SMV now! But blind faith in delegations is the wrong way. For democracy and participation.

This here is a call of support by me for a SMV in the Pirate Party. An extensive essay about creating an institution to make democratic participation of all more possible. And a critical view on delegations. If delegations are designed so that they model blind trust and to save time, they will work against democracy, enlightenment and the checking of power.

That is why I am supportive of a strongly effective regulation of delegations – thereby greatly increasing their liquidity. A central point in this is the automatic expiration of delegations after 30 days, unless they are confirmed by clicking.

Confirm Delegations: The user confirms the validity and effectuality of delegations; and doing that, gets them also displayed in the user interface. (CC-BY-SA TheCitizen.de , original clipart: CC-BY-SA Niels Lohmann)30 days Delegations: After 30 days, delegations automatically expire, unless the user confirms them. (CC-BY-SA TheCitizen.de , original clipart: CC-BY-SA Niels Lohmann)

1 What the SMV is and why we need it.
2 More participation instead of oppression.
3 Enlightenment 2.0 instead of blind faith.
4 The “freedom!!1” to delegate.
5 Democracy costs time.
6 Power must be checked.
7 It’s the system, stupid! Democracy by design.
8 What do I actually want to know?

See also: other blog posts on this subject.

1 What the SMV is and why we need it.

SMV stands for Permanent General Assembly (“Ständige Mitgliederversammlung”). The Pirate Party Germany currently discusses introducing a SMV as political body within the party, in order to be able to make decisions not only at 1 to 2 party conventions per year at conference venues, but continually / much more often, and especially: online. The implementation, how this SMV should exactly look like, and for example if and how there will be delegations (transfer of one’s own voting rights) is also currently fiercely debated.

I am strongly supporting the idea that we, the Pirate Party, now – before the German parliamentary elections (“Bundestagswahl”) – create and introduce a SMV and to allow more (and more real) democracy and participation in our party. This SMV should (1) be verifiable, so that all participants can see the accuracy and legitimacy of the results. And (2) it should be able to make binding, formally official decisions, so that we can define positions on current political issues (and our party program). If we do not fill out this vacuum of current political questions by a SMV, it will instead be filled out by the federal board, or if there is one, it will be filled out by the parliamentary group of the Pirate Party (“Bundestagsfraktion”). A parliamentary group will enjoy extremely much media attention, coverage and reach.

In short: without a SMV, hierarchical bodies consisting of only few people will take full sovereignty over interpretation / interpretive power in the (media) public of any Pirate Party content on current political questions. Also, a parliamentary group without a SMV can not really determine which opinion the Pirate Party basis has on an issue.

2 More participation instead of oppression.

“The power of the people is greater than the people in power,”

says the Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, who contributed online and offline to the for Arab Spring. His sentence summarizes excellently why on Tahrir Square so many people protest in an inspiring and courageous way, and have achieved first real successes: They say: The oppression by an authoritarian regime is a thing of the past. Democracy and participation of all is the future.

Similarly, the Spanish / international “Democracia real ya”/”Real democracy now”/15-M movement and the global Occupy Wall Street movement engage for an end of the power of elites, and for new, better, more democratic structures.

The Pirate Party also makes clear in its policy statement in the party program under “Risking more democracy: More participation“: “We Pirates aim for maximum democratic equality among all people. The Pirate Party therefore strives to increase and promote every individual’s direct and indirect opportunities for democratic participation.”

3 Enlightenment 2.0 instead of blind faith.

The complete opposite of the ideas mentioned under 2 is symbolized by a quotation by the prominent ACTA-supporter Marielle Gallo, Member of the European Parliament – a position that unfortunately probably many politicians share:

“We’re supposed to represent citizens, but since they are busy with other things, we are supposed to think for them!”

We fight politically exactly against this image of humans and of democracy.
For such a “politics 1.0” simply can not know what is desired democratically – but only what is recommended by financially strong lobbies with elitist access. And this is also how the results look like.

Previously, there was a king who thought for the people.
Previously, only a privileged few could learn knowledge from exclusive teachers.
Previously, only a few selected people could come in horse carriages to voting conventions.
Today there is the Internet.

