When the revolution happens, you’re going to have to be in the streets.
Nowadays there is a lot of talk about digital, or e-democracy – focusing on online participation. There is even talk of a so-called Appocracy – civic participation being channeled through smartphone apps. Many see in such means an exit from the deepening crisis of representative “democracy”.
Often the reason people give when engaging with such proposals, is valid – people globally are indeed mistrustful towards professional politicians and tend to increasingly absent from the rituals of political representation (such as elections). The problem comes with what they propose as an alternative. The logic behind the supposed digitalization of democracy is based on the misunderstanding of political participation as passive activity, such as consumerism. The very rhetoric that often surrounds these e-alternatives suggests so: their proponents often speak of how easy it is, of how little effort it takes, and that “you can do it from your sofa”. A rhetoric that is strongly reminiscent of online shopping that promotes laziness and boredom. In other words, it places politics in a wrong equation.
In societies dominated by bureaucratic entities like nation-states and capitalist markets, the economic sphere takes central stage, while the political one is subjugated to a secondary level. Bureaucracies, creating a stratum of professional managers, claim monopoly on the management of public affairs, thus leaving the rest of society (i.e. the great majority) with the only option the prioritization of economic activity. Only a tiny ritual is sustained, consisting of elections being held once every four or five years, so that the system maintains a sense of legitimacy.
Of course, bureaucracies never rest solely on this one ritual. In addition to it they develop different means for manufacturing public consent – like mainstream media propaganda, conformist pop culture, etc. – so that what currently exists is perceived by the general public as the only viable option.
But the ultimate strength of the status quo is in its physical power and control over public life. In its essence every State is a police State as the monopoly on violence is its main feature. Because of that social ecologist Murray Bookchin insists that even “limited government” will invariably lead to unlimited government, as this is the logical outcome of the role of power as a corruptive mechanism. If the means of manufacturing consent fail at some point, then every State resorts to raw violence.
In order to maintain control over society, the bureaucratic apparatus constantly works towards limiting the popular access to, and activity within, public spaces. Philosopher Jacques Ranciere observes this in the way State mechanisms respond to problems and issues that appear within spaces that are widely accessible – like streets, parks, or squares. He observes that in such cases, the main tool of state power – the police – cuts off the area and to every passing person responds with “move along, nothing to see here”. There is a twofold meaning within this phrase. On the one hand, it suggests that such spaces are mere passages for the citizens. On the other, that there is only one force that is allowed to control life in common – the bureaucracy – while people’s curiosity and urge to help should be suppressed.
The project of direct democracy, being a socio-political system that is incompatible with the Nation-State-Capital complex, implies radical change to people’s relations to physical space. As philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis suggests:
Direct democracy certainly requires the physical presence of citizens in a given place, when decisions have to be made. But this is not enough. It also requires that these citizens form an organic community, that they live if possible in the same milieu, that they be familiar through their daily experience with the subject to be discussed and with the problems to be tackled. It is only in such units that the political participation of individuals can become total, that people can know and feel that their involvement will have an effect, and that the real life of the community is, in large part, determined by its own members and not by unknown or external authorities who decide for them.
It can be suggested that by reconfiguring the architecture of power, direct democracy strives at the greatest possible justice. In this sense it seeks to allow for every person to have the right to participate in deciding on matters up to where our choices impinge on others, but from there on, others should have their own self-managing say. This aims to ensure a universal opportunity for every person to take equal responsibility and active part in crafting the path their community is going to take. In short, it seeks to integrate political participation with everyday life and experiences.
When citizenship is separated from space, time and direct participation, then it becomes a dangerous tool for those in power. In such cases, when the authorities face local resistance to their plans in one geography, they may seek for a national vote, asking people through the whole of given national territory to express an opinion. Given that the government has incomparable economic and media advantage over local social movements, it is not difficult for it to sway popular opinion in its favor, so that it can continue with its project despite topical disagreements and claim it acts on behalf of the people.
This is exactly the case with AMLO’s supposed leftwing government in Mexico and its megaprojects that threaten indigenous territories, including the Zapatistas. Established protocol in the country suggests that such grand projects that will profoundly alter given geography should follow after consultations with local populations. But in this case, among the affected locals were the well-organized Zapatistas that know what the effects of economic growth are for the grassroots and for nature. AMLO knew that he cannot convince them to accept his plans, so he went straight ahead to conducting national consultations. This meant giving vague promises for prosperity from these megaprojects to people throughout the vast territory of Mexico, who knew little of the context of the affected localities, as well as weren’t going to experience directly any of the negative effects – destruction of natural environment, enforced displacement of communities, making impossible traditional lifestyles. Because of this AMLO’s government managed to get what it wanted – an outcome of 89.9% in favor. But the well-organized Indigenous National Congress (CNI) and the Indigenous Government Council (CIG), both backed by the EZLN and multiple organizations across the country, made clear their opposition to these and other mining, touristic, agroindustrial and infrastructure projects that threaten indigenous communities and territories, thus far managing to protect them from the appetites of the Mexican government and their corporate friends.
