"Politics must be close-up"

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Caio Tendolini is an economist and political activist who works in political experimentation through UPDATE.Within the framework of this year’s “Fearless Cities” summit, Fundación Avina and DemocraciaAbierta established a special collaboration to explore some of the most exciting poltical experiences arising from Latin America. 

Bringing together relevant actors in the field that are directly involved in political innovation at the local level, in Latin America, we have sought answers to four major issues shared by all the projects: a) Vision of innovation; b) National political context and limitations of local power; c) Influence of the international political context, and d) The question of leadership.

Caio Tendolini is is an economist and political activist who works in political experimentation through UPDATE.

VISION OF INNOVATION

I think that a central issue in innovation is experimenting, trying things and making errors. To put it in a wider context, I believe that we are experiencing generally, not only in politics but in most things, due to the current crisis of references. The repertoire of solutions and actions we have so far accumulated after the experience of all these years seems no longer enough to face our reality, to face the problems humanity is currently facing – from education to health and hunger, infrastructure and services. No matter what the issue is, it seems that our repertoire of policies is very limited. So, there is no choice but to experiment.

But I do believe that when we talk about political innovation it is important to define what innovation is – and is not. Because there is a certain synapse, almost automatic, about the concept of innovation which immediately brings to mind technology, and I think it is important to make it clear that we are not talking about technology, but about processes that may, or may not use technology. The apps are not going to save the world. I do not consider political innovation to be that.

Nor are we talking about a purely generational question. Not everything old is bad and not everything young is good. I do not believe that innovation has to do with denying the past. It is not: “None of this is good, so we have to start all over again”. When it comes to political innovation, it is important to know what political innovation is not.

Above all, as we can see in projects such as Update or Bancada Activista, innovation is connected with the idea of bridging the gaps existing today between representatives and those represented. Essentially, that is what we are seeing through practices of participation, transparency, accountability, independent media, public innovation in government, and political culture.

In general terms, for democracy to function better, we must have a stronger citizenship – that is, citizens who are better informed, better educated, more empowered, capable of accessing power, capable of questioning power. I think that this is what we are talking about when we talk about political innovation.

And, finally, there is something which we discuss a lot in the political innovation network: the decentralisation of power. We are not challenging power just to obtain power. The question is: should we deny the system of incentives that facilitates access to power? As an economist, I believe in systems of incentives and sanctions, but the incentive and sanctions systems we have today have led us to the negative results that we currently have. So, it is not enough to consider oneself clean and transparent, we must put participation, accountability, and communication into practice. If we do not do this, and once we achieve power we close ourselves off, we shall make the same mistakes that we are fighting against.

NATIONAL POLITICAL CONTEXT AND LIMITATIONS OF LOCAL POWER

I believe that working at the local level is strategic, because the regional side of things is essential. For me, when we say local, we are saying ‘in the territory’, although the territory is not necessarily the cities. But it is there, in the cities, where the territory becomes more present in political life.

I believe that the strategy of speaking about working and taking action in the territory has to do with a transcendental issue, which is trust in politics. I mean, politics must be close-up. The more you move away from the territory, the more abstract politics becomes and the more difficult it is to see, the more difficult it is to inspect, the more difficult it is to access.

I believe that we are witnessing a dynamics of self-affirmation at the local level. It is important to ask ourselves whether we understand municipalism, and local political action, as a path to scaling up the challenge to the higher level, or not. Or whether we understand it as a rupture with the structures which generate pressure from above – that is, from the national level. I do not have an answer for this, but it does seem to me that regardless of what the answer may be, we now have the ability to act locally. Taking part in national or state elections is much harder, much more expensive. It is more difficult to connect with people. Things become less tangible. 

Despite the obvious limitations of local power, I think it is strategic to start with the cities and find out if and how the politics there connect with the national level. At the same time, it seems to me that the challenge is that, although we are active at the city level, there is always an upwards trend which tends to place political debate higher, at the state and federal level. So, one of the challenges we are facing when building candidacies such as the Activist Bench is combining a very real connection with the territory with a very large call to the country as a whole.

The political situation in Brazil demands that we all feel concerned and be ready to take action – to see what we can do. However, this seems a bit of a trap to me, because I do not think that we have the capacity, as a collective, to really have an impact on Brazilian politics at the national level. In São Paulo municipal politics, yes we do; but in Brazilian national politics, I do not think so, and in São Paulo state politics, I do not think so either. We do not have the muscle for that yet. But, at the same time, we cannot remain oblivious to what is happening in our country. There are elections next year, and everyone, individually, feels called to do something about it, to strengthen something, to get more people on board.

