Sunday, March 18, 2012

Praise for “monitory democracy”: a concept attuned to TIMN (Part 1 of 2)

I’m always on lookout for concepts that may help show how the +N network part of TIMN may unfold in the future. John Keane’s concept of “monitory democracy” is the best I’ve seen lately. It merits a lot more attention.

I first heard about it indirectly a year or two ago in posts by Michel Bauwens and Kevin Carson at the P2P Foundation blog, and from Carson’s writings at his blog on The Desktop Regulatory State (specifically, Ch. 3). Lately, I’ve managed to read Keane’s own writings about his concept.

This Part-1 post summarizes the concept and provides preliminary review comments. A subsequent Part-2 post will assess the concept’s relevance to TIMN.

I’m interested in “monitory democracy” for its own merits. But I’m also trying to develop background for examining the concept’s implications for Occupy! and related pro-democracy movements in a future Part-IV post in my coterminous series on the causes, conduct, and consequences of those movements.

* * * * *

John Keane’s concept of “monitory democracy”

To learn about monitory democracy, I’ve read parts of Keane’s book on The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), along with spin-off papers found online (2008a, 2008b, 2010), plus a few discussions I spotted. For this post, I’ve relied mostly on the paper (2008b) that I think offers the best summary of Keane’s analysis (and also because it’s easier to copy and paste quotes from it than from his hardcopy book). Readers who want access to more of his articles and essays should peruse his website at

In these writings about monitory democracy, Keane grounds his analysis on the following phenomenon: increases in monitoring roles played by NGOs and other actors representing civil society.

Keane is not among the first to observe this phenomenon. Analysts have been documenting and speculating about it for decades. A handy example, with a large annotated bibliography that extends back a decade or two, is Ann Florini’s The Third Force: The Rise of Transnational Civil Society (2000), which concluded that:
“[T]he growing attention to transnational civil society is not mere hoopla. It reflects a real and considerable increase in the number and effectiveness of transnational nongovernmental networks. The power of transnational civil society manifests itself at virtually every stage of policy making, from deciding what issues need attention to determining how problems will be solved to monitoring compliance with agreements.” (p. 211)
By now, there are myriad writings in this vein. Almost all relate the rising influence of civil society and its NGOs to the spread of network forms of organization, and to their enablement by new information technologies. And all this is said to be promising for the future of democracy, partly because monitoring roles are so greatly enhanced. (See Appendices 1 and 2, which I will include at the end of Part 2.)

Yet, Keane offers an innovative way to look at this phenomenon — as the rise of a new kind of democracy: monitory democracy. To my knowledge, that’s an insightful contribution; it moves thinking quite a few steps beyond the now-common notion that the information revolution is empowering and altering civil society in ways that will reshape democracy.

Keane provides a succinct summary statement about monitory democracy in the introductory chapter of his book (2009; chapter titled “Bad Moons, Little Dreams”):
“[T]he years since 1945 have seen the invention of about a hundred different types of power-monitoring devices that never before existed within the world of democracy. These watchdog and guide-dog and barking-dog inventions are changing both the political geography and the political dynamics of many democracies, which no longer bear much resemblance to textbook models of representative democracy, which supposed that citizens’ needs are best championed through elected parliamentary representatives chosen by political parties. From the perspective of this book, the emerging historical form of ‘monitory’ democracy is a ‘post-Westminster’ form of democracy in which power-monitoring and power-controlling devices have begun to extend sideways and downwards through the whole political order. They penetrate the corridors of government and occupy the nooks and crannies of civil society, and in so doing they greatly complicate, and sometimes wrong-foot, the lives of politicians, parties, legislatures and governments. These extra-parliamentary power-monitoring institutions include — to mention at random just a few — public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts’ reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, ‘blogging’ and other novel forms of media scrutiny.” (p. 14; online here and here)
In that first chapter, Keane makes clear that democracy’s proponents would be well-advised to start understanding and fostering monitory democracy, but he also shows that he is far from utopian about its prospects:
“In contrast to those policy makers, activists and scholars who suppose that the fundamental choice facing contemporary democracies is that between accepting the terms of Westminster-style electoral democracy and the embrace of more participatory forms of 'deep' and 'direct' democracy — in effect, a choice between embracing the present or returning to the imagined spirit of Athenian democracy — The Life and Death of Democracy carves out a third possibility, one that has much contemporary history on its side, an option, the growth of 'monitory democracy', that needs to be recognised for what it is: a brand-new historical form of democracy.” (pp. 15-16)
The Life and Death of Democracy does not suppose that monitory democracy is leading us to paradise on earth. It pays attention to the way that trends in its favour are to a varying degree subject everywhere to counter-trends.” (p. 17)
There’s a lot worth elaborating here. And I’m going to do so next, at some length. The quotes (and the concept) are so illuminating that I’d advise bearing with my extensive excerpts, for they bear on what I will eventually turn to say (in Part 2) about the overlaps with TIMN and implications for Occupy! and related pro-democracy movements.