Blind faith (in a king or any other authority) is no longer necessary.
Blind faith rather than to question authority in a critical way and to dare to think for oneselves prevents not only innovation.
It fails to recognize the opportunities for enlightenment, emancipation, equality, and knowledge-based society, which, thanks to the Internet, have fortunately grown dramatically.

Similarly, a blind faith in the “competence” of experts is nothing more than a classic oligarchy (technocracy), if not critically examined and questioned, but when the experts determine their own competence. And how is someone who is “unfamiliar” with a topic supposed to find out whether another person knows better about the topic and so they can elect this person as their delegate?

Blind faith (or “unconditional trust”) is a one-way relationship, it is communication that goes in only one direction. From this building block, only hierarchical structures can be built, no decentralized ones. In politics, blind trust is misplaced.

If delegations are implemented with the aim of blind faith, the result will be a completely different system with different properties than if the goal is the mapping of an enlightened, critical, participatory democracy.

@Afelia at Maybrit Illner on 14 March 2013 rightly criticized the attitude: “The politicians above will solve all problems.”
Equally reprehensible is the attitude: “The delegates above will solve all problems.”
Because the correct answer is: in both cases we ourselves have to critically question, review, and actively engage.

The core question is not: delegations – or no delegations, but: participate and think for oneselves – or blindly trust authorities.

4 The “freedom!!1” to delegate.

Some advocates of delegations are crying “Freedom!!1” as if they had just come from a FDP-/Neoliberalisms-/WG-“right to bear arms”-seminar, and instigate fear of “bans”.

This is actually a reversal of the situation: We are dealing with the adding of an optional service specifically for the advocates of delegations, making the (automated) transfer of one’s own voting rights possible within the SMV institution (plus hopefully concomitant elements of transparency and checks).

But more importantly:
In any case, it is always possible, to vote with your vote as others recommend who you consider more knowledgeable or trustworthy.
It is only the question how this is done and with how much interaction (and how it is regulated):

We go from one extreme to the other:
The person who wants to delegate online asks the person it wishes what they recommend for a vote.
They subscribe to the blog of the desired person, to the category of ‘voting’ as feed, and automatically gets all voting recommendations.
They click on “subscribe voting recommendations” within the SMV system and receive them within the user interface, where they just need to confirm them with a click.
They click on “delegate to that person” within the SMV system and transfer their vote to vote to them / vote as them automatically.

In between there are many other exciting levels, and each point can be implemented in different ways and differently regulated – with very different consequences: more about regulation below under “It’s the system, stupid! Democracy by design.”.

Just please don’t use the simple calls “freedom!!1” and “bans!!1” to prevent important debates.

5 Democracy costs time.

A common argument in favor of delegations is that they save time. That is wrong.

Delegations shall represent decentralized knowledge networks and knowledge exchange in two (!) directions. And not save time.

It takes time to find out which person is classified by the delegator to be knowledgeable or trustworthy.
It takes time to review the original assumptions.
It requires knowledge and experience to determine who qualifies as a delegate.
This means not only the (super) delegates has knowledge, but also the delegator: knowledge flows not only unidirectional but bidirectional.
This exchange of knowledge in the network takes time.

If delegations are implemented with the aim of saving time, the result will be a completely different system with different properties than if the aim is to model a distributed knowledge network with knowledge flows.

(Blind faith in delegations would of course save time. But only by reducing democracy.)

But how to solve the time problem, so that not only a few people with a lot of time can have a say in the SMV?

Through clever structures that reflect a participatory democracy.
Through transparency, clarity and intuitive ease of use of the graphical user interface of the SMV.
By fixed timing voting intervals (for example a fixed voting day once a week).

And not by blind faith.

6 Power must be checked.

Separation of powers / checks and balances is one of the smartest inventions of mankind. And our constitutions rightly disallow it to “democratically” elect a dictator and give him all rights. They forbid it, and that’s good.

For both of these examples are based on a much more general knowledge that we also have to heed with a SMV:

Unchecked power and concentration of power lead to decisions with the bias (or the self-interest) to keep the received power.

