The Myth of Transparency

15. 3. 2017

Transparency—in its direct, immediate version—is about to acquire mythic functions to legitimize power. It is difficult to lower electricity bills, but to invite a group of citizens to follow the meetings of the regulating state commission doesn’t cost a dime.

Myth serves to justify why things are the way they are. How do we legitimate problematic political power nowadays? Divine right, military merit or Marxist theory are no longer taken seriously. In their place, there is the powerful belief in transparency that is supposed to legitimize the new political establishment.

Let me start with architecture. The horrible political catastrophe in Germany gave rise to a post-war style in the design of public buildings, creating the illusion you can actually see what officials do inside (Barnstone 2005). No more conspiring against the German people, the message seems to read. The “Kanzlerbungalow” of 1963 obliged the head of state to live behind enormous windows, suggesting parallels with camping sites. In 1999, Germany’s unification was celebrated by Norman Faster’s editing of the Reichtsag: he added on top of it a glass dome with a transparent walking serpentine from where visitors can observe deputies moving underneath, as in a sort of terrarium. The transparency ritual is practiced all over the democratic world with citizens visiting parliaments, the White House and even the Queen’s dwellings at Buckingham Palace. I guess, one could trace it back to the Dutch Protestants and the Soviet party secretaries, who were all supposed to live without curtains.

But transparency is much more than a spatial arrangement. Politicians are supposed nowadays, not only to answer journalists any time, on any subject, but to also express private opinions on Facebook (preferably diverging from their official line) and even tweet from inside a meeting or negotiation. It goes without saying that all state documents are supposed to be accessible to anyone: since the Swedish law of 1766 this has become a principle accepted in the democratic world. But citizens require ever more. They want to follow live the process of taking decisions “before it is too late,” as one Bulgarian activist put it.

The WikiLeaks enterprise gave us an idea of what the new utopia is about: accessing information against the will of authorities, through acts of heroic betrayal from inside, supported by mass civil curiosity. Government, says Assange, disposes of a certain amount of “conspirational power,” it collects a sort of “secrecy tax.” Fighting it in the past implied assassinations of individual topoi within the network; today it is sufficient to expose channels of information (Assange 2006). Disclosure equals political murder! The leakage of hundreds of thousands secret documents through his platform challenged the very basis of the diplomatic service, as it revealed what foreign ministry representatives really thought and discussed behind the curtain of protocol. Less anarchist and more like a dissident of the Cold War, Edward Snowden (meanwhile granted political asylum in Putin’s Russia), has used transparency to undermine the US military intelligence system and international prestige in breach of his own contract.

Now, the world-wide enthusiasm for these info-revolutionaries makes us imagine what transparency implies. Is it possible to govern a state without some dose of secrecy as a matter of principle?

Let us put aside the accusations of corruption, which fuel citizen’s mistrust (Krastev 2013), let us imagine that politicians modestly try to do their job. What does it amount to? To govern means to schedule priorities, as society has not got the resources to resolve all problems at once. One thing should be dealt with before the other; respectively one group is to be persuaded to wait until the other’s problems are addressed, and this implies various opaque instruments such as ideology, PR, dramatization, identitarian passions, etc. Absolute transparency would mean that each group, at any moment, will see that some other people’s issues are taken care of, and be tempted to take to the streets. In fact, with the rise of general transparency in contemporary societies this is exactly what happens: everyone wants everything immediately. And as there hardly can be any result under such pressure, disappointment rises, which produces an even greater anger at secrecy that blocks further political action, there follow new disappointments, etc.

Let me suggest two possible variants of the wish for transparency. On one hand, it can be seen as a democratic value, to which we aspire, knowing perfectly well that it cannot be attained, as the very principle of free will that takes place behind the closed doors of our brains. We can limit arbitrary rule by cultivating opposition parties, NGOs, investigative journalists, trade unions, independent intellectuals, but we cannot ever hope to reach directly the center of decision. Let us call it “representative transparency” (paraphrasing the term “representative democracy”).

The other version of transparency resembles what I called myth: we believe that opening up the closed doors of power will magically abolish corruption and injustice. Moreover, the politicians, who will have the courage to present themselves before the public without curtains as the Soviet party secretary, will be entitled to win back our trust. Let us call this version “direct transparency.” No intermediaries are accepted any longer between us and the facts, as mistrust passes from one institution to the other without being overcome. Why trust this journalist, if he works for money; why ask that NGO militant, if he is funded by such and such foundation? What we want is to click on the documents ourselves, be invited in person to monitor some ministerial meeting; to watch deputies through the dome of the Reichstag.

