Waking up from the nightmare of participation


Markus Miessen and Hannes Grassegger



From Cairo to Instagram to Occupy Wall Street. Participation really is the new opium of the people. If everyone took part in anything, everything would turn out perfectly fine—or so preaches the holy doctrine of participation. And sometimes the exact opposite holds true.

Everyone should be able to take part! The call to participation is the leitmotif of contemporary political and even private thinking. It is everywhere. From off-spaces to office floors, it has transformed politics and al-Qaeda camps, and has turned the most beautiful invention ever—the network of people, the Internet itself—into an all-encompassing, annoying machine demanding your attention right now, anywhere, anytime. Participate or out. “Participation” as a concept is in urgent need of repair. We believe: sometimes radical democracy should be avoided at all costs.

In Germany, participation is wildly romanticized. For the past decade or so, we have been experiencing an almost fundamentalist endorsement of civic participation. This enthusiasm is accompanied by a grotesque naivety in helping to create the structures and basic conditions for a form of mock participation at both the national and local levels. For example, one might cite the ridiculous public mailboxes for citizen complaints on the giant city transforming government project “Stuttgart 21” with newspapers such as Der Freitag bursting with reader sections or with the never-ending flood of participatory projects in the art world. It’s as if participation has become an end in itself. The sedative of the 00s.

Such participatory artistic and political projects look like humble precursors for the far bigger scoop of participatory electronic networks. They call it social media, which—under the noble moniker of “sharing is caring”— actually has turned participation into a business, giving birth to some of today’s most valuable companies. The companies running it rely on each and every one to constantly participate in so-called communities. Participation here equals disclosing, or rather giving away parts of your own life—from your friends’ faces to your business contacts via LinkedIn—in order to serve the “community.”

In reality, this is a continuous closing sale below factory costs, which results in a race to the bottom. Participation can be deadly. In order to keep up with their rivals’ media houses, many news outlets have released even more content for even less remuneration. Participation has become the scourge of our era.

The truest disciples of participation are the hoodie-sporting brethren of Germany’s “Pirate Party.” They are living the dream of real-time democracy. Their internal voting platform, called Adhocracy, offers the possibility for everyone to vote on their parliamentarians’ decisions. They say “liquid democracy” is meant to replace representative democracy—which is just a weak democratic compromise in the eyes of the Pirates. A ballot for every question, a constant election of everything—this is the participatory dogma of the pirates. This dogma sees participation like scrolling over a menu bar on your browser. A feeble push of a button, an anonymous log in with the least possible personal effort or consequences. This is “slacktivism,” the vision of an all-inclusive democracy inspired by old-school Wikinomics, where content is generated or edited by anyone at any time.

In theory, it sounds wonderful. In reality, it is dreadful. The Pirates have liquidised one of the foundational pillars of democracy: personal responsibility. Both on the level of the voter, who should be an advocate for something with his real person, and on the level of the representative, who shows his face with every decision.

Even within the Holy Grail of all participation idolatry—Wikipedia—the participatory illusion has quietly and furtively disappeared. That is, Wikipedia has contracted a disease through the contagion of participation. Useless for scholarship due to its liquid contents, in any case, this web encyclopedia is eventually becoming useless to the normal user. Studies complain about the endless shallow entries, with ever-more incomprehensible terminology. The community of enthusiasts and engaged experts is diminishing. In fact, since 2007, the growth curve of Wikipedia entries has been sinking. The number of contributors is decreasing. “Administrators” have the power to completely negate editorial additions to entries of controversial politician profiles on Wikipedia—if only to prevent the edit wars that render the site useless—content can be changed by the minute. Important “admins” are known by name. And sometimes Jimmy Wales, the head of Wikipedia, has the last word.

The era of total participation is over. Today Wikipedia has developed an entire arsenal of nonparticipatory decision-making processes for critical situations. Participation alone doesn’t work. The best proof of this realisation are those found in the realm of politics, which held fast to participatory dogma and then came nowhere near close to holding power. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military have taken the reins; Occupy Wall Street has sunk into embarrassing roundtable discussions; and as the Pirates lacked concrete suggestions, they quickly disappeared into a dark ocean of organisational quibbles and continuing fights over leadership.

Imagine participatory utopia like a car gearing straight toward a wall with two guys in front who have never learned to drive, arguing over the correct voting mechanism for decisions. Or imagine an edit war in which our constitutional laws could be crowd-changed by the minute. Or the regulations on access to nuclear weapons. It swiftly becomes almost impossible to imagine how absurd total democracy could be—and how slow. Think about the failure of international climate change conferences. Participation? It is a nightmare.

Participation must be viewed without romanticism. Participation is nothing but one organizational model. Real democracy demands much more than just voting. In parliament, ideas are created and heads are chopped off. In other words: participation is war. As the political theorist Chantal Mouffe says, we should agree that we disagree, and learn to productively live and deal with this situation. The basis for the worldwide call for participation lies in real conflicts. We need a practice that dissents from the fashionable cyber-democratic mediation-mania and accepts the fact that there is real conflict—and sometimes one person must take responsibility. Not because we doubt democracy, but because we don’t want to end up in Harmonistan, a pseudo-participatory superficial democracy, in which politicians shove all responsibility onto anonymous online-voting communities.

We have to turn the idea of participation on its feet again. Real democracy is a continual process of democratisation on the personal level. Instead of viewing participation as a top-down opening of the decision-making process, one should see real participation as an individual entrance strategy toward personal empowerment; as a post-consensus method of getting in the door. Even if it seems as though we are standing on the other side of the door of power, uninvited, we are still a part of the party. The era of participation needs a new understanding of itself: responsible do-it-yourself instead of pick-from-a-menu.



This is an edited and abridged version of a text that was originally published as “Albtraum Partizipation 2.0” in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit. Translated by April Lamm.

With thanks to Markus Miessen and Hannes Grassegger.