Freepost Courage and commitment – what we can do

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Graphic: Bernd Struckmeyer

Why do nationalism and populism currently have such a strong following? To understand this, we must look into the causes – which gives rise to further questions: what can we do to oppose this development in the spirit of liberal democracy? How can we show moral courage? What needs to be done now? The journalist and activist Kübra Gümüşay will join the political scientist and author Luis Felipe Miguel in a discussion of what each of us can do in everyday life in order to promote an open and tolerant society. Chaired by Geraldine de Bastion, the debate is open to your opinions, either in the comments field on this page, or on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #freepost.

December 14th, 2017   |   Kübra Gümüşay
Kübra Gümüşay Photo: Mirza Odabaşı A certain healthy distrust of technology is necessary, as it is neither neutral nor independent. From the data that are fed into algorithms to the functions that are created in the first place – none of it is neutral, as it is all just as biased as the people who create it. The architects of our digital world are prejudiced by the images, premises, ideals and values of this world that they either hope for, fear or presuppose without reflection when they are putting together and programming this technology. One good example that illustrates how social problems are carried over into the supposedly “neutral” world of technology are the webcams made by the company HP: in 2008 the company launched a webcam that was supposed to automatically follow users when they left the camera’s view range. As it turned out a short time later, the cameras were unable to recognize the faces of black people, and therefore could not follow them. This was a scandal that rightly attracted harsh criticism online, yet one that also made it clear that the architects of the Internet do not necessarily create a better world. If they do not consciously engage with their prejudices and bias, they will reproduce the problems and structures of the offline world – and will even manifest them.
 
Even popular tools such as Twitter, Facebook and Google are exerting considerable influence on our perception – beyond the discussions of fake news etc. they also influence our forms of communication. And indeed our aesthetic perception: we are now seeing that people who use Instagram are tending to take and use square photos, which deviates significantly from the formats of past decades. Anil Dash, a prominent critic of the tech world and an activist who advocates moral and ethical responsibility, uses this example to illustrate how much technology influences our thinking and our perception above and beyond the formats of content.
 
He justifiably appeals for greater criticism and thus also mistrust of tech companies. They share much of the responsibility for social problems and destructive processes; they are not merely “neutral” service providers but the architects of our present day.
 
It would do us a lot of good to show some healthy distrust towards the tech world, and above all to expect a great deal more from it. The debate about the ethics of the tech world is long overdue.
 
December 12th, 2017   |   Luis Felipe Miguel
Luis Felipe Miguel Photo: Regina Dalcastagne Democracy needs trust, but it also needs mistrust. Without a certain trust between people, we cannot work together, life in society would become impossible, and the goal of democratic politics – to build a common future together – would become unachievable. However, we must also be in a position to monitor and control the exercise of power. Our institutions are in reality a kind of institutionalized mistrust, based on the sole transcendental truth that has ever been established in the history of political science: if we place our trust in the good intentions of those who have power over us, we will find ourselves in trouble. 

Can technical advances enable us to escape this situation by deactivating human intermediaries in certain settings of social power? I think we should be careful before answering “yes” to this question.

Three things are worth considering. Firstly: if democracy is supposed to mean rule of the people, it is a contradiction if systems are used that are essentially incomprehensible for most citizens. These systems (and this is the second problem) may be trustworthy yet immune at the same time to collective decision-making. A digital currency is largely resistant to manipulation and cheating, yet this same fact also prevents government intervention (increasing or reducing monetary flows, controlling exchange rates). The power of the markets, that is to say of the rich, is growing as compared to the possible democratic control by the general public. And finally, in a society in which interpersonal relationships are characterized to a greater or lesser extent by impersonal systems serving as intermediaries, expanding the power of these systems may prove to be a risky move.
December 6th, 2017   |   Geraldine de Bastion
Geraldine de Bastion Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv During a roundtable discussion at a conference I attended this week in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, some young people were talking enthusiastically about how new technologies like blockchains are creating fair conditions in trading systems and may even be the future for transparent and corruption-free government. The panel’s appeal was to have trust in trustless systems

The blockchain technology is described as “trustless” because it is a decentralized system: for example, a user can transfer money directly to a recipient without having to trust any third party – in this case a bank. There is considerable trust in this technology. In fact, we are generally placing more trust in technology than in humans: parents are using GPS to keep track of their children, or worse still, using surveillance cameras in their children’s rooms. 

Yet trust is an important starting point, not only when it comes to interpersonal relationships, but also for democratic systems. This raises the question of how desirable it is for us to switch our trust from an interpersonal level to technology – especially in an era when trust in political institutions is on the decline in any case. 