The last decades have shown that seeing all amounts to seeing nothing: the citizen submerged by facts he cannot interpret then feels lost, and prone to buy into conspiracy theories of web-charlatans. Instead of feeling empowered to change society, he/she sinks into a mix of irritation and despair. One more step and we could imagine that the strategy of full and immediate transparency is about to become a new way to legitimize political power and block resistance.

The first time transparency was used as a smokescreen was the first Iraq war, when world media were flooded by all sort of information about the military operations, the casualties, the types of munition used, the moral of the troops, and all this drowned any serious questions concerning the war. The opposite example would be the recent negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. They are held in secret for the obvious reason that disclosing one’s positions may weaken your stand and have a bad effect on the outcome; however, secrecy is immediately interpreted as conspiracy. As a result, we saw a massive mobilization throughout Europe, which some see as a renaissance of the radical Left. Just imagine the TTIP being monitored directly by the masses and no trusted mediating specialists to defend the public interest: tons of data, clauses and chemical formulae. Would the agreement have been accepted much easier?

Let me illustrate my words with examples from Bulgaria, a country where the trust in mediating bodies is extremely low, most probably because the new ruling elites have not managed to divide up between themselves the economy during the 25 years of market democracy.

One peak of mistrust were the protests started in June 2013, where the main slogan “Who?” meant “who is the puppeteer of the government.” Transparency became since the main vector of the Bulgarian political debate. The right wing Reformers’ Block, as well as the Socialist Party, informs the audience about their conflicts and internal rivalries on a daily basis. It is usually some politician, who posts a provocative status on his personal Facebook page, which is an occasion for traditional media to invite them for a comment, their opponents react on their pages, and so on. A specific dimension of inside-party competition was the introduction of the possibility to vote with preference for a given candidate, which produced a sort of private franchising of the campaigns, especially in the mentioned coalitions, implying individual financial engagements, printing of personal T-shirts, and even attacking one’s own political direction. Competition and transparency were thus presented as one and the same thing; and in one respect they were similar indeed, as they both weakened the unity of the two coalitions.

As to the extreme-right Ataka, they decline all negotiations without TV cameras, as their leader has the talent to attack opponents publicly and enact telegenic rage. The People’s Voice founded by a popular singer won two times in a row over 1% of the vote by producing YouTubized castings of candidates for the EU parliament, where everyone could present himself and participate by SMS as in the Big Brother show. In fact the word “casting” was taken up by various media, the message being that politicians need to prove themselves before “us, the audience.” Needless to say that this new video sousveillance overshadows the good old shorthand recording, which demands long, strenuous reading. Moreover, the leader of Ataka declared that he did not believe the shorthand typists, as there was a delay with respect of the live event, in which various manipulations were possible. Truth is immediacy.

The main political analyses turn around the demystification of what they call “the backstage” (zadkulisie). Everything that is not “clear,” put on the “table,” and if possible televised or at least Facebooked, is part of the backstage conspiracy. Thus an essential part of media talk is concentrated on mysterious events like the coffee that the leader of the big right-wing party GERB was seen drinking with his declared enemy, the leader of the Turkish minority party. Any “secret” meeting of any politician outside of his or her nuclear party-family is interpreted as an act of adultery.

Even outside the politics, every problem is supposed to be solved the Assange way, i.e. by pouring out a maximum of information into the public sphere. How to deal with the problematic Russian gas pipeline South Stream? Publish all details of the contract. How to be sure that the competition for a public job was honest? Invite as many media as you can to make it transparent. No one could possibly object to this in its principle. But in practice things do not seem so easy. The more transparent the contracts become, the less the Bulgarian citizens understand them (the mentioned South Stream has become a battleground for data, expertise, conjectures, geopolitical passions, etc.). The media attention towards public nominations makes it extremely hard for decent people to go through the ordeal of scrutiny and tend to abandon the field to more barefaced competitors.

Let me go back to the beginning. Transparency— in its direct, immediate version—is about to acquire mythic functions to legitimize power. It is difficult to lower electricity bills, but to invite a group of citizens to follow the meetings of the regulating state commission doesn’t cost a dime. No one knows how to create jobs, but putting one’s priorities and red lines clearly on the table is easily feasible. Being included as witnesses of the decision process, citizens are supposed to identify with those in power.

Formerly, we used to expect results from politicians. The global economic interdependency makes national politicians quite helpless in taking real action; and this seems rather clear in small countries like Bulgaria. In fact, the transparency that people expect is of a much simpler nature: they want to know where the wealth of elites, both political and economic, comes from, why social differences are growing so fast, and whether everyone really contributes fairly to the common good. The good old name for such transparency used to be decency.

Ivaylo Ditchev

Ivaylo Ditchev is a professor of cultural anthropology at Sofia University, Bulgaria. He has been teaching abroad, mainly in France and the USA. He is also an editor of the journal for cultural studies Seminar BG.

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