From individual participation to authoritarian politics

Renovating Democracy – Governing in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism
POLICY / Does technology development destabilize modern democracies? China can be seen as a positive counterpart to the West.


As many have commented, the crises in today's democracies are many – and the challenge lies in the dual pressures of globalization and technology development, two trends that are gathering in the global networking community.

Gardels and Berggruen, who lead a think tank in Los Angeles, have previously written the book Intelligent Governance in the 21 Century (2013), where they compare the political traditions of the West and the East. With direct experience from both California and China, they have ambitions not only of analyzing and criticizing, but of proposing changes and building new political forums.

In order to update and improve the institutions, we must first understand what happens to the relationship between leadership and people when the Internet makes information, participation and manipulation more immediately accessible. In short, the challenge lies in encouraging participation, but at the same time avoiding populism.

If you are a co-owner of the company that makes you redundant
automation, after all, the damage is less.

The dual danger of democracy, which Plato repeatedly warned, is, on the one hand, the "mob", which can be guided by immediate desire, short-term convenience and irrational fear, and on the other, demagogues, who know how to exploit these tendencies. Gardels and Berggruen are reminiscent of their new book Renovating Democracy about Plato's skepticism about democracy reappeared in the US Constitutional Assembly, pointing out that the word "democracy" is not even mentioned in the Constitution or in the Declaration of Independence. Politicians like Thomas Jefferson and America's Fourth President James Madison were concerned that the deliberate deliberations of the elected officials should not be disturbed by the volatility of the people – and that the people, for their part, had to be protected by stable institutions against the instability of politicians.

Short circuits at the top and bottom

With Twitter President Donald Trump and his uncensored play, the need for mindful consideration and strong institutions at the top becomes apparent. But also from below, social media and networks contribute to dangerous and unwise decisions. When confidence in elected politicians diminishes, there are often demands for referendums that are supposed to give power back to the people. The problem is that such direct democracy is even more vulnerable to manipulation.

Gardels and Berggruen point out that the system of frequent referendums in the state of California allows people to easily be led by the light of groups of special interests, such as the so-called California Jobs Initiative, Proposition 23, presented in 2010: Despite the promising name was This is a campaign funded by the oil industry to limit the state's environmental taxes on gasoline. The same is often the case with tax reforms, which risk destroying the state's finances: People often want to vote on tax schemes, although surveys reveal that few have any understanding of the state's revenue sources and expenditures.

Paulo Sergio /

Where Berggruen and Gardels refer to an article from The Economist, who pointed out that referendums constitute a dangerous form of "extreme democracy", they find an opposite example in China – the country with a long tradition of meritocratic bureaucracies but tilting in the direction of the authoritarian. Although the Communist Party has 90 million members and an ideal of embracing diversity, all aspiring politicians harmoniously receive the same education – and disharmonious protests are consequently suppressed. The way China has taken control of the Internet shows that they prioritize order over freedom, as in 2015, when a video criticizing the pollution in Beijing became so popular that it was removed.

The democratic pressure in China is indirect, in the sense that the party will be dissatisfied with the purchase. This is threatened as China puts social control online, which will make it increasingly unfavorable to express dissatisfaction. The goal of social control is stability, a far stronger ideal in China than in the West. At the same time, China has embarked on a race with the West, where technological innovation is a decisive means of advancement. However, as the authors point out, innovation is always a destabilizing factor, which China is trying to counteract with virtually total control over the internet platforms.


In the West, the free market logic leads to giants like Amazon and Google disproportionately profiting from technological shifts. Gardels and Berggruen therefore propose a form of universal basic capital, which they call "redistribution". After all, if you are a co-owner of the company that makes you redundant through automation, the damage is minor. They cite the Norwegian Oil Fund as an example of a common base capital, but when it comes to well-established technological platforms, they do not offer a clear strategy for how such a "partial ownership of the robots" should go in practice. But in more centralized China, they may find it easier to find models that allow everyone to profit from automated factories and the like.

The question that remains, however, is: How do you protect the freedom of the individual on the one hand and the state from political instability on the other?

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