The establishing shot is the financial centre of Sydney seen from drone- or helicopter-height, a dizzy vista of modernity and progress. The slogan – ‘Democracy Reimagined’ – hovers above the sign-up button, by means of which you too can be part of this exciting new party. Although it’s not just a party. And it’s not quite a platform. In its previous incarnation, the Neutral Voting Bloc, it was described as ‘like a political app’. Now it’s called Flux, and is halfway to registering as a political organisation in accordance to the rules of the Australian Electoral Commission.
Flux, intones its website, is an ‘incremental upgrade to democracy’ that will give every voter a ‘direct and unique impact on politics’. How? The details are a bit fuzzy, but as far as I can make out, this will be achieved by electing Senate representatives that are directly answerable to Flux members. Each member will receive one vote per political issue, but may decide to trade some of their votes in exchange for votes on an issue or set of issues of particular interest to them. All of these micro-policy decisions will be fed back to the nation’s political system via Flux’s representatives, acting as conduits for the desires of the membership.
If this sounds like nothing but an extreme simplification of how policy-making works, or is supposed to work, in existing political parties, it is quite true. I am in fact not terribly clear on what the elements of novelty of Flux are supposed to be, other than the extreme naivety of its manifesto. The party’s goal, apparently, is to get ‘politics out of the way of policy’. But what is vote-trading if not a form of political organisation? And what goals could members have, if not ultimately political ones?
The most intriguing aspect of the design is the apparent belief on the part of the founders that being able to exchange units of influence across the entire spectrum of issues up for debate will lead to specialists taking charge of them. The outcome of the party internal decision-making processes, in other words, will be an inherently optimal set of policies. Regard:
We feel that in order to raise living standards, solve global problems, provide employment, lower crime, and solve all other social ills, we must embrace the best solution and best policy, even if we disagree with it.
In the real world, of course it is quite possible to have a high degree of interest in or even knowledge of a problem and yet come up with truly terrible solutions. But even this reasonable objection loses sight of the larger issue: for the inventors of Flux, politics, or policy-making, is a sum of individual decisions, as somebody in economic or game theory might see it, and not the coming together of different and sometimes opposite viewpoints and interests. In this perspective, the problem with Australian politics (or liberal democracy generally) can only be one of imperfect representation, that is to say a technical problem. By improving on this flawed design, we will assuredly produce better outcomes.
In the world of Flux, politicians are not politicians but ‘democratic entrepreneurs’, trading influence in order to solve problems ‘with minimal hindrance’. This technocratic dream has a long lineage, from the Common Man’s Front and the poujadistes to Beppe Grillo’s still ascendant Five Star Movement, and while I do not believe for a moment that Flux will be remotely as successful as these predecessors – the conditions simply aren’t there – I find it interesting to come across and document these attempts to galvanise interest in politics by dramatically defining it down. In fact the – what do we want to call them, fluxers? – have an intriguing penchant for playing down the notion of democratic representation itself. The system they envisage is as much about reducing the say you get on certain issues as increasing it on others. They also insist on the fact that 1% of the vote, due to the election rules for the Australian Senate, would be sufficient to give Flux one representative per each state, and thus exhort prospective members with remarkable lack of irony to ‘join the 1%’.
Mocking this kind of language is easy, and I encourage it. However, it’s worth asking how the fringe rejection of conventional categories of the political by a small cadre of IT entrepreneurs – unsurprisingly, the two founders specialise in bitcoin and blockchain, respectively – fits in with the broader discourse, and to what the extent their naïve solutionism may actually point to broadly shared views about the pre-eminence of policy over politics, or the erasure of class division and struggle. Or if the appeal to the moderate centre of politics, and to the popular idea that the only rational voters are the ones that swing from one party to another, is encouraging this other, even more dismal idea – that we are not social actors but potential specialists, possessing not interests but the capacity to evaluate competing solutions to our collective problems.
Besides, the remarkable success of the Five Star Movement, and the lesser but nonetheless notable one of various pirate and internet parties internationally, suggests that this rhetoric is worthy at least of study, and that we shouldn’t be surprised to find it emerge within more established and viable political vehicles. There are these guys now. They want to ‘upgrade democracy’. Make a little mental note, and see if they crop up again.