Archive for the ‘Ivan Krastev’ Category

Ivan Krastev “The Transparency Delusion”

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

Krastev, Ivan 2013. The Transparency Delusion. Eurozine 01.02.213. Online:

The Arab Spring was the ultimate manifestation of the power of citizens armed with smartphone power to overthrow tyrants and to make history. Smartphones can’t maim or kill, but they do make it more costly for the governments to do so themselves. At the same time, the Arab Spring represented significant limits to the power of the smartphone. The person with the smartphone never knows who might respond to his appeal for political action. He may have his Facebook friends, but he lacks a genuine political community and political leaders. You can tweet a revolution, but you can’t tweet a transition. It turned out, of course, that Islamist political parties that relied on traditional party structures and clear ideologies were the winners of the post-revolutionary elections in the Middle East.

Transparency is the new political religion shared by a majority of civic activists and an increasing number of democratic governments. The transparency movement embodies the hope that a combination of new technologies, publicly accessible data, and fresh civic activism can more effectively assist people control their representatives. What makes transparency so attractive for different civic groups is the exciting premise that when people “know,” they will take action and demand their rights.

Demand for disclosure has also transformed the relations between doctors and patients, teachers and students. Now patients have a greater capacity to keep doctors accountable, and parents can more effectively decide which school to select for their children. The new transparency movement has empowered the customers.

The end of government secrecy does not mean the birth of the informed citizen, nor does more control necessarily suggest more trust in public institutions

And the very fact that governments are compelled to disclose information does not necessarily translate to people knowing more or understanding better. Inundating people with information is a time-tested way to keep people uninformed.

Contrary to the claim of transparency advocates who insist that it is possible to reconcile the demand for the opening of government with the protection of citizens’ privacy, I contend that wholly transparent government denotes a wholly transparent citizen. We can’t make the government fully transparent without sacrificing our privacy.

Contrary to its stated ambition to restore trust in democratic institutions, the transparency movement may accelerate the process of transforming democratic politics into the management of mistrust. The politics of transparency is not an alternative to a democracy without choices; it is its justification and blurs the distinction between democracy and the new generation of market-friendly authoritarian regimes.

Modern society was built on the hope that one day we will trust strangers and institutions as if they were members of our families. Recent experience shows, however, that the reverse is true. We have begun treating our families with the mistrust earlier reserved for criminals. […] Thus, while the promise of transparency was to restore trust in public institutions, in reality it spread mistrust into the sphere of private life.

Transparency then stands less in opposition to secrecy but to deception and lies. The promise of the transparent society is no different from the promise of the science-fictional Truth Machine. It is the promise of a society without lies. You can never eliminate the liars, but you can eliminate the lie and its attendant power to subvert society. What is disturbing in the growing hope that transparency will improve our societies is something T.S. Eliot observed almost a century ago: how the advocates of transparency are “dreaming of systems so perfect so no one will need to be good.”

The trap of the current transparency-centred reform movement is the assumption that it is enough to know who is giving money to politicians or whom they meet for dinner to arrive at a clear picture of the nature of the decision-making process.

The transparency-centred reform of democracy is not ultimately an alternative to the democracy of mistrust – a way out, so to speak – but is instead its major justification. It is the outcome of the incapacity of the average voter to bring change and to have a meaningful choice in democratic politics in the age of “no alternatives.” It tacitly accepts that democratic politics is no longer about clashing visions of the “good society” or conflicting interests and values. It is simply the process of controlling those in power. But transparent decision making is not the same as good policy. Transparency is not a simulacrum for the public interest. Transparency can be one of the instruments of social reform, but it cannot be the goal and content of democratic reform. How we take decisions won’t replace the fundamental question of what is best for society.

What worries me most at present is that citizens react to the failures of democracy in a way similar to how they react when disappointed with the market. They simply exit. They exit by leaving the country or stopping voting or, indeed, voting with blank ballots. The citizen with the smartphone acts in the world of politics the same way he acts in the sphere of the market. He tries to change society simply by monitoring and leaving. But it is the readiness to stay and change reality that is at the heart of democratic politics. It is this basic trust that allows society to advance. This is why democracy cannot exist without trust and why politics as the management of mistrust will stand as the bitter end of democratic reform.