Not only that, once power is accumulated and unchecked, it also counteracts the introduction of controls that might critically question, check, or remove that power again.
The greater the concentration of power is, and the greater the lack of control, the more difficult / impossible it is to undo that. And because of this, sometimes unfortunately even violence arises, as seen in history.

Is the question of power in the SMV relevant at all? Is there any leverage if power actually should have been accumulated to apply pressure? Yes, because virtually all the Pirates have an interest in certain programmatic positions, in votes about “other intraparty affairs” or in rules of procedure of the SMV itself, and wish that their interest is successful.

How can control be achieved?

Control requires two things: knowledge of what is going on (transparency), and to be able to act (for example two-way communication, voting out of an office, withdrawal of delegations, …).
Note that this is crucial here: For both, it is not enough to be only theoretically possible. It must also be practically possible with realistic effort. Learn more about this right now under “It’s the system, stupid! Democracy by design.”.

7 It’s the system, stupid! Democracy by design.

We are in the process of creating a democratic institution that can make binding decisions.
Important: The regulation of such an institution is not trivial.
It is comparable to the writing of a constitution.

To simply implement delegations exactly as in the current LQFB (Liquid Feedback) of the Pirate Party also in the SMV institution should not be accepted uncritically for granted or as if there were no alternatives, but it should, like everything else, checked. The topic in question is no less than the transfer of one’s own voting right! (And the possible re-retrieving of it.) In the current LQFB a lot about Pirates complain about the fact that there are few, but powerful, super delegates.

The rules adopted in the institution should reflect our culture of democratic participation.
If the rules don’t meet our participatory culture, there will be frustration, and the results will not give us useful information.
The rules also need to heed the above mentioned points of this posting.
Because if the rules reflect hierarchical systems of blind faith in authority, our SMV will behave like such systems.
We set the rules now, but once the rules are fixed, the rules themselves are going to have power and influence and determine the culture within the institution. It is a reciprocal relationship.

Or, as Lawrence Lessig would say: “Code is Law“. The design of the institution SMV, by their rules, their code, determines the open spaces in it, and which behavior / what kind of democratic society is possible in it in what extent, or is favored over other concepts.

General examples of how important rules and design of a system are:

  • If governments and members/representatives in parliament were remaining in their offices for indefinite amounts of time until they were voted out actively by a referendum, our democracy would look very different, although there would be, theoretically, the free possibility of voting out and changing government.
  • It is better to not even collect and save private data, even though they could be deleted upon request. (Privacy by design)
  • It is better if default setting is set to maximum privacy by default when you install/use an operating system, program or social network, although the user could change or set the setting always freely. (Privacy by default)
  • There is a big difference between the state’s public registry office being allowed to sell your data to a commercial companies, as long as you do not actively oppose (opt-out), versus it being allowed to do so only if you actively consent to such a use of your data (opt-in).

Therefore now the crucial rule to ensure that even with delegations, there will be a culture of participation, of decentralized networks of knowledge, and of democratic control of power:

The effort to revoke a delegation (and to do that you must notice a problem!) must be smaller than to keep a delegation.

There is no free choice of the individual possible if the effort to revoke the delegation is greater than to preserve the status quo.

Importantly: (1) To revoke a delegation, the knowledge must be obtained to be able to be able to detect potential problems in the first place. Depending on the design of the system, this can cost very high efforts, and for example require that some few active people are individually riniging on hundreds of doors, writing indivudually to hundreds of people, or inform the public with information booths to increase awareness for potential abuse of power (usually in vain) – or it could already be implemented in the system by design. (2) It’s not about theoretical possibilities, but practical effort sizes and hurdles in reality.

Because the unchecked power of superdelegates feeds off the ratio of these efforts.
A system in which the effort to learn about the result of a vote and then to withdraw the delegation is significantly higher than to keep a delegation will lead to a few superdelegates who can rule arbitrarily in the region between the two efforts. The greater the gap between the two efforts, the greater the range of arbitrary rule. Only when the arbitrary use of power is higher than the effort gap and becomes aware as undesirable, the threshold is exceeded, and only then a truly free choice is possible if the delegation should be withdrawn or not.

How can the effort to withdraw a delegation including the effort to obtain knowledge about problems in the first place be reduced, compared to the keeping of a delegation?

