I grew up in the trenches of the Bosnia-Herzegovina war and have seen first-hand what it means to live in an ethnocracy1An ethnocracy is a type of political structure in which the state apparatus is controlled by a dominant ethnic group to further its interests, power and resources., a place where democratic values and behaviors are non-existent.
When I moved to Sweden as an adult and started learning about European and global democracy, I was reminded how Bosnia was the example of everything that went wrong. While most of Europe was integrating, cooperating and globalising, the former Yugoslavia went in the opposite direction – towards anti-democratic systems, authoritarian by nature.
Today hindsight affords me a different perspective. I realised that such developments, trends and ideas in the Balkans are not only limited to this region, but are instead a part of a greater European democratic reality. To some degree, it’s possible that European democracy is unfortunately becoming ‘Balkanised’.
A renewed approach to democracy will save Europe.
History does not repeat itself, but human stupidity does
The last decade has been one of the most prosperous in history, yet simultaneously, negative for democracy. Rising populism, authoritarianism and social distrust across the world has counteracted collective social progress. The current development contrasts the post-Cold War period of the 1990s and 2000s, when the number of democracies increased, along with an ‘optimistic’ outlook.
During my high-school years, I was captivated by stories of the EU and how it was different from dictatorships, such as Russia. It’s important to remember that when the EU was formed2The EU was officially formed in 1993 following the adoption of the Maastricht Treaty., we were sold the story of a flourishing democracy, both internally and globally.
I believe, to develop a brighter democratic future, EU institutions need digitalisation and decentralisation,
alongside complexity & cosmopolitanism.
The previous image of the EU as a universalist polity based on human rights and dignity now has competing narratives such as “Fortress Europe” and “Illiberal Europe”. In Sweden, the majority of my Facebook network is swinging from progressive to pessimistic, and they’re public about it.
Political identification within the EU means seeing oneself as a citizen of the union, a supranational organisation, rather than tied to a specific nation of origin or ethnic group. This perspective is increasingly shared in Sweden, due to a greater understanding that integration and cooperation are vital to tackle climate change, humanitarian migration, and digitalisation. However, this is not necessarily the case in Hungary, where there are more ‘Eurosceptics’, and where citizens feel that the union is not living up to its democratic values or doing enough to help their country – which is suffering under right-wing populism.
So, what can be done to improve democracy for a future that offers as many challenges as possibilities? To answer this, we need to define democracy’s greatest threats. Then, what can be done to develop a long-term digital solution which, among other things, will be able to counter the model of the digital dictatorship in China.
The Uberisation of politics
Since the 1990s, there’s been a trend in Europe regarding the organisation of ideology and the decline of political parties. For example, in Sweden around 650,000 individuals were active members of political parties – a number that dropped to around 250,000, despite a population growth of two million. In the 90s, 90% of Swedes would vote for the same party in all elections. Today, that electorate has dropped to around 40%, and for different parties at various levels.
These parties are more or less dependent on funding from the public budget: meaning as long as parties get votes, they get public funding. Although coming from a place of good intentions, financing political parties with taxpayers’ money in order to ‘prevent capitalist corruption’ and big business from excessive lobbying has led to a moral hazard – political parties care less about their members, but more about the votes needed to finance the ambitions of the high ranking party members. This disregards the interests of the lower ranking members.
As political scientist Peter Maier once argued, “parties were the voice of the people, and now, they just set the narrative.”
Another major problem is the low turnout for European Parliament (EP) elections. Parties have failed to explain policies in a meaningful way to connect with voters. EP elections are positioned as ‘something over there in Brussels’ and less important than what’s on the national stage. An exception to this is Volt, an EU-wide political party aspiring to be really European.
Even with all this being said, there are still many reasons to be optimistic about the future of democracy and political procedures. The ‘uberisation of politics’ that has taken place in Europe illustrates how social media, new tech and cryptocurrencies have similar effects on political parties as Uber, Bolt, and Lyft had on the taxi market.
Decentralising technology makes it easier to handle liquid political identifications3Liquide democracy is a decision-making scheme characterized by liquidity—that is the systemic and flexible mix of direct and representative democracy—and essentially based on the principles of voluntary delegation and proxy voting. , so citizens can easily unite within digital communities suiting their interests. Think of Tripadvisor-inspired technology where citizens review politicians, learn about policies, and cast votes for parties.
Voting per issue and theme, not per-party affiliation
The heart of democracy is not about representation of political parties. Rather, it’s the discourse that thrives when individuals engage in open conversations on political topics. I believe democracy can exist without representation, however such representation can still play a role in the organisation of political conversations at higher levels of governance, like within the European Parliament.