Further elaboration of Keane’s concept of monitory democracy

To place monitory democracy in historical context, Keane divides the history of democracy, from ancient through modern times, into three grand ages: assembly democracy, representative democracy, and monitory democracy.
“My claim is that our world is now living through an historic sea change, one that is taking us away from the old world of representative democracy towards a form of democracy with entirely different contours and dynamics.
“My conjecture is that monitory democracy is a new historical type of democracy, one that is defined by the multiplication and dispersal of many different power-monitoring and power-contesting mechanisms, both within the ‘domestic’ fields of government and civil society and beyond, in cross-border settings that were once dominated by empires, states and business organisations.
“In terms of its contours and dynamics, monitory democracy is the most institutionally complex form of democracy yet. It is the tertium quid, the undefined and not fully formed successor of the earlier historical experiments with assembly-based and representative forms of democracy.” (2008a, pp. 2-3)
According to Keane, “the age of monitory democracy … began around 1945” — right after World War II. That’s a decades earlier than I expected, but he has good reasons for this date. It has to do with people’s reactions to war, including writings by Thomas Mann, Sidney Hook, Jacques Maritain, and especially Reinhold Niebuhr, that called for a new form of democracy to deal with “the devil of unaccountable power” (2009, p 731). It also has to do with “the birth of nearly one hundred new types of power-scrutinising institutions unknown to previous democrats” — inventions that “break the grip of the majority rule principle — the worship of numbers — associated with representative democracy” (2008b, pp. 4-5).

