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Bart Cammaerts, Internet-Mediated Participation beyond the Nation State. Perspectives on Democratic Practice Series (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008. 60 hardback). Pp. xxi + 266. ISBN 0-7190-7648-0.

 

Internet-Mediated Participation beyond the Nation State brings to the fore a topic of great interest concerning contemporary democracies. Communication and participation are two facets of the same coin, both representing a high stake in promoting “substantial” democracy. The foundational idea is that democratic decision may be revitalized now that all stakeholders in society have a voice, courtesy of the spread of the new media and of the Internet; consequently, we are confronted with a radical power shift worthy of investigation.

          The book is structured in two parts: “Theoretical Perspectives” and “Empirical Analysis.” Convinced that “there is nothing more practical than a good theory,” alla Kurt Lewin,[i] in what follows the first part will be outlined. The first section, “Theorising multi-stakeholderism,” analyses research undergirding the concept of multi-stakeholderism, which was originally employed in the field of international and comparative politics, in reference to the increased participation of non-state actors in policy-making processes. Nowadays, this non-state concept is applied to national, regional and even local contexts, with the author mentioning a “multi-stakeholder discourse” (13), by way of implying several assumptions possessing a deficit of theoretical perspective. These assumptions relate to tensions between centralized and decentralized democracy, difficulties associated with deliberating in the public sphere and consensus, problems of “floating signifiers” in political discourse, the urge to define “power” both within and without multi-layered decision processes, along with issues such as the inclusion and exclusion of citizens, etc. Cammaerts posits, “for multi-stakeholderism to have any meaning, the nature of its relationship with the still dominant representative, state centered and centralized logic at international level must be clear. Furthermore, the consensual focus implied by multi-stakeholderism requires more precise articulation” (23). While this critique of deliberation’s means and the processes of inclusiveness (which define the logic of democratic life) is surely right, in the reviewer’s view this type of discourse is founded upon highly disputable assumptions of how “equal participation” in the communication processes are best obtained, how “open access” to the deliberation process centered on the “common good” is to be achieved, given the high demands of knowledge, reasonableness, activity-level, interest, and open-mindedness expected, and selfless motivations of the skilled elite present. At this point, it becomes clear that the type of participation at the core of multi-stakeholderism relies either on the possibility of emergence of Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” public sphere, or, conversely, on the realization of a more self-interested Lockian perspective on the political nature of the human being.

          Since the 1970s, the very important distinction between access to and participation in media has been introduced in debates. According to the author, decision-making and participation are to be seen in strict relationship (25-30). Following Pateman, these two elements of politics should have “equal power in determining the outcome.”[ii] Before then, it was argued that notions of citizen “pseudo-participation,” “non-participation,” or “manipulative participation” were overcome. Developments in the specialized literature have brought to the fore several types of citizen participation mentioned here: veneered (top-down and rhetorical), inequitable (decisions made solely by those in power and/or able to better express themselves publicly), skewed (similarly, participation and decision is biased in favor of the more powerful and articulate), non-communicative (due to a reticence or inability to communicate given the differences in culture, world views, or language in the face of delays, misunderstandings and inappropriate design or implementation) and career-enhancing participation (the processes of participation reflecting the personal agendas of a few powerful staff members rather than the concrete needs of the organization) (26-32). Thus, power and participation are to be seen in a strict relationship, too. Participation is an ideal ‘motor’ of interaction among actors. Nowadays, the actors are not only considered entitled to be animated by the will to participate, but they also ought to. Social and political actors at all levels in contemporary societies thus have the duty to attempt to pursue their own agendas, acknowledging the necessity to understand both conflictual and consensual models of power while doing so, in order not to fall under “restrictive power” and not to embrace only the negative power to resist.[iii]

          From this perspective, the question “Who do you represent?” gains both substance and complexity. In this respect, civil society could become a stakeholder as well (including “the market” in its definition so as to more realistically discuss aspects such as access, participation, agendas, inclusion and exclusion). Within this understanding, the multi-stakeholder concept posits an individual that is reasonably lucid, knowledgeable, active, and has a substantial stake in the health of social and political interaction within a society “of birth and/or of residence” and beyond. This stance highlights the concept of participation in relation to a more complex notion of citizenship, optimistically inscribed within a broader discussion of constructivism and critical theory. Briefly put, the citizen should be the “rational, self-directing and knowledgeable agent of action”[iv] within the paradigm of productive power developed by the works of Foucault on discourse, power, resistance and truth, in Giddens’s dialectics of control,[v] and in the less acknowledged perspective of the liberal-ironist individual proposed by Richard Rorty[vi] and by post-structuralism and/or feminism.

          As a perspective, social constructivism is built upon the importance of ‘identity’ in the formation of actors, as well as upon the centrality of socialization and learning processes in the formation of speech acts. Thus, it offers a better basis for considering our multi-centric world and its pluralistic power framework, in addition to providing a broader theoretical frame to interpret multi-stakeholderism beyond the nation state.

