The Democratic Panopticon

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Harnessing our collective power and intelligence to create a culture of digitally enhanced citizen participation across borders.

At the end of the 18th century, the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham was obsessed with the idea of a perfect prison, which he called the panopticon. In his countless drawings of circular cells arranged concentrically around a tower, one imagines a lone security guard in the middle, able to watch the inmates without them being able to tell whether and when. Although it is physically impossible for the single guard to observe all the inmates’ cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means they are motivated to act as though they are at all times.

In its purest form, the panopticon is an answer to the question: Who has the right to accumulate knowledge about whom and for what purposes? Since Bentham’s time, from Michel Foucault’s “disciplinary society” to Shoshana Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism,” the panopticon has been invoked ominously not as a building, but as a mechanism of power: a diagram of political technology that suppresses liberty, autonomy and self-determination.

But what if we were able to imagine the collective power of citizens in place of the single guard? After all, who better than ourselves can be the guardians of our democratic freedoms? By turning the connotation of the panopticon on its head, we can better convey the subversive power of transparency and accountability in politics.

Part of the challenge with citizen-centered democracy, or what is referred to these days as participatory democracy, lies in the tension between two logics. The logic of permanence insists that the consent of the governed is about more than periodic elections or referenda — it’s about ongoing monitoring and engagement. The logic of intermittence, on the other hand, simply reflects the common sense that neither civil society organizations nor individual citizens have the capacity to exercise such scrutiny on a permanent basis. Reconciling these two logics requires those in power to trust in a social épistémè, whereby knowledge is not only shared but is known to be shared, creating an ecosystem that feeds the capacity and desire to take part. At the same time, they must learn to live with the radical uncertainty of the democratic gaze.

“In its purest form, the panopticon is an answer to the question: Who has the right to accumulate knowledge about whom and for what purposes?”

The idea of a democratic panopticon delivers on both sides of the participatory conundrum. Our new democratic era calls for permanent citizens’ participation, yes — but only by some people, some of the time, on some of the issues. Permanent in its effect, intermittent in its practice.

The growing gap between the governed and their governments cannot be filled by our representative systems alone. What we need is a more continuous dynamic, a permanent commitment to democratic participation and deliberation bolstered by the digital revolution. Amending our democratic script calls for crafting ways to make participation a civic habitus: a culture of citizens engaging with the forms of political power that pervade our lives. And indeed, the many democratic experiments that have taken place in the first two decades of this millennium, from Iceland to Canada, South Africa, the United States or Europe, suggest cautious optimism over despair for democracy.

In some ways, the process of deepening the reach of democracy remains the same as it has been for the last 200 years: a struggle to expand the franchise. This time around, it’s a franchise that does not necessarily express itself through the right to vote in periodic elections, but rather through widespread inclusion in the political process in all its forms.

For Bentham, the beauty of his vision was the fear, not the fact, that you might be watched. For the democratic panopticon, decision-makers, like Bentham inmates, are effectively compelled to regulate their own behavior under the assumption that citizens might be watching, their power both visible and unverifiable. Those who govern never know whether they are being watched; that keeps them on their toes, motivated to act as if they were being watched all the time. Publicity takes the place of surveillance, a way to guard the guardians, and social control becomes control by society, not of society. Forget la revolution permanente, long live la participation permanente.

A “Demoicratic” Panopticon For The European Union

The EU stands out in the landscape of democratic experiments not by being more advanced, but because it it is hoping to scale up from the national or subnational level to the transnational. As the foremost laboratory for transnational governance, its democratic credentials are frequently questioned, especially since the end of the Cold War. In response, it has dipped its bureaucratic toes in various forms of engagement, from informal citizens’ dialogues to the European Citizens’ Initiative, a mechanism by which (a million) citizens can petition the European Commission to propose new laws. But none have dented its reputation for bureaucratic opaqueness. The Brexit vote was but one expression of the popular dissatisfaction that ensues.

Partly as a response to this sense of democratic urgency, European leaders and institutions finally agreed in April to launch the Conference on the Future for Europe. The conference has been derided by many as perfunctory — bureaucrats paying lip service to “citizens” but ignoring those at the margin and failing to give up control, similar to the Constitutional Convention that aimed to replace the EU’s foundational treaties with a single document but ended in failure almost 20 years ago.

