Monitory Democracy

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According to author John Keane, in the book, The Life and Death of Democracy, Monitory Democracy is the third contemporary form of democracy, which succeeds Assembly Democracy and Representative Democracy.

John Keane:

"Changes in the real world of democracy are happening as well. For some six decades now, assembly-based and representative mechanisms have been mixed and combined with new ways of publicly monitoring and controlling the exercise of power. In the new era of democracy, representative forms of government do not simply wither, or disappear. It is mistaken to think that they are heading for oblivion, for the old representative mechanisms that operate within the framework of territorial states often survive, and in some countries they even thrive, sometimes (as in Mongolia, Taiwan and South Africa) for the first time ever. There are also plenty of efforts to revitalise the standard institutions of representative government, for instance by fostering civic interest in the work of politicians, parties and parliaments, as has been attempted during the past two decades in the clean-up and public accountability and civic involvement schemes (known as machizukuri) in Japanese cities such as Yokohama and Kawasaki. But for a variety of reasons that are traceable to the devastating effects of World War Two, and that now include mounting public pressure to reduce corruption and foolish abuses of power, representative democracy is morphing into a type of democracy radically different to that our grandparents may have been lucky to know. For compelling reasons that will become apparent, The Life and Death of Democracy christens the emerging historical form of democracy with a strange-sounding name: 'monitory democracy'.

What is meant by 'monitory democracy'? Why the word 'monitory', with its connotations of warning of an impending danger, admonishing others to act in certain ways, or checking the content or quality of something? A vital clue in responding to these questions and understanding the changes that are under way is this fact: the 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.

All these devices have the effect of potentially bringing greater humility to the established model of party-led representative government and politics. The same humbling effect is reinforced by the spread of monitory mechanisms underneath and beyond state borders. Forums, summits, regional parliaments and human rights watch organisations, as well as open methods of cross-border negotiation and coordination (OMCs) and peer review panels, of the kind practised respectively by the member states of the European Union and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, all begin to play a role in shaping and determining the agendas of government, at every level.

Experiments with spreading democracy through the institutions of civil society, into areas of life beneath and beyond the institutions of territorial states, are also much in evidence, so that organisations like the International Olympic Committee, whose membership is otherwise self-selecting, are governed by executive bodies that are subject to election by secret ballot, by a majority of votes cast, for limited terms of office. With the help of a new galaxy of communication media, including satellite television, mobile phones and the Internet, the public monitoring of international organisations of government is also growing. Bodies such as the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) find themselves under permanent or intermittent scrutiny by their own legal procedures, by outside bodies, and by public protests. In the age of monitory democracy, loud calls for 'global democracy' can be heard. And for the first time ever, there are even creative efforts to 'green' democracy. Time and money and energy are invested in building bio-monitoring institutions geared to the principle of public scrutiny of those who exercise power over our biosphere, which in effect is granted a virtual vote, a right to be represented in human affairs. There are growing numbers of examples of these experiments in 'democratising' our interactions with the world of nature, in whose affairs we act as if we are an outlaw species, with criminal tendencies. Independent monitoring bodies responsible for whole geographic regions and civic organisations sponsored by friends and protectors of the earth are cases in point. So, too, are newly established independent science and technology assessment bodies. An example is the Danish Board of Technology, a body rooted in much older Danish traditions of public enlightenment through networks of adult education (folkeoplysnig) but designed, in the new circumstances, to enable high-profile public consultation exercises, and to raise the level of parliamentary understanding of citizens' hopes and fears, in matters ranging from genetically modified food and stem cell research to nanotechnology and laboratory experimentation on animals.

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. All the trends towards monitory democracy described later in this book illustrate the pertinent points: that what we mean by democracy changes through time; that democratic institutions and ways of thinking are never set in stone; and that exactly because they are the most power-sensitive polities ever known to humanity, democracies are capable of democratising themselves, for instance by inventing new ways of ensuring equal and open public access of citizens and their representatives to all sorts of institutions previously untouched by the hand of democracy." (


Monitory Democracy and Networks

David Ronfeldt:

"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)