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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > May 2017 > The revolution will be digitised

The revolution will be digitised

How politics got tangled up in the web

Last year was Year One of the west’s political revolution— our 1989. Just as statues of Lenin were toppled from plinths when the Iron Curtain collapsed, today the pillars of our own system are crumbling everywhere: from a failing European Union and free trade lobby to old media and calcified political parties. Despite the events of 1989 and 2016 being decades in the making, they managed to catch experts unawares. After the Berlin Wall came down, western cosmopolitans and technocrats raced to claim victory. Yet beneath the euphoria of the New World Order, our own contradictions were festering—stagnant wages, gaping inequality and a feeling that most people had no real control over their lives. Another quarter of a century passed before the other shoe finally dropped. Only in 2016 did citizens in the west finally become agents of revolutionary change—for better or for worse.

The rules of politics have been upended, in no small part, by new communication technologies. Liberals who resent the Brexit vote and the election of President Donald Trump point the finger at social media, seeing in it an echo chamber that entrenched false ideas (Cass Sunstein’s #republic, which takes exactly this line is reviewed on p74). I understand their growing alarm about how costly and sophisticated data analytics enable some plutocrats to buy influence from the shadows. But I am resolute that technology’s power to connect citizens, transform access to information and move them to action will ultimately prove to be an instrument of enlightenment and positive change. The self-styled “progressive” establishment, which talks the talk on empowering citizens, has only itself to blame for its failure to keep pace with the disruptive implications of the smartphone age.

Much as I wish this moment had arrived differently, I saw it coming long before the last 18 months, during which I’ve spent time behind the scenes with winning insurgent campaigns from Brexit to the US and beyond. After dedicating the first years of this century to work around Middle East peace, democracy and Europe’s doomed Constitutional Convention, I came to see that our whole way of doing politics was broken. A growing band of us started harnessing technology to reconnect people with power. I had the privilege to work on campaigns engaging tens of millions of people around the world. I helped to build the global civic activism online network Avaaz, co-founded the British campaigning community 38 Degrees and led the global growth of Change.org.

Some have sneered at such “clicktivism.” But this caricature misses the fact that the new networks have already done more to co-ordinate campaigns and activity offline than many political parties. Besides, if there were still a lingering doubt about the political importance of such activism, the tumult of last year should have killed it off.

Increasingly, the new networks of politics are moving money as well as hearts and minds. My main work today is as co-founder of Crowdpac—the open platform that helps citizens to crowdfund campaigns that rival the power of big donors and their Political Action Committees. I am from the left, but another Crowdpac co-founder is Steve Hilton, who created David Cameron’s Conservatism, then shrewdly foresaw its downfall, and now dedicates himself to the next revolution. We disagree on much, but share the belief that our democracies must be overhauled. Tribalists of left or right are wrong if they think they have a monopoly on the revolution in the way politics is done.

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In Prospect’s May issue: Neal Ascherson, Simon Jenkins, John Curtice and Frances Cairncross examine the growing divide between England and Scotland. Ascherson argues that England has become Scotland’s “neurotic neighbour,” while Jenkins says we should learn from history and prepare for Scotland to leave the Union. Cairncross and Curtice debate whether Scotland could afford to break with England and whether a fresh referendum on independence is actually winnable. Also in this issue: Jason Burke questions whether the world will be a safer place after the downfall of Islamic State, Paul Hilder examines how politics got tangled in the web and Michael White reviews a new book charting the history of the Daily Mail
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