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Transformative Platform Politics For The Digital Society

The more our societies diversify into a loose network of lifeworlds, the more important it becomes to find a platform to hold them together. This common platform cannot be made out of a potpourri of policies, but needs to be built around a credible narrative about a better future for all. Shaping the Society of Tomorrow means bringing together transformative alliances on a common platform for change.

We live in the age of crises. Crises, conflicts and catastrophes on all channels. What to make of all these crises? Are they to be understood as distinct phenomena, or are they the symptoms of a systemic crisis? Can we solve these crises within the old paradigm, or do we need to choose a different path? And, if the old systems are failing, what are the alternatives?

Incapable of comprehending the crises in their entirety, we lack the compass that could show us the way forward. This lack of orientation fuels fears which in turn paralyze society. The desire for the silver bullet is dangerous, as it provides fertile ground for the rise of strongmen with simple solutions. And indeed, demagogues are on the rise everywhere. The echo of the 1930s is not coincidental. Then as now, fear, confusion and deadlock are the symptoms of the Great Transformation.

For sure, we live in transition times. Between financial and digital capitalism. Between industrial and digital society. Between carbon and renewable economies. Between nation states with representative democracies, and well, what exactly?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not only transforming our economies, but also our social, cultural and political order. The accumulation logic of digital capitalism is different from its industrial predecessor. Industrial regimes create profit from economies of scale created by horizontal concentration and vertical standardization. Megatons of material are transported around the globe to be turned by thousands of workers in gigantic factories into mass products for mass markets. Information, the currency of digital capitalism, on the other hand, can be multiplied at zero cost with the click of a mouse. Hence, niche products tailored to individual taste can be created, often by the customers themselves. Economies of scale are achieved by lateral platforms which harvest the global flows of information.

The concentration and standardization logic of the industrial economy is out of sync with the flexible networks and lateral platforms of the digital economy. Accordingly, the differentiated, distributed and diverse societies of today cannot be governed by the hierarchical, centralized and universalist operating systems of yesterday. It is therefore no coincidence that Brussels-style micro-management is resented as illegitimate interference in our lifeworlds. To resolve this crisis, the governance model needs to be adapted to the needs and expectations of the digital society.

Breaking path dependence is, however, a difficult task for our current political systems. The totalitarian atrocities of the 20th century have cooled the desire for political revolutions. Baby boomer technocratic incrementalism, however, is equally ill-suited to shift the development path. Technocrats understand reforms as the incremental solving of policy puzzles. Reforms, however, are the outcomes of a struggle between those who benefit from the status quo and those who want change. In the current balance of power, it should come as little surprise that the so-called “reforms without alternative” are nothing more than tinkering within the existing paradigm. What is needed, then, is a strategy for implementing path-shifting reforms under the conditions of the emerging digital society.

How To Make Transformative Change?

A new philosophy of governance is currently being tested in the most diverse, distributed and differentiated society in the world, the United States.  For Barack Obama, the ultimate task of political leadership is to move societal sub-systems onto a common trajectory. Effecting political change then means defining a common platform around which a heterogeneous alliance of social groups can come together.

This is no easy task, because social groups have different interests, identities and priorities. The more societies are diversifying, the harder it gets to find a common denominator. In industrial society, mass parties solved that riddle by creating policy packages aimed at pleasing multiple constituencies. Unable to agree on much more than the lowest common denominator, however, these transactional coalitions have neither the will nor the capacity to shift the development path against resistance from the status quo alliance.

What is required is a transformative coalition with the political will to change the status quo. A transformative alliance cannot be built around policy compromises in the here and now, but seeks an alternative future upon which all members can agree. Re-imagining what is possible in future will change expectations of how the future will unfold. New expectations about the future alter the calculations of risk versus opportunities today. When social groups start to redefine their interests, a window of opportunity for building alliance(s) opens.

