. There was no real debate, there was only the document of Pablo Iglesias, who won, and really destroyed all the possible documents and alternatives.

MD. So that was Vistalegre 1?

MA. Yes. There were like three hundred documents that were going to be voted on, but they designed a process where really there was no debate about the documents. You could just launch a document there and get votes and of course nobody could really understand all these documents, because there were too many. So people only knew the documents of the leader and another document that was the one of the internal opposition. Only two or three documents were really in debate.

MD. Were these documents simply listed on the Podemos website?

MA. Yes, exactly. In the website they listed all the documents and then in the voting moment you could just enter and vote whichever you wanted. But they didn’t design any process that really let people understand the documents. And the leaders, Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón made a huge communication campaign saying that if they didn’t win with their documents they were going to leave. So there was a huge pressure, and they won with 80% or 90%, it was not a real election really.

MD. It was a plebiscite.

MA. Absolutely. Even this internal fight we managed to introduce a bottom-up process that was called Iniciativas Ciudadanas Podemos, the Podemos Citizen Initiatives, where ordinary party members could propose ideas and support ideas from other people. And when the ideas reached some threshold, which was the 10% of the people registered in Podemos, there was a vote. And if the people voted yes, the proposal would be approved. So at least we saved some internal bottom up decision-making process to take some decisions. But the organization said that they would only allow to have this with this 10% support threshold. So with this threshold it never worked. From this moment on, never nothing has been voted that was proposed by the members of Podemos.

MD. Is the 10% support threshold something that was introduced by the leaders?

MA. Yes.

MD. You did not want that?

MA. No, we were having huge fights, amazing fights, because we told them that the 10% was a suicide, it was impossible to make it work. But it the beginning they wanted the 20% and it was absolute nonsense. We proposed the 2% and we were fighting and at a certain moment we agreed because there was no other choice other than the 10%. But at least we reached a compromise so that when an initiative reached the 2% a notification email was going to be sent to all registered users. We thought that maybe with this mechanism it was going to work, but it didn’t work.

MD. I see why a 10% threshold for a party that has over 450.000 members is a difficult limit to reach. Is the Podemos Citizen Initiative is the Plaza Podemos initiative?

MA. Not really, they created a special website that was called Participa. I’m not sure whether you can see the proposals.

MD. It’s still there, they call it now Iniciativas Ciudadanas. The Url is

MA. Yes, it is exactly as we left it. This was the first idea that appeared, for example there was the one most supported was that each person should only have one position inside the party, and it didn’t reach the threshold, so it died.

MD. They also have now Plaza Podemos 2.0 that also has a threshold of the 10%, right?

MA. Yes, exactly.

[end of interview excerpt]

In the second and third part of this interview, I will return to the relationship between Plaza Podemos and Participa Podemos as well as the development of the participation portal of Decide Madrid.



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