But that is simply snobbish cynicism. In fact, democrats in Europe and beyond need to pay attention and spread the word. For one, the design of this enterprise is unprecedented, with no less than three democratic laboratories wrapped into one: a digital platform powered by dynamic translation and AI aggregators; four transnational citizens’ panels to supplement a plethora of national, regional and municipal ones; and a plenary where “ordinary” citizens will attend and debate with the usual suspects. Whether they will deliver is uncertain, but they have at least the merit of existing. More importantly, at least some of those in charge seem committed not to let this be a one-time experiment, to instead turn it into a permanent feature of the EU. It would be the first attempt anywhere in the world to truly operationalize the idea of democracy across borders.

“By turning the connotation of the panopticon on its head, we can better convey the subversive power of transparency and accountability in politics.”

Much will need to be learned from the process. It is absolutely imperative to dissect the workings of the conference itself, and also examine the broader context within which these democratic innovations are embedded, as well as how they fit with the trans-European body politic, with citizens from widely different local contexts and political cultures who don’t have the opportunity to contribute directly.

I have long argued that the EU can be understood as a “demoicracy” in the making. A demoicracy is a union of peoples who govern together but not as one, where a shared political identity is less democratically meaningful than what happens in each national or subnational democratic space, while at the same time each of these democratic spaces are becoming increasingly politically vulnerable to each other. To the extent that the EU is a federal union rather than a federal state, its politics cannot adopt the kind of majoritarian politics that we see in the U.S. The problem with European demoicracy, however, is that it is subject to centrifugal and centripetal forces. In short, when asked what is to be done, European publics want “more Europe,” but when asked how that is to be done, they want it closer to home. Europeans are integrationist in substance and sovereigntist in method.

The only path for resolving this tension is for the EU to manage democratic interdependence between its member states all the way downprogressively promoting norms and processes that connect national democratic conversations horizontally rather than only vertically through Brussels. Without much greater horizontal intertwinement between its national politics and citizens, the EU will remain democratically unanchored. Conversely, if Europeans can learn to develop a transnational panopticon thanks to which they can better take in the viewpoints and interests of others, this will in turn inform formal decision-making.

What then would it take to translate the building blocks of the conference into permanent EU features in the spirit of a European demoicratic panopticon?

Upstream, Downstream

One place to start would be to expand the remit of the conference’s multilingual digital platform, which has been wisely designed not only as a channel for vertical input toward Brussels, but also as a facilitator of horizontal debate between citizens. Propitiously, this platform is based on Decidim, a free open-source platform for citizens’ participation initially developed by the city of Barcelona with support from the European Regional Development Fund.

But while the European Commission has successfully taken on the challenge of scaling it, much work needs to be done to make participation truly inclusive, especially socially. Indeed, what is at stake here is not only scaling up and scaling back down, but scaling across: across countries and across generations.

Could the EU digital platform then be transformed to serve as a future hub in a network of interconnected platforms at all levels of government across Europe aimed at facilitating the exercise of collective intelligence? If so, it could become the main engine for digitally enhanced citizen participation across borders, not only as a one-off legitimation boost for the powers that be, but also as a permanent space.

Why not then start on this path with the biggest topic facing the EU books today? As of this spring, the EU has started to disburse the €750 billion euro fund meant to address the economic and social impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Crucially, EU institutions have committed a third of these funds to support a transition to a greener economy, though not without controversies over what counts as green investment.

Countries are submitting national plans composed of a wide range of projects. As the first expression of a common European debt, with significant distributive impact within and across countries, these funds and how they are spent must be the object of the highest possible scrutiny. To be sure, the European Commission has conducted extensive consultations and reported to the European Parliament on where the money is going and under what criteria. Yet, the process remains largely opaque to the public at large, and the role envisaged for European citizens or civil society organizations is marginal.

“Could the EU digital platform then be transformed to serve as a future hub in a network of interconnected platforms at all levels of government across Europe aimed at facilitating the exercise of collective intelligence?”

