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The Shape of an Emerging Monitory Democracy

Another day at ANZCA 2010, another keynote: we're starting this last day of the conference with a keynote by John Keane, whose theme is monitory democracy. He begins chronologically, in 1945 - when there were only 12 parliamentary democracies left in the world. Democracy was a beleaguered species.

John himself is in search of a 'wild category' - a category that provides a new way of seeing conventional wisdom, provides alternatives to traditional ways of ordering thought. We need a new term for describing the dynamics, changes of language, shifts in institutions, of democracy - and monitory democracy is the term he offers. We need a new term to describe these novel trends (which exist all over the world, especially also outside the traditional democratic countries), and in particular to better understand the intersections of democracy and communication forms.

The idea of monitory democracy also builds on Schudson's idea of monitorial journalism and monitorial citizenship - and in mediaeval times, a monitory was a letter sent to the authorities to alert them to problems or suggest a certain cause of action; while that usage has fallen out of fashion, the term 'monitor' today has a range of uses. Very simply, we are moving from the old model of democracy which describes a territorially bound political form whose main quality is a civil society separated from government by its core administrative structures. Such democracy comprises periodical elections of representatives to a chamber to form a government, who are subjected to another election some years later. This is a form of democracy where the majority rules.

This whole idea of territorially bound representative democracy is a mediaeval invention, gradually became subject to demands for greater inclusiveness, and increasingly created various attendant social and governmental institutions which support and sustain its operation. It is a representative rather than an Athenian-style direct democracy. This model of democracy, then, for which there were long struggles through the 18th and 19th century, is nonetheless fading away today: its organising principle of fair, free, clean elections remains important, but the public monitoring of power, even in cross-border settings, is becoming ever more important. Today, democracy is described by more and more people as an equal and accountable way of organising government - and this emphasis on monitoring constitutes a shift from earlier times.

Since 1945, some 100 new power-monitoring and power-scrutinising institutions have emerged - citizens' juries, focus groups, advisory groups, think tanks, consensus conferences, teach-ins, participatory budgetting, public memorials, citizens' assemblies, democratic audits, brainstorming conferences, public interest litigations, protestivals, summits, deliberative polls, public scorecards, blogs, social forums, self-selected opinion polls, and so on. Territorial state boundaries become much more porous as a result, as some of these monitoring institutions act across national borders. This is a heterogeneous network of institutions - some are government organisations, some NGOs, some are old or new media operations -, and this can be confusing, too.

Some of these institutions simply provide information; some insist upon the observance of public standards by political actors (and demand consequences where standards are violated); by their diversity, some provide reminders to the public of the complexity of the political order. Something like a headshift, a Gestalt shift is required here: we need a new language in which to make sense of this, in order to avoid and combat the possible misunderstandings and (sometimes willful) misperceptions of what is happening here.

To address those misperceptions: first, we are not going back to Greek times - to a deepened, direct, participatory, or deliberative democracy -; not least because one of the features of monitory democracy is the multiplication of representations of the public. We are seeing the multiplications of sites of representations - parliament is no longer the only representative body for the public, but there are many other bodies (some eleced, some unelected) which champion certain causes on behalf of the general public. These unelected representatives change what democracy means: from 'one person, one vote' to 'one person, many votes, many representatives'.

Second, elections don't cease to be important, but continue to have vital effects; but one symptom of the shift is how elections come to be subject to monitoring: there is independent scrutiny of how elections are conducted (by unelected representatives); the OSCE even scrutinised recent US elections, as did the legions of lawyers mobilised by the candidates themselves.

Third, civil society changes: democracy no longer has to do simply with the scrutiny of power in governmental institutions, but also starts penetrating the non-governmental realm. No sphere of life has been untouched by monitory democracy - child welfare, environmental protection, scientific advances, all have been touched by monitoring, and more controversially, the sacred realm of privacy is being threatened by such monitoring, too.

Fourth, governments are beginning to control and scrutinise themselves: remarkably, many governments have introduced mechanisms of scrutiny into their own institutions, to prevent corruption, offload responsibility, enforce fiscal responsibility. Institutions in government now often embarrass government actors themselves, reading to significant repercussions. The invention of government integrity commissions was an Australian first.

Fifth, there is something of a Hadrian wall between thoughts about democracy and regional and global perspectives, but this needs to be dismantled: attempts are made to scrutinise and control those large-scale organisations which are having transnational effects. It becomes necessary to think about global democracy, even if nobody can yet define what that may be; monitory democracy is a small contribution to that attempt to think beyond the national level of democracy. Europe's attempts to develop structures which address multiple demoi in the Union are instructive here; the trend towards regional and global summits is also interesting here: until the Cuban missile crisis, these were largely dominated by nation states, but have become far more widespread across all fields (from 'media summits' like Live Aid to the G20).

Sixth, there is a common objection that ultimately, the big players (states, corporations) are the final deciders, but this is unpersuasive: all major changes over the past decades have come from monitory interventions, conducted by civil rights, students', womens, environmental, and other movements. All of these are rooted in these monitory institutions rather than the institutions of government, politics, and industry.

Finally, then, much of this has to do with communication media: the historical modes of democracy (people's assemblies, representative, monitory) each have direct affinities with specific modes of communication (face-to-face orality, print culture, and a complex combination of digitally interconnected communications forms, respectively). Today, space and time barriers are annulled, and there is a declining cost of entry to public communication; this is closely related to the flourishing of the institutions of monitorial democracy.

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