In order to build a transformative alliance, a common platform is needed. This platform must go beyond a potpourri of policies, and needs to be constructed around visions, values and narratives. At the center is a change narrative which explains how the better future can be achieved. Economic, technological and sociocultural drivers need to be identified which prepare the ground for this alternative future. Further, the change narrative needs to argue why the technically doable is also the morally right thing to do.  This means facts need to be made emotionally accessible by framing them in historical experiences, myths and legends. By harmonizing the imagination, expectation and interpretation of heterogeneous groups, this narrative functions as the platform for a discourse alliance.

Now, discourse needs to be translated into political action. Here, catalytic projects designed to unleash the structural drivers of transformation are key strategic instruments. On the geopolitical level, the Chinese One Belt, One Road initiative is a catalytic project designed to unleash the structural drivers of trade, connectivity and investment. On a sectoral level, the emission trading market shifted the flow of investment. On the rural grassroots level, developing projects such as solar electrification empower millions, and boost agricultural productivity On a social level, A geopolitical catalytic project By allowing social actors to cooperate in concrete struggles, these catalytic projects can give birth to the nucleus of a transformative coalition.

Effecting transformative change then means shifting the social balance of power by bringing together a Rainbow Coalition on a common platform for change. This transformative alliance can implement disruptive reforms and move the societal sub-systems onto a new development path.

Transformative Platform Politics In Action

Building alliances around discursive platforms is hardly new. The technique is used in every US presidential campaign. In 2008, the Obama campaign deliberately countered the inertia of “There is No Alternative“ with “Change you can believe in“ and the “Audacity of Hope“. The “Yes we can!” slogan gave agency to a path-breaking alliance which continues to alter the electoral landscape. The promise for a better future is also central to the message of the disruptive Trump (“Make America Great Again“) and Sanders (“A Future to believe in“) campaigns. The Bernie 2016 campaign successfully uses the Occupy frame “We Are the 99 Percent” to mobilize a Rainbow Coalition which goes well beyond what a narrow democratic socialist platform could have achieved.

Successful experiments with transformative platform politics are also being conducted in the field of energy policy. The challenges of climate change cannot be solved within the carbon paradigm. Hence, a shift in the development path is clearly required. For decades, however, the fear of losing competitiveness and jobs prevented the emergence of a societal coalition for a radical shift in the energy regime. With the “Fourth Industrial Revolution“, a new narrative has bridged the old dichotomy between growth and environmental protection. In this new narrative, “Green Growth“ and environmental protection are no longer at odds with each other.  Today, a growing discourse alliance understands the transition to a renewable energy regime as the precondition for a new cycle of growth and prosperity. On this discursive platform, a social coalition is joining forces to push through the green energy revolution.

In Germany, a government formed by the political allies of the nuclear and coal industries is implementing the energy transition. Recently, the Catholic Church joined the flock with a Papal encyclical on climate change. Since the conservative Bank of England warned institutional investors against the perils of the “carbon bubble,” capital started moving towards the door marked “carbon exit.” Publicly praised by Greenpeace, the big European utilities have started to sell off their conventional power plant fleet. Such turnarounds would have seemed impossible only a few years ago. But today, the shift in the paradigm discourse has started to change the outlooks and strategies of central actors across the board.

Similar shifts in mainstream discourse can be observed in the fields of social inequality, gay rights, financial market regulation and drugs policy. A common discursive platform can be the key to the realignment of social forces, giving rise to a change coalition that mobilizes the political muscle to break out of the dead-end of failed paradigms.

The Task Of Political Leadership In The Digital Society

Different from its industrial predecessor, the digital society is less dependent on the state to enforce universal standards. Thus, the regulation of social sectors and lifeworlds should increasingly be delegated to societal subsystems. The more our societies diversify into a loose network of lifeworlds, the more important it becomes to find a platform to hold them together. Moving the subsystems onto a common development path is therefore the primary task of political leadership in the digital society. Shaping the Society of Tomorrow means bringing together transformative alliances on a common platform for change.

This originally appeared on Social Europe, and has been reprinted with permission. 

Photo: Jean-Philippe Bourque/Creative Commons