By design of the system.

The first approach is to make the processes in SMV system so that users gain important knowledge “by the way” when using the SMV, get informative overviews to check and confirm them, to be able to identify problems.
The second approach is to not cement given delegations forever as accumulation of power of others, but to increase their liquidity. Only then is will actually be a “Liquid Democracy”.

Specific proposals:

  • A cast vote requires that a person has clicked actively, and that the issue voted on appeared at least once on the screen. For a delegated vote this means that the delegator must approve / confirm the recommended voting by a click (opt-in).
  • Delegations automatically expire after a fixed time period, for example, after 30 days. They expire unless they are confirmed by actively clicking in an overview in which the delegations are displayed to the user.
  • Delegations and all votes in which a person has participated through delegated votes are transparent and clearly listed in the user interface.
  • All delegations, delegation paths, and votes by delegated votes are visible and fully transparent for all users of the SMV. The participants of the SMV can recalculate the results themselves, and, for comparision, can compute delegations in or out.
  • It is possible in the SMV system to send messages that are displayed after login. It is possible to write to all people who have delegated to one person who has voted by delegated vote for them.
  • There are e-mail notifications sent out to users for messages, ballots, and for the results and paths of delegated voting rights. And e-mail notifications two days before delegation would expire.
  • Delegation must be fine-grained possible only for topic areas or individual topic votings.
  • Similar to the control of parliament, government, committees by the freedom of the press, it must be allowed to speak outside the SMV institution over election results and the decision of powerful super delegates (including their pseudonyms / names in the system). Great power means great transparency.
  • Maybe you should be able to: set the delegation depth / whether the delegated voting right of the recipient of the delegation may be passed on further to others, and the option of preference delegations.
  • Maybe: upper limit on how much voting wight / voting rights one person can maximally receive by delegations.

8 What do I actually want to know?

I am interested in the opinion of Pirates.

Not of national or parliamentary group chairpersons.
Not of superdelegates, whose support is not critically examined, but based on voting rights that were given away inactively, un-knowingly, blindly trusting. For in this case the super delegates unfortunately do not really represent these Pirates, even though they received their right to vote, but represent only an unequal relation of efforts in an implementation of delegations that needs a lot of improving.

I want to know which opinion is formed and decided together by mature/self-thinking Pirates – gladly including the Pirates who delegate their vote to another person, but do this in a critical, questioning way, and checking this, within a system that is designed for this purpose. I want Pirates who can actively participate and exchange knowledge. I want to save time, by a well structured system and a fixed rhythm of votings, and not by axing democracy.

Nor do I want to build a model of the current classical representative and particularly hierarchical political system.

I want an emancipatory, enlightened, democratic SMV. Now.

Confirm Delegations: The user confirms the validity and effectuality of delegations; and doing that, gets them also displayed in the user interface. (CC-BY-SA TheCitizen.de , original clipart: CC-BY-SA Niels Lohmann)30 days Delegations: After 30 days, delegations automatically expire, unless the user confirms them. (CC-BY-SA TheCitizen.de , original clipart: CC-BY-SA Niels Lohmann)


Other blog posts on this subject:

Blog posts on this subject that I think excellently review delegations and illustrate important pitfalls:

  • @incredibul excellently sums up the dangers of technocracy (delegations) and the dangers of direct democracy.
  • @Street_Dogg with 1, 2, 3, 4 remarkably detailed analyses in LQFB on delegations, superdelegates, and the concentration of power.
  • @cmrcx on the argument of advocates of delegations “you don’t have to delegate”. (I would call this problem the the pooling of votes.)

Blog posts on this subject that I think are too uncritically advocating for delegations and trust in authorities:

  • @kc__dc advocates for delegations: “delegations are unconditional trust” (blind faith).
  • @NavyBK also bases delegations on “trust” (faith).
  • @mundauf praises technocracy.

Auf Deutsch lesen.


This work by TheCitizen.de is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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One thought on “SMV now! But blind faith in delegations is the wrong way. For democracy and participation.

  1. Pingback: German federal election 2013: A trend to post-democracy. Strategy for the Pirate Party. | TheCitizen.de

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