Learning how to use a parliament: Interview with Carlo von Lynx (part II)

In the first part of this interview Carlo von Lynx, a member of the Piratenpartei and of the Italian Pirate Party (and a dj!), discussed the intricacies of LiquidFeedback (LQFB), providing insights on the design of the software interface and on its actual uses.  In this second part, Carlo pauses on the political implications of the use of the platform and in particular on how the use of LQFB in Berlin created a distinctive technopolitical culture, which given the federal party structure of the Piratenpartei, could not be easily conveyed and decoded across different sections of the party.

From this angle, the so-called Liquid Wars, were nothing but a struggle for the control of the party. On the one hand, the advocates of Liquid Democracy  proposed to introduce a ständige Mitgliederversammlung (SMV), a standing general meeting to be permanently held online in which most decisions could be made via a LQFB-based platform. On the other hand, Carlo points out that there were those who feared that the Berliners “could dominate the party,” given their prior experience and more advanced skills in using the software. (As Martin Haase has argued on this blog, handling delegations is the most time-consuming task for LQFB users).  As a result, the Bavarian Pirate Party and other states of the South began boycotting the SMV and the Pirates failed to reach the two-thirds majority necessary to change the party statute at the Neumarkt convention in May 2013.

The final part of the interview focuses on whether the disintegration of the Pirate Party was mostly due to the fact that the Pirates did not share a common political culture, or, as Carlo argues, they were unable to lay down solid procedures to settle intra-party disputes. I also want to point out that Carlo, like Marina Weisband and other Pirates, is highly critical of both representative democracy and direct democracy. But while Weisband associated direct democracy to the Swiss model, von Lynx focuses here on the participation inequalities that were introduced at the party conventions, which could in theory be attended by all members, but that only some members ended up attending. (This critique of the basisdemokratie is something that also matches other interviews and academic texts on this subject.)

MD. When I read about LQFB and even in some of my interviews there is frequently a certain degree of confusion over the binding vs. consultative nature of the decisions that were taken via LQFB. In my understanding, the software was never used bindingly on a national level, but there were some local chapters of the Piratenpartei that did use it in this way. Can you help me clarify this point?

CVL. First of all, as the LQFB developers have pointed out, the software cannot be used in a nonbinding manner. As they explain in their book, The Principles of LiquidFeedback, the software does not work if it is used just for polling, for consultations. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Italian Pirates and Austrian Pirates, almost nobody has used LQFB bindingly. In Berlin we had two LQFBs, and the binding one was legally attacked, with the rationale that there was a privacy problem. This is a paranoia that only the German Pirates really have. From a legal point of view, there shouldn’t be any problems once you sign an informed consent form that says that you are participating in a party executive committee.

MD. Did Pirates have to sign off a form when they joined LQFB?

CVL. No, the Pirates decided to opt for a compromise between the line of the software programmers, who wanted to certify the members and make the process transparent and democratic, and those who insisted on using a pseudonym [to protect their own privacy]. But you know if everybody uses a nickname you create the feeling that the process is opaque. And this is true even in the case that all pseudonymous users are actually party members. The only organism that could have this information was the party board, which takes care of enrollment. But if you do not trust your own board [because you think it might spy on members, AN], the whole architecture is at risk. In other words, the concept of privacy was misapplied to the space of politics, where if you want to have an influence you must take responsibility. And thus the paradox was that the Pirates talked about transparency and privacy, but they wanted privacy for themselves and transparency for everybody else.

MD. Can you say a little more about the two versions of LQFB that were used in Berlin?

CVL. Yes, the first was used in 2010. Because the majority of the members wanted to use a binging tool we came to a compromise. We introduced a consultative tool, but with the idea that the proposals had to be validated in a physical assembly, which I have to say worked perfectly in 2010-2011. This was one of the best implementations of LQFB I ever participated in because we were still a group of likeminded people who believed in the project, who had a positive attitude, and so on. There was a social cohesion that was due to the fact that we had not succeeded yet. This cohesion ended at the very moment in which we succeeded with the elections of late 2011.

MD. Were the Berlin assemblies divided on a territorial basis? Were you holding them in different neighborhoods?

CVL. No, we held only one assembly to approve the electoral program and it was extremely effective. The Pirates’ proposals that were approved in that assembly—such as the idea of abolishing the public transport fare and to replace it with a blanket fare [forfettaria]—are still current, people still talk about them.

MD. So the two versions of LQFB are the pre-2011 version and the post-2011 election version? If so, was the second version significantly different from the first one?

CVL. Well, since the 15 candidates entered the Berlin Parliament a certain paranoia emerged that they were no longer going to be “our candidates.” They also did some mistakes. They started saying that they had been elected by millions of people and that therefore they were no longer just Pirates. But you have been elected because you are a Pirate. This is a logical fallacy that is quite frequent among those who enter parliament and try to detach themselves from their own political project either because it is convenient or because they feel important. It is a mechanism that we see in every election. People talk about the imperative mandate. Frankly, I respect the idea of introducing a little bit of imperative mandate, because elected representatives tend to suffer the [negative] effects of representative democracy, the corrupting potential, the inability to be prepared on everything they have to decide upon, that is, they are not competent enough as compared to a good collective intelligence.