          In the second chapter of the first section, “Internet and democracy,” Cammaerts argues that the Internet is a dynamic political opportunity structure, following the thoughts of researchers in the tradition of Giddens. From easier access to policy documents and from the increased transparency triggered by the use of the Internet, power flows. Wide networking and distribution of alternative, counter-hegemonic discourses also favor this trend. (Yet, the digital divide also creates “offline citizens,” who can be more easily ignored by opinion leaders.) Even so, e-campaigning is increasingly accepted as a powerful tool in strategic communication, bringing to the fore the concept of the “permanent campaign.” E-government and e-voting are still largely rhetorical constructs in many places, while e-consultation is idealistically forwarded by Cammaerts as a decentralized decision-making process targeted at accommodating the multi-stakeholder citizens in a broad consensus (witness the structural difficulty of President Obama transitioning his effective web consultations setup and documentation to the outdated official White House citizen communication channel). Nonetheless, e-protest, forums and mailing lists have supported the promise of an emerging e-civil society and will continue to do so. Only in the next decade will scholars be able to accurately assess the present hope of the Internet as the empowering instrument for better access and participation, and for an articulate and influencing “voice”. Time will tell.

          Cammaerts dedicates the second section of the book to empirical analysis of multi-stakeholding measures, from primarily international and European perspectives. In Chapter 3 these are investigated as per civil society actors and their activities, in relation to three concerns: 1. How are participatory (multi-stakeholder) discourses of international organizations (such as the UN and EU) implemented?; 2. What power mechanisms/ resistance strategies enable or restrict participation?; and, 3. What role does the Internet play in this dialectic of participation and policy? Chapters 4 and 5 then analyze productive power processes from a generative “positive” perspective, against a restrictive “negative” one. Chapter 4 considers multi-stakeholderism in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), which consisted of two international conferences (Geneva 2003 and Tunis 2005) on information, communication and information society, sponsored by the United Nations. Briefly, their purpose was to address the imperative policy need to reduce the “global digital divide” separating rich countries from poor countries, by spreading access to the Internet in the developing world. Cammaerts pleads for both scholars and activists to take such talk-shops more seriously, so that WSIS does not remain a vain “war of words” planted from the very beginning as a political “war of positions.” He claims that there were concrete outcomes of WSIS, consisting of an articulated opposition to the neo-liberal vision of the information society, a proof of the existence of a trans-national civil society, and a successful learning exercise which contributed to raising awareness of the importance of media systems and communication processes.

          Chapter 5, “Productive power in the Convention on the Future Europe,” emphasizes the role and impact of civil society upon the power of information production processes involved by this Convention. In Cammaerts’ view, civil society was consulted and listened to, even if it was not included in the deliberative and drafting processes of the Convention (perhaps to be expected, in that diverging agendas within a pluralistic civil society with every actor having its passions, anxieties and concerns makes a common discourse difficult to obtain).

          In chapter 6, “Does Any of It Make a Difference?,” Cammaerts bridges the former two chapters in an assessment of multi-stakeholderism in practice. Results of this well-conceived, grounded and documented study are structured around a critical position regarding the implementation of participatory discourses (implicitly seen as the pillars of democratic processes). The emergence of this alternative to domination is seen as a good thing, as are strategies of “weak” resistance in the face of overweening power. Because of this rise of multi-stakeholding, international policy processes show glimpses of slight change, moving away from sole consideration of nation-state imperatives.

          Cammaerts argues, in conclusion, that while the accomplishment of more inclusive and democratically legitimate policy processes largely remains solid, activists need to be satisfied with incremental change, rather than a radical shift. A small but relevant difference is a great difference to him. This reviewer accepts the long-time horizon idealism implicit in the finding, but cannot help but wonder if such an optimistic view is now adequate in the face of post-publication upsets on the world’s financial stage.

 

HENRIETA ANIŞOARA ŞERBAN

Romanian Academy

 

Notes


[i] Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers by Kurt Lewin (London: Tavistock, 1952), 169.

[ii] Carol Pateman. Participation and Democratic Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 71.

[iii] “Just as the ability to read and write and freely communicate gives power to citizens that protects them from the powers of the state, the ability to survey, to invade the citizens’ privacy, gives the state the power to confuse, coerce and control citizens. Uneducated populations cannot rule themselves, but tyrannies can control even educated populations, given sophisticated means of surveillance.” (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish [New York: Random House, 1979], 290).

[iv] Gergen Kenneth J., and Mary M. Gergen. Social Construction: A Reader (London: Sage, 2003).

[v] “By the dialectic of control I mean the capability of the weak, in the regularised relations of autonomy and dependence that constitute social systems, to turn their weakness back against the powerful” (Profiles and Critiques in Social Theory [London: Macmillan Press, 1983], 39).

[vi] Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

 

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