Direct democracy is tightly knit with reclamation of physical space, rather than with vague notions of national belonging. This was particularly exhibited during the so-called movement of the squares, which began with the Arab Spring, and continued with the Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados, etc. The core of this global movement was citizens reclaiming public spaces (and public squares in particular) as part of building real democracy. It was in these spaces that new institutions were set up in the form of popular assemblies that directly challenged the legitimacy of parliaments and transnational technocracies. Although the internet played a crucial role in mobilizing and coordinating hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, the movement nonetheless revolved around the practice of reclamation, followed by processes of public deliberation that radically infused social imaginaries with visions of a different future. And it was because of this that governments more often than not responded with brutal force, trying to erase any trace of self-instituting. As John R. Parkinson writes:
while a growing proportion of political communication uses digital means, the things that are communicated involve real people who take up, occupy, share, and contest physical space. Often, those who deny the importance of physical space confuse the medium and the message: by focusing on the means of communication, they overlook what is communicated.[…] The digits encode narratives and pictures of contests over physical space, performed by flesh-and-blood people. What was coordinated and communicated […] was not virtual, but the prolonged and mass occupation of public space by citizens.
Digital tools could be indispensable for a system based on direct democracy. It could help in deepening confederal relations between self-governed communities. But what it can never achieve is replacing face-to-face decision-making on the local level, since the democratic perspective is rooted in the justice of being able to participate in what concerns you directly, to the extent it concerns you.
Direct democracy’s relation to physical space implies that there is organizational decentralization. The separation of politics from spatiality, on the other hand, indicates the opposite – it presupposes that there is a center of power that mediates the questions that are being put for a vote, and manages the implementation of taken decisions. One such perspective is democratic only in words, since direct democracy is not only about voting, but also actively participating in the drafting of questions that are being asked and their implementation. This implies replacing one central power-center with numerous decentralized decision-making institutions that emerge from, and are self-managed by local communities. But in order to avoid society descending into parochial localism such dispersed self-governing units need to be interconnected by confederal means. Murray Bookchin describes confederalism as:
a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities. The members of these confederal councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that choose them for the purpose of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves. Their function is thus a purely administrative and practical one, not a policy making one like the function of representatives in republican systems of government.
Direct democracy also rests on developing a culture of civic deliberation where opinions and voices are respected and patiently heard. And such can be achieved in a face-to-face setting, rather than a purely digital and faceless one. We have seen over and over again that when people are hidden behind avatars, they worry little about how they are perceived and how they treat the other side. This has developed into a toxic environment where one writes her monologue and/or make fun of others. When a person is not physically present, it cannot pick up on body language, cannot be physically attacked, often cannot even be personally identified because of the use of online identities, and thus can get away with casting the other as a one-dimensional opinion carrier rather than a flesh-and-blood person with feelings, goals, and interests.
The physical presence of participants – people who live in the same community and share everyday experiences – allows for more in-depth and nuanced deliberation than remote or online methods, first and foremost, because it implies that one will not only express his or her’s opinion, but will also have to sit through meetings and listen to that of others. Assemblies that take place in a physical setting create a shared experience and a sense of civic identity among participants. This shared experience can help build social cohesion and strengthens the democratic process. Face-to-face interactions among neighbors (people from a similar milieu) enhance communication, build trust, and foster a sense of accountability among citizens. Live deliberation also predisposes for a more focused and dedicated conversation, while an online one can be more easily disrupted by various factors, such as notifications, multitasking, and even temptation to browse the web. On the whole, face-to-face assemblies allow for more dynamic and engaging deliberation.
Physical space plays a central role in the project of direct democracy. The latter, it can be suggested, is unthinkable without the former and any attempt at separating the two leads to the loss of both of them. This, of course, does not mean that digital technologies don’t have important role to play – because they do – but only that they cannot replace face-to-face deliberation. Instead, they have to be used to support and strengthen the reclamation and recreation of public space in the physical world, so that a coherent alternative to the dominant system be developed.
 Murray Bookchin. “Interview with Murray Bookchin” in Reason (October 1979) [available online at https://reason.com/1979/10/01/interview-with-murray-bookchin/]
 Davide Panagi: The Political Life of Sensation, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), p121.
 Cornelius Castoriadis: Political and Social Writings Vol. 2 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), pp98-99.
 John R. Parkinson. Democracy and Public Space: The Physical Sites of Democratic Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp1-2.
 Murray Bookchin. “The Meaning of Confederalism” in Green Perspectives Vol.20 (1990) [available online at https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/murray-bookchin-the-meaning-of-confederalism#toc3].