We can all become ‘citizen politicians’, just like we are all ‘citizen journalists’ today. We’re seeing less one-party commitment and more cross-representation, supporting different parties on specific topics. This ‘liquid’ trend offers new possibilities for voting strategies, where citizens could, for example, assign their votes on a monthly or annual basis to several delegates who can be both individuals and organisations.
With technology, it’s easier for voters to withdraw if they, for any reason, are dissatisfied with their delegates or members of parliament at the European level.
This method, called ‘liquid democracy’, is based on mixing direct and representative (indirect) democracy.
It can also be explained as a ‘rating’ system, where voters can give and withdraw their votes depending on delegates’ performance and behaviour in the public debate or law-making processes. This can serve as both a voting tool and a way to contribute to the cultural dialogue.
The ‘market’ of political ideas
Democracy in the sense of politics, representation and legitimacy, was developed during the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe – in connection with capitalism, profit-based and market-oriented economic developments. With competition as one of the key values of capitalism, this means companies are rivalling for customers, resources, and ideas.
Similarly, democracy can function as a competition between political parties, movements and ideas where voters ‘consume’ political messaging and stories to participate in the ‘market’ of ideas by debating and voting. While competition is still one of the dominant values in the developed world, civic cooperation and co-creation are becoming more viable in our post-industrial society.
And technology will help us get there.
Embracing new technologies to co-create
Blockchain and cryptocurrencies make it easier for us to organise ourselves as active community members and co-creators, rather than consumers and shareholders. We move from consumers to contributors, becoming active creators of proposals and processes. In fact, cryptocurrencies such as Cardano and Seeds are based on principles of decentralised and liquid democracy, where community members conduct governance and make decisions.
In the digital democratic future, citizens co-create public budgets and follow how tax money is being spent in order to prevent fraud, misbehavior, and corruption.
Economic activities are an essential part of liquid democracy, ensuring transparency and participation. This is especially true in decentralised communities.
Liquid democracy also makes it easier to ‘mobilise knowledge’ where a larger number of individuals, including experts and academics, can participate in deliberative conversations to discover solutions to ever-changing problems and aspirations… with everything out on display in a scrolling review-style, for people to make informed decisions.
Empowering today’s voters, pluralist in their affiliations
One strong case for transforming Europe into a digital democratic union is that both nationalist and populist behaviours can be reduced and even displaced in the long-term. Partly because nationalism, regardless of the type – ethnic or civic – cannot create solidarity, empathy or unity between humans in a universal and global sense. By promoting deliberative conversations and co-creating solutions, citizens are streamlined into a constructive process that could allow them to feel empowered, thus reducing their vulnerability to the rhetoric of demagogues.
The future of democracy could be based on using the EU as a model for digital cosmopolitan citizenship, institutions, policy creation and governance: from local to global levels to provide complex, coherent and community-oriented solutions to problems such as poverty, organised crime, and climate change.
It’s much more than politics
I see myself as a federalist both in European and global terms, which often leads to criticism for being in favor of abolishing the state, nation, and democracy. But on the contrary, being a federalist is also about favouring public institutions, democracy and communities at different levels. Despite not technically being a federation, the EU’s system of governance and existence as a supranational confederal polity already includes certain features of a federation, with additional systems that make it even more unique.
For example, the European Parliament is still regarded as the only democratically elected supranational parliament with ‘real’ institutional powers and influence. The EU also has institutional methods, such as the Open Method of Coordination, based on achieving and conducting flexible methods of governance through evaluations, recommendations and interactions (between EU-commission and member-state governments).
Modern technological development and its possibilities for democracy could enable the EU to be more inclusive across the Union.
Because of connectivity and digitalisation, EU citizens could become more involved in defining a budget, delegating votes to politicians, and becoming part of the entire ecosystem.
It’s exciting to think how this will unfold. Candidates for the European Commission, for example, could present their profiles and agendas in a type of ‘political LinkedIn’, create community groups and receive votes directly via a public social platform for elections.
Democratic renewal, an inspiring new EU
During 2010s political debates, the phrase “Europe is at a crossroads” was often cited to illustrate the tensions surrounding Brexit. The same can be said today about democracy. The EU is now in a tech competition with China, who focus seems to be on digital dictatorship, not digital democracy.
Democracy must be defended but also promoted through ‘offensives’ against autocratic ideals. To care about the future of democracy, we must all concern ourselves with the rise in populism. The world isn’t what it used to be. There’s a greater need for new ideas and developments to carry us into the digitalisation of democracy in Europe, as well as globally.
It’s a choice between using emergent technology such as blockchain and AI for democratic conversations and inclusion, leading to a model of society where people cooperate and shape institutions… or a society where such technology is used in order to force people to obey and be influenced by institutions that reject human rights.
Digitising democracy is the way forward, and will help reduce the disparity between institutions, politicians, and citizens… Just like Tripadvisor helped address the disparity between businesses and consumers.