MD. What is it exactly that set representatives and party base apart after the election? Did the MPs keep discussing legislative proposals via LQFB?

CVL. Yes for a certain period our representatives received input via LQFB and brought the proposals in parliament, so we were always on the vanguard, then obviously when you are at the opposition you cannot obtain much. For me a key moment was when I logged into LQFB from my couch and there was a request for comments on how to improve the parliament’s lobby register, a proposal that came from the Greens. So I drafted some ideas on how to increase the transparency of lobbying. I wrote three suggestions, which I do not recall right now, and then completely forgot about them. Six months later I found out that those suggestions had not only been read by the Pirate parliamentary group but were on the table of all political factions in Parliament. For me that was an activating moment. I hadn’t been so active politically, so the idea that those suggestions were occupying the mind of people who had to make decisions was incredibly exciting.

That kind of exchange worked for some time. Then the media started presenting our MPs as superstars, creating a distance that was fictitious, because if you went to a pirate weekly meeting the MPs were always there, there wasn’t such a distance. So this paranoia emerged, especially among those who were not living in Berlin.

MD. What happened among the Pirates who were not living in Berlin?

CVL. Well, they saw stuff from the outside, on television. And tensions begun to mount in the mailing lists. The other Pirates were meeting in Bavaria, in Stuttgart, in other places and talked about the things that were happening in Berlin without first-hand experience. So these disparities, this paranoia and fears took hold. And for a political group this can be lethal, especially if you do not have very solid and well-designed structures that can compensate for this lack of trust. Once trust was gone, the first thing that happened at the national conventions is that instead of ratifying the decisions that were coming out of LQFB, members started to introduce last-minute amendment requests.

MD. So these were discussions that did not unfold organically from LQFB.

CVL. Yes, in a way. Around late-2011 early 2012, they introduced the national LQFB. And there you had this problem that Berliners had an enormous advantage, which everybody else perceived as an attempt to dominate the party. Whereas Berliners had all their delegations in place—and so various Berliners had lots of power—the new users had no idea of how to give a delegation, they were slow in learning a software that had been invented by somebody else. Do you know the “not invented here” phenomenon? If you haven’t invented something you feel that it does not belong to you. That was a terrible moment. Especially in Bavaria and other regions of the South LQFB was openly boycotted by a large section of the party.

MD. This is a very important point for my research. My project investigates whether democracy can be scaled from the small group, the local level, to higher levels. For example, people can begin by giving their delegation to friends or people they know, and then, once they have accustomed themselves with the system…

CVL. Yes, that’s legit. Delegating someone you know is less bad than representative democracy because at least it implies a decentralization of power. Liquid Democracy is a click, it allows you to revoke the trust from someone who is abusing his power and entrust the delegation with somebody else. If people who are on a mid-to-high level do it one after the other the abuser loses his power. It is a mechanism that works, and I am particularly angry at the paranoia that emerged around the term “superdelegate.” In 2015, the University of Mainz published a scientific study on the use of LQFB at a national level. The paper says that the superdelegates lost power at the very moment in which they abused it and that the control mechanism worked perfectly. I went back to study all the arguments that were used against LQFB in 2013-2014 and could not find a single one that would be correct, and in particular the ones on privacy and superdelegates. In general the LD mechanism works, but you need certain legal and structural boundaries, and a social structure that also needs to be cohesive, that does not fall apart.

MD. Let’s return for a second to the question of scalability.

CVL. Scalability is one of the great strengths of LQFB. I have been a member of the national LQFB, which had over 10,000 users. Some proposals were voted by hundreds of members, in the beginning even thousands. There were over a thousand people participating in a vote because at the time they still believed that [the proposal] would be ratified [at the party Convention]. In the beginning participation was extremely high, and there were very few critics.

MD. So the limit of scalability of LQFB does not seem to be a technical issue.

CVL. LQFB is designed not to consume many resources. The server does not work much, most of the work is done by the user, who reads and edits the text in his browser. So the server can easily scale to 100,000 or even 200,000 users, and we are not even speaking of a server that is cloud-based.

MD. That’s for the technical infrastructure, but how about the political scalability? As you said the resistance to the scaling of LQFB from the local to the national level came from sections of the party that feared the tool because they were not as skilled as the Berliners in using it. On the other hand, there were people who had gained power within the party via delegation mechanisms that were more traditional, and they did not want to give up this power to hand it over to LQFB. Would you agree on this point?

CVL. Yes, absolutely. We do not have to forget that Germans have a federal party structure, which entails lots of positions for people at a regional level. And representative democracy has this big downside that once you enter it you begin to like it, and thus you replicate the old corruptive structures. Corruptibility is a key element of representative democracy, there is nothing you can do about it, it is “old politics,” to borrow an expression from the grillini [Beppe Grillo’s followers, AN]. The mistake was to endow the physical assemblies with higher decision-making powers, and not to change the protocols of the assemblies. So the culture of the traditional assemblies continued to persist, assemblies that were gigantic, and in which there were no delegates.

