ROVINJ — The debate in Germany over the refugee crisis is only the most recent example. We've seen citizens complain that they are taking on the duties that are supposed to be the responsibility of the state. It is the government's role, they say, to welcome refugees with beds and food, German language courses or maybe even a job. Only this way can true integration be achieved.
This old idea of democracy clashes strangely with citizen aspiration for more self-determination and participation, which is multiplying in our digitally intertwined world. But this inevitably leads to the question of whether people merely want to have a louder say, but not actually roll up their sleeves and join in?
Returning to the refugee crisis, such doubts shouldn't necessarily be given too much credence. The enormous willingness to help, largely shared on social media and other digital channels, shows that people do want to help, particularly when there is a real emergency.
The truth is, the more citizens turn away from institutions — and more and more of them do — the more they will have to get involved as individuals. Democracy is not driven by the pleasure principle alone — it's also about accepting responsibility.
How does the revolution in information and communication technology change the notion of democracy? And how should democracy be adjusted to respond to said revolution? These questions were at the heart of the recent conference of the International Political Science Association (IPSA) in Rovinj, Croatia.
Though the refugee crises wasn't discussed from the podiums — it's too early for any scientific study — it poses many of these same questions. A democracy does not provide a clear distinction: the state on one hand, its citizens on the other. "We are the state," means nothing else but the institutions of the state being the product of civil engagement. People organizing in political parties, unions, churches and action groups, taking over political functions in order to work on different tasks, along with the authorities.
If citizens considered the state as some sort of a supplier, and themselves as nothing but consumers, democracy would no longer exist. The participants at the "Communication, Democracy and Digital Technology" conference asked if in an increasingly industrialized world, the engagement between state and citizenry starts to fall apart.
Mass organizations lose their attraction and therefore their impact and influence. They are continuously questioned by citizens who refuse to quietly accept a program, a party, a hierarchic leadership, and rigid statutes.
Professor Lance Bennett, a political scientist from Washington State University, describes how collective action in being transformed into networked action. He calls this "The Logic of Connective Action," and together with Alexandra Segerberg, he has written a book about it (2013, Cambridge University Press). The title is a nod to Mancur Olson's The Logic of Collective Action, a standard reference of political science of 1965.
Bennett says that in today's society, mass movements take form through digital media contacts, without someone actually having to join the organization or sign bylaws. Before, organizations had to sign up and swear in their members, but in today's hybrid organizations people are spontaneously brought in.
By now, the examples of impromptu, digitally-fed action abound, from the Occupy movement to the Arab Spring. "Young people don't want to join anything," Bennett says. "And new organizations don't want new members either."