I believe that there is a conflict here, which has to do with the limitations of local power. I also do not know how to solve it and we have not responded to it at the Activist Bench. But it does seem very strategic to me to be working in the territory, because peoples’ trust has to be rescued. There is a broader debate, even at the international level, about the discourse and narrative of anti-politics, which is gaining ground. We can see it when the mayor of São Paulo, or Donald Trump, say: “I am not a politician.”

IMPACT OF INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL CONTEXT

In general terms, what we are experiencing is a crisis of confidence in the established power in the world. This crisis is singularly apparent in politics, but not only. That is, there is a rejection of the political establishment, the economic establishment, the cultural establishment, the criminal establishment. In all, they consist of a few people, but they have been in power for 40 years and, in the face of a crisis in the repertoire of political solutions, people are increasingly outraged.

That establishment cannot connect with this indignation. They are in a very arrogant position, saying: “No, we are fine; everything is quiet here; we are going to stay where we are; we do not have to make improvements”. Then Trump came with another discourse – he said: “No, your outrage is real”, which made him connect with and catalyze the protest vote. When the establishment, which sits in positions of power, fails to connect with the feelings of the people, this creates a power vacuum which can fill fast. The discourse that currently occupies most of that space goes along Trump’s line – the “I am not a politician, we have to clean the swamp” sort of discourse. And what that discourse does is criminalise politics.

I think that what we are witnessing when we talk about the political innovation ecosystem (we are seeing it in Spain, in Latin America and in several other places) is another dynamics, a dynamics that tries to rescue politics. During the high school students’ protests in São Paulo, there was a post circulating a lot that said: “Kevin is a bum, his mother says he is a bad student, his teacher says he is a bad student, his tutor says he is a bad student, but in the occupied schools, Kevin is the first to wake up, he teaches yoga, cleans the bathrooms, and is the last one to go to sleep. Kevin is one of the best students this school has ever had”. Therefore, the problem is not that Kevin does not like school; Kevin does not like this school. I think it is a similar thing with politics. It is not that we do not like politics, we do not like this kind of politics. So, we need to reinvent it, we need to rescue values, and come up with things we are capable of providing.

Along with many movements in Spain and Europe, even in the United States, what we do is we put ourselves as well in the place of outsiders, but outsiders coming up from a collective construction, who believe in, rather than deny, things that are public and communal. True, this collective construction narrative is much more difficult than the narrative that simply says: “I understand your problem and the answer is me, and so… we are going to build a wall”. This is so simplistic. On the contrary, what we are talking about is a process which is a bit more difficult, which takes on a cultural issue that is a little more tough, but we are seeing that it is possible. If we do it well, we can move forward: we can choose mayors, we can choose councillors, we can choose people.

THE QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP

I think that we are culturally accustomed to seeking a savior. The greatest meme in the history of mankind is a saviour. The greatest symbol is a saviour, and changing that is a very, very complex thing to do.

What we have seen, and tried to build, is that it is possible to move away from the idea of a messianic leadership and to go towards the idea of prominence. Because there is also a great fallacy in horizontal constructions, in the idea of horizontality, which is to pretend that prominence does not exist – but it does. There are people who are better at some things than others. There are people who are better than others at times.

The difficulty lies in how to migrate from the idea of leadership to the idea of prominence. This can happen because of the way relational processes work. The difficulties arise because, while we know that the notion of leadership is limited, we know that it gives people a lot of comfort: making another person responsible for providing solutions is very comforting, as a psychological mechanism, when we cannot face reality. And the complexity of today’s reality puts almost all of us in that position. We ask: who has the answer? Where is this thing I am looking for? A good discourse, a strong idea, embodied in a strong leadership model, is something that continues to convince many people.

Even so, I believe that experimenting with new organisational forms is a path that needs to be addressed. We have to create institutions and communities that are able to move forward. And when we get out and grasp this notion of prominence and put it up before democratic institutions, before the political parties, we can see how they have enormous difficulties in carrying out this transformation we are talking about. Because this is a transformation is something that is done from very close-up, and parties are very large institutions, very far away. Prominence depends very much on trust, and parties are very conspiratorial institutions.

In Brazil, for example, one thing we are currently doing is seeking a way to put forward independent candidates, which do not exist in Brazil, to break the monopoly of political parties. The best way to challenge a monopoly is to create competition. We are not denying that parties are important. Political parties are the most important institution that we have been able to come up with for representative democracy – there is no doubt about that. But let us go back to the original idea: it is not that we do not like political parties, but these parties and how they are operating need to change. It is necessary to create other spaces, other institutions, and other organisation formats. This is, in my opinion, absolutely essential if we are to advance in this issue and respond to the necessary transformation of leadership.

Check out our webpage for this special project: https://opendemocracy.net/info/avina-interactive-roundtable-english 



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