Keane specifies a large catalog of post-1945 organizational “inventions” that give voice to minority views, watch over government and corporate behaviors, publicize neglected policy positions, and even just “come on the scene, stir the pot, then move on like nomads, or dissolve into thin air.” (2008b, pp. 4-5)
“By making room for opinions and ways of life that people feel strongly about, despite their neglect or suppression by parties, parliaments and governments, these inventions have the combined effect of raising the level and quality of public monitoring of power, often for the first time in many areas of life, including power relationships ‘beneath’ and ‘beyond’ the institutions of territorial states. …
“The number and range of monitory institutions so greatly increase that they point to a world where the old rule of ‘one person, one vote, one representative’ — the central demand in the struggle for representative democracy — is replaced with the new principle of monitory democracy: ‘one person, many interests, many voices, multiple votes, multiple representatives’.” (2008b, pp. 5-6)
“[S]lowly and surely, the whole architecture of democracy has begun fundamentally to change. So too has the meaning of democracy. No longer synonymous with self-government by an assembly of male citizens (as in the Greek city states), or with party-based government guided by the will of a majority, democracy comes to mean a way of life and a mode of governing in which nobody rules.” (2008a, pp. 8-9; it’s clearer in his book (2009, pp. 856-859) where he writes “no body rules” rather than “nobody rules”)
Keane insists that monitory democracy does not spell a revival of assembly democracy, nor a replacement of representative democracy. Instances of both earlier forms will continue to exist, necessarily. Monitory democracy is still representational, but in new ways. For it’s a set of structures and processes that is being built outside, alongside, and throughout the old ones:
“What is distinctive about this new historical type of democracy is the way all fields of social and political life come to be scrutinised, not just by the standard machinery of representative democracy but by a whole host of non-party, extra-parliamentary and often unelected bodies operating within and underneath and beyond the boundaries of territorial states. In the era of monitory democracy, it is as if the principles of representative democracy — public openness, citizens’ equality, selecting representatives — are superimposed on representative democracy itself. This has many practical consequences, but one especially striking effect is to alter the patterns of interaction — political geography — of democratic institutions.” (2008b, p. 8, italics in original)
“Just as representative democracies preserved the spirit and form of ancient assemblies, so monitory democracies preserves legislatures, political parties and elections, … But such is the growing variety of interlaced, power-monitoring mechanisms that democrats from earlier times, if catapulted into the new world of monitory democracy, would find it hard to understand what is happening. (2008b, p. 9)
Monitory mechanisms operate in different ways on several different fronts. Some scrutinise power primarily at the level of citizens’ inputs to government or civil society; others are preoccupied with monitoring and contesting policy throughputs; still others concentrate on scrutinising policy outputs produced by governmental or non-governmental organisations. Monitory mechanisms also come in many different shapes and sizes, and operate on various spatial scales, ranging from ‘just round the corner’ bodies with merely local footprints to global networks aimed at keeping tabs on those who exercise power over great distances. Given all this variability, it should not be surprising that a quick short list of inventions looks — at first sight, to the untrained eye — to be a higgledy-piggledy collection of different practices that resemble something of a magpie’s nest of randomly collected items.” (2008a, p. 11, italics in original)
For traditionalists who might reiterate old arguments that civil-society actors still don’t matter nearly as much as established political and market actors, he has a solid counter-argument — and I welcome his mention of “networks” as agencies of power-monitoring:
“It is sometimes said that the business of power scrutiny changes very little, that states and corporations are still the ‘real’ centres of power in deciding who gets what, when and how in this world. Evidence that this is not necessarily so is suggested by the fact that all of the big public issues that have erupted around the world since 1945, including civil rights for women and minorities, American military intervention in Vietnam and Iraq, nuclear weapons, poverty reduction and global warming, have been generated not by political parties, elections, legislatures and governments, but principally by power-monitoring networks that run ‘parallel’ to — and are often positioned against — the orthodox mechanisms of party-based representation.” (2008b, p. 19)
“The intense public concern with civil society and with publicly scrutinizing matters once thought to be non-political is unique to the age of monitory democracy.” (2009, p. 709)
Keane depicts representative democracy as belonging to an age of nations, hierarchies, and limited connections. In contrast, monitory democracy is for a new age of densely transnational, networked connections. His depiction of its dynamics — latticed, inter-laced, and often non-linear, viral, and chaotic — sounds straight out of recent complexity theory and network science, as well as older interdependence theory:
“One interesting thing about monitory democracy is that it begins to confront the wall of prejudice with a hammer. Its latticed patterns of power monitoring effectively fudge the distinction between ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’, the ‘local’ and the ‘global’. Like other types of institutions, including business and universities, democracy too is caught up in a process of ‘glocalisation’. This is another way of saying that its monitory mechanisms are dynamically inter-related, to the point where each functions simultaneously as both part and whole of the overall system. In the system of monitory democracy, to put things a bit abstractly, parts and wholes in an absolute sense do not exist. Its units are better described as sub-wholes — ‘holons’ is the term famously coined by the Hungarian polymath Arthur Koestler — that function simultaneously as self-regarding and self-asserting entities that push and pull each other in a multi-lateral system in which all entities play a part.” (2008b, p. 17)
“The dynamics of monitory democracy are thus not describable using the simple spatial metaphors inherited from the age of representative democracy. Talk of the ‘sovereignty’ of parliament, or of ‘local’ versus ‘central’ government, or of tussles between ‘pressure groups’, political parties and governments, is just too simple. It is obsolete. In terms of political geometry, the system of monitory democracy is something other and different: a complex web of differently-sized and more or less interdependent monitory bodies that have the effect, thanks to communicative abundance, of continuously stirring up questions about who gets what, when and how, as well as holding publicly responsible those who exercise power, wherever they are situated. Monitory democracies are richly conflicted. Politics does not wither away. Everything is never straightforwardly ok.” (2008b, p. 27)
