Monday, August 17, 2009

Commonly Civic (2009)

Book Review from the August 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Internet and Democratic Citizenship. By Stephen Coleman and Jay Blumler: Cambridge University Press £14.99.

It is hardly controversial to say that the Internet opens up new possibilities for political discussion and for dissemination of opinions and news. From websites and mailing lists to blogs and videos downloaded from mobile phones, details of events and commentary can be circulated far more quickly and widely than was possible even twenty years ago. In this book, though, former Socialist Party member Steve Coleman and his co-author go much further, arguing that citizens’ participation in democracy can be greatly increased by the establishment of what they call a ‘civic commons’.

This would not be just a matter of e-voting but of true e-participation. An example of the latter would be the discussion on domestic violence in 2000, whereby a parliamentary committee’s sessions were webcast live and an online forum enabled ‘the public’ to submit evidence. This and similar examples, however, illustrate top-down e-democracy, run by government bodies, which can lead only to a kind of pseudo-participation.

In contrast is e-democracy from below, where people get together to share knowledge and mobilise for action of one kind or another. An example would be netmums, an online group which aims to support mothers locally and provide information, such as the location of toddler groups (see The Stop the War coalition is another instance, with a website as a point of first contact for anyone interested.

Beyond this is the idea of an online civic commons, a democratically-moderated space that is nobody’s property (like unenclosed common land in medieval times). A new public agency would gather and coordinate people’s views on a range of problems, and public bodies would have to react formally. A hypothetical example is given: a debate on the teaching of reading is initiated by a government minister, and parents, teachers and others contribute via the civic commons, where an online library is established and a series of e-guides produced.

The problem is that there is an unspoken assumption behind all this that capitalism could and should be made more democratic in this way. The authors acknowledge that the Internet is not inherently democratising, but they say far too little about possibilities for democracy under capitalism. The notion of class is entirely missing, and the division into governors and governed is never balanced by anything on owners versus employees. With its vast inequalities of wealth and power, capitalism is inherently undemocratic, and this can at most be only slightly modified by means of a civic commons.

A socialist society might well employ something like a civic commons, and there could still be sites along the lines of netmums. But the Internet has little if any potential for increasing democracy under capitalism.
Paul Bennett

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