Instead, should we not update the old cry for no taxation without representation to no taxation without participation?  Already, civil society actors and individual citizens are making this argument. In Spain, a group of journalists under the umbrella Open Generation EU is trying to democratize how the Spanish government uses its funds. In Poland and Hungary, cities and regions not under the control of their respective national governments are demanding scrutiny to guard against the risks that funds will be misappropriated to serve the reelection propaganda of conservative autocrats. Brussels can try to exercise greater scrutiny, but if it is not to provoke “rallies around the flag” against outsiders intervening in local politics, the most effective push-back must come from below.

Beyond fears of outright corruption and nepotism, there is a sense that the widespread expertise and common sense to be found beyond closed decision-making circles could be put to better use as we take this tremendous leap into the future. What better way to ensure public buy-in, including for measures that involve difficult trade-offs between the short and long term?

The commission, then, ought to require governments and all actors involved in the distribution and receipt of relief funds to publish information online so that it’s accessible for all to see and process, including for those interested in what happens ooutside their borders. To be sure, that information might be raw and difficult to digest for many people. But that is the point of a demoicratic panopticon. Somebody, somewhere, will be interested — and there will be plenty of creative and innovative initiatives out there, like Digital Sherlocks or Make My Money Matter, to lead the way and foster the capacity of independent media and civil society through training and resource-sharing.

At the same time, and beyond the digital world, the EU will need to move further to directly involve citizens before and after European elections. There should be, for example, a permanent European Citizens’ Assembly beyond the panels convened by the conference itself. Such an assembly, drawn by lot and representing diverse European societies, outside partisan divisions or particular interests and ideologies, would complement and strengthen the EU’s representative democracy.

Such an assembly would not be starting from scratch but would channel the energies and experiences accumulated through recent transnational grassroots mobilizations of youth on the climate crisis and build on the Irish Citizens’ Assembly of 2016, the French Citizens Convention for Climate in 2019-20, the permanent Citizens’ Council in Ostbelgien (the German-speaking region of Belgium), the G1000, the German Bürgerrat and numerous others. It could draw on the digital platform and online consultations as well as the network of regional and cities’ assemblies that, around Europe, amount to more than a million elected officials. In this spirit, the assembly could meet regularly in national or regional parliaments and in the European Parliament in Strasbourg once a year. What better symbol of the shared sovereignty involved with a demoicracy than such transnational rotation?

The Smart Power Of Collective Intelligence 

Liberal representative democracy is not dead, nor even moribund. But it is deeply contested from within and without. And it is ominously threatened by autocratic capture at the very heart of Europe.

The success of the simplistic opposition between people and elites reflects real social malaise about the distance between the governed and the governing. But despite the recent participatory and deliberative wave meant to mitigate this crisis of democracy, there is still much resistance to radical citizens’ engagement in traditional political circles as the best way to resist extreme populism. We therefore need to continue to make the case for radical participation in liberal democracies in general and in the EU, as an alliance of democracies, in particular.

Participation without populism” (or should we call it “participatory populism”?) can enhance democratic resilience around the world in profound ways, beyond simple buy-in and ownership. In the case of the EU’s COVID recovery fund, collective scrutiny is the best guarantee against corruption and credentialism. Moreover, collective intelligence magnifies our understanding and capacity for social innovation. Inclusiveness buys intelligence.

“In the democratic panopticon, decision-makers are effectively compelled to regulate their own behavior under the assumption that citizens might be watching, their power both visible and unverifiable.”

Perhaps most importantly in our age of affective polarization, these various democratic mechanisms harness collective intelligence to capitalize on ordinary citizens’ instincts for greater moderation than the political extremes to which they might temporarily belong. Research has shown that citizens’ assemblies in particular tap into the natural ambivalence of many who can be encouraged to leave their polarized bubbles once they encounter people with different viewpoints and experiences.

It is a strange contortion of how democracy ought to work to deny the multitude of citizens the desire and capacity to take part in the decisions that determine their destiny. In Europe and beyond, it is time for the political realm to absorb the deep and lasting meaning of citizenship as a collective claim to be an integral part of determining a shared future. For the European Union to experiment with innovative ways to do so not only within but across borders offers a unique chance to lead by example. Let us live up to this ambition.


This essay was first published on Noema Magazine.