“Despite such weaknesses, the political dynamics and overall ‘feel’ of monitory democracies are very different from the era of representative democracy. Politics in the age of monitory democracy has a definite ‘viral’ quality about it. The power controversies stirred up by monitory mechanisms follow unexpected paths and reach surprising destinations. … In the world of monitory democracy, that kind of latticed — viral, networked — pattern is typical, not exceptional. It has profound implications for the state-framed institutions of the old representative democracy, which find themselves more and more enmeshed in ‘sticky’ webs of power-scrutinising institutions that often hit their target, sometimes from long distances, often by means of boomerang effects.” (2008b, pp. 28-29)
Lest this make monitory democracy seem too conflictive, too chaotic, during this early phase of its emergence, Keane insists otherwise, partly by pulling “networked governance” into the picture:
“[M]onitory democracy contains plenty of mechanisms for stitching and binding together individuals and groups and institutions. For all its public conflicts, monitory democracy is not ‘anarchy’. It contains plenty of bonding and bridging devices that bring a measure of coherence to political life. … [including] the new arts of what is called ‘networked governance’ — the knack of combining and co-ordinating complex decisions across a variety of potentially conflicting organisations.” (2008a, p. 25-26)
As a causal factor, Keane’s explanation for monitory democracy emphasizes the development of new media that create “communicative abundance”. Other factors are significant too — like the “trigger” of war, and the rise of civil-society NGOs and networks concerned with human rights (2009, pp. 729-731) — but he keeps returning to the roles of communications media, even associating each age of democracy with the rise of a different media technology:
“All these pressures have conspired to push actually existing democracies in the direction of monitory democracy. But one force is turning out to be the principal driver: the emergence of a new galaxy of communication media.
“No account of monitory democracy would be credible without taking into account the way that power and conflict are shaped by new media institutions. Think of it like this: assembly-based democracy in ancient Greek times belonged to an era dominated by the spoken word, backed up by laws written on papyrus and stone, and by messages dispatched by foot, or by donkey and horse. Representative democracy sprang up in the era of print culture — the book, pamphlet and newspaper, and telegraphed and mailed messages — and fell into crisis during the advent of early mass communication media, especially radio and cinema and (in its infancy) television. By contrast, monitory democracy is tied closely to the growth of multi-media-saturated societies — societies whose structures of power are continuously ‘bitten’ by monitory institutions operating within a new galaxy of media defined by the ethos of communicative abundance.” (2008b, p. 21)
From these considerations, Keane concludes that “monitory democracy is the deepest and widest system of democracy ever known” (2008a, p. 20, italics in original) — in part because “the new scrutiny mechanisms add checks and balances on the possible abuse of power by elected representatives” (2008b, p. 16). Indeed,
“In the era of monitory democracy, the constant public scrutiny of power by hosts of differently sized monitory bodies with footprints large and small makes it the most energetic, most dynamic form of democracy ever. … Various watchdogs and guide dogs and barking dogs are constantly on the job, pressing for greater public accountability of those who exercise power. The powerful consequently come to feel the constant pinch of the powerless. In the era of monitory democracy, those who make decisions are subject constantly to the ideal of public chastening, tied down by a thousand Lilliputian strings of scrutiny (figure 4).” (2008b, pp. 27-28)
So much is changing that Keane disputes and refutes the influential “end of history” view whereby Francis Fukuyama (1992) praises liberal democracy as the endpoint of political evolution. Says Keane (2008b, p. 2), that view is “too limited to grasp the epochal change — too bound to the surface of things, too preoccupied with continuities and aggregate data to notice that political tides have begun to run in entirely new directions.” In contrast, Keane expects that monitory democracy will prove
“its superiority as a way of preventing and amending mistakes, as a self-reflexive mode of anticipating, defining and handling unexpected events and unforeseen consequences and reversing wrong-headed decisions and their unjust effects.” (2009, p. 14)
But much as Keane lauds ways in which monitory democracy may lead to radical changes and benefit peoples’ interests, enabling them to question and even prevail against those in power, he notes (2008a, p. 24) that “such monitoring is also often ineffective, or proves to be counterproductive.” Indeed, the very same communicative abundance that fosters monitory democracy has dark sides as well:
“There is admittedly nothing automatic or magical about any of this. In the era of monitory democracy, communication is constantly the subject of dissembling, negotiation, compromise and power conflicts, in a phrase, a matter of politics. Communicative abundance for that reason does not somehow automatically ensure the triumph of either the spirit or institutions of monitory democracy. Message-saturated societies can and do have effects that are harmful for democracy. …
“The coming age of IPTV (internet protocol television) is likely to deepen such disaffection and if that happens then something more worrying could happen: the spread of a culture of unthinking indifference. Monitory democracy certainly feeds upon communicative abundance, but one of its more perverse effects is to encourage individuals to escape the great complexity of the world by sticking their heads, like ostriches, into the sands of willful ignorance, or to float cynically upon the swirling tides and waves and eddies of fashion — to change their minds, to speak and act flippantly, to embrace or even celebrate opposites, to bid farewell to veracity, to slip into the arms of what some carefully call ‘bullshit’.” (2008b, pp. 30-31)
“Nothing is sacrosanct — not even the efforts of those who try to rebuild the sacrosanct. The art of making a public spectacle of private life for political purposes now happens on a geographic scale and with a democratic intensity that past generations could never have imagined, let alone grasped or accepted.” (2008a, p. 31)
Dark notes at the end — but bright ones too