The Piratenpartei was one of the few parties that has never introduced a delegation mechanism at the level of the party conventions. So whoever had time and money to attend an assembly already introduced a bias. You had only those who had a certain interest to be there, these mega-assemblies with 2,000 people but they were all people who had the privilege to be able to participate while the remaining 30,000 members stayed home. And these 2,000 people enjoyed these two days in which they could make decisions and could not care the least about what the other 30,000 had decided on the platform.

MD. So the 2,000 participants were not delegates representing other members?

CVL. No, anybody could go. So the place in which the assembly was held was always absolutely strategic. If you held the assemblies in the South you had Bavarian decisions, if you held them in the North you had Berliner decisions, with dramatic distortive effects on democracy. And the impact of the decisions taken via LQFB became less and less important. Once the first convention did not confirm the LQFB-based proposals, the online participants went down because they understood that their work had been useless. And so the assemblies implemented the most negative effects of direct democracy. For example there were people who presented very long proposals at the very last minute, or amendments that were drafted in a hurry to strike a compromise between two proposals. In some cases proposals that had been drafted in half an hour were approved, with terrible mistakes. It became a matter of personal sympathies or antipathies, with enormous social problems because as I said there was no formal structure to regulate internal conflicts. In the meanwhile, all the collective intelligence went down the drain…

MD. What are for you the main limitations of direct democracy? When you talk about direct democracy, are you referring to the assembly-based model, the referendum-based model, or a mix of the two?

CVL. There are some cases in which direct democracy is the lesser evil, as when it is very regulated. For example, the Swiss referendums are clearly regulated to avoid the possibility of demagogical questions. You are forced to make a proposal that must follow a certain path and that has reached a certain level of quality. And this is something that can already be deficient in the assembly of an organization if you haven’t created a very detailed rulebook on what is allowed and what is not allowed. Actually, the German Pirates had decent protocols regulating the management of the assemblies, I have seen worst, for example the foundational assemblies of some movements of the Left in Italy…

MD. Changing topic, what do you think of the risk that LQFB may create a database of sensitive opinions, a database that could be potentially be used one day against those who expressed those opinions?

CVL. I think that the problem is not that relevant. We have much bigger problems with Facebook, Google and the Anglophone secret services that systematically collect and analyze all private information (messages, phone calls, and so forth). There are software that automatically transcribe all telephone calls that cross the Atlantic to store them in a sort of Google of all telephone calls of humanity. We have entered a level of surveillance that is very troubling, completely insane—and compared to all of this the LQFB database is absolutely ridiculous. If one day we will be able solve the problem of this informational totalitarianism, then we could talk about the implications of the LQFB database.

At any rate, the idea that everyone has to be able to participate and nobody is to be excluded is quite wrong for me. Take it as a personal consideration, but let’s say that a parliament of 60,000 people can engage in a politics that is much more honest and reasonable than a House of Deputies. If we would let 0.1% of a population participate via a political platform in a given country we would get a much higher-quality politics. To let other people participate is absolutely optional. If others do not intend to participate it is not a drama. For example, the German institute of statistics told us that the Piratenpartei was representative of the entire German population. It wasn’t a left-wing or right-wing party, it only had 13% of support [in the polls], but it was going in the right direction.

MD. Do you think that the lack of a clearly recognizable leadership may have negatively affected electoral growth?

CVL. No, because Pirates that were interviewed all said the same smart things. I am convinced that the most serious issue for any political organization is how to live together, that is, the ability to stop any internal conflict while it is still in its infancy. There are two possible approaches to solve this problem. Either you create a centralized structure, that solves controversy in an authoritarian way, or on the contrary you open to the base. But if you do not do it in the right way the process becomes very chaotic. At that point, you have the formation of an oligarchy, with someone taking decisions anyway. This is what happened to the Greens and it is happening now with Varoufakis’ DiEM25. Varoufakis has many followers but since the process is not transparent in the end Varoufakis makes the decisions.

MD. Don’t you think that the Pirates also lacked the ability to define some shared values and that this mattered beyond the procedures that had to translate these values in political action? After all, if you do not have much in common, a software will not create this common ground for you…

CVL. I disagree, ultimately the problem is procedural. In the Piratenpartei we did not discuss the content of politics because there was a profound lack of trust one towards the other. The Piratenpartei had in fact very clear ideas on political priorities and the battles that mattered. The main mistake was not to recognize that the main problem was the lack of communication and we started to label others on the basis of ideologies. In actuality, the liberals of the party had a strong social vocation and the communists were able to see a free market in the future, even though it would be much more regulated than the current one. These positions would have been perfectly able to get to compromises with a decent culture of communication. But we often made the mistake to think that first you need to create a culture and then the rules to share it, when it is the other way around. You must start from the sharing of common rules to be able to create a common culture.

 

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