I wonder what each of us could do to ensure that we become less scared of change again and place greater trust in humanity instead. Or is control really better than trust? 
November 28th, 2017   |   Luis Felipe Miguel
Luis Felipe Miguel Photo: Regina Dalcastagne Technologies are tools that we can use for different purposes. Yet tools are the product of human inventiveness and are designed for the particular purpose desired by the people who develop them.
 
The new information and communication technologies open up a whole universe of potential applications. Some believed that they promised to make democracy more participatory, giving rise to a broader public debate and even allowing everyone to take part in decision-making processes. The corporations that spearhead the technological innovations want something different, however: not a virtual agora but a perpetual global market. Their uppermost priority is to make the Internet a secure place for business transactions. Proprietary software dictates the format for interaction between users and prevents any further appropriation of these tools for different purposes. Big data and constant monitoring of our movements online give business and political advertising greater power to influence our behaviour. Social networks relegate us to “bubbles”, which paradoxically reduces our contact with the diversity of the social world. The inbuilt obsolescence of software and devices drives us into a spiral of consumerism.
 
Corporations are Machiavelli’s “armed prophets”: they have the power to create a reality. We can attempt to find different paths, however. The first generation of the digital democratic utopias was still very much focused on elections and neglected crucial dimensions of political activity such as the importance of defining issues and the possibility to actually make oneself heard in debates. New initiatives are trying to overcome these challenges by focusing on smaller groups and more intensive participation, which seems to make sense. Yet the political problems are rooted in social activities and will never be resolved by political means alone. If we wish to establish a more democratic society, we must address a number of key trends in the current phase of capitalism that in many cases are likewise fostered by the new technologies: the fact that we are leading increasingly separate private lives and becoming more isolated from one another, consumerism, the devaluation of labour and the concentration of wealth. Any creative use of the new information and communication technologies must combine “virtual” and “real” interaction so as to fight for solidarity, mutual respect and equality. 
November 24th, 2017   |   Kübra Gümüşay
Kübra Gümüşay Photo: Mirza Odabaşı What the Internet also was once, yet hardly is any longer these days in my opinion, was a largely inclusive space. Anyone with a computer and Internet access had the opportunity to observe all kinds of thought processes and immerse themselves in subcultures and communities on the other side of the world. For me, that was what always made the Internet special. One could join in even without knowing the unwritten laws and rules of the game of individual scenes. One could simply listen, observe, ask questions and learn. Things that would never have been possible offline. I would neither have known that a particular scene even exists, nor where it meets – and if I had known these things, I would not have known what to wear or how to behave there, without revealing myself to be an “outsider”. For me, the Internet was a place for encounters and for changing one’s mind set – and indeed for thinking in general. 
 
This is exactly what I feel there is less space for these days, if indeed there is any space for it at all: public thinking on the Internet. I see how more and more people are afraid of expressing their opinions. How we now publish opinions only once they have been thoroughly thought through – right down to the very last detail. There are many reasons for this – ranging from our toxic culture of discussion and our reluctance to allow each other (and ourselves) to develop, to the realization that everything that we post online will be there for all eternity. This strips us of the freedom to think publicly and to take part in the thought processes of others, and as a result we are creating a culture in which the spaces in which we fundamentally rethink things are becoming ever smaller – as well as more exclusive.
 
So how can we ensure that it is not only a small group of people who see and develop a positive digital future? I believe it could help if we (again) dare to think freely and publicly. That is to say, to think out loud. And if we create inclusive rooms in which people can listen, observe, ask questions, learn and participate. On the one hand.
 
And on the other, by actively advertising these rooms, this culture of thinking. Through art, culture and entertainment. Music, films, series, novels and pictures. Creating a culture of public thinking, rethinking and fundamental thinking that affects society as a whole.
 
And as it were taking these issues right to the doorsteps of those who they directly concern.
 
Yes, that is what I would write to you if I were to think publicly.
November 22nd, 2017   |   Geraldine de Bastion
Geraldine de Bastion Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv When I was a student, we were inspired by standard works such as “Mehr direkte Demokratie wagen” or authors like Benjamin Barber to think about forms of democracy other than the classic, representative one. At the same time, the Internet was becoming more widespread, and it seemed as if it would give rise to many different ways in which to implement direct and participatory formats. 
 
Some time later, we appear to have made little out of these ideas and possibilities. The digital transformation has not – as had been hoped – revolutionized the involvement of ordinary people in decision-making processes. Party and government structures remain unchanged. The digital utopias of the time have been replaced by dystopian visions such as a takeover by artificial intelligence or total surveillance. 

Fortunately, there are many local and global initiatives all across the world that set their own agendas, develop new concepts of economic management and coexistence, and create corresponding technologies. These include approaches such as the circular economy – an economic model in which all resources used in production are reused; the sharing economy – a model involving the shared use of resources such as means of transport or tools; the holacracy – an organizational form in which rigid hierarchies are replaced by groups that organize themselves; and co-living, in which people not only live together under one roof but also work together. 
  