After making these points, Keane turns to write in his book (2009; chapter titled “Memories from the Future”) as though an historian 50 years out were looking back on current times. The ensuing analysis is fraught with unease and pessimism about current conditions and future prospects for democracy. A dark critical eye is cast on today’s politicians, politics, parties, and party government; on popular malaise that voting does not matter much, but celebrities’ views do; on the abilities of market actors to elude scrutiny; on nationalisms that foster instability and “uncivil wars”; on cross-border actors who are anti-democratic; on a distortion he terms überdemocracy — and of course, on American imperialism. Monitory democracy, Keane implies, is being undermined by hypocrisy and hubris, fakery and fatalism, contempt and corruption — indeed, by “pathological reactions to monitory democracy” (p. 765).

I find the pessimism pervading this chapter of the book to be too contrived, too biased. Many if not most of the plaints seem quite ageless; many apply to, and arose during, earlier phases of democracy, not just the new monitory phase. Moreover, the plaints read much like an au courant litany of criticisms collected from partisans of Occupy! and related movements — not a bad thing, but very much part of our own times, more about the decline of representative democracy than the promise of monitory democracy, and far from representing a profound voice from the future.

Even so, Keane raises valid warnings with this quasi-futuristic chapter: One is that enemies of democracy may succeed at spreading (Chinese) concepts about “harmonious society” and “democratic centralism” that could destroy monitory democracy in the name of democracy (pp. 813, 831-833). Another is that monitory democracy will be harder to foster if democracy’s greatest power, the United States, wanes. Electoral and party reforms are needed in order to revitalize representative democracy there and elsewhere. As are efforts to strengthen monitory mechanisms, so that civil-society “bodies and networks” gain a greater voice in policymaking and in holding all sorts of actors publicly accountable (p. 825). Keane also uses his fictive future muse to raise an interesting concern about the lack of effective global institutions:
“She went on to say that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many representative democrats fought against monopolies of power, whereas monitory democrats were faced in many contexts with the opposite problem, the under-concentration of power. Monitory democracy, she said, was weakened by the lack of global driving seats and steering mechanisms, plus the ineffectiveness of many that did exist.” (pp. 777-778, italics in original)
Even so, Keane makes clear in his penultimate chapter (2009; titled “Why Democracy”) that he believes deeply in democracy, and that its monitory age can make democracy better than ever — in part because it promises “to democratise the ideal of democracy” (p. 847). He still worries that “The enemies of democracy are on the rise” (p. 841), and expresses his doubts about the universality of democracy. But he looks forward to seeing monitory democracy add to society’s checks and balances, and prove its worthiness “as a humble and humbling ideal that gathers strength from the vision that, although citizens and representatives require institutions to govern, no body should rule.” (p. 856, italics in original)

In favoring ways in which “[d]emocracy points to the equalization of power” (p. 861, italics in original), Keane even brings up people’s access to “the commons” — a matter of great importance to the Occupy movement. And he takes as far-reaching a view of the commons as many Occupiers do:
“Without equal access to ‘the commons’ — in matters as diverse as public transport, telecommunications and a sustainable biosphere — humble democracy in monitory form simply cannot survive, let alone thrive.” (p. 862)
And that strikes me as a good note on which to end this Part-1 post.

In sum, monitory democracy is an insightful forward-looking concept. As I step back, I notice that the book’s title and cover art seem overly dark; and so does a metaphor warning that rooting for democracy nowadays risks building “a campfire on ice” (2009, p. 18).  But no matter, for Keane’s key concept — monitory democracy — shines new light on ways for societies to reorganize and improve for decades to come. I’ve tried to lay out its particulars in detail, because I think monitory democracy has deep significance for TIMN, as well as for movements like Occupy!. I turn to that in the next post — Part 2 — where I will revisit many of the points summarized above.

Many thanks to Richard O'Neill, director of the Highlands Group and Highlands Forum, for review comments on a pre-final draft of this post, as well as for his overall interest and encouragement.

A thankful h/t to Michel Bauwens and Kevin Carson for calling my attention to John Keane’s concept of monitory democracy.

[AMENDED — March 24, 2012: I added a few more quotes from Keane’s book (2009, from pp. 15-16, p. 17, and p. 18).]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This article may bring the missing tool:
Y. Rumpala, "Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project," 21st Century Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009,