The fear of change provides fertile soil for populism. I believe that we need positive visions of the future to counter this. This also includes the positive vision of a digital future. So how can we reach a broad public – and give people who feel left behind the opportunity to help shape the agenda? How can we ensure that it is not only a small group of people who see and develop a positive digital future?
November 20th, 2017   |   Luis Felipe Miguel
Luis Felipe Miguel Photo: Regina Dalcastagne The question is, why does democracy work so badly? If it means “power to the people”, why is this power not reflected in policies that favour majorities or that guarantees the rights of all? I think the success of the xenophobic, racist, misogynist and homophobic discourses pursued by far-right politicians is linked to the failures of our democratic system. Day after day, people see governments acting against their will: imposing austerity measures on the poor to help the rich, cutting social programmes to save banks. The worsening of the global crisis has made the picture very clear. Right-wing discourse promotes a sort of compensation, placing the blame on more fragile groups and generating the illusion that the leader speaks for all.

To isolate far-right parties, the establishment must accept that the burden of the crisis needs to be more fairly divided between privileged and underprivileged groups. That means ensuring better conditions for the working class, the poor and the marginalized. Unhappily, dominant groups are able to impose their interests in the first place. My country, Brazil, serves as a good example. A man about whom an Australian news portal asked whether he might be the “world’s most repulsive politician” now enjoys the support of many business sectors, as he seems to be the only alternative to the return of a government committed to a distribution of wealth.

Only a more democratic democracy, with more opportunities for direct participation, political education and equal influence, can eradicate the far-right elements in society.
November 17th, 2017   |   Kübra Gümüşay
Kübra Gümüşay Photo: Mirza Odabaşı If we want to understand how right-wing populism has managed to increase so much in strength in our societies in Western Europe and the USA, we also need to look at its strategies. One of these strategies is to dictate the issues on which we – and by “we” I mean all of us who support a plural and open society – should be focusing. And also to dictate the form in which we do so. And to dictate that we keep on repeating the process.

Through carefully calculated provocations, the right-wing populists have succeeded in almost completely dominating the political and media agenda in Germany. We have reacted to every one of their provocations. We have reacted on the one hand with indignation – believing that they have given us the moral high ground in so doing. On the other hand, we saw ourselves prompted to discuss and explain these issues so as to avoid being accused of ignoring critical topics or forbidding people to think about them. One prime example of this dictatorship of content is Alexander Gauland’s (AfD) remark about German football international Jérôme Boateng. Gauland said that “people” would not want “someone like Boateng” as a neighbour. A discussion then ensued in all the media about whether Boateng is a good neighbour, while others conducted interviews with Boateng’s neighbours. And suddenly we found ourselves facing fundamental misanthropic questions along the lines of “Can black people be good neighbours?”

Simply engaging with the topic on this level is equivalent to curtsying before the right-wing populist dictatorship of content. After all, in doing so we elevate their insults and destructive content and turn them into legitimate “opinions” even though they may be quite obviously racist and xenophobic.

This does not mean that we should simply ignore the AfD and their provocations, giving them free rein to do as they wish, but that we should think very carefully about how we should respond. For example by discussing the fact that they are intentionally provocative. In other words, we should expose the right-wing populists and their strategies rather than fall for them.

More powerful anti-right-wing political alliances can only emerge if we develop our own agenda. We need to define our own issues rather than subordinating ourselves to the issues dictated by the right. This requires a lot of work, argument and sweat, but it is a path that is worth following. 
 
November 14th, 2017   |   Geraldine de Bastion
Geraldine de Bastion Photo: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv Dear Kübra and Luis Felipe,

I am looking forward to the discussion that we will be having
– together with our readers – over the next few weeks: we will be exchanging views about the causes of nationalist and populist tendencies, and about what we can do to combat them.

Last Saturday, tens of thousands of nationalists and right-wing extremists demonstrated in the Polish capital, Warsaw. According to a CNN report, the demonstrators were carrying banners proclaiming “White Europe, Europe must be white” and “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust”. Experts estimate that this was one of the biggest demonstrations by right-wing extremists in recent years. 

Right-wing populism seems to be pervading Europe – in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, but also in France and Germany, right-wing populists have seats in parliament or are even in the government. Though many people still refuse to admit it, it has long since become a reality that it is acceptable nowadays to be right-wing.

As far as I could see on election night and in the following weeks, the other parties reacted to the AfD’s gaining of seats in parliament by positioning themselves clearly in line with the election slogans of the AfD itself – the key point being to limit migration. Why are there not more politicians who position themselves squarely against the right-wing stance? Why are there not yet any more powerful political